I'm not Lenny Bruce... I'm Ronnie Marmo
Pria Dahiya: So when I was doing research into your show, Lenny Bruce, a big controversial figure known for these obscenity trials, known for shocking the audience, I was listening to some of his standup on the bus this morning and I even got shocked. But for people my age and in our twenties, we're all raised online. We might not be as easily shocked as people were in the past. So I'm wondering, especially for the young audience that's going to be reading your newspaper, what do you think we'll be able to get from the show?
Ronnie Marmo: Oh, wow. That's a big question. You know, it depends on who the student is and and how they were raised, if I'm being honest, because there seems to be three versions of the people showing up at the show in terms of this age demographic. There's the 20 somethings who were raised with cool hipster parents. Lenny, exactly who he was and how important he was, whether they agree with free speech or cancel culture, whatever that looks like, they understand and appreciate what he did for society. Right. There's those people and then there's the kids who are screaming about, ‘you can say whatever you want.’ You can do whatever you want. Right. And so those kids, I still like them to come to have the experience of that. They can make an informed decision on who Lenny was. On the surface, it's interesting because Lenny Bruce was a shock comic, but really today it's so tame what he was doing. I think the sticking point is, if you like David Chappelle, if you like Sarah Silverman, all these people, then you have Lenny to thank. I think it's really important for this generation to understand that Lenny did not believe that you could say whatever you want without consequence. So he would say, I can say whatever I want, but then also my boss is allowed to fire me for that. You know, everybody has that. The people think he was just like, “oh, free speech and screw you.” But that wasn't the truth. It was like, Yes, I can say what I want, but you also can fire me if you'd like to. So, um, I don't know. It's an interesting time in this society right now. I think "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" put Lenny back on the map for this new generation, giving them a little taste of how Lenny was. But that's just simply an introduction to who he really was, you know?
PD: I was reading that you first did a play about Lenny Bruce before you wrote this play yourself. I was wondering what motivated you to start adapting the script and what you feel, what the personal connection you have to this material?
RM: Well, when I first did this other play, it was called "LENNY BRUCE IS BACK (AND BOY IS HE PISSED)." And the title was funny and the show was good. I grew up on like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and those guys so I knew of Lenny, but once I did a deep dove into Lenny, you know who he was, I fell in love with the guy because I thought, you know, as an actor, it's very rare to get to jump in the shoes of somebody who you identify so much with on so many levels. And I realized how important he was. So the reason I wrote my own was I found that over time I did a six month run and went really well. Great reviews. I put it down for five years. Then I wanted to revisit the material. I did another six month run. During that second six months around, I started to realize that we didn't do his actual material. We talked about the material. It just felt like a safer version of what I wanted to say. And I think once I understood that on a guttural level, that like Lenny was more than this, what I'm presenting. I felt an obligation to tell the entire truth, warts and all, whether it be pretty or not. I wanted to tell the whole truth, so I set off to write my own and tell the whole story in 90 minutes, if that's possible. And it took me five years to write it because I'm not a typical writer in that way. I really took my time. And so that why I wrote it, because I felt like there was still a lot left on the table, that if I was going to tell this main story, I want to kind of pick up the battalion or the microphone, as it were, and continue to tell the story that his life got cut short, you know?
PD: What do you feel like you have in common? And also, in what ways you feel like you and Lenny Bruce differ?
RM: That’s really interesting. So in terms of in common, you know, there's so much. But what comes to mind first is his love for his daughter, my love for my daughters, his love for his mom. I love how he had a very special connection with his mom on a level that, you know, wasn't inappropriate. I'm not implying that. But I was like, wow, they're pretty, pretty damn close. These two, you know, as I was with my mom, my special connection when she died young and what else? Mom, I would say I've been clean and sober for 32 years and I never even have a single drink. And so we both struggled with addiction. I was very young and I was lucky enough to find recovery as a kid, and he never did. So I identify with having that gorilla on your back. Again, I was very lucky, early to shake it, you know, his passion, his enthusiasm to talk about things that matter to him, his desire for people to take a look at themselves for change, for holding a mirror up to ourselves and society. I just identify with all of that. Like that was what Lenny was really about, holding a mirror up to society, going, “Well, you may think I'm taking a stand on this issue, but really I'm just examining it. I'm willing to talk about it easily.” And so that's what's dangerous about our culture today. If people don't like what you say, they quickly want to throw you away. And I think it's really dangerous because how do we learn and grow if we're not willing to look at stuff? And see and maybe stay open enough where you don't fall into mob mentality. Maybe, just maybe, you open your own heart, your own mind and see something in a way that maybe you didn't anticipate. So that's important. That's what Lenny represented. And I'm proud to be able to do that as well.
