Veteran actor Abe Vigoda’s friends think it’s funny that he’s not dead.
“Abe, was the ground cold when you got up this morning?” asked Stewie Stone, who was compéring a party for Even More Old Jewish Comedians at the Friars Club last Thursday evening. The book, by artist Drew Friedman, is the third in a series of caricatures of his Borscht Belt comic heroes. For the occasion, the midtown club’s Milton Berle room was full of elderly Jews and even older jokes.
“Milton Berle was famous,” Stone announced, “for the size of his cock. When he died, he left it to the Friars Club. So if you wanna see it, it’s on the second … third and fourth floors.” The crowd, sipping wine, laughed knowingly. They had heard this before. The wood paneled room hosted a mix of retired dentists and doctors; senior women sporting sparkly blazers, cloying perfume, and vibrant hair; comedy nerds seeking autographs; and a lot of quick-witted wisecrackers in their eighties and nineties.
Freier is “sucker” in Yiddish. In modern Hebrew, it’s considered a major insult: someone who can be tricked into doing almost anything, however self-defeating. The Friars Club hosts legendary roasts. “Do you think it’s intentional that the club’s name means ‘sucker’?” I asked Eddie Lawrence, a ninety-two-year-old whose comedy single, The Old Philosopher, climbed to the top of the Billboards in 1956. “I don’t speak much Yiddish, Bunkie; you’ll have to ask somebody older,” he quipped.
Lawrence had paired a trim cream suit with a bold, red-and-blue cravat. I remarked that he looked dapper. “It’s my scarf,” his wife, Marilyn, informed me. “He steals all my scarves.” Our conversation was regularly interrupted by people asking Lawrence to sign the book or to pose for photos. In the background, pigs in blankets, pizza bagels, and egg rolls circulated sporadically.
Comedians and partygoers spoke fondly about Borscht Belt hotels that closed decades ago: the Concord, Grossinger’s, The Nevele. Lawrence, at least, didn’t seem to lament their demise. “Remember, the whole world’s a stage,” said the nonagenarian renaissance man, who paints daily and is writing a novel on his Paris years, “and there’s still no work.”
“The club’s membership is dwindling,” said one member, Dr. Sanford Blaustein, a retired radiologist. “I come here every day,” he added, “I’m ninety-one years old—I mainly use the health club.” He isn’t a fan of the annual roasts. It’s the one night a year that the club, says Dr. Blaustein, “gets too packed.” Since 1950, the Friars Club has roasted such notables as Humphrey Bogart, Sammy Davis, Jr., Barbra Streisand, Bruce Willis, and Quentin Tarantino.
Al Jaffee, the ninety-year-old Mad magazine cartoonist, and comedian Gilbert Gottfried schmoozed on the sidelines. Gottfried famously told the joke “The Aristocrats” at the Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner in 2001. In the bawdy joke, which dates back to the years of vaudeville, a family of performers visits a talent agent, whereupon they engage in as many lewd acts as the joke-teller can imagine. “When a joke works, it just works—no matter how many times you hear it,” Gottfried said that night. He didn’t have to add that the gag itself need not be funny. The comedians honored in the Old Jewish Comedians series have been doing the same bits for generations.
“Alan King told me this joke,” said Stone. “Whenever I worked in Florida or anywhere, I told this joke: A very successful furrier has one daughter. His daughter’s his life. His daughter comes to him and says, ‘Daddy, I want to get married.’ The father says, ‘Terrific, this is what I live for!’ She says, ‘There’s a slight problem.’ ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘The boy’s a Hasid.’ The father replies, ‘Well, send him in tomorrow. I’ll look at him.’ The boy comes in the next day: black hat, peyes, tzitsis hanging, long black coat. ‘Young man, I understand you love my daughter,’ he says. ‘Yes, sir, with all my heart and soul.’ ‘Let me ask you a few questions. What do you do with your life?’ ‘I’ve been a professional student all my life. I study the Torah, the Talmud.’ ‘Well, how do you live?’ ‘I pray God will provide,’ replies the Hasid. ‘You wanna marry my daughter?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Who will support my daughter?’ ‘I will pray; God will provide.’ ‘What about children?’ ‘We’ll have a lot of children.’ ‘Who will support these children?’ ‘I will pray; God will provide.’ With that, the daughter walks in: ‘Daddy, do you like him?’ ‘Like him?’ he replies, ‘I love him! He thinks I’m God!’”
The crowd’s spirits were high, which seemed due to more than just the release of Friedman’s book, or even the emergence of more canapés. Guests were happy to meet their idols; the comics were happy to convene for an event that wasn’t a funeral. And the celebration of the comedians’ Jewishness was significant. The majority of performers in the book had changed their names for their careers, but Friedman’s book listed their original, invariably more ethnic names alongside each entry. Eddie Lawrence was Lawrence Eisler, Jack Benny once again Benjamin Kubelsky. Now, for posterity, the Yiddish punim is reunited with its Jewish surname.
“I’m so proud to be in this book,” Stone said, “because the worst curse in show business, when we all started, the first thing you were told was ‘Don’t be too Jewish. Don’t be proud of your ethnic background. Don’t mention it onstage.’ So if a New York comedian would come to Las Vegas, they would say, ‘Borscht Belt comedian comes to Las Vegas.’ That meant: Jew was in town.”
Thirty years ago, it was widely reported that Vigoda, who’s now ninety, was dead. The comics in the room represented the last of a generation that’s close to extinction. They addressed the issue of loss in time-honored fashion. “An old Jewish couple,” said Stone, “are at the doctor’s. The doctor’s nurse comes out and says, ‘Mrs. Feinstein, you’re next.’ She goes in and the husband is waiting outside. During the examination, in conversation, the doctor asks Mrs. Feinstein: ‘Do you and your husband have intercourse?’ She has a blank look on her face. She says, ‘Wait a second,’ and sticks her head out of the examination room, into the waiting room. She yells, ‘Sam, do we have intercourse?’ and Sam says, ‘No, we got Blue Cross. I told ya!’”
Daniel Herbert is a writer living in Brooklyn.