Here is another sure shot from the enchanting Eve Babitz. Originally published in the April 1976 issue of Ms. Magazine, it appears here with the author’s permission. (For more on Babitz, ready Lili Anorak’s 2014 Vanity Fairprofile, and pick up Babitz’s two wonderful volumes—Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company.)
“My Life in a 36DD Bra, Or, The All-American Obsession”
By Eve Babitz
When I was 15 years old, I bought and filled my first 36 DD bra. Since then, no man has ever made a serious pass at me without assuring me in the first hour that he was a leg man. Tits! Why, he hadn’t even noticed!
The tacit understanding was that if I did indeed have those giant knockers one hears so much about in locker rooms and sees flopping across magazine covers, why he simply hadn’t seen what all the fuss was about! Instead he had been quietly pursuing his birdwatching of ankles, knees, and nicely turned calves.
For years I believed these men, which goes to show how dumb one can be when on puts one’s mind to it. And for years I felt sorry for the men who, by some sad twist of fate had gotten stuck with me when they’d have preferred legs. On the other hand, I always knew that if I ever really wanted anything, all I’d have to do was lean forward slightly. Suddenly the world was waiting to hear what it was I wanted, how fast I wanted it, and whether they could get a better one for me wholesale.
Now my legs aren’t that great. They’re okay—with feet on the end of them and toenails at the ends of the feet. They’re not the long legs that you see in Vogue magazine, those grasshopper stems glistening out in Vaseline bronze for “this summer it’s white linen, briefly” copy. (And, as for my ass, well it’s so nondescript that one one’s ever presumed to tell me that was what they were after.)
In fact, I inherited my legs from my mother, and her apple-dumplingly adorable (but short) legs used to cause my father to laugh for what my mother described as “no reason.” Then my mother would blush all the way down to her amazingly taut, and gorgeous breasts. Perhaps that was the real reason my father laughed at her legs.
I inherited my breasts from the women in our family, judging from the old photographs taken in Russia in 1905 and old photographs taken in Louisiana in 1907. Only I was what is euphemistically described as a “Late Bloomer,” but which might better be called The-Heartbreak-Hotel-Death-Row-No-Love-Low-Down-End-of-the-World-Blues. There I was 14 years old in Hollywood with all these incredible girls around me bulging out of these powder-blue sweaters, these salmon-colored sweaters, these pink and charcoal-gray sweaters, these full-fashioned cashmere navy-blue sweaters. And I’m in huge white blouses coming out of my skirts because I’d rather have people think of me a pig or a slob than flat-chested. My best friend, who’d spent hours with me in the seventh grade laughing and talking (she was really a smart funny girl and we had splendid times), suddenly turned up after one summer in Lake Arrowhead with beautiful 35C tits, in pink sweaters—and she never spoke to a girl again. (Yes, she did—to the only girl in school with tits bigger than hers. But that girl wasn’t beautiful the way she was, or smart.)
Then, it happened to me.
It was in the summertime, I was 14. I started my period and then I started “blossoming” in the most phenomenal display of glorious last-minute cavalry rescue. It was, as the English say, gratifying. Now, at least I didn’t have that to worry about any more.
Later I noticed that men would view my tits and become aflame with desire for them, and they would fantasize about having a pair of their own: “God, if I had tits like those I could fuck my way into a million bucks…” I also started getting plenty of, “Shit, she must really be horny.” (They get horny so I’m supposed to.)
Recently, in Ralph’s, my local supermarket where anything often goes, there I am trying to decide on some lettuce—lost in thought, idylls of watercress—when I feel a man behind me and quickly, before I can turn around, he says in a low, authorative purposeful salute: “Big tits.” And he’s gone.
That’s like seeing a movie star. You run up—with all kinds of fantasies beaming through your regular thought process—you run up to Cary Grant and say “Cary Grant!”
What’s he supposed to do? You’ve just said his name to him—a tradition, a heritage, a massive plethora of dreams and meanings. It’s the same with men and my tits. They cannot imagine my doing anything that isn’t somehow connected with how big my tits are. And my tits aren’t even that big. I mean…they’re not Cary Grant. They’re more…John Garfield or Dean Martin. You know, there’s that shock of recognition but no the fainting spell Cary Grant would inspire.
The other night I went out on the Last-Blind-Date-I-Shall-Ever-Go-Out-On-Ever-Again. The other night this friend, who keeps saying how smart and funny and wonderful she thinks I am, calls me and says she’s going to fix me up with this smart, funny wonderful ex-lover of hers. I’ll just love him, she says. So I get dressed in these clothes that I wear when I don’t know what I’m about to encounter—clothes vaguely reminiscent of those awful white blouses I wore in junior high to hide whatever was there. This tall, unfunny, unwonderful, stupid man picks me up (I could tell at once he was stupid because he was stupid), and on our way into this restaurant he brushes against my breasts and says, “Why, shit, Jeannie was right! You do have gigantic tits!” Home, James.
