Dallas — Stephen Colbert, Kathy Griffin, Bill Maher — they all stand in his shoes by taking First Amendment fire and corporate hits for speaking truth to power. So do Chris Rock, Sam Kinison, Cheech & Chong, Bill Hicks, Saturday Night Live, and many late-night talk-show hosts. A satire industry of pundits and print media owe much of it to Lenny Bruce. The comic hemorrhaged energy and money, and endured abuse and jail time, for the right to freely and funnily opinionate, only to die of an overdose at age 40 in 1966.
Joey Folsom is that age now and set to step into the very big shoes of America’s seminal satirist in the one-man play Lenny Bruce is Back. A few years ago he aced another iconic role as the lead in Hank Williams: Lost Highway at Watertower Theatre. Folsom feels up to the challenge: “The struggle is to find the embodiment of the character. It can’t be an impression. I have to find his delivery that’s natural and honest, honest to myself in the moment and honest to the spirit of the person who really lived.”
Lenny Bruce is Back reflects the commitment of Folsom’s Upstart Productions to socially relevant work in non-traditional venues. Nathan Autrey directs; Bren Rapp produces. The one-man, 70-minute play by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein places Bruce at his San Fernando Valley graveside, recalling his life—a Long Island childhood in the shadow of his entertainment maven mom, military service as a teenager in WW II, the burlesque dancer and love of his life Honey Harlow, the formative years at San Francisco’s the hungry i, his extended legal battles over obscenity charges — and many of the societal changes (or lack thereof) in the interim.
“Our plan is to make this accessible,” says Folsom. The play starts its national run in Dallas with shows at the Dallas Comedy House for three performances Aug. 4 and 5, with an opening by Dallas comic Paul Varghese; and moves to the Design District burlesque house, Viva’s Lounge, on Aug. 11, where the second show is a benefit for TheaterJones to support arts journalism. It runs at Second City’s Beat Lounge August 23-25, then to iO West MainStage and United Solo Festival in New York City in October. By showing theater in such non-theater venues, “We feel like we’re meeting them halfway and showing them the validity of the art form,” says Folsom.
While the original Los Angeles production, directed by Joe Mantegna and starring Ronnie Marmo, was nominated for an L.A. Ovation award in 2002, it didn’t gain considerable traction. Upstart Productions aims to change that by reaching the 20s to 30s population that thrives on the late-night satire inspired by Bruce, at the same time retaining traditional theater patrons. “The theater base is aging out,” says Rapp. “These comedy clubs are full of young people already spending money on the commerce of entertainment. So let’s convert them.”
A sit-down session with Folsom revealed the influential life and art of Lenny Bruce and the immersive preparation required for acting such a role.
ACTOR AS ICON
TheaterJones: What started your Lenny Bruce obsession a decade ago?
Joey Folsom: I discovered Lenny Bruce while in college. I found George Carlin and Richard Pryor, who led me to Lenny Bruce, all the obscenity and First Amendment stuff. For me, what inspired me in my personal creation of art has to do with relevance and social impact. Here was this guy whose life was ruined because of it. Then a decade ago I got a copy of the script and read it, and it was really good, needed to be done. It didn’t happen then, which was fine. But it seems now every time I turn around there’s something happening in the political climate makes what Lenny Bruce was about and what’s said in the script still relevant.
What kind of research did you do for the part?
The big book about his life, the trails, and all [Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce by Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller] and his autobiography [How to Talk Dirty and Influence People]. Pretty much all his albums.
Did you see yourself doing stand-up?
I’ve done some stand-up. To me it’s another form of theater. In standard plays, there’s an ‘other’ or ‘others’ that you’re dealing with up on the stage. In stand-up comedy, the other is always the audience. You’re not talking for them, you’re talking with them. If they’re not on your side, you’re screwed. So this is a one-man play, but written to be performed like a stand-up comic. It’s not just monologuing. It really has to be living in the moment like a good comedian will do.
This is the second time you’ve stepped into an iconic characters role, Hank Williams being the first. What is the weight of this?
There is definitely a responsibility to the idea of the character. There are people who have opinions of how and what that character is and they're going to come in with preconceived notions. Luckily I have a team around me—writers, director, producer—who can help me identify those things.
There are expectations of Lenny Bruce that are really going to be different from person to person. Some found him really funny; some people felt he wasn’t. Some people thought he was crude; some thought he was brilliant. Some people thought he was an asshole; some thought he was sweet. And he was all those things, which is part of the brilliance of him. Because at the end of the day Lenny Bruce did not give a fuck. He just had the necessity to do it and accepted being liked or disliked, one way or the other.
