You can yell at your mom and throw your dad against a tree, but there are certain things y’just can’t say to your grandparents. “Hey Gramma – pound salt up your ass!” Y’can’t say that.
One time, my father, thinking that my grandmother Alice should’ve minded her business about something, said:
Oh, just tell her to pound salt up her ass
It wasn’t that it was a funny line when he said it – but it was such a strong, clear image and it stuck in my head. I’d never heard the expression before, but it fell out of his mouth so naturally like something he – or friends from his youth? – boy scouts? – had said all the time. And I really wanted to understand, to comprehend it. I imagined this old, bent over, gray-haired woman – possibly the sweetest woman I knew in my life – and this bag of – what – salt? A pound bag? No, the idea was to take the bag – the salt – and pound it – the salt – up her ass. So – so – she would be, I guess, squatting – and – or was it more like bread? Kneading and pounding the bread – but the salt – and –
The other reason I loved the line was because it was one of those rare moments where my Dad was really trying to share something with me, no matter how inappropriate or bizarre.
So I put the line in my act even though, really, I had no idea what I was saying.
And, of course, it got laughs.
The first week of December my father and I traveled east – to Boston and New York – so I could do college admissions interviews. My expectations were mixed: low because of my grades, upbeat because of the radio and stand-up, and a decent return on my SAT scores. I was shooting for artsier schools – Hampshire College, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College – where I imagined the performing would have more weight.
The only close-to-home school I’d interviewed with was Miami University in Oxford, Ohio – a party school with a good writing program. (P.J. O’Rourke, the great Editor-in-Chief of National Lampoon, had gone there.) As an Ohio resident they had to let me in but could still refuse me housing for the first year, and commuting from home every morning seemed a lousy prospect.
University of Cincinnati, on the other hand, couldn’t refuse me housing, but it was a poor last resort and too removed from my long-term goal of getting as far as humanly possible from Cincinnati, Wyoming, and my parent’s house.
The trip east was only my second plane ride ever. Boston was freezing, and New York, in December, was cold, windy, and grimy. Everywhere looked like the seedy, 24-hour 42nd Street I’d read about in the New York magazines in Dr. Weiss’ waiting room: sleepless, run down, itchy, exciting. 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 probably 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 had flunked out of couldn’t give a shit. Well, maybe I’d go to UC after all.
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!
Sarah Lawrence went better. The recruiter wasn’t thrilled by my grades either – but at least he wanted to hear the tapes of my act. Also, it was expensive. UC or Miami would only be a fraction of the cost of Sarah Lawrence. But if it was a deciding factor with Dad he wasn’t letting on.
What excited me most about New York, though, were the clubs. Even in Cincinnati, we knew about the world’s most famous comedy clubs: the Improvisation, Dangerfield’s, Catch a Rising Star. Practically every famous, modern-day stand-up had gotten their start, or at least performed, at Catch and the Improv.
Despite being smoke-filled and cramped, the Improv 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 actually 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 New York 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.
The audience was different, too. Not the laid back, $5-no-drink-minimum Clifton crowd. These were New Yorkers and international tourists paying $20-35 a head with a two-drink minimum. And the room was packed.
And Dad? He was nonplussed. Sure, he thought they were funny. But comedians were supposed to be funny, right? He wasn’t in awe like I was. Or maybe he was simply more concerned with the cover charge.
Like a rapt foreign exchange student, I watched and studied, inspired. I felt insulated, suddenly, like I lived somewhere on the other side of the planet. I was 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.
A flawless, 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.