Soap opera fans will instantly recognize Ronnie Marmo for the years he spent working on “General Hospital,” but it’s his passion for legendary comedian Lenny Bruce that has served as the common thread and thru-line throughout his career. He has performed Bruce on stage. He is in the process of writing and producing a new play based on Bruce’s life. And now he’s narrating Bruce’s autobiography “How to Talk Dirty & Influence People” for Hachette Audio.
Wingman Wednesday sat down with Marmo to discuss his connection to Bruce and how he approached speaking the iconic comedian’s own words.
TrunkSpace: For those who aren’t familiar with Lenny Bruce, can you tell us a little bit about who Lenny was and what drew you to him?
Marmo: Well, I can never encapsulate Lenny Bruce in one brief discussion, but the bullet points and the highlights of who Lenny Bruce was… he was a pioneer and he basically led the way for all of the great comedians that this modern world knows… like George Carlin, Richard Pryor… the great ones. Lenny Bruce was the first comic to not have a set routine and to get up on stage and just talk about whatever was going on in his life, whether it be his wife, his kid, his drug habits… whatever was going on. He was the first one to tell personal stories in comedy and also he was a really, really, really smart man and he’d piss a lot of people off. He would question lots of things, like Catholic religion, and he would make comedy out of them. He wasn’t making fun of anything. He was just trying to understand. He would always hold a mirror up to the world and take a look at hypocrisy on both sides of the coin. And it made a lot of people mad because no one else was willing to do that at that time in the late 50s and early 60s. So he would get arrested nightly for saying curse words on stage and the cops would lineup in the back of the club and literally when he would curse or say something that pissed them off, he would get arrested. He got arrested for doing a funny bit called “Religions, Inc.” where he made the Pope Jewish and they had an office up on Madison Avenue. So, even things like that weren’t even curse words he’d get arrested for, which obviously violated the First Amendment. He would just hold a mirror up to everything and lots of people were offended. He got arrested for that. He got arrested for saying schmuck because a Jewish cop was offended. So, not too long ago in this country, freedom of speech didn’t really exist and Lenny Bruce was basically the guinea pig for all of that.
TrunkSpace: In a lot of ways his fight to protect free speech ultimately cost him his career because he became so obsessed with the fight, correct?
Marmo: No doubt. Eventually he ended up representing himself and spent all of his money and went bankrupt. He went from playing these huge arenas or what have you of that time, to literally playing for three people in an audience and they were walking out on him because he was so obsessed with his legal battles that he would just read his courtroom transcripts rather than trying to be funny. And so, it cost him career and ultimately cost him his life.
TrunkSpace: If you look at where the country is today in terms of it being so divided, it feels like the world needs a Lenny Bruce now more than ever.
Marmo: I think we have had Lenny Bruces in certain forms. In a lot of ways, Carlin took over after Lenny died.
TrunkSpace: Wasn’t Carlin pictured in one of the more famous images of Lenny Bruce being arrested?
Marmo: Yeah. My friend Jack Burns, who I’m still friends with today… Burns and Schreiber and Burns and Carlin… Lenny Bruce got Jack Burns and George Carlin their first agent when they were a team. So, George was around then and kind of looked up to and idolized Lenny. There is a picture of Lenny being arrested and then George is in the background and, rumor has it that George was also arrested that night. I don’t know why. He was underage or something… but he was in the back of the Paddy wagon with Lenny Bruce. George Carlin really idolized Lenny Bruce and you can see his influence for the following 50 years after Lenny Bruce passed away.
TrunkSpace: So looking beyond narrating this audio book, you’ve actually portrayed Lenny Bruce in a few forms, correct?
Marmo: What happened was… I’m guessing it’s close to 10 years ago now… Charlie Brill from Brill and McCall, a famous comedy team, came to me one day and he asked me if I knew who Lenny Bruce was and of course I said yes. I didn’t know all that much about Lenny at the time but as a kid I remembered my parents listening to Lenny. He said, “Well you look a lot like him.” Apparently this one man show called “Lenny Bruce is Back (And Boy is He Pissed)” was written for Charlie Brill to perform and Charlie was like, “Ahh… it’s too many words and it’s not for me at this point.” It was written by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein. And so Charlie said to me, “Why don’t you do it and then I will direct it.” I said to Charlie, “Well, it’s a great idea, but this is Lenny Bruce. I don’t know really how to proceed with it.” So, long story short, he and I made a bet. Charlie admitted he hadn’t performed in years as a team and I said that if he performed in my theater one night, then I would do it. A couple of years later they finally did and so I had to hold up my end of the bargain. And I was scared to death because I thought, “How the hell am I going to play Lenny Bruce?” Especially because Carlin and lots of his friends were still alive and well. I could tell you a huge list of people who saw me do it. Anyway, it wasn’t a typical play, so I spent a lot of time with every piece of footage and every audio track. Everything I could get my hands on and everything that I could read I did because I became obsessed about Lenny and I didn’t even pick up the script until I literally had hundreds of hours of studying. I didn’t want to do an imitation of Lenny. I wanted to make sure that I was just trying to capture his essence and not try to do an imitation. So that’s how it all happened and it was something that, I want to say fell into my lap, and then became a humongous responsibility because it was Lenny Bruce and I didn’t want to yak it up.
