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Christmas with comics: Gift wraps, potatoes and death

clip image004Every holiday season a half dozen comics, who could only have a home cooked meal if their left over diner food burned in a house fire, would wake up before sunset and travel to New Jersey for a holiday dinner at my parent’s house.  Several of the comics you may not have heard of unless you’ve read my memoir, Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs, in hardcover, softcover and ebooks; a wonderful holiday read full of passion and warmth that… Ok I’m pulling a Gilbert Gottfried, here and doing a shameless plug.  I once did an interview with Gilbert for a magazine. 

He cared so deeply about his image he told me, “You know me, make it up, just make sure you mention my new book,” which I did several times in the first few sentences.  Incidentally Gilbert was often one of those comics who came to my parents house, along with Joe Piscopo, Richard Morris, Steve Mittleman, Mark Schiff, Lenny Maxwell, Bobby Kelton, Buddy Mantia, and of course, my most frequent guest, Larry David. 

Did I mention that he was featured prominently in my memoir Stand… Sorry, even Gilbert wouldn’t self promote this shamelessly.  Ok, maybe he would.  In fact he’s asked me to promote his book, “Rubber Balls and Liquor,” in this piece, but I hung up on him.  I should have never accepted his collect call. 

            Around noon, which for us was dawn, we’d load up my 68 Chevy Impala that had more body rot than a horde of starving zombies that only fed off of starving comics.  I always left my car parked on East 73th Street, sometimes for whole weeks at a time, until a manhole cover blew through a parked vehicle and almost ironically took off the head of a hooker, which forced the police to take notice of a string of cars caked in road dust and concealed with black garbage bags.  After removing the debris and packing in the comics from the east side, I’d drive across town and pick up Larry David, whose eyes by then had adjusted enough to the light so every few hundred feet he’d find something on our trip to complain about.  LD complaining was like listening to poetry for the neurotic.  His rhythmic nitpicking sparked out of his mouth, slapping us awake and then acted like a comic contagion, so in a matter of minutes there was a chorus of whining that drowned out my exploding exhaust system.

My mother would have a rough estimate of who was coming, since comics can and will change their mind before they can finish interrupting each other.  Usually, at the table, along with the comics, were my mom (when she actually sat), my father, grandmother, Dr. Davis (the doctor my mom worked for) his wife, Ruth, my great uncle John and my grandfather, who was absent this particular year because he was in the hospital, although he almost made it home. The night before my ex-mobster grandfather tried to break out of Holy Name Hospital when he dreamt that he was on the electric chair, and ripped all the tubes out his body and tried to take his roommate hostage.  Luckily, his roommate woke up from his dream, where he was dreaming that he was being taken hostage, and woke my grandfather up before he tossed him and his heart monitor out the window.  Well, that’s how the family tells the story, which means me, since they’re all deceased and haven’t returned to refute my fictional tale.

At one holiday dinner all the regulars were there along with my uncle Mike who, like my grandfather, belonged to another (tightly wound, as in piano wire) family.  Joe Piscopo, (before SNL) was acting in a play in New York City.  The writer apparently stole two lines that were back to back in my act and foolishly put them in that same order in his play.  Joe barely finished telling me when a fiery debate erupted between my uncle Mike and my grandfather—far more serious than any occurring between comics at a nickel-dime poker game.  My grandfather insisted he make the phone call to have the guy’s legs broken; my uncle Mike said his pal would break the joke-thief’s hands - which was more appropriate since he’s a writer.  Of course my grandfather countered that his thug would break all the writer’s extremities. My uncle upped the anti and offered to also scramble his brains, so he couldn’t remember anyone else’s jokes or even his own.  The debate finally ended when Joe jumped in between them as their argument evolved to whose business associate had the more powerful wood chipper.  Joe told them he’d tell the author to take the jokes out, and if that didn’t work they could divide the writer up any way they wanted. 

Normally the dinner would start with antipasto and Larry David and Len Maxwell verbally assaulting each other, which grew louder and more hateful and more hysterical with each course.  Angry wit is always the funniest.  On one Christmas Len Maxwell gave an already balding LD a gift wrapped box, which nudged LD into a tirade about gift–wrapping, “There’s always so much paper. I hate this paper. This holiday is all about the garbage. The cardboard and paper—it’s all a big pile of garbage!  Pretty soon there are clumps of paper everywhere! It sticks to your fingers and your shoes! And the stupid colors! Are the colors supposed to me happy! What about the bows?  Now, I’m not supposed to see how cheap a present is?” Of course, I’m liberally paraphrasing from years of LD’s holiday outbursts.  LD’s rage continued for another five minutes before he calmed down and reluctantly tore open the gift.  Inside was a wig - and a note that said that it was made from Larry’s hair which had been scraped off the Improvisation’s floor.  LD’s, reaction surprised me.  He didn’t lose his temper, or stomp out of the room, nope, he laughed.  When Larry laughs it starts inward and then erupts, until the laugh retreats and pulls you in like LD is actually connected to humanity.  As soon as Larry gained his equilibrium the battle jumped to a higher more caustic level of insults.  This went on every holiday for several years.  But the highlight of the night was always my mom’s roasted potatoes, which surrounded the turkey, like a golden brown halo of delectable starch.  My mom would always pick out a few of the crispier ones for Larry and, like always, he found a unique ways of raving about them.  LD loved them so much that he included them in an episode of Seinfeld crediting George’s mother as the cook.

The spirited repartee would last until my neighbor Lou Caparaso joined us for desert and handed out cigars.  Comics, even the non-smoking one’s like myself, for some reason enjoy cigars.  Was it because of Groucho? Was it because it made us appear manlier, or was it because it was a way to exhale without worrying if we had bad breath?

