What Happened to the Real Lenny Bruce?

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Lenny Bruce was an influential comedian who played a crucial role in shaping modern-day comedy and free speech.
  • The inclusion of Lenny Bruce’s character in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is timely and perfect for a show about a boundary-pushing comedian.
  • Lenny Bruce faced personal struggles with drug addiction and legal issues, mirroring the hardships faced by Midge in the series.


In comedy, there is transcendence. If you’re funny, you can be successful in a position where comedy merits it. Bonus points if you’re brave and have the grit to tackle otherwise taboo topics with the panache of someone who knows what they’re talking about. Today, that’s precisely what makes a successful comedian, but it isn’t always a part of the formula for success for a comic. As the hit show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel reminded us, the powers that be did not always welcome boundary-pushing. It has been the ingenuity of several legendary comics that shaped comedy as we know it. While Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a fictional comedian based on the great Joan Rivers, the show gives fictitious storylines to a few real-life, influential comedians.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel gave us the ever-charismatic Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce, one of those real comedians instrumental in modern-day comedy’s formation. The writing of a fictitious Lenny Bruce character in Maisel is timely and appropriate. Lenny Bruce has been called one of the best comedians of all time and was a figurehead for free speech and contributed to the formation of modern-day comedy. For Maisel, a show about a 1960s housewife becoming a raunchy comedian, his inclusion is all too perfect.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

After her husband leaves her, young mother of two Miriam “Midge” Maisel discovers that she has a talent for stand-up comedy. Could this be her calling?

Release Date
March 17, 2017

Main Genre
Comedy

Rating
TV-MA


Who Was the Real Lenny Bruce?

The real-life Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, New York, to Myron Schneider, a shoe clerk, and Sally Marr, a performer. In 1942, at the age of 16, Schneider would join the U.S. Navy where he ruffled feathers for performing in drag for his shipmates. This performance entertained his shipmates but upset his commanding officers and would lead to his discharge from military service in 1945.

Although his discharge from the Navy was unfortunate for Lenny then, he would begin his pursuit of comedy thereafter, relocating to New York where his story as the man, the myth, the legend’s story would genuinely start. There, he would begin to run with well-known (but not at the time) comedians like Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield, whose raunchy comedy styles would particularly impact him.

The Real Lenny Bruce’s Career in Comedy

Lenny Bruce’s performing career began as a stand-in for the host of one of his mother, Sally’s, shows at The Victory Club. At the time, he went on stage as “Lenny Marsalle,” and would later change his stage name to Lenny Bruce. But it wasn’t the name change that made Lenny Bruce; it was a bit more, shall we say, provocative.

Bruce married a woman named Honey Harlowe, who was a stripper. Like Season 4’s Midge Maisel, Bruce would become master of ceremony for the strip clubs she’d work at. There, he cultivated his signature style of comedy because the strip club atmosphere was free of judgment. The result was a style akin to the jazz musicians of the time, full of freedom and unabashed expression.

But, back to Maisel. In a sobering moment following the long-awaited Midge-Lenny hook-up, Midge finds Lenny’s drug stash, which Lenny promptly dismisses. This discovery comes after Midge finds Lenny in the street, visibly inebriated earlier in the season. As Bruce, Kirby portrays a man with some sense of tragedy lurking, and that’s not far from the truth. Bruce did begin using drugs which turned into a severe drug addiction, often methamphetamines, heroin, and Dilaudid. As we all know now, Lenny Bruce’s life was tragically cut short. On August 3, 1966, Bruce died with syringes and drug paraphernalia surrounding him at 40. Before his untimely death, Bruce and Harlowe had one daughter, Kitty Bruce, who is also mentioned briefly in Maisel.

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Was Lenny Bruce Really a Troublemaker Like He Is in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’?

Yes. In real life, Lenny Bruce did get arrested several times and became known for his “outlaw” comedy. Of course, today, it’s just regular comedy — talking about sex, politics, poking fun at religion, etc., but that wasn’t always the case. Bruce was labeled a “sick comedian,” This fits Maisel well, considering Midge’s character constantly pushes societal boundaries, but this created some problems for real-life Bruce. As depicted in Maisel, Bruce was arrested for obscenity several times in multiple cities, as well as drug possession charges and scams.

Bruce only occasionally performed on network television and got banned from several cities, but with progressive thinkers or other subversives, he found friendship. According to Bruce’s website, his television performances resulted from powerful and empathizing fans like Hugh Hefner or Steve Allen even though he was blacklisted. The more offensive jokes had to be approved beforehand, but moments like this led to his famous Carnegie Hall performance.

Why Lenny Bruce?

Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce kissing Rachel Brosnahan as Midge in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Image via Prime Video

Creator and co-showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino‘s father, Don Sherman, was a comedian. Her father knew Sally Marr, who Sherman-Palladino described as a godmother to comedians. But it’s more profound than that. Lenny Bruce and all his mishaps paved the way for comedians, but sadly, that complicated path also led to a professional struggle. In many ways, Midge’s career trajectory mirrors Bruce’s own career trajectory and maybe even embodies what his career could have become. Midge also gets arrested multiple times and has moments where she is nearly blacklisted, but as shown by the time jumps, she perseveres.

As is the case with many innovators, particularly in entertainment, being a groundbreaking talent scarcely comes without a story that doesn’t have some sense of hardship. The real Lenny Bruce was no exception, but his life, although short, was remarkable. So remarkable that nearly 60 years after his death, a whole new generation gets to find out just how special he is.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is streaming on Prime Video.

Watch on Prime Video



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