Joe Folsom is quick to defend one of the most influential and controversial performers of the 20th century, Lenny Bruce: “He’s wasn’t an asshole; he just didn’t suffer assholes," he says.
Bruce was famously misunderstood and was arrested numerous times for violating obscenity laws. Words and terms that are common today (“cocksucker” and “schmuck,” to name a few) put Bruce behind bars.
Folsom, who will play Bruce in a one-man show that he’s touring in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles and, finally, New York’s United Solo Fest, says Bruce just wanted to talk about the things that bothered him. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
Folsom discovered Bruce a decade ago when he was a college student at the University of North Texas and says he was drawn to the comedian as a social satirist.
“I was interested in social statements and social change, just as he was," Folsom says.
In researching the comedian, Folsom came across the one-man show, Lenny Bruce is Back. The 50-minute play written by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein was exactly what Folsom was looking for. He knew he didn’t need to write new material on Bruce, but he needed more time before he was ready to play him.
“It didn’t come together then for me to play it, and that was fine," he says. "I’m older now. It’s more appropriate for me to play him.”
Folsom is now the comedian's age during his heyday. Bruce died at 40.
The play takes place after Bruce's death, and the comic addresses the crowd about his life, his regrets and the world he experienced. It was crucial to Folsom that he didn’t present merely an imitation of Bruce, but a characterization.
“I watched videos and listened to audio of him speaking, but his voice and walk were not what made him — it was all about the attitude," Folsom says.
The actor is quiet and handsome and bears some resemblance to the late comic, but more than that he seems to share the attitude that made Bruce famous.
“I think artists need to be tackling more socially relevant issues but do so in a way that’s not preaching to the
choir, that becomes accessible to a broader audience. So that there can actually be a conversation, change, action. I get really tired of the pieces that are punching you in the face and I’m like, ‘I already agree with you, why are you hitting me?’"
Folsom related to lines in the script that deal with being overly politically correct inside and outside of comedy clubs, and worries that in the theater community, artists can become too “one-note.” It’s why playing the controversial comic with something to say is so important to Folsom.
He also notes that Bruce paved the way for many other famous comics he admires, such as George Carlin, Bill Hicks and Marc Maron.
“The so-called ‘angry comics’ aren’t really angry to me; they aren’t playing a character," he says. "They’re just being themselves. And they are exploring social issues.”
Folsom and producer Bren Rapp are hoping to reach audiences with Bruce's message, and to do it they've decided to stage the performance in nontraditional theater spaces, like the Dallas Comedy House and a burlesque venue, Viva’s Lounge in the Design District.
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Bruce’s illicit style works well in a burlesque house, and Folsom and Rapp hope it’s a way to engage new audiences and show both theater and comedy fans something new.
Fifty percent of the proceeds from the 11 p.m. show at Viva's Lounge will go to TheaterJones.com, which covers performing arts in the Dallas area. Folsom and Rapp are concerned about a lack of visibility for arts media, and Folsom says it's his duty to put his money where his mouth is if he's going to play the socially conscious comedian.
“Everything that artists complain about — it’s up to us to change it.”
Lenny Bruce Is Back, 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4, and 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5, Dallas Comedy House, 3025 Main St., $10 to $15, dallascomedyhouse.com; 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Friday, Aug. 11, Viva's Lounge, 1350 Manufacturing St., No. 120, free to $100, vivaslounge.com.