TrunkSpace: So then years later, how did narrating his autobiography come about?
Marmo: Well, I did a six month run of the play… put it down for a couple of years and always thought I could do more with it. I came back to it and did another six month run. After the second six month run, I reached out to Kitty Bruce, Lenny’s daughter, and became friends with her. I flew out to New York and then took a long car ride to Pittston, Pennsylvania just to meet her, have lunch with her and get to know her. And after a lot of time… her and I became very connected and I love Kitty Bruce very much… and I basically told her that I had been doing Lenny and I told her that I thought the script was very good, but that I felt like we were leaving some scenes out and I wanted to take things to another level. And so, after meeting Kitty and realizing that I left a lot on the table and still wanted to tell Lenny’s story… I felt very connected to Lenny Bruce from day one. Once I started researching him I realized we had such a similar upbringing in a lot of ways. We had the same thing with having custody of our daughters. I’ve been in recovery for a long time. Sadly Lenny did not get to be in recovery, but we had the same history in terms of addiction. Similar history. Not the same, but similar. And so there were so many parallels. And so I reached out to my writer friend Jason Burns and said that I’d like to revisit this material and I got Kitty Bruce’s blessing on doing another one man show, but basically turning over every stone and removing any fluffiness out of what I had been doing and completely just putting myself into the middle of all Lenny’s real heartbreak. So we wrote a new play called “I’m Not a Comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce.” We have done four readings of it… two in LA and two in New York… and since that time an audition came out to do the Lenny Bruce autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty & Influence People.” And so Kitty had suggested me to the producers, but not just as an offer. They made me audition this piece and I was happy to do that. I went back and forth many times because as Kitty Bruce puts it, she did not want nepotism to play a part. She wanted the right person to represent her dad for the next, you know, thousand years in his audio book. I went and sent a lot of tapes back and forth reading directly from his book and I sent them anonymously so Kitty wouldn’t know it was me, and ultimately she chose me not knowing it was me. For me, it’s like the biggest honor in the world that I get to be the voice of Lenny Bruce for the next generation. And also at a time when I feel like we’re putting the finishing touches on our play and hopefully we’ll be premiering that May or June of 2017.
TrunkSpace: Having already performed Lenny a number of times, was it a different experience reading the sort of, thoughts from his head directly from the autobiography?
Marmo: Oh, one million percent. I don’t know if it’s more of an autobiography as opposed to a memoir. I don’t know why exactly they called it an autobiography. If you listen to the book, which I hope you get a chance to, it was very difficult, the material, because Lenny wrote it a year before he passed away. Before he OD’d. He died at 40, so I think he was 39 when he wrote it. There was a lot about the courts and a lot about lots of different things. He was a very funny man, but he wrote in metaphors and he’s SO smart. Like, ridiculously smart. I would have to read it three times before I even knew what the hell was going on and I think I made the editor crazy because I went back and basically read every line three times in the book and that’s not how it usually goes. But, I understood the humongous responsibility I had in representing Lenny Bruce and representing Kitty Bruce and her father. It was not something I took lightly and it wasn’t just a job I had. It was a very important moment for me and it’s very exciting.
TrunkSpace: So you could sense the dark head space Lenny was in when you were narrating the book?
Marmo: Completely! Just trying to put yourself in his shoes and do justice to that was a hell of a journey for me. Kitty wanted to make sure that I wasn’t narrating the book. In other words, when I’m talking about being under the kitchen sink peeling at the linoleum… instead of telling you what Lenny went through, I believe I captured putting you under the sink picking at the linoleum with him.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned your theater above. You actually run the company on both coasts, correct?
Marmo: Yeah. I’m the artistic director of Theater 68 in Los Angeles and New York. In LA, we will be 16-years-old on February 14th. And in New York, we will be 6-years-old on August 29th. So, we’ve been around quite awhile.
TrunkSpace: So what is the theater company for you? Is it a matter of staying connected to your theatrical roots?
Marmo: The theater company provides something for me that I needed as an actor and that is, I like to believe that I’m providing an artistic home for people. We use the word theater company, but the truth is it’s so much more than that. It’s almost not cool to just put us in that box, but basically it’s an artistic home for over a 120 actors right now on both coasts, and maybe close to a thousand over the course of 16 years. And so it makes me really happy to know that in some small way… or big way… I’ve been a part of all of these artists’ journey and it gives me a fulfillment unlike anything else. It also brings a lot of stress and chaos into my life. (Laughter) But the reward is that there are many artists, young and old, in my artistic care and I take that responsibility very seriously. To me that’s where my heart and my life is and when I get acting or directing gigs outside of my company in film, television and other theater, I’m completely excited about it and inspired, but ultimately home base is where I put a lot of my energy.
If you’re in Los Angeles, check out Ronnie Marmo in Lusting After Pepino’s Wife at Theater 68 in North Hollywood.. You can also see Marmo on Netflix in the recently-released film “Back in the Day,” with also stars Alec Baldwin, Michael Madsen, Danny Glover, and Shannon Doherty.