Friday, January 12, 2007

The Spoiler: Part 4 -- The bar mitzvah

The bar mitzvah was in Great Neck, at the Hotel Fontainebleau. Its banquet halls resembled a Great Neck furrier’s version of the court of Louis XIV. You know, the Palais de Versailles meets Zabar’s. The bartenders were dressed like footmen and courtiers, the coat-check girls like saucy Frenchmaids, and the waitresses like Marie Antoinette. Let them eat lox.

It got weirder. You see, there had been a scheduling mix-up and the banquet hall that the bar mitzvites thought they had reserved had been given over to a bar mitzvah party of Reform Jews. The Orthodox Jews had retreated to an upstairs suite and were in foul temper when I arrived – especially when I asked the father of the bar mitzvah’ed boy, a hulking man with huge sweat stains that started under his arms and spread toward his midsection, like two converging bodies of water, and who looked like the first Orthodox professional wrestler – “The Golem” – and whose family owned a discount electronics store, where the event would be held.


“Here? In the hotel”

“No. Right here.” And he patted one of the twin beds in his half of the suite.

“They expelled us,” muttered the boy’s mother.

“For two thousand years, they’ve been expelling us. They expelled us
from the temple. From Egypt. Where else did they expel us, Harry?” asked
another older woman, maybe the boy’s aunt.

“From the Louis the Fourteenth Room,” said Harry.

“I can’t do my act on a bed,” I said. “I need a stage, a microphone, lights.”

“You want to get paid? Then you’ll do it where I tell you. If I say do it sitting on the toilet – ”

“Alright, Mendel,” said the Golem’s spouse.

“All the world, isn’t it a stage?” the Golem said, tilting his giant head at me.
I relented and edged myself onto the bed.

“O.K., everybody, it’s time for the comedian,” announced the Golem, in a loud voice that was threatening to me while suggesting to them that I was another punishment the Jews had to endure.

I sat down on the bed. About half the crowd – there had to have been a hundred people – squeezed into the suite, while the rest spilled out into the corridor.

And for the next half hour, I did my act – all my acts, and even parts of other comic’s acts. A few jokes that played on Arab stereotypes that I cribbed from a Pakistani comic named Aladdin, some Jehovah’s Witnesses material from a comic who’d grown up in that cult. I even stole Woody Allen’s line about having his marriage performed by a rabbi who was so Reformed, he was a Nazi.

The whole time, the Golem trained his head on me like it was a loaded cannon. And nobody said a word – except for a couple of the older kids, who chuckled at some of Guy’s gobbledygook lines and immediately were shushed by their elders. As if they were in schul.

It was worse than any club bombing. It was more like hostage comedy. Two thoughts merged in my mind:

1) I need to get out of this room. I thought about dashing for the window and shuttling down the fire escape, except that there was none outside the room and anyway the window was blocked by a minyan of bearded men in frock coats and wide-brimmed hats; and

2) Any career has got to be better than this. Even operating a “hot nuts” stand that I could just park on a street corner most of the time, except during the summer, when I would do the ethnic street fair circuit. No one would judge me or my hot nuts, which New Yorkers expect to be inedible, if not nauseating.

By the time I’d reached the 25-minute mark, I had run out of inspiration and realized that I should end with some remarks about Joshua, the bar mitzvah boy.

“Joshua, I’d like to acknowledge you on your big day.”

Some scattered applause.

“They say today you are a man.”

More applause.

“Worst decision you’ll ever make.”

“Thirty minutes!” bellowed the Golem, pointing to his watch. “It’s time to settle.” He beckoned me out into the corridor where, instead of the two hundred in cash I was expecting, he gave me discount coupons “worth two hundred” at his electronics store in Crown Heights. “But no iPods.”

When I got home I noticed that the coupons were six months past their expiration date. I never tried to redeem them.

For most comics, this would’ve been just another bomb, something they could turn into a routine or at least use when they traded war stories with other comics – one of our favorite pastimes.

But for me it went deeper. I had been dissatisfied with the business for a long time. The whole comedy thing felt stale, phony, contrived. Then I had a revelation: It was. I mean, the whole idea of going somewhere expecting to be entertained, and telling jokes to a roomful of people expecting you to tell jokes, well that goes against any real definition of wit, which is all about spontaneity. A joke in a comedy club was about as surprising a cum shot in “Anal Intruders.” (Not just in the original, but any of the series.)

I mean, what was separating me from those trained bears on roller skates you used to see on the “The Ed Sullivan Show”?

Those bears could skate, is what.

Now, some of the other comics, when I shared these thoughts, would get all scornful. It was all about “paying dues,” and if I didn’t want to do that, I should get out of the business. Which was my point. Many of these guys had been dues-payers for ten years or longer. I peered into my future and saw myself doing my act at “Mostly Magic” at 1 a.m. in front of a bunch of other comics, then grabbing a gyro at Mahmoud’s before taking the train back to Bensonhurst, where I’d be living with my mother.

Except my mother, who was from Jersey, was living in a retirement home adjacent to an Indian casino in Michigan. Hated the heat and went north while all her friends turned tail south. But that’s another story.

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