He’d have done much better if he insisted he was a leg man and you can see why, all these years, those other guys did.
When a man who I don’t love and am not sexually engrossed in talks about my tits, there’s something that makes me want to pour cold water into his lap and leave a loose cartoon of ice cream on his car seat overnight. Legs are much less tiresome to listen to under those circumstances. However, if I’m beginning to be madly whipped into a frenzy of lust, a polite mention that I have beautiful breasts is a nice touch. And of course, after I’ve known the guy awhile and he’s proved himself funny, smart, an ace lover, and a man of distinction, then he can say any fucking thing he pleases. And only then have I found out what men were really thinking the first time when they poured me a glass of cool white wine and nonchalantly admitted their preference for legs.
“I remember one time,” my gorgeous friend David old me after I told him I was going to write this piece, “I met this girl, Lucy Sander” [I knew her—we’d shared a dressing room in Hollywood High together once and even then I thought it was hilarious because I was a 36DD and she was a 36DD and we’d get our bras mixed up—a truly uncommon coincidence] “and I was like 19 and was 16 and there they just were, you know!…” and his voice softened in memories of things lust, “and I ran home, I mean ran, I pushed people off the sidewalk so I could get home in time to jerk off thinking about her tits…” He started laughing, “And then I asked her out and I was going to kiss her for the first time and she said something about being careful because she was swollen because of her period and I said, ‘Swollen? Where?’ And then I went into a whole thing about how now that she mentioned it I did notice she was perhaps larger than other girls but since I was a leg man myself…”
I love revelations.
So for all those years when I was having to make do with men who were a trifle triste because they were leg men and they had to accustom themselves to all this extra baggage…And then how they pounced when the coast became clear, and those revelations afterward that from the moment I’d come into some party they couldn’t they their eyes off my…But of course they had to. Because if they hadn’t, I would have thought they were pigs and brutes and you know how women are about pigs and brutes. We like them to clean up their routine in polite society at least. We like to at least know they could maintain an air of respectability if they had to.
There are other little tricky situations that arise from big tits. Sometimes other women, a lot of the time when they’re drunk, can’t keep their eyes off them. They think you’re doing it on purpose. It’s like big guys in bars getting picked on for fights. But that’s okay, I don’t really mind about women. Deep down they know I know they can’t help it and eventually they turn their venom on their escorts fro liking women with big tits and leave me out of it.
There’s also all this having to bundle up. Whenever I go into the street, I have to cover myself with clothes that flow and drape. I cannot wear a tight anything on the street if I hope to have a moment’s peace. Suppose, for example, you wanted to go for a nice walk and look at the sunset and breathe in the air at eventide, nice idea, right? No, no, no. Not if you’ve got big tits and you’re not bundled up (Cary Grant can’t do it either).
Putting on disguises is one of my daily tasks. “Now what shall I wear today that’ll billow around?” I say to myself, squinting into my closet. If I’m going to see friends and I have to on the street first, I usually have to wear a coat (“Eve, a coat? It’s eighty degrees out there!”) and then take it off (sweating) upon arrival. If they’re really true friends who won’t make remarks about my tits when they get drunk enough, and if I can really be sure they aren’t going to turn on me for being Cary Grant, then I sometimes really get luscious and I try to dress like Claudia Cardinale in Caratouche or try in some other way to otherwise become a visual social asset to the proceedings.
If I’m with a man I want to entice, then I have a special bunch of immoral things I wear for in-house functions, but only if the guy is six foot seven, do I presume to wear them at large.
There is one other problem—not a problem but a little matter of concern—about having big tits, and that is that a lot of sensitive, smart men are terrified because they’re consumed by lust and they haven’t learned the old “leg man” line. Also they have this nervous feeling that anyone with tits like that must be vulgar. Or insensitive. There I sit, reading my Proust and minding my p’s and q’s and keeping up with current oddities—no slouch more or less—and I see them shrink from my gaze as they I were a tramp.
Having spent the day defending myself from the slings and arrows of outrageous truck drivers and busboys I am sometimes ill-equipped to suddenly assume an air of sensitive melancholy—and a couple of years ago I gave it up for a bad show. I mean, to be given the feeling that one is inelegant after one has just found the strategy for getting form point A to point B without having to walk past a little group of 14-year-old boys…It’s too hard and life is too short, and I want to be happy and laugh…
Occasionally, I sit in a restaurant and I watch as a lithe, long-limbed creature with daises embroidered on a sheer organdy blouse (beneath which she does not now, nor has she ever had to wear a bra) enters. I see the face of the man who awaits her; it has a particularly familiar look and until lately, I couldn’t place it. He kisses her, she sits down, and he reaches over to pour her some cool white wine. And then, I’ll be you anything, he says, “You know, even though we just met, I think I must tell you right off…I’m a tit man.”
