COMEDY LEGEND: A new play in Chicago looks at the impact and brilliance of Jewish comic Lenny Bruce

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Irony permeated Lenny Bruce’s standup routine, and cemented his place in pop culture and political history.

The greatest Jewish stand-up comic ever, as rated by Comedy Central, could get arrested – in Chicago and other cities — for saying one wrong, then-outlawed obscene word in his nightclub act. Yet today we live in a world where saying naughty words in public is taken in stride.

Even more irony abounded in 1961, when Bruce was arrested in Los Angeles for using the very Yiddish word “schmuck” in his routine – by a Jewish cop, Sherman Block.  “Schmuck” does not get censored in these pages, while Block used his morality enforcement as a springboard to the Los Angeles County sheriff’s job.

Bruce died of a drug overdose at age 40 in 1966, put up on society’s cross not just for his words, but also his ideas. He turned out to be a man a few years ahead of his time. Transplant Bruce to the early 1970s, and his words would be protected by both court rulings and changing times.  He would have been one of many satirists skewering Richard Nixon.

Move him to the present, and Bruce vs. Trump would be a heavyweight bout of invective, like Ali vs. Frazier.  Clash of the titans.

Those who employ the First Amendment to comment on life, often thank the man born Leonard Alfred Schneider for paving the way, albeit at a steep price.

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce.

Lenny Bruce may be gone in corporeal form for more than a half century, but his spirit and impact are very much alive. And the Jewish basis of his controversial act is being channeled into the present by a pair of Italian-Americans who totally understand where he was coming from.

Brooklyn-raised actor-writer Ronnie Marmo conceived “I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce,” a one-man show that has played to sold-out audiences off-Broadway in New York and in Los Angeles, and produced in partnership with Bruce’s daughter Kitty Bruce. Now Marmo, a veteran of some 60 feature films and TV shows, is bringing his play to Chicago, performing at the Royal George Theatre through Dec. 1.

Marmo turned to Chicago-bred Joe Mantegna to direct the show. Mantenga first gained fame for co-conceiving “Bleacher Bums” in 1977 and more recently took over for Mandy Patinkin, another Chicago boy, as an FBI profiler on the TV show “Criminal Minds.”

Bruce might have had a laugh if he was here making a journey to talk to Marmo and Mantegna. This reporter was led up 38 stories at the Intercontinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue, then had to transfer to another, smaller elevator for three more floors to arrive directly into Mantegna’s penthouse suite.  A private elevator as a front door is a far cry from some of the clubs at which Bruce performed, or the $1.25 Wrigley Field bleacher seats from which Mantegna conducted his research on some obviously Jewish characters in “Bleacher Bums.”

A scene from ‘I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce.’

“I feel in some ways this is divinely inspired,” said Marmo. “There is just a little bit of footage and audio of Bruce performing. I watched and listened to it, and then I threw it all away. I began working on the script after I felt like I understood him.  Then I started walking around re-creating Bruce’s stand-up act and being him.

“I just wanted to capture his spirit and energy. As a result of doing all that, I somehow fell into what he sounded like and looked like. I didn’t try to imitate him. It just happened.”

During the performance, Marmo walks around in white rolled-up shirtsleeves and tie loosened to the max, using bad words or making fun of them with euphemisms, and involving the audience.  Patrons walking out of Bruce’s act in disgust was a common site, and Bruce involved the walkees in his act.

“How many men in this room have ever blahed a blah?” Marmo/Bruce asked. “Have you ever blahed a blah?” The Bruce motivation was to show the ridiculous nature of making words far more obscene than the acts they described.

In another part of the play, Marmo as Bruce describes the difference between men and women.

“Ladies are one emotion…and guys detached. It’s like a lady can’t go through a plate-glass window, and go to bed with you five seconds later. But guys can have head-on collisions with Greyhounds buses…and on the way to the hospital in the ambulance, the guy makes a play for the nurse.  ‘I got horny.’ “

Marmo grew up with Jews in Brooklyn and knows full well that Bruce’s Jewishness permeated his act.

“He used all the great Jewish words,” Marmo said. “A bunch of my script is that on purpose – I wanted to honor that. Lenny was Jewish and proud of it. It showed up all over his act and routine.  A lot of his bits were based on being Jewish. One was not being able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery because he has a tattoo. He said something like, just cut off my arm and bury the rest of me.”

