Gut Check: Jackie Gutfeld

I first met my mom on September 12th, 1964, in a room at Mills Hospital in San Mateo, California. I have no memory of it, but I can imagine no better person to welcome a fearful little ball of fury into the world. I’m sure there was a lot of screaming. Her smile made it okay.

I am a Mama’s Boy, a description often viewed as disparaging, but it is not. It is a compliment—any boy who is not a mama’s boy is either an evil space alien, or Lizzie Borden. A mama’s boy is a manifestation and consequence of something great: a great mother.

My mom had (I hate the past tense, but it’s part of life, and death) been my biggest supporter since I first scribbled a short story about Godzilla-like creatures back in the first grade. My first piece of fiction was about a creature coming over a hill like a charging storm—and how terrifying and fantastic that might be to the fleeing citizens.

She saw I had an active imagination and a keen desire to express it—and gently but enthusiastically encouraged me to skip down that path. She was not a stage mom, one of those overbearing misery machines that use their sullen brats to achieve what they did not in life. Instead, this sweet, sarcastic woman was a cheerleader and friend who took great satisfaction in watching me create things that made me, and her, laugh.

When I would be home from grade school with a cold or the flu, it was the same ritual: my mother would go to the Humphrey’s Market on 25th Avenue and pick up things for me to read. And she would also make me milk shakes. Most moms would get comic books—stuff like Scrooge McDuck and Richie Rich (we’re talking 1970 here). 

My mom would bring me Mad Magazine—a revolutionary publication that contained a universe of intriguing, mischievous characters—all operating as avenues to laugh at adults. It was not a comic book; it was a way of looking at the world. And my mother gave that to me. She looked at the world with weary eyes, for it wasn’t easy raising four kids—three daughters and a son—when your husband has cancer, for pretty much ever. She had her hands full, and she tried to keep the worst part of the experience from all of us. When my dad died, she lost her husband, but also that life that every couple dreams of: growing old together, holding hands on beaches, golfing on peninsulas. Her friends had that. She had us.

Later, when I was a teen, she started buying me National Lampoon, probably not aware that there were topless women and jokes about penises permeating the pages. She just sensed it might be something that I would like, and I did. It was there I discovered PJ O’Rourke’s writings—his endlessly long and funny editorials I only half-understood—along with so many other ridiculously funny people. Mad and Natlamp were the magazines that millions of kids like me kept in stacks in the closet. You didn’t throw them out, even if you never read them again.

My mom pushed me to read and write, and as I took an interest in political writing, so did she—perhaps to keep up with my interests. We shared books that I would regularly steal from the American Spectator mail room (my first job), sending them home to her when I was done. It’s been 25 years, and those books still lounge in piles around her home, dusty and dog-eared. I used to send her copies of funny pictures I found in medical textbooks. I was really the inventor of the Internet.

Where my career twisted, my mother was always there. Literally, I used her brain and her humor in every job.

At Men's Health, she provided me with tips I used in my monthly “to-do” list column in the front of that ab-infested rag. How to clean a kitchen? Start from the top down. It makes sense, since dirt obeys gravity.

Not that she was very good at it herself. Mice could become morbidly obese off the crumbs around the dinner table. She is still the only person I know who made coffee without using a filter. Her coffee maker was a campfire tin.

As editor of Stuff Magazine, I gave her her own column (“Ask Greg’s Mom”), which easily received by far the most mail of any part of the magazine. It began as a column, wherein I transcribed phone messages she left on my answering machine. They were pleasant, meandering, and odd. She would be critical of the magazine: the girls wore too little clothes, the girls need to wear more clothes, those girls—why do they always have to be bending over?

That morphed into an advice column where she frankly told readers how to deal with relationship quagmires. When any man wrote in about commitment issues, she would tell them to grow up. She would dismiss their concerns as marginal compared to the experiences of her generation.

The most frequently asked question I received by people on the street was never about the starlet on the cover of Stuff or the sports dude in the back; it was “Is that really your mother?” Yes, it was. She is real, and really does say those things. You’re welcome.

When I got to Red Eye, she became our “senior correspondent,” where she would talk about stuff that happened that day via the phone—often while opening and closing the front door to strangers, or admonishing me over my recent behavior on a show. She really was the star of that show for the first three years—on every night until the appearances started to become fewer, due to her diminished health. She was responsible for some of the most unpredictable, real moments of truth and humor on that program—but I say that because I’m her son. And also because it’s true.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but doing the show made her very nervous. She didn’t look forward to it, even though she did great. She would prepare by reading up on stories, and sometimes she would write little jokes. This is exactly what I do on The Five. So weird, how similar we were. I dread television, up to the pointwhere  I am on it, and feel great afterward. This is how my mom felt, too; I just never realized it.

I would call my mom at night on the way home from work, to get a review of the shows. She would always answer the phone with “what’s cookin?” and we’d talk about how the program went. She didn’t like the sex stuff or gross humor and so on. She would sometimes criticize the dresses the girls wore as too short. She was 89, after all.

I dedicated my first book to her—and also the latest. I do this because I know that none of my work would have been possible without my mother’s love and support. I am hopelessly sad that she is gone—because I could never really imagine her not being here, watching me, her son, work. I did Red Eye, and The Five, and other stuff—with her watching me, in mind. It seems kinda pointless, in my sad head and heart, to continue showing off (which is what doing TV is) if your audience has moved on. And she was my audience. Maybe they have cable wherever she is.

The day that my mom died, she received her driver’s renewal notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles. She would have found that hysterical. Hopefully, somewhere she is laughing.

 

Jackie Gutfeld, RIP. May 24, 2014


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