“[My] popularity after Beverly Hills Cop—all that ‘He’s so hot’ shit—everything was going out of control. Everything came too easy … And when the laughs come too easy, you start doing things like walking through movies. You get too comfortable. You start getting out of control. You start tripping. You argue. You get the big head. You wear a leather suit and a glove with a ring on the outside.
“And I let myself get fat. There’s nothing like going into a movie theater and looking up on screen and you’re a fat guy in a bad movie.”
Here he laughs. Not the “Eh! Eh! Eh!” laugh, though—he never laughed that laugh in his customized bus.
“But I came out of that head … Now I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’ve got a beautiful chick, a beautiful daughter [Bria, age 3], a great record, a great movie. But it was a long time coming.”
Woody still worked out of the Manhattan Film Center, his screening room and editing suite. The theater was comfortable and somber, the walls covered with an inviting soft forest-green flocked velvet. Woody had prints of current movies delivered to the center. On the weekends, his parents came in with a gang of their friends to watch the latest films. Woody’s father was said to be the real cutup in the family.
Just outside the center was a small storage room where, years earlier, a small workbench had been set up for Morse when she was pregnant. Otherwise it was a storage closet, full of editing supplies and regular office supplies—plus chips, soda, and beer (and the good kinds, too). I was set up in that closet, not quite ready for prime time.
Behind the bench, resting on the shelf next to reels of fill (old 35mm print) and leader (colored strips of film used at the front and tail of each reel), rested a gold mine of unreleased material: the original production of September, a movie Woody shot and then reshot with a new cast (Sam Shepard, part of the original cast, told Esquire in 1988 that Woody and Robert Altman were “pisspoor as actors’ directors”; Michael Keaton’s few weeks of dailies on The Purple Rose of Cairo before he was replaced by Jeff Daniels; and most tempting of them all, outtakes from Annie Hall. Two big reels of them.
What a treasure—tantalizing but unattainable gold. When I closed the door and was alone inside, I never felt so close and yet so far away from such a score; I felt like Woody looking helplessly at Sharon Stone in Stardust Memories. But you can’t “accidentally” borrow a reel of film for the evening. Even if you could sneak it out, which was possible, where would you watch it? Who the hell has a 35mm projector at home?
Sam Fragoso: You’re more prolific than most people.
Woody Allen: But prolific is a thing that’s not a big deal. It’s not the quantity of the stuff you do; it’s the quality. A guy like James Joyce will do just a couple of things, but they resonate way beyond anything I’ve ever done or ever could dream of doing.
Would you say your quality, in spots, dipped because of the quantity?
It always [has]. When you start out to make a film, you have very big expectations and sometimes you come close. When I did Match Point, I felt I came very close. But you never get that thing that you want. You always set out to make Citizen Kane or to make The Bicycle Thief and it doesn’t happen. You can’t set out to make something great head-on; you just have to make films and hope you get lucky.
Have you considered scaling back, making a film every few years?
It wouldn’t help. It’s not that I feel, “Oh, if I had more time or more money, I could make this better.” It’s coming to terms with the shortcomings in one’s own gift and one’s own personality.
What are your major shortcomings?
I’m lazy and an imperfectionist. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese will work on the details until midnight and sweat it out, whereas for me, come 6 o’clock, I want to go home, I want to have dinner, I want to watch the ballgame. Filmmaking is not [the] end-all be-all of my existence. Another shortcoming is that I don’t have the intellect or the depth or the natural gift. The greatness is not in me. When you see scenes in [Akira] Kurosawa films … you know he’s a madman on the set. There would be 100 horses and everything had to be perfect. He was crazy. I don’t have any of that.
“As far as I’m concerned,” says Mel Brooks, “Harry Ritz was the funniest man ever. His craziness and his freedom were unmatched. There was no intellectualizing with him. You just hoped there were no pointy objects in the room when he was working ’cause you were down on the floor, spitting, out of control, laughing your brains out. Harry Ritz always put me away. Always.”
“This man gave comedy a whole new dimension,” says Sid Caesar. “Harry was the great innovator. His energy and his sensibility opened things up for all of us. He had to be the funniest man of his time.”
“Harry was the teacher,” says Jerry Lewis. “He had the extraordinary ability to deny himself dignity onstage. Harry taught us that the only thing that mattered was getting a laugh—whether you did it with a camel or with two rabbis humping a road map. Harry spawned us all. We all begged, borrowed and stole from him, every one of us. Without him, we wouldn’t be here.”