Shortly afterwards, Richard Morris, a comic who had his own car, would leave first and drive most of the guys home, usually leaving me to drive back with Larry David, Bobby Kelton ,or Steve Mittleman, or all three.  On this occasion only Larry David and myself remained.  LD debated about going back early but that would mean he wouldn’t get an extra large plastic container full of oven roasted potatoes.  Gilbert usually brought his own doggie bag, which he continuously filled all day long – no chunk of food ever reached the floor or my dog.  Usually, waiting to go back with me was a no brainer for LD but this time it meant he had to come with me to visit my grandfather at the hospital on the way into the city.   

To Larry, an authentic hypochondriac/germ-a-phoebe, hospitals were savage terrain, filled with microscopic demons ready to burrow into every paw, and to travel freely throughout his body, stopping at key points to gather and then attack with an all out assault on his defenseless organs.  He walked through the halls holding his hands up to shield either side of his face so he couldn’t accidently glance into a hospital room and draw the attention of any lurking viruses, or microorganisms, or anti-sematic plagues (after all this was a Catholic hospital). 

When we arrived at my grandfather’s room he was sitting up and happy to see us both.  Larry, as terrified as he was, joked about the tubes and machines attached to my grandfather, while he kept at a safe distance fearing that he’d be pulled in and strangled by a lunatic hose waiting just for him.  LD, at some point, calmed down and we talked about the Yankees and my mom’s potatoes; LD voicing his concern about getting them refrigerated in time to maintain their maximum taste, and then asking how long it would it take unrefrigerated potatoes to turn to poison. 

The visit lasted all of twenty minutes, I’m sure LD felt as if he’d eaten his last meal and was on death row.  As we were about to leave I could see that LD was even more terrified of his journey out of the hospital.  He looked like he was about to face a drunken audience from the outer boroughs of New York, where driving in the passenger lane required two dead bodies in the trunk.   We left the hospital as we came, LD his face frozen in dread, eyes locked on the exit, only now his hands were hiding his entire head.  I’d seen him in this state several times, usually it’s accompanied with heavy breathing and anger clamped to a tortured expression, this was especially the case after I told him that his older brother was much younger looking.  He paced around the Green Kitchen Diner, circling, inhaling and exhaling so loud and deliberate, it was like an asthmatic serial killer trying to breathe through tiny holes in a leather mask, scaring the patrons to turn away and to actually look at what they were eating.  I think some of them even threw caution to the wind and swallowed.  Of course, as usual his fury ended when our food arrived, with LD sitting down now absorbed in monumental menu controversy, convinced he had made the wrong choice and everyone else in the diner had ordered much better than him, or he had finally (in his life) made the appropriate food choice for that day and time of night which perfectly supplemented his earlier meals.

I dropped LD off across town, after discussing the possibility of him dying someday, possibly even that night, from his perilous trip through the hospital.  We also wondered why hospital rooms were not sealed and visitors were not given the choice of changing into germ-proof suits and if so, what would the rental fee be, where would they be sent for cleaning, and who would check to see if any seems leaked etc.  You get my long neurotic drift.

As soon as I arrived in my apartment, before I could even turn on Sports Center, I received a phone call from my mother telling me that my grandfather had passed away.  Of course, it was a shock, but before I could even deal with that pain, I was also consumed by two horrific and possibly more excruciating thoughts: that Larry would be one of the last people my grandfather saw in life, and that somehow LD’s mere presence had excited and inspired a legion of diseased cells to whack my grandfather in order to get to Larry!  One thing I didn’t do that night was call Larry to tell him of my grandfather’s demise for fear of scaring him to death.

Many people may feel that this is not exactly a happy, effusive, holiday story, but to me it is actually a fond tale of a special time of year that touches both spectrums of emotions.  Sure, there’s the pain of my grandfather’s death, but it’s also mixed with memories of laughter and comforting feelings of family, friends, and the wonderful camaraderie that existed between comics, not to mention the longing for my mom’s potatoes by more than just Larry.  But beyond that, what really strikes an emotional (if not an unbelievable) chord was LD visiting my grandfather, knowing all the neurotic impulses, phobias and the overwhelming fear of his own fragile mortality he had to overcome.  It’s a potent reminder of the depth of friendships we were able to forge and that still linger in our silly souls.  

I was just at a comic’s reunion of sorts, a screening of my friends,’ Mike Rowe’s and Zoe Friedman’s, terrific documentary about the Improvisation,  “Behind the Brick Wall. ” For a few hours, both watching the film, and at the party, I felt like I was within in the glow of a red brick hearth, sharing stories, laughs, stiff comic embraces and of course, standing in the midst of a cross fire of insults.  We even joked about those of us who passed, which is our way of showing love or lu… lu… lu... as LD would stammer in his act.  At the end of the night, we added a modest addition to our Improvisation archives, everyone signed my book, the soft cover version of “Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs, which is also available in hard cover and ebook.  A wonderful…  Ok, I’ll stop.  And, no, Gilbert I will not mention your book again!  Happy Holidays!

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+1 #1 Suzy 2013-12-18 23:30
The day I yelled and insulted LD on the phone was the reason he put me on Curb. We'd worked together on a Lifetime show and he wouldn't cut me a BREAK on it. So I spent an hour regaling him with all the hateful things he did to me and he laughed his ass off. An hour later Bob Weide called me and said LD had bumped someone in a scene to put me in. And then during the scene he called me an asshole.

See all this in MY BOOK, Celebrity sTalker, on Amazon. (hat tip to Gilbert.)

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