Lenny Bruce’s most ambitious work examined the relationship between performer and audience and the dangers of pandering. How do relate to this as an actor and musician?
I had done a lot of acting before playing with stand-up comedy a few years ago. At these open mics, people would go up there and they’d be begging for a laugh. This one guy was dying a slow, slow death. But he was funny. He stopped being funny as soon as he started getting self conscious. You have to pay attention to the audience; you have to respond to them. But you have to give yourself permission to keep going. Just because someone didn’t laugh out loud doesn’t mean they didn’t enjoy it.
LEARNING ABOUT LENNY BRUCE
Is that the most relatable thing about Lenny Bruce you’ve found?
No one was going to tell him what he could or couldn’t do and I relate to that. [laughter] Most people experience that. It’s that drive, that tenacity, I admire, because it wasn’t for attention. It wasn’t about him. It was about the issue.
Lenny Bruce was thoroughly a mid-century man and so very urban. There was New York and San Francisco and not much in between. How do you and the play keep him in that ‘50s era mindset, sort of like a counterculture Mad Men, yet make him relatable?
There’s a character in a couple of Mad Men episodes that I think was directly related to Lenny Bruce. But this play takes place right now, not back in the ‘50s. He knows he’s dead. He’s conscious of everything that’s happened between his death and now, commenting on his life, his death, and a lot of things that have come after.
How hard has been to get a handle on Lenny Bruce’s vocal patter? So improvisational, jazz scat rhythms, stammering digressions, repurposed Yiddish…so much Yiddish.
When you get a script like this it makes things a lot easier. The writers did a fantastic job writing as he naturally spoke. As far as anything improvised, with that to draw from, anything the character will do in the moment will be honest. But I’m not improvising, Lenny Bruce is improvising. He was always very, very present. There will be points in this script people will feel like it’s improvisation. But it’s not.
A lot of people don’t find Lenny Bruce to be very funny. If you read his stuff, like a transcript, you might notw find it so funny. The writers of this script have really dug into his voice, his rhythm, that jazz that he does. Because he told stories and that’s where the humor was.
REFLECTIONS ON QUOTES BY LENNY BRUCE
I’m going to throw out a few Lenny Bruce quotes and get your feedback on them:
“I'm not a comedian. And I'm not sick. The world is sick, and I'm the doctor. I'm a surgeon with a scalpel for false values.”
Lenny Bruce thought of himself as a satirist, not a comedian. He was a guy who ridiculed the system. He was one of the first comics to come out without a set routine. He had some bits he’d do over and over again. He woke up, read the newspaper, talked to people, watched television and would later point out these things. He had a necessity in himself to comment.
He wanted to make people think and laugh at the same time. That was a big part of the appeal about Lenny. He would get across things that made sense but did it in a humorous way and make it accessible to people, whether they came in agreeing or disagreeing with him.
“The audience assumes he's telling the truth. What is truth today may be a damn lie next week.”
The guy was obsessed with words and the specificity of the words. He felt it was important to contribute to society moving forward and he felt he could do that best this way.
“The only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can't fake it.”
Sure. Who laughs at a dishonest comedian?
“Without the human condition, there's no struggle, no pain and that means no laughter.”
Yeah. Comedy is tragedy plus time. [“Humor is tragedy plus time” by Mark Twain, or “Tragedy plus time equals comedy” by Steve Allen, repeated by Lenny Bruce as “Satire is tragedy plus time.”] He hated liars and he hated hypocrisy. He has a really open mind and a rigid moral/ethical system. If there was something in his opinion that he could do about something then he did it.
“The 'what should be' never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no 'what should be,' there is only what is.”
Lenny didn’t finish high school, but he read all the time and he read a lot of philosophy.
“I think it's about time we gave up religion and got back to God.”
He would bag on Judaism, but Christianity asked for it so much. Not so much Christianity, but organized religion. No problem with God or the idea of God, but no patience with all the bullshit salesmen. Nobody was pointing that out then, so he had to.
THE FORMATION OF LENNY
Lenny Bruce is the sum of his experiences. So let’s talk about a few points of his life and how it shaped your development of the character. He joined the Army as soon as he could and was off to World War II fighting, including in Anzio which was especially tough. How do you think that shaped his satire?