Almost to a man, comics adore Harry Ritz; they tirelessly tell stories about him, they dissect his style, they imitate his routines. If the world was made up of comedians, Harry Ritz would be the biggest star you ever saw.
But it isn’t, and he’s not. The recognition Harry did receive—as the top banana among the three Ritz Brothers—was relatively scant and short‑lived. During his heyday, in the late thirties and early ’40s, his particular brand of comedy was not thought of as art, and when it came time to list the immortals of that period, no one thought to include Harry’s name among them. Today, 33 years after the Ritz Brothers starred in their last feature film, it is very difficult to find anyone under the age of 40 who has even heard of them.
Here’s a treat for you. From our pal Mark Jacobson comes a 1990 Esquire profile on Jackie Mason. Originally titled “Enough with the Resurrections, Already!” the story appears here with the author’s permission.
As the stretch limo barrels through the bleak winter light up Route 17, Jackie Mason knifes his stubby fingers through the climate-modulated air. “You must be some kind of putz! That is the most idiotic thing I’ve heard in thirty years!” Jackie assails. “Why do you think if a Jewish girl has a big nose she immediately cuts it off? An Italian girl or a gentile from Wyoming, if she has a little extra nose, she won’t slice it off in a second! You think it’s an accident that Jewish girls have more nose jobs?”
“Maybe it’s a generational thing,” I meekly riposte.
Mason rolls his milk-blue eyes. “One jerk-off remark after another! Oh… because you’re so young and I’m so old, I don’t know what I’m talking about? Schmuck! My whole life is chasing twenty-five-year-old girls!” Mason appeals to the others in the pseudoplush vehicle. “You! What do you think?” he queries the radio announcer. “How about you?” he polls the squirrelly insurance purveyor. Assent is immediate, unanimous: To banish a Jewish girl from Bloomingdale’s makeup counter is tantamount to plunging a nail file into her heart. Jackie is right, I am wrong. Mason raises his puff palms to the ceiling. “See!” Case closed. Then he crams a cracker into his mouth, follows it with a grape, and he’s ready for the next topic of discussion.
That’s how it is with Jackie. If you are exhibiting putzlike behavior, entertaining a schmuck concept pertaining to, say, the quality of an Italian restaurant or the relative hand speed of certain prizefighters, or—God forbid—revealing the pathetic liberal tendencies of a typical Jew wussy regarding personages like Jesse Jackson, Jackie is more than willing to sever these woeful afflictions from your person with his howitzering wit. He’s not crazy about the color of your tie either. He doesn’t have to know you very well to dispense these opinions; Jackie’s a gnomish Übermensch, his commentary is universal, available and applicable to all. Once, he buttonholed Strom Thurmond in the Senate dining room and spared the antique former segregationist no quarter on the subject of “underage women.” But Jackie would have done the same to a bum in the street. Populist to the core, he plays no favorites.
The first time you meet him, perhaps backstage, after a show, his shirt off, loose white skin on his tiny, vaguely shaped chest filmed with sweat, Jackie rotates his globular head on an invisible neck, rocks back on his heels, looks you up and down. Are you for me or against me? is the question. The answer is: Who cares? You can be friend for life and he’ll still call you up in the middle of the night to tell you what garbage your dreams are.
With Jackie, there’s always something mies going on. A tumult. People he’s not talking to. Bridges left burned and blown apart like the one over the River Kwai. Today he’s calling one deli owner a “little Hitler” because he wouldn’t give him an extra pickle; tomorrow he’ll be saying another proprietor is a “Mussolini” because he gave him too many pickles. Forget the third place, he’s suing them, or are they suing him? Edgy self-destruction is a recurring theme in Jackie’s remarkable career. How many other entertainment figures have managed, within the space a single decade, to be banished from the big-time airwaves for allegedly giving Ed Sullivan the finger on live national television and to be shot at for repeated public razzing of Frank Sinatra, in Vegas no less. In Miami Beach, a large man warned him to lay off Frank, then broke his nose and crushed his cheekbones. But did that stop Jackie from claiming, in his act, that Ol’ Blue Eyes put his teeth in a glass before he mounted Mia Farrow? You don’t know Jackie.
That Jackie! Can’t accuse him of ducking anyone. Fools may rush in, but they eat Jackie’s dust. He’s around sixty now, but time hasn’t dulled his boyish impulsiveness one bit. This fact was made clear in the 1989 New York mayoral election. Suddenly back from show-biz oblivion, a homegrown Prince of the City due to his Tony Award-winning one-man show, The World According to Me—which he will reprise in October as Jackie Mason: Brand New—Jackie proceeded to embroil himself in much tsores. Acting as Republican Rudolph Giuliani’s “honorary campaign manager,” he was quoted as calling eventual winner David Dinkins, who is black, “a fancy schvartzer with a moustache.” Closely following the racially motivated murder of a black teenager in the nearly all-white section of Bensonhurst, l’affaire du schvartzer dominated the tabloid pages for weeks, sparking much contention, scholarly and otherwise, as to the exact connotation of the Yiddish word (which means literally, black, but is often used in a far more pejorative sense). Under fire, Giuliani, a stern but tongue-tied former D.A., courted jocular Jackie in hopes of winning the pivotal Jewish voting block, unceremoniously jettisoned the comic from his campaign.
