In addition to being an utter delight, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an excellent work of period TV. The year 1958 is found in Midge’s full-skirted halter dresses; it’s in the pomp of the department store; it’s in the tremulous, easily scandalized audiences at Greenwich Village comedy clubs. These are all atmospheric details, approximations of 1958. Only in one respect does Maisel actually transpose a real fixture of the era onto its fictional landscape. Real-life 1958 comes in the form of Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby), a comedian who challenged convention, even when it cost him.
The second time Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) meets Lenny Bruce in the pilot episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, he’s casually walking down the stairs of New York’s 8th Precinct. His wife is late to pick him up, as she’d gone to station on Varick Street instead. Clearly, this is a well-trod routine for the couple. The real Lenny Bruce, you see, spent a lot of time shuttling in and out of jail cells. His relentless commitment to his comedy occasionally rendered him a criminal.
Over the course of his provocative career, Bruce racked up quite an extensive rap sheet. In 1961, Bruce was charged with violating California’s obscenity law at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop (he said the word c***sucker). He was charged with possession of drugs in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. He was arrested on stage in Chicago. After a controversial run at Peter Cook’s London club, the Establishment, in 1962, Bruce was barred was barred from reentering England for the sake of the “public interest.” He was arrested many more times. At last, Bruce’s troubles followed him to Greenwich Village. In 1964, Bruce, along with two club owners, was arrested following a obscenity-laden set at Cafe Au Go Go.
Bruce predicted the future when he said, “If I get busted in New York, the freest city in the world, that will be the end of my career.” In many ways, that bust did lead to the end.
Following so many arrests, Bruce was already in financial dire straits. To exacerbate the situation, Bruce was blacklisted by many clubs. The 1964 New York arrest broke him. Bruce was found guilty of obscenity by Criminal Trial Court of New York City. After that, Bruce’s drug use (especially heroin) increased significantly; his sets deteriorated into “unbearable routines filled with self-conscious poetry about Adolf Eichmann and the injustices of the American judicial system,” as Bruce’s friend Charles Marowitz put it in The Telegraph.
Bruce died in 1966 in his home in Hollywood Hills at the age of 40. His cause of death was listed as “acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose.” Bruce was survived by his daughter, Kitty, who went on to create a foundation dedicated to drug treatment and rehab.
This downfall via curse words is ironic, really. Bruce ranted insightfully on war, government, law, injustice, sex, race, cruelties, and injuries — but the law stuck on his penchant for “bad words.” People were shocked, perhaps, by the wrong part of the set.
In his forward for Bruce’s memoir, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, theater critic Kenneth Tynan parsed this hypocrisy at the heart of Bruce’s “shocking” career. “He is a true iconoclast. Others josh, snipe, and rib; only Bruce demolishes. He breaks through the barrier of laughter to the horizon beyond, where the truth has its sanctuary. People say he is shocking and they are quite correct. Part of his purpose is to force us to redefine what we mean by ’being shocked,’" wrote Tynan. “The point about Bruce is that he wants us to be shocked, but by the right things; not by four-letter words, which violate only convention, but by want and deprivation, which violate human dignity.”
Bruce saw his comedy as having a purpose beyond laughs. The laughs were a means to an end; but the ends were revelations. "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,” Bruce said.
Thanks to Bruce, there are virtually no topics that are off limits in stand-up comedy. According to David M. Skover, the co-author of The Trials of Lenny Bruce, The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, police stopped prosecuting comedians for obscene language after Bruce's death. "It's really Lenny's legacy that he opened up the comedy club as the greatest free speech zone in America," Skover told NPR.
Bruce’s presence in Maisel makes perfect sense. For one, Midge’s character is partially based on Joan Rivers, who had a career-affirming encounter with Bruce in 1962 when she was still a fledgling comic. The two also share some biographical overlap. Both Midge and Bruce were raised in New York by parents of Jewish upbringing, though Bruce was from Long Island and his mother, performer Sally Marr, encouraged his comedy dreams. More significantly, Bruce represents the qualities Midge aspires to in her comedy. He’s fearless.
Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is set to feature Midge’s evolving relationships with her estranged husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), her new doctor boyfriend, Benjamin (Zachary Levi), and of course, with Lenny Bruce.
Catch season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime on December 5.