PD: And then do you feel like there are any distinct differences between you two? And if so, how have you been able to rehearse and workshop in practice to resolve those two? Like the differences between you as a person and the character you're portraying?
RM: You know, five years ago, I could have answered that a lot easier. My heart doesn't know that I'm acting Lenny. I have become, I don't want to say one, but we certainly have come together on a lot of issues that maybe five years ago I disagree with. The only obvious one that I'll speak on for Ronnie as a human. And you have to put things in context. I mean, 60 years ago we just lived in a different world. So yeah. What he was attempting then would not work.
PD: I think I know the bit that you're going to make a reference to the N-word.
RM: I took it out. Did you hear Lenny do it?
PD: I mean, I've heard his stand up, so I've heard that piece before. I was wondering if you were going to comment on it, but I don't have to put it in my article if you're worried that it might be too controversial.
RM: Well, I mean, I'm not worried about anything. You know, I mean we'll talk about that later. But I will comment on it now because we're talking about it. You know, the reality is that I don't think white people should use that word. So I'm not a fan of using that word, but I do understand what Lenny was trying to do sixty years ago. So that's I think that's a really good example of me not believing in the word on its face today, 60 years after Lenny was trying to do something with it, which was all good intention of taking the power out of the word, that was his idea. Absolutely right. Whether it was in other words, whether it didn't. I don't know. I mean, I can give you examples on both sides of that argument. It made me terribly uncomfortable. I couldn't sleep at night doing the bit, but I did it because I thought, well, I'm going to tell the Lenny story, then I'll tell it. And it was always hard to do, I promise you. It was awful. And then when George Floyd happened, I just no longer could do it. I just felt like I couldn't. You know, it's an interesting balance between being absolutely honest and truthful as an artist and telling Lenny's story and also being tone deaf to the world we're living in. I can't be tone deaf. So therein lies where maybe I'm slightly less of a cool artist because I do care how people feel, you know? And I don't want to be stuck on that two minute bit when I'm giving them a 90 minute presentation of this incredible human, you know?
PD: That's such a beautiful way of answering it. And I'm sure that was a challenge in adapting his material. Thank you so much. This is a one-man show. You've done it for years. Something I thought was interesting that you've mentioned in some other interviews is your collaboration with your director. And I'm really wondering, like it must be hard to see this show from an outside perspective after having done it so many times. So what was the process of collaborating with him? You get feedback and workshop the show when you're the creator, the performer, the everything.
RM: So [Joe Mantegna] won a Tony Award for Glengarry on Broadway. Mhm. There he was in The Godfather. He's been on Criminal Minds for the last dozen years or so. Yeah. Huge star and I really, really admire him. So I say all that. I brag about him for a second just to tell you, like I came into the process with him from that point of view, not even starring. I'm a fanboy that he's so talented and so smart and I just look at his abilities. And so the reason I asked Joe to direct this is it's exactly what you said. It's like I needed to be guided by a gentle hand who I trust and admire. Friends were like, Hey, let's do this show because I know 100,000 directors and they're like, You know, maybe I wouldn't have felt the need to be so overly prepared in the rehearsal to leave my guts on the stage from day one. Maybe I wouldn't have done that if it wasn't somebody I looked up to so much. And so the reason Joe was perfect for me is because I just felt like there were only two or three things in the whole process that I fought for. I was like, I trust him. I completely trust him. You're watching it. I can't watch and perform at the same time. And so it was a really big honor and a blessing. And he cares so much. He cares as much as I do. I mean, last Saturday was my 400th performance.
RM: Thank you. I appreciate it. It’s insane. To do a 90-minute monologue 400 times. So like the directors usually are done after opening late here and he's been there, so he's cared about it as much as me. He's one of the smartest, most talented people I know. I mean, he's texting me right now. Obviously, there's other people that I reached out to. One is a huge star that wanted to do it. I'll leave his name out of it just for the sake of it. But I'm so glad it didn't work out because Joe was who I wanted to do it and I was just waiting for him to get back to me. And I'm so grateful because he just was the guy. He was the guy with the plan to lead this process.
PD: I think that's fantastic. You wrote all this material, obviously drawing a lot from research and you got the rights to Lenny's material. But were there any playwrights or one man shows that you also drew on for help in writing and in structure and things like that?