Several weeks after this, episode, Jackie’s TV show, Chicken Soup, his supposed “breakthrough” into every gentile’s living room, was canceled. Did the schvartzer business kill the program? inquiring minds wanted to know. To paraphrase the old Yiddish joke, it didn’t help. But really, the show was a turkey, incongruously paired opposite the bulky British earth mother Lynn Redgrave, Jackie tried to affect a schmaltz-dripped Mr. Rogers, all the while kvetching he “hated every moment” of his supposed “breakthrough,” that working on the series was like “being in a gulag.”
* * * * *
“No-good Nazi bastards!” Jackie Mason blurts, nonsequiturously, as the limo whizzes past familiar signposts: LIBERTY. MONTICELLO. SOUTH FALLSBURG. We’re headed for the Pines Hotel. Not too long ago, along with Grossinger’s, the Concord, the Nevele, and dozens of others, the Pines was one of the top-line Alhambras of the Borscht Belt, that idyll-with-pastrami summer world that city-choked Jews built ninety miles from New York, in the Catskill Mountains. Now, however, Grossinger’s is gone, bulldozed for condos. Many others met similar fates. To make it these days, several of the remaining Catskill hotels try to represent themselves as swinging-singles spots, using ads with blond (gentile) bathing beauties as come-ons.
As he will, Jackie blames his coreligionists for the demise of “the mountains.” “They think of the Catskills and go: ‘Too Jewish.’ So they say there’s nothing to do there. They go to an island instead. ‘I went to an island,’ they brag, ‘it was so wonderful, there was nothing to do.’ In the mountains nothing is a calamity, but on an island it’s paradise.” Then, with an unexpected exhale of resignation, Jackie looks out the tinted window. It’s “off-season,” true, but South Fallsburg has the mournful look of one of those towns forgotten now that it’s moved off the main road. “What a dump this place has become,” Jackie reflects.
When he first started as a comic back in the late 1950s, Jackie spent summers in “the Jewish Alps,” doing his fledgling act amid indifferent stints as “social director,” a thankless task he describes as “trying to get Jews out of lawn chairs, an impossibility.” Then, later, after the Sullivan “finger” incident, when mainstream club bookers and television producers wouldn’t touch him due to his reputation as “a filthy comic,” Mason returned. In the goyim-inflected world of the cathode ray, he was an outcast, a pariah. But in “the mountains,” he was welcome. He played everywhere. Jews would always laugh at his famous routines, like the one about the doctors (“Crooks, every last one of them! If they’re not, why are they wearing a mask? And gloves? To hide the fingerprints! You ever wonder why you can’t read the prescription? It’s a code, for the pharmacist. It says, ‘I got my money, you get yours!’”).When he said his family was wrecked in the stock-market crash—“A broker jumped out the window, fell on my father’s pushcart”—he got howls.
As the limo pulls into the Pines driveway, there’s a stir. Maybe the hotel isn’t what it used to be, maybe the legendarily copious food now tastes as if it were hijacked from a dozen airplanes, and the “nightclub” looks like a tatty high school auditorium done up for a Las Vegas night; none of that matters. Tonight there’s an electricity, like the time Eddie Fisher first came up on stage, or Jerry Lewis or a hundred others nervy enough to push themselves to the front of the line and say, “Look at me, not him.” Tonight you could close your eyes and believe you saw Marjorie Morningstar flit across the linoleum dance floor. Tonight is special. Jackie Mason is headlining!
And they come, the “regulars,” faces from a hundred bar mitzvahs, from a thousand photos snapped on Grand Concourse, or in Brooklyn, on Eastern Parkway, before those great boulevards “changed” and people speaking Spanish and playing loud radios took over the lobbies and subway stations. A liver-marked man wearing white shoes says he met Jackie in Atlantic City, a red-rinsed lady remembers him from Eden Roc in Miami. “I saw your act at the Concord before you were anyone,” says one person. “I saw you at Grossinger’s even before that,” another one injects in the spirit of vicious oneupmanship. “At Raleigh’s in 1965!” “In Chicago in 1977!” Then come the pictures. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren are pushed under Jackie’s bulbous nose.