But any ethnic group with hangups, including Jews, was fair game for Bruce on stage.  He was no-holds barred.

Bruce was the most censored of a crop of Jewish comics coming into prominence when the sixties began, but the cultural landscape was still rooted in the censored, uptight fifties. Things would not loosen up until it was too late for Bruce, who was rolled over and financially hammered by a legal system that went against him.

Bruce’s status in society was best summed up by a London-based Jewish website, The JC, on the 50th anniversary of his death in August 2016:

Joe Mantegna, left, directs the play, written by and starring Ronnie Marmo.

“He was a comedian who talked about sex in a way nobody on a public stage had done before. No euphemism or innuendo – lots of four-letter and 12-letter words. He attacked injustice and hypocrisy full blast and lacerated the Catholic Church: ‘Why are there Puerto Ricans starving in New York while Cardinal Spellman is wandering around wearing an $8,000 ring?’

“You didn’t ask questions like that, certainly not on stage. Bruce was good-looking, sharp, very Jewish and incredibly hip. His performance was a flowing improvisation, more like a jazz solo than a traditional comedy act. His treatment by the police was horribly similar to that meted out to black musicians.

“Beatniks like Alan Ginsberg, hairy and homosexual, were appalling enough to mainstream America but Ginsberg was only a poet. The new comedians were far more disturbing. Time magazine called them ‘sickniks,’ singling out Mort Sahl, the sharpest political satirist, and Tom Lehrer, the Harvard mathematician who wrote funny, disrespectful songs.

“All these Jews! But Lenny Bruce was the worst. There seemed no limits to what he would say.”

The prudes and censors of the time sent police to Bruce’s acts to pounce on him at a moment’s notice, whether he said “schmuck” or roasted practitioners of convention.

“That just shows they wanted this guy at all costs,” Marmo said. “It didn’t even matter anymore. He was an example. He was way ahead of his time. People don’t know what to do with people like that.

“I don’t think he was throwing (obscene) words around just to do it. I have a bit where after a preposition comes a verb.  Two words separately are ‘to’ and ‘come.’  He puts those words together, and suddenly those words are offensive. His idea was to take the power out of those words.

“I don’t think he misused words at all. Just the opposite. He was so smart.”

The Tony- and Jefferson Award-winning Mantegna had a long-standing relationship with Marmo, which is what got him involved in “I’m Not a Comedian.” He also could put himself in Marmo’s shoes, having understudied for Bruce’s part in the Chicago production of Julian Barry’s play “Lenny.”

“It was an ensemble, a cast of 12 to 13,” Mantegna said. “Being the understudy, I had to be on top of the dialogue. That gave me more of an education of the character than anything.

“Why am I doing this? It goes back to an old saying of mine, ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’  Ronnie came to me and asked me to direct this script he wrote. When he performed it for me, it was on the page. I felt he had done a really wonderful job creating the script. It’s the same thing as choosing a role as an actor. When I read a script, I say, yeah, I can play this part. I knew I could direct this play because by page five of the script, I’m already getting ideas what to do here, let’s change this, let’s move this over here. Once you say that, it excites you. That’s the answer.”

One impact of Bruce dying so young is that it enhanced his impact going forward, said Mantegna.

“Would James Dean be remembered as fondly as he is if he lived another 30 years? Marilyn Monroe. JFK. Go down the list. They became idolized.”

Indeed, Lenny Bruce is now more relevant than at any time since his death.

“We’re in a strange time in 2019,” said Mantegna.  “The First Amendment is being attacked. In a way, what he did and the impact he had may resonate even more now. We’re going backwards in some ways culturally.”

Bruce was a prophet without honor to many. But to comic legends like Richard Pryor and George Carlin he was an inspiration.

Says Mantegna, “the ones who push the envelope and who die young are the ones who actually make the change.”  

The performance schedule for “I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” is: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. There will be no performance on Thursday, Nov. 14, and an added performance on Wednesday, Nov. 20.

Tickets at $69 and $79 can be purchased at www.LennyBruceOnStage.com, the Royal George Theatre box office or by calling (312) 988-9000.  Group tickets are available via Grouptix at (773) 327-3778 or Grouptix.net.

A portion of the show’s proceeds will go to the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. The foundation provides funds for those who don’t have insurance or the ability to get treatment for drug and alcohol addiction on their own. For more information, visit https://lennybruce.org/.

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