RM: In fact, I'm going to give Joe some more credit. When I had read the play for him to see if he wanted to do it. I just read it for him and I would say it was like 90% there. And Joe had a few ideas like, why don't we move this here? Why don't we move that back there? And he helped me a little bit with the structure at the end. And then after I wrote my show, there were a few one-man shows that I liked and saw, but this was such a unique experience. I didn't draw from any other shows. I just kind of wrote from my heart and Joe helped me shape it a little bit at the end. But you know, I like "Fleabag." I saw her show and that was cool. So there were a couple of cool shows I liked.
PD: Interesting. Was there anything super unexpected that you ended up learning about Lenny Bruce when you were doing all this research? Anything totally out of left field? I mean, he's already a super fascinating character who did so many crazy things.
RM: I went into it like everyone else going, Oh, Lenny Bruce, the foulmouthed comic. And then I learned about his heart and his love and his passion and his desire to help with change and hold a mirror up to society. And I learned so much more because I think a lot of people, what I've been told and this is what I would really encourage students at your school, what I've been told is that if you research Lenny Bruce on your own, there's a chance you could miss it. You can miss his magic because a lot of his bits are dated. They might not hold up in terms of references, cultural references and this and that. He also was trying to find his voice. So a lot of times he was just trying to find his voice on stage in front of an audience. So there's a chance you'll listen to some of it and miss it. People say that if you find Lenny through my show and then go research it after seeing my show, you'll get an understanding and a picture of just who he was and how important he was. So, I encourage that. Like the reason we're talking to you is because I told the press people that my dream is that all the students see this issue because I think there's a conversation to be had. And you know what I mean? This might be controversial and you may want to keep it or not keep it. I'll let you decide. But here's the reality. The reality is that the very people that Lenny was fighting for, the brown and black people, the people on the left, people he was fighting for sixty years ago, are the same people today that I have to explain to. And in other words, the people on the right yelling, “screw cancel culture, screw free speech, I can say what I want, right?” So suddenly some of those people think I'm doing the show for that. But that's not who Lenny was representing back then. He was representing the students, the kids who were like, I want to find my voice. I want to do what I want to do, you know? So it's really a bizarre turn of events that 60 years later I'm saying to a lot of young millennials, hey, you know, you might want to really open your heart, your mind and check this out, because it wasn't long ago Lenny was fighting for you and putting you in a position that you're in right now.
PD: Yes. There's some really fascinating stuff. I saw his discussions of police brutality and also Lenny Bruce very famously was Jewish. And we have a big Jewish population here in Pittsburgh, at least in the area I'm living in, Squirrel Hill.
RM: Well, that's amazing. Absolutely. You know, when I first wrote the play, I thought I was writing it for little old Jewish people who saw Lenny. Maybe that's why I thought I wrote it for him. And then "Maisel" came on TV and our audience of young people started to come to the show. “No, wait a minute, I love this. Who's Lenny Bruce?” You know, that's gone long enough where maybe their parents aren't talking about it, you know? But all of a sudden, I look at my audience now and there's tons and tons of 20 year olds. And I'm loving every parent who brings like a 15 year old. My daughter will be 15 and she's seen the play a few times. So I want her to be open to everything. And she also is very much like the youth of today yelling and screaming like, dad, you can't do that, you know? So she still gets on my case about stuff. But in terms of Lenny, I think she really gets it. And the mob mentality is dangerous. And I know that specifically in schools and colleges, my dream is to bring the show to colleges. I want to perform at every college in this country. That's my old goal. Because I think people just need education. Nothing is one way or the other. Things are complicated. People are complicated.
PD: Totally. And I also just think a lot of people don't know that there was work this transgressive happening so long ago.
RM: You're so right. People are so triggered by words now. And rightfully so in some cases. Like, I don't think Lenny was ever mean spirited. I think that's the difference. I'll stand behind Lenny saying he didn't say anything to be mean spirited. He was exploring and trying to flip things on their side and talk about things. You know, that's why I don't think he would say the N-word today. I think he was just too smart for that.
PD: It's a brilliant way of saying it.