“Never fails,” Jackie grouches, later, about the picture pushers. “They’re on me, like a pogrom. Do they think I want to look at the two-year-old kid, naked, upside down on a rug? Who is this two-year-old to me? You got a picture of an eighteen-year-old girl, show me that!” But Jackie doesn’t say that to the picture pushers. He smiles, signs autographs, chats, tumles. Suddenly there’s another Jackie, a gracious, accommodating man emerging from beneath the bluster. It is not an act. True, Jackie remains ready to attack at any moment, tell anyone they are a putz, a moron, a scumbag. But not these people. These people love Jackie Mason. And, down deep, he loves them. After all, he eats what they eat, remembers what they remember, thinks what they think. And they’re happy he’s here, because now, at least for tonight, things will be as they once were.
* * * * *
A few days later, over blintzes in a New York coffee shop, I bring up my reminiscences of the Ed Sullivan incident. Reflexively, Jackie’s hackles rise, his gaze congeals to a bale. This is no surprise. Even though Jackie’s sworn version of the celebrated “You got a finger for me, I’ve got a finger for you” incident has been “proven” to be accurate (on a Barbara Walters 20/20 segment no less—from the tape you can see Mason was mad at Sullivan, but at no time did he extend a middle finger), it is clear the comedian hasn’t completely distanced himself from the most paroxysmal moment of his tempestuous career. “I blame the Jews,” Jackie blurts, two and a half decades later. “The next day every Jew said they saw me do a filthy gesture. There was no filthy gesture. But it made them happy to see a big man wiped out.”
Leaving aside the subtext of this archetypal TV moment—that is, while it would have been impossible to misconstrue someone like Bob Hope, or George Jessel, or even some patent “wild man” like Don Rickles giving the all-powerful Ed Sullivan the finger, the notion of a pushy mocky like Jackie Mason doing it was perfectly believable—I decide to take another tack. “I bet the Sullivan thing was your biggest break at least in the long run.”
That gets Jackie going. His doughy face blushes, his fireplug body rises like a blocky hovercraft above the blintzes, and he’s pacing around the deli. Elderly waiters carrying cups of hot coffee are forced to perform Pirouettes to dodge the bantam star. “Schmuck! How could something that loused up my career for twenty-five years be my biggest break? What kind of morbid bastard are you?”
Actually, I was only trying to help. As Jackie has said, “A Jew assumes every question is answerable, except he’s just not smart enough to know what that answer is.” For Jackie, at least since his “overnight success” on Broadway, the question has been, “Why now? Why, after doing the same thing I’ve been doing for thirty years, should I be a hit?”
Consider, for instance, the historical perspective: 1956, after all, when Jackie Mason first began telling jokes for money at the Pearl Lake Hotel, in Parksville, New York, was another time altogether. Wood-encased Philcos had begun to figure in the furniture scheme of Bronx apartments alongside the plastic-covered sofas, but the Tube hadn’t yet centerpieced itself as the arbiter of American social life. Many of the great Jewish comics, like George Burns, Jack Benny, and Groucho Marx, had already crossed over, regimmicking their well-honed personas to accommodate the new medium. Others, like Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, and Sid Caesar, with their most prominent writers, people like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, were more instrumental in orchestrating the coming idea of a nationwide spectacle. Then there were the stand-ups, tightly wound hand wringers mutated from the line of traditional badchanim, or jesters, the self-deprecating shtetl merrymaker who had been a staple of Jewish cultural life since the Middle Ages. The comic problem confronting these new talkers was unique. On one hand, they worked in the shadow of the Holocaust and tended toward terminally paranoid, postbomb nihilism; on the other, they were living in America, where, for the first time, it seemed, a Jew didn’t have to keep his bags packed, ready to flee in the middle of the night. In America, a Julius Garfinkle might be a John Garfield; a Bernie Schwarz, Tony Curtis. And there was no reason a Yid couldn’t come springing out the suburban screen door like any Ozzie or Harriet. Amid this vertigo of social mobility, however, many Jews, at least those unable to shake a sense of differentness, found it difficult to separate the (Franz) Kafkaesque from the (Norman) Rockwellesque. Doom behind, assimilation ahead: The existential positioning proved endlessly seductive to the bundled anxieties of this new breed of badchanim. Filtering their impressions through the semisubversive urban bohemianism of the time, they couldn’t wait to tell you all about it.
Of these “candy store” comics (many of them actually hung out in candy stores, most prominently Hanson’s in New York), the stand-ups sought to lay claim to various territory. Shelley Berman was the cerebral neurotic, Mort Sahl the urbane political commentator, Buddy Hackett the eye-rolling buffoon, Woody Allen the psychoanalyzed nebbish-cum-bon-vivant. Then there was Lenny Bruce, who put a new spin on hip by attempting, among other things, the de-demonization of ten-letter words like cocksucker through constant repetition.
