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INTERVIEW: Ronnie Marmo on ‘I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce’ at the Mahaiwe, October 14 & 15

Actor Ronnie Marmo spoke with me last month from his home in California to discuss his one-man show, "I'm Not a Comedian... I'm Lenny Bruce," which plays at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on October 14 and 15.

Great Barrington — Thanks to the hit Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” a whole new generation of thinking adults is becoming aware of “sick” American stand-up comedian, social critic, and First Amendment advocate Lenny Bruce. And actor Ronnie Marmo couldn’t be happier, because the phenomenon has sparked interest in his one-man show, “I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce,” which plays at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center October 14 and 15. Joe Mantegna directs.

Ronnie Marmo has performed this 90-minute show 400 times since 2017, and some of the runs have been long (110 performances at one Los Angeles venue).

“I’m Not a Comedian…” has been well reviewed. Showscore.com called the play “a 1st Amendment lesson via a well-researched, creatively-presented bio-drama of the troubled, controversial, pioneering comedian.”

Katy Walsh at theatreinchicago.com wrote, “Director Joe Mantegna masterfully pulls out an exhausting range of emotion in Marmo. His contentious struggle with the law and hypocrisy is palpable. His tight-wire balancing of his life on and off stage is heart-gripping. And his utter delight in word dissection is shocking and amusing.”

Ronnie Marmo spoke with me last month from his home in California.

Have you ever done standup?

One time. I host lots of charity events, and I’m pretty good with a mic. But I would never disrespect the art form by saying I’m a standup, because, well, first of all, I’m not miserable enough, and second of all, I haven’t slept on peoples’ couches for years. You know, that’s a rule, kind of. All my friends tell me, “You’re too happy to be a comic.”

Am I a standup? No. I feel very comfortable with a mic, and I think I could do it, but it’s not something I have time to pursue in a real way, and I have too much respect for how hard it is, so I’m an actor who’s comfortable with a mic.

I try to do justice to the standup element. I squeeze the most out of his material, but I am an actor telling his story, first and foremost, and the backdrop is that he’s a comic.

What’s the difference between a joke that’s funny and a joke that makes people laugh out loud?

Generally speaking, what’s funny, people don’t usually laugh at. It’s interesting. People tend to laugh at things that are easier to digest. And Lenny’s material was so dense—very much like George Carlin, who was not always funny. In fact, that’s why I named the play, “I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce,” He was a funny person, but I don’t think he wrote jokes. He wasn’t a joke comic.

So when people came to his shows, were they looking for laughs? Or something else?

In the beginning, when he started his career, he was a joke comic. And he did impressions. That’s where he started. He was doing all the silly jokes. And then he found his voice. He would just start talking about things onstage, about life and his wife and his family. And he made the band laugh. And people are going, “You can’t talk about your wife and your family!”

How long was it before he took this new approach? 

I don’t really know, but at least a decade. When he first started performing, he imitated his mom’s act, word for word. He was just doing funny jokes that his mom wrote, ’cause he thought she was the funniest person in the world.

And then, in his prime, he started to find his voice and became more popular because people wanted to hear his commentary. That’s what he was doing: commentary. And, again, he was a funny person. So I guess a lot of it was innately funny, but he wasn’t always, you know, writing jokes. In fact, he would dumb it down sometimes when he was getting no laughs.

It sounds like getting laughs was not his top priority.

No, it wasn’t. I don’t know if that was true early in his career. But once he found his voice and started to be hounded by the police … I think at that point he stuck to his guns and dug in deeper.

And then people came to see him just to find out what all the controversy was about?

Absolutely. And he was smart. People liked him. He spoke for a generation. I often say that Lenny was really influential over—like—the Summer of Love. Even though he died in 1966, he really influenced all of that. I think Lenny’s voice was one of the first mainstream comics to not be so mainstream. You know what I mean?

Yes. And now I’m thinking of Dave Chapelle.

Dave Chapelle is absolutely a modern-day Lenny Bruce, for sure. And that was the thing about Lenny. It wasn’t shock for shock value. He believed in what he was doing. People getting into show business today are like, “Okay, who am I gonna be? What am I gonna do?” And they cook up an act. But with Lenny, it was just the truth. He found his voice based on the truth and, you know, holding a mirror up to society. He didn’t like hypocrisy. So he was the guy who was willing to ask the question, “But why? But why?” and they didn’t like that.

He even influenced the style of standup nowadays, like just storytelling, as opposed to joke telling. I dare to say Lenny has influenced even people like Seinfeld—you know, people who are very clean comics. Just the art of telling a story. He was the first guy to come onstage and stand at the mic with a newspaper and do free-form improv.

The story of Lenny Bruce’s life is about as sad as a story can get.

Absolutely.

Should people come to this show expecting laughter? Or tears?

If I do my job, they’ll go on a ride, and they’ll experience both. It’s not a comedy. It’s a tragedy with a lot of laughs.

See Ronnie Marmo’s one-man play “I’m not a comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce” at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center October 14 and 15. Purchase tickets here.

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