RM: I think back then it was acceptable because he was trying to do something extreme so people would listen. You know, it's equivalent in some ways. And I'm not drawing the comparison, but I just want to say it out loud. It's like when Quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled against police brutality, everybody was up in arms, right? A couple of years later, everybody got the memo. Suddenly, nobody's apologizing for the guy. He was trying to do something at that time. Just, you know. So I guess what I'm saying is that the first time someone does something out of the box, they usually pay the price. A lot of people benefit from Lenny's willingness to do. He was always up against police brutality and all that. So I would just say people have to look past some of the words. And, you know, one of Lenny's greatest quotes is there are no dirty words, only dirty minds.
RM: You know, I love that. It's like, why is this a dirty word? I do a bit. I don't know if you can curse in your article, but I'll tell you anyway, in the show. And it's basically a bit about using the word ‘fuck you’. It's very funny in the show. But he says, you know, if we actually wanted to hurt somebody, we shouldn’t say fuck you, because fucking is really nice. You know, and it's very funny at the moment in the show. But think about the concept. So, Lenny thinks the word fuck you is nice because that's a nice thing. So he says we shouldn’t say fuck you if you don't like somebody. You know what I mean? It's not a word. It doesn't mean anything. No, they're just that we give words meaning. So it's interesting. I wonder what it's like over there for you guys. Do you think we’ll get a lot of pushback or do you think people will embrace it or a combination.
PD: I mean, I think it depends on the individual, you know, going to drama school. You would hope, you know, there's obviously some pushing of boundaries. I love my school. I hope you get to see a show at CMU drama when you're here because it's a really good place. And I'll definitely try to get people to see your show. But there's still a lot of things that aren't said and a pretty limited palette of material. And it's getting more intense.
RM: You know, I remember I did the N-word bit in New York when I was doing it in the show there. I remember one night there were about a dozen teenagers from this inner city who had never been to a play, and they were largely African-American and Hispanic. And I knew the camp, I knew the counselor very well. And I said, Let me leave you these tickets. I want them to have this experience. So I do the bit I do after the show and I have a little Q&A with this group and I say to the kids, I said, So what do you think? And they all said, Listen, we got it. We got Lenny. We love Lenny. We got it. And then I said, What would you think of the N-word? And this one young girl, she's 16. She was brilliant. She said, you know, it's not good. I didn't get it. It's just I don't want to share that word with white people. That's our anger. And we've earned that word. Yeah. And I don't want Jerry and I and a light bulb went off and I said, “Absolutely, that's brilliant. But isn't it interesting that you were willing to sit through it. Did you always think about that?” She's like, “No, I came up with that here tonight.” And that's what art is. That's what theater is. But you have to be willing to sit through the conversation. And she was brilliant. I was like, You're so smart. That's amazing, you know? But she would have made that connection had she not seen the show.
PD: Completely. Yeah. Fascinating.
RM: And you know, colleges are tough sometimes. I mean, Jerry Seinfeld got booed off stage. He's the cleanest frigging comic we have.
PD: Yeah, it's tough. I'm a big fan of comedy as well. But certainly you've got to keep finding new and inventive ways of relating to modern times. And I think it's fascinating how this show takes a historical figure. But it clearly is still going to have great relevance to audiences now. My last question is, is Pittsburgh specific? I was wondering, why are you bringing the show to Pittsburgh? Are you excited to come to Pittsburgh?
RM: Yeah. So here's my thinking on all that. I grew up a humongous Steeler fan. I grew up in New York, New Jersey, and I was the only Steelers fan. I am a psycho Steelers fan. I've got three Steelers towels, literally. I'm staring at them right now. So I am beyond excited. But on the 15th, I'm doing a performance in Great Barrington, Mass. Then I get off stage at 10 p.m.. I'm driving 9 hours overnight because I want to get to the game on the 16th because you guys aren't playing on the weekend. I'm there for eight days just so I could see the Steelers game. So I am excited. I'm beyond excited. So there's that, right? I love Pittsburgh and I've been there a few times and I just love the whole blue collar mentality. I mean, that's my whole life. I feel like I'm a Pittsburgh person. And something really massive happened in Pittsburgh that I do in the show. Lenny got into a horrible car accident in Pittsburgh. And he and his wife, Honey Harlow, flew out of the car and she got run over twice.
PD: Did she live?
RM: Don't look this up. Yes. So you can have the experience. But I put it in the show and it's really important in the show. It's in the middle of the second act, and it's a huge scene. And so he had a history with Pittsburgh. And I'm excited to come here. And I'm excited when anybody calls and says, “We'd like you to do the show here because we see value in it because of the content.” And I always admire any presenters or venues who are willing to have it, you know, because I think it's so important and it's a controversial show. But I think I think it's cool.