Jackie Mason was by far the most “Jewish” of these performers. Although much of his material was standard for the day—gibes at the Kennedys, astronaut jokes, et cetera—looking as he looked, talking as he talked, there was nothing else he could be.
Jackie was the most Jewish of Jewish comics because he was the most Jewish to start with. To fans, the saga is familiar: how Eli Maza, once an eminent rabbi of Minsk, in the Polish-Russian Pale, fled the cossack death squads and wound up, with a surrealness peculiar to the refugee’s journey, in Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, which is where Jackie, then Jacob, the youngest of six children, was born. The elder Maza’s idiosyncratic dream of establishing an enduring Orthodox Jewish congregation on the Midwest Tundra soon faded, and the family moved to the corner of Rutgers and Madison streets on New York’s Lower East Side. It was a lot like Poland on the Lower East Side in those days: “At least a Jew can be a Jew here,” Jackie’s father declared. It was a foregone conclusion that each of the four Maza sons would study in the Yeshiva and become great scholars of the Talmud. For Gabe, Joseph, and Bernie, it was easy. Jackie had other ideas. The only Maza child born in America, Jackie was a wholly different species of ethnic. He felt himself on the threshold of a great new font of information and emotion, a place with streets and smells all its own. This was somewhere to walk around in, to look forward to a future in, not the ephemeral product of a dark and mystic fever, where unfathomable codes could only be kept alive in the brooding minds of men without a country. It is some super-Yiddish amalgam of Golden Boy and The Jazz Singer, the sound of Jackie’s father’s voice thundering through the steamy, soot-caked tenement in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, screaming, “Learn! Study!” and Jackie going through the motions, reading the foreign scrolls, but all he wanted to do was buddy-up with sleekly dressed left-hookers like AI “Bummy” Davis and wisecrack with the cigarette-smoking neighborhood k’nakers.
“Every day my father would scream what an ignoramus I was,” Jackie recalls. “My brothers were so much more brilliant than me, he told me. How could I ever come up to them?” After the steady torrent of boom-box enunciation, Jackie becomes nearly inaudible when he talks about how he first became a cantor, and then a rabbi, just as his three brothers did. He led congregations in properly incongruous locales such as Latrobe, Pennsylvania—Arnold Palmer’s hometown—and Weldon, North Carolina. Jackie provides scant details on these episodes. “The past doesn’t interest me,” he says, looking away. “As for trying to remember everything that ever happened to a person, I see it as sick vanity that leads nowhere.” Not that any of this is a deep dark secret. There’s never been a Jackie Mason press kit that omitted the rabbi angle; you can be walking down the street with Jackie or sitting in a restaurant, and all of a sudden, apropos of nothing, he’ll break out in a hosanna. But this is something Jackie has yet to commit to easy shtick. “I did it all to make my father happy, and it was a very painful thing for me, because it was a complete fake. I wasn’t that person, I was someone else.”
He thought he was a star. He knew he was a star: Even at the Pearl Lake Hotel, moonlighting from his busboy job to open for third-rate tumlers who’d exhaust their mother-in-law gags in the first five minutes and subsist on humiliating members of the audience after that, Jackie was certain he was “one of the funniest Jews in the world.” He resigned the rabbinate, changed his name to Jackie Mason, told jokes full time. From then on, everything clicked. He played the big rooms, made the Jack Paar show, became Ed Sullivan’s favorite comic. Until that night….
His agent, friends, family told him to be patient, it would blow over. Soon enough he’d be back in the top clubs, back on the Tonight show. It didn’t happen that way. Even after Sullivan, who screamed he’d make sure the comic “never got on television again,” publicly apologized and asked Jackie back on his show, it didn’t blow over. Like Jackie says, the story was just too sweet; who wanted to believe Jackie Mason didn’t give Ed Sullivan the finger? Then it was into the late Sixties, a completely different dynamic was afoot, and the immigrant’s drama that Mason personified seemed faintly embarrassing, irrelevant.
He didn’t go broke. Recalling his “dead years,” Jackie says, “People would wonder if I was lying in a gutter, rattling a cup, when I was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.” But it wasn’t enough. He felt ostracized, an outcast once again. Forever branded as “too Jewish,” he longed to foist his rubber face upon the gentiles, to make them look at him. There were failed Broadway plays, misguided traveling road shows, abortive low-budget movies. The Stoolie, directed by pre-Rocky John Avildsen, a grimy allegory of a local loser, was Jackie’s art picture. It won obscure awards at brand-X film festivals, but, sans jokes, confused the fans who came to laugh, and was met with indifference by everyone else. Most of Jackie’s time in those days was spent trying to induce rich Jews to back his reentry into the big time. Some did not really have money, their own at least. Jackie knew he was walking the nether side, but that didn’t matter. Once, when he was down in Miami playing the Saxony Hotel, Jackie contacted Meyer Lansky, whose son-in-law Mason once utilized as a valet. He asked the myth-shrouded mob genius permission to play his life in a “fictionalized” feature film. Jackie produced the script. Lansky objected to a scene in which his character’s wife gives birth to a child with a clubfoot, then turns to the gangster and says, “This is God’s punishment for your sins,” prompting him to hit her. The film was never made. In 1976, Jackie, with his own money, rented out a decaying boxing arena in Queens, planning to showcase a Vegas-style revue. On opening night it rained. The roof leaked. Umbrellas were opened, but it didn’t help—the sound system didn’t work, no one could hear anything anyhow.
