The other night I did a show at the New York Friars Club. The Friars do a lot of shows for a lot of good causes: to raise school tuition for underprivileged kids in the arts, for charities that help disabled kids, for our returning heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan in the Wounded Warriors Project. I recently had the tremendous honor of performing my stand up act for United States Marines in the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Apparently my act is very motivational – one lance corporal told me afterwards that during my act several marines actually left the theater and volunteered to go back to combat.
The show we did at the club the other night was for an equally momentous, but slightly less altruistic, purpose: it was Mickey Freeman’s birthday. Mickey is an octogenarian, possibly nonagenarian, borscht belt comedian, forever beloved as Private Zimmerman on Phil Silver’s old “Sgt Bilko” show. Mickey is a delightful little guy, if he’s even five foot tall he’s a very short five foot tall, and he can still reel off the rapid-fire classic one liners like a comedy machine (“I worked one hotel that was such a dump, the beds were unmade on the postcard!”). Everybody loves Mickey, and the show was a classic Friars affair: great older comics (like Eddie Lawrence, The Ol’ Philosopher: “What’s the matter, Bunky? Life getting you down?”) mixed in with comics like Ross Bennett, Jackie the Jokeman Martling, and those like me who are, if not quite young, are at least younger. With the younger Friars, our prostates are only slightly enlarged.
It was a purely fun show business night. No agenda, no politics, no axe to grind, just shtick. I roasted Mickey (“Mickey’s got a movie coming out this summer with Freddy Roman. It’s a western. It’s called Brokeback Catskill Mountain. They play two aging homosexual Jewish cowboys…”). Ross Bennett did a hilarious routine about how he’s reached the point of middle age where, “…you make noises you don’t want to make, then you make noises after the noises…I sit in a chair, I grunt. Then comes the sigh after the grunt….” Jackie Martling did what Jackie Martling does: he got laughs and told old jokes.
Mickey was wonderful, and having Eddie Lawrence on the bill was a surprise kick for everyone (“What’s the matter, Bunky? You say your petite Aunt Minnie fell into the discount rack at TJ Maxx and was sold for $3.99? Well, lift yourself up! Take a walk in the sun! And never give up, never give up that ship!”). The other big surprise was a return to the stage of a comedy act from the 70’s that hadn’t performed in ages (let’s just call this person: 70’s Comedy Act) got up, was very funny, and did a variation on the type of shtick that 70’s Comedy Act was known for on Merv and Mike: funny, but safe. Nothing political, nothing edgy, just funny.
After the show I approached 70’s Comedy Act to say what a kick it was for me to be on the same bill. That’s when I found out that 70’s Comedy Act was stuck in the 70’s in more ways than one. The following is an annotated verbatim transcript.
DAVE KONIG: It was really great to see you up there!
70’s COMEDY ACT: Really? Why?
DAVE KONIG: Well, I was a fan going back to the days when you were on Merv and Mike.
70’s COMEDY ACT: Uh, huh. I hate this place!
DAVE KONIG: Okay.
70’s COMEDY ACT: The Catskills are dead! You guys are young – don’t you know that? The Catskills are dead!
(TRANSLATION: 70’s Comedy Act is letting me know that my act was not edgy enough, didn’t make a statement, was too jokey, too “Catskills.” Not hip. Squaresville.)
DAVE KONIG: Okay.
70’s COMEDY ACT: Sarah Silverman wouldn’t set foot in this place!
(TRANSLATION: Sarah Silverman is the epitome of hip. Dave Konig is not. Dave Konig is a sap.)
DAVE KONIG: Okay.
70’s COMEDY ACT: And I love Sarah Silverman!
(TRANSLATION: And therefore, I, 70’s Comedy Act, am hip by proxy. Unlike Dave Konig, who is not hip by proxy or in any other way.)
DAVE KONIG: Okay.
70’s COMEDY ACT: What’s the matter, you don’t love Sarah Silverman!?!
(TRANSLATION: Because, mathematically, the measure of a man’s worth is roughly equivalent to the intensity of his appreciation for the comedy of Sarah Silverman.)
DAVE KONIG: I have been known to appreciate the ribald gags and bawdy humor of Miss Silverman.
70’s COMEDY ACT: Harumph!
Then 70’s Comedy Act took leave of hopelessly unhip Dave Konig. While safe and non political on the stage (70’s Comedy Act is not the late George Carlin or the late Richard Pryor or Mort Sahl or Dick Gregory or the late Lenny Bruce…trust me, 70’s Comedy Act’s act is as controversial as Red Skelton), off the stage, 70’s Comedy Act is a firebrand, a bomb thrower, a feisty, angry, radical…true believer. And to the true believer, nothing’s funny – not even comedy.
The true believer sees a great Utopia off in the distance, and everything – everything – is either taking us closer or further away from that Utopia. Nothing escapes the attention of the True Believer: that piece of paper you could recycle, that lump of garbage you should be composting, that trans fat you shouldn’t be eating, that patriotic tax you should be paying, that handicapped parking space you shouldn’t be parking in, that radio show you shouldn’t be listening to, that joke you should – or should not – be making. It is a tremendous, all encompassing, time consuming obsession to be the arbiter of everything that either takes us closer to – or further away from – Utopia every minute of every day. It’s exhausting!
No wonder True Believers like 70’s Comedy Act have no sense of humor.
There’s all kinds of jokes, There’s great jokes that make great political points (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin), there’s great jokes that are steeped in borscht (Mickey, Freddy, Stewie, Jackie and many other comics whose names end in “ie” or “y”), there’s even great jokes about poop (Sarah Silverman). America is a great, big country – loaded with trans fats. There’s room for all kinds of jokes.
True Believers of America: lighten up! Sometimes a joke is just a joke.