In late November on a Sunday morning my mother burned something she was cooking and the smoke alarm went off. And the joke was there – right there – in the air like a piece of low-hanging, very ripe fruit. And I ran up to my room and shut the door and started writing:
Her cooking. Her cooking is so bad – in the kitchen – in our kitchen we haven’t got a timer –
So, she uses the smoke alarm.
And there it was: a joke. A real joke! It felt like a joke. Smelled like a joke. Looked like a joke. A kid’s joke. A parents joke. It was the first joke I’d written that felt finished, self-contained, not an idea or a fragment – something only high school boys would think was funny. It felt like a joke that a real comedy writer would write. A real stand-up would tell. It almost felt like I’d bought the thing. And all because my mother had burned something in the kitchen.
And what the hell, it was true. She really was a lousy cook. I mean, you couldn’t identify half the stuff she made – mixing meat and cottage cheese and ketchup and pineapple. Rock hard hamburgers, bony chicken, gristly steak. And forget anything ethnic. It had never occurred to me that my mother was such a bad cook. But now – it was staring me in the face.
Okay, there was no story, no build. It was just a one-liner. But so what? A good joke was a good joke, right?
Thursday night’s crowd at the eye confirmed it. After two months, it was the single biggest laugh I’d gotten. And suddenly my act was all about my parents. Mom’s cooking. Mom’s driving. Trying to get Dad to buy me a car. Things the two of them said that didn’t make sense. Clichés about parents, grandparents. Sure, I still did other stuff – commercials, school, camp. But after smoke alarm – nothing killed more than bits about my family.
My mom’s a terrible cook. She made steak the other day. I said, ‘make mine rare.’ To my mother ‘rare’ means ‘unique.’ It came back burnt and covered with glue.
My mother’s an awful driver. She’s into parking by sound.
How could things get better? Here I was telling strangers how screwed-up my parents were –
No, really – she does burn all the food – I’m not being funny – I haven’t eaten in weeks. Why are you laughing?
– and they were eager to hear about it. It was liberating. The power unequivocal. Where else could I openly criticize my parents and be encouraged! Rewarded, even! And as for the butt of my jokes? My mother was thrilled. People came up to her at parties, at her bookstore. She became a mini-celebrity.
“I am a terrible cook! And I can’t double-park! That’s where he gets it from! He wouldn’t have an act without me!”
The first week of December my father and I traveled east to do college admissions interviews. My expectations were mixed: low because of my grades, upbeat because of the stand-up, and a decent return on my SATs. I was shooting for artsier schools – New York University and Sarah Lawrence College – where I imagined my performing would have more weight. The trip was only my third plane ride ever, and New York, in December, was cold, grimy, and amphetemized. My father and I stayed in a drafty room at the Gramercy Park Hotel and I took notes constantly. If I paid attention I could talk about the trip for weeks.
Dad washes contact lens in tea at Mama Leone’s. Wears it again. Ugh.
Went to Lindy’s. Thought I’d try something other than cheesecake, so I ordered sweetbreads. They served me beef pancreas.
My interview at NYU went poorly. They were snobbier than I’d expected for this famous melting pot school and weren’t that impressed with my extra-curriculars. But whatever. Here I was riding high on my little radio show and back-woods Podunk comedy routine and this great New York school that Woody flunked out of couldn’t give a shit.
Outside, Washington Square Park teemed with homeless people and I wondered why they stayed here, with the cold and wind and filth. Why not go to Florida or Hawaii and bask in the sun? We had homeless in Cincinnati, but not like this. Not everywhere you looked. Would it be better to be homeless in Cinti, with its freezing, record snowstorms? At least in New York, I supposed, you could fade into an endless sea of derelicts and lose yourself.
Everything in New York is Jewish. Food, people, the dogs. Have you ever seen a Jewish dog? They go: Roocha Roocha!
What excited me most about New York, though, was the clubs. Even in Cincinnati, we knew about the Improvisation, Dangerfield’s, and Catch a Rising Star. Practically every famous, modern-day stand-up had gotten their start, or at least performed, at Catch and the Improv.
The Improv was smoke-filled and cramped, but nevertheless seemed majestic to me. The walls were adorned with eight-by-tens of every name comic in existence, and the club permeated with New York street attitude the moment you walked in. Not the casual, comfy, good ole boys of Cinti. The eye comics were bush league next to the NY Yankee comics of these clubs: Mark Schiff, Paul Provenza, Steve Mittleman, and others; tough, hardened Italians and Jews – even the ones who weren’t Italian and Jewish. These were no-bullshit young guys in suits with set acts, set shtick. They’d fought for their five-minute, two a.m. spots against hundreds of other NY wannabes to be the next Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Robert Klein. These comics thrived on the naked caffeine in the ether, channeling it into their acts. Hostile, confident, angry, edgy. Funny. And if they came across laid back for even a few seconds it would soon be apparent that this was calculated to disarm the audience, lull them into a false sense of security, then snare them with a payoff. These were comedy survivalists. No wonder I liked them so much.
Like a rapt foreign exchange student, I watched and studied, inspired. And I felt insulated, suddenly, watching comics who were American, who spoke English and whose jokes I mostly understood, but who otherwise seemed to live on a planet separate from mine, from what I was familiar with.
Mark Schiff, a tough, young guy – mid-20s – with deep sunken eyes and a Huntz Hall attitude, emceed.
One time my mother said to me, ‘Mark, I am not your maid!’ I said, ‘you are my maid. Go make me a sandwich.’ She said, ‘wait till I tell your father!’ He said, ‘sounds like a good idea, go make me one, too!’
Steve Mittleman, a tall, laid-back doughboy – but no less aggressive in his own way – played off his own shapelessness.
You may have noticed – I have no chin.
An immaculate, self-deprecating performer, he took his time. Talked about his family, dating, did a long baseball routine. Even here, on the other side of the world, the comics were talking about the same things we were talking about in Cinti: drugs, food, sports, family.
I was playing Scrabble the other day with my identical twin sister. Boy is she ugly!
He mimicked his sister, twisting back and forth, in an annoying, nyah-nyah, sing-song. The whole bit was effortless, immaculately constructed, perfectly timed. The crowd ate it out of his hands.
Returning home, Cincinnati had never seemed so laid back, so peaceful. I had been gone from d.w. eye over a week now, but my return was hailed by “Eeey! Jailbait!” I was excited to be home, because that’s what the eye felt like now. And I’d brought back a notebook full of bits.
New York cabbies are crazy. To them, the color red means blitz.
New York is like the balls of America – it’s my favorite place, but it’s easy to get hurt.