It gave him such deep perspective. It’s easy for people who have no familiarity with what’s going on, who never see it and don’t want to see it, that willful ignorance, to send 10,000 troops to wherever. Lenny knows.
His parents split up when he was seven. His dad was British and an asshole. His mom was a nightclub performer. She went from being a housekeeper to a bartender to a dance instructor to a stand-up comic, all when he was a young kid, in that important evolutionary time after vaudeville. His mom took him to his first burlesque show when he was nine. He lived for a while in a gay boarding house. Then he drops out of high school, bounces around between his mom and his dad. He runs away at 16 to work on a farm in Long Island. Then he gets out of the Navy by pretending to be gay.
With that background, I wonder if he was ever in real life. Maybe it was all performance art.
Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, they were writers. Lenny was a performer. It wasn’t that he was never not on, it’s that he was never on. It was always him being him.
Lenny Bruce loved his wife Honey Harlow and wanted her to give up burlesque work. At times her star outshone his. The birth of daughter Kitty didn’t really bring out his domestic side. How you describe Lenny Bruce’s relationship with women?
Nobody was ever more than Honey. He really wanted her to want him. He had a great relationship with his mom. I think he respected women, but he had a different view of what that meant at the time. He would make fun of the differences between men and women, but they were never less than equal.
Lenny Bruce’s biographer Albert Goldman says the turnaround was leaving the act with Honey and ending up working skanky strip clubs in Los Angeles. He broke free of his restraints and inhibitions by speaking his truth to an audience that frankly was not listening and him not caring if they did. Thoughts on that?
Lenny always thought of himself as a work in progress, but from outside looking in. It took a round of hardship for him to give up that last bit of giving a fuck. The most dangerous man in the world is someone with nothing else to lose.
Mort Sahl was focused on government and authority. It seems Lenny Bruce went past that, seeing it as a symptom of human nature. That where he was vivid, pushing that line, causing followers to think: “Hey, you’re not just making fun of them, you’re making fun of us. Not sure I like that.”
That’s what got him in trouble. He felt safe enough to be listened to, started doing these sucker punches to people, kind of made them self-conscious their choices and place in society. It wasn’t the dirty words; it was the ideas the words created. People didn’t like that: “That’s a troublemaker right there. We got to knock him down a few pegs.”
LENNY & THE CRAFT OF COMEDY
I wonder if all the truth-telling obscured his craft as a comic performer.
It was more important to him to be heard than to be enjoyed.
But in his prime, making people laugh was important, to get that win. He was excellent with impressions and vivid character studies, turns of phrase you knew were crafted. He was Dick Gregory-like: “I’m going to push you, and push you, and make you laugh, and push you again. Ultimately I think he liked the recognition of the laugh more than the laughter.
He liked reaction, whether they’re laughing or not. A gasp or movement, even silence can be a reaction.
Do you think he’d be a stand-up or a one-man-show kind of guy?
He talks a bit about this in the play, what he would’ve become. He was afraid that people would stop wanting to listen to him. That was a driving thing about him that kept him updating and improvising. I think he would have been like George Carlin, some writing, some performance, some acting.
Would he have a podcast?
Oh god, probably not.
Why not? Mort Sahl does—in his ‘90s! [laughter] Columnist Sydney J. Harris called him the Gertrude Stein of comedy, more influential than popular.
[laughter] Yeah, yeah.
NEW AUDIENCES for THEATER VIA COMEDY
Lenny Bruce is Back had a big run in Los Angeles with Joe Mantegna as director and Ronnie Marmo in the role. But it didn’t catch fire. Why was that?
[producer Bren Rapp, interjecting]: It was presented as a play in a theatrical venue. Any crossover appeal to people who follow Lenny Bruce as a comedian was never capitalized on because they shoved it into a theater and marketed it like “This is a piece of theater.” It’s kind of, but not really.
Joey Folsom: They sold themselves short in a lot of ways, they were trying to pander to expectations. I know there will be people coming who’ll think they’re getting a Lenny Bruce impression with Lenny’s best bits. That play was marketed like it was going to be a laugh riot. But it moved through plenty of darker stuff.
» Read Alexandra Bonifield's piece about Lenny Bruce is Back on her blog, CriticalRant.
Dallas Comedy House, with opening by stand-up Paul Varghese
- 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4
- 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5
- 10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5
Viva's Lounge in the Dallas Design District
- 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 11
- 11 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11: BRUCE AND BURLESQUE BASH
To see the dates and ticket info in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, go here.