This post contains spoilers for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s series finale.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Lenny Bruce has always been dreamy. Sprinkled like pixie dust across 16 episodes of the show’s five seasons, Luke Kirby transformed the real-life comedian into an irresistibly tortured “fairy godmother” of standup to Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge.
Scenes between the pair, crackling with chemistry, hold that same dreamlike quality—their interactions existing in a bubble outside of reality. But in the series finale, when Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) encounters a rambling, rumpled Lenny Bruce at a San Francisco comedy club in 1965, that bubble is beyond punctured. And for the first time since playing Bruce, Kirby was meant to bomb. “It was a little alarming to suddenly be met with silence and coughs, but I felt like it was definitely appropriate,” Kirby tells Vanity Fair. “As much fun as it’s been to exhibit this man for all of his charm and magnetism, and for somebody who aligned himself so much with an idea around truth, there is another truth that we had to address.”
Kirby brings some of Lenny’s disarming mysticism to a Zoom call about the show’s final season. Petting “Big Homer,” the curly-haired dog that sits atop his lap, the actor apologizes for his “screwy” internet connection and admits he’s still carrying Lenny inside him. “He’s still lingering around, swirling,” Kirby says wistfully. “He’s been such a good friend to me that I don’t really feel like I have to abandon him. It’s sad, scary to say goodbye to something that does feel so destined to be.”
Destiny is also top of mind in Midge and Lenny’s final scene. Huddled together in the booth of a Chinese restaurant following their snowed-in tryst from the season 4 finale, she tries to master the art of an indecipherable autograph as he reads her a gushing fortune cookie message. “You mark my words: very soon, in the not-too-distant future, you will be paying for the Chinese food,” he says with reverent certainty. She’ll go on to perform a star-making set on the fictional Gordon Ford Show, and he’ll succumb further to the personal demons and substance abuse that have slowly begun to bleed into the Maisel universe.
But the series was never going to depict Lenny’s death on screen, cocreators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino told Vanity Fair. As Kirby says, “They never wanted to veer into anything that could be interpreted as ghoulish or just making a big thing out of something that really maybe wouldn’t feel earned in the context of the show we’ve made,” adding, “I totally appreciated that and agreed with it. But when I saw what they did, I thought it was really quite beautiful. It, to me, closed the ring on the story of Midge and Lenny.”
That aforementioned Chinese restaurant scene was the last Kirby filmed on the series, and although the day was “really sad,” it also brought joy. “In one of [Lenny’s] last interviews, there was a recording where he was asked: ‘Why do you do it?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s fun.’ The way he says it is so sincere,” Kirby explains. “I tried to abide by that idea on this job.”
Kirby’s performance on Maisel has earned him an Emmy for guest actor in a comedy series and a seal of approval from Kitty Bruce—Lenny’s daughter, who gets special acknowledgement in the finale’s credits. “When I was starting to do the research, it felt clear to me that he wasn’t pursuing a career that was designed to stir up trouble, or wreak havoc on the zeitgeist,” the actor says. “He was really somebody who wanted to do comedy, but for whatever reason, his way of being was problematic for certain institutions. Those institutions made it their mission to, if not destroy him, certainly hurt his reputation and his livelihood. And he had to meet that face-on.”
These days, Kirby is reflective about Lenny’s tenderness, as well as his tenacity. “I do keep coming back to a couple things he said around what it is to be a person. He is the man who said, ‘There are never enough I love yous.’ He’s the man who said, ‘I damn the people who would keep the lovers apart,’” Kirby recalls. “For all of his irreverent comedy and stuff he got in trouble for, to me, it feels like it was rooted in a real love for being alive and for people.”
In Maisel’s fifth and final season, Lenny appears just twice: in the finale, and in the premiere, where Midge runs into an especially disheveled-looking version of the comic at JFK. She vows to not “blow it” with her big break. “I’m gonna hold you to that,” Lenny replies.