* * * * *
There is a passage in Jackie’s intermittently affecting “autobiography,” Jackie, Oy! in which Mason describes his rabbi father walking down a street on the Lower East Side. “I saw this tragic figure,” Jackie writes, “bent with loneliness, unable to earn enough to feed his family, always with secondhand food in his pocket and secondhand items on his back, taking what charity he could get. Someone gave him a dollar; someone gave him a candle. This tragic figure was my father.” Now Jackie says, “My father lived for an idea. The Talmud was everything to him. It was his life.” Hearing that makes you wonder how Jackie would feel if he saw himself coming out of the New York Deli, walking down 57th Street, wearing not secondhand garments but his usual expensive double-breasted suits and Dior ties. Indeed, there is a melancholy irony in the fact that forty-five years later, Jackie, in a very real way, has filled the role his father used to play for the fresh-from-steerage multitudes. Implicit in Eli Maza’s tirade for his youngest son to “learn” was the notion that he was the heir to a specialized, highly perishable kind of knowledge. Under constant assault from Nazis, cossacks, the relentless churn of the melting pot, and sheer forgetting, what Rabbi Maza knew was a link to another, deeper realm; people needed what he knew, needed to know he knew it. That’s how it is with Jackie, for, as with his father, it seems as if he exists for no other purpose but to deliver his message. Jackie’s message is the Joke.
You take away the Joke and Jackie ceases to exist. He makes a fortune, but doesn’t seem to care very much about money, except in the sense some “sick, phony fuck” might attempt to shyster him out of a nickel. In keeping with the ghetto legacy, he owns no property and doesn’t drive a car. He maintains very little of his former religious life. Aside from an aversion to shrimp (he can’t stand the idea of a fish with feet), he’s not kosher and doesn’t keep the sabbath. He is still close with his family, but says they’ve never really “understood” his life. His brothers—Bernie, the rabbi from Queens, and Joseph, a mohel who, people say, has circumcised half of north Jersey—come to his shows, but Jackie wonders if they “get it.” His manager, the ubiquitous and worshipful Jyll Rosenfeld, acts as his interface with most of the day-to-day humdrum. She picks out almost all his clothes and chose the furniture in the small, spare apartment Jackie has lived in for several years. Once, people say, there was a romantic attachment between the two, but now that’s over. Jackie’s never been married and almost certainly never will be; he’s not interested in children. This is one Jew, at least, who doesn’t seem to care if his line stops here and now. Sure, Jackie will give out his phone number to any blond shiksa under thirty, but as far as he’s concerned the real sex—National Enquirer—hyped paternity suits aside—is to land in front of a crowd and, in his typically embattled phrase, “fight for laughs.”
Laughs he gets. Jackie will lambaste you and call you a limp-wristed putz should you insinuate he is an artist. But of course that is what he is. In his knockabout style: he is a peerless master. Watching him get ready for a show is a trip. He sits in the corner of the room and davens. Knitting his blunt-end fingers through his reddish hair (my mother swears it used to be black), singing in muffled cantonal cadence, he might a well be leading a High Holy Day ceremony, but instead he’s going over a routine about how Leona Helmsley didn’t pay her taxes. Like a hoarding cabalist, he keeps everything in his head. Searching for rhythm—always rhythm—Jackie scans decades of ad libs, offhand remarks, set routines; he’s never said a line he doesn’t remember. You never know when it might come in handy. If something got screams in Vegas ten years ago, no reason it shouldn’t again. But you’ve got to move, stay current. Sure, people like the old favorites, but tell a Jew too many jokes he’s heard before, he’ll be demanding a discount, a refund, an extra ticket for his brother-in-law. So throw in some Donald Trump stuff, a riff about food fads—whatever turns up on CNN. This “neutral” material doesn’t work as well as the mighty Jew-gentile dichotomies, but it’s the flow that counts, the overall onslaught. Jackie will invent a joke on his way up the steps to the stage, juxtapose it to something he’s done for thirty-five years, and wham. Then the urge begins, the rising wave of a life’s work. The little arms gyrate, pumping like a cross between Pete Townshend’s windmill chord and a Navy semaphorist; Yiddishisms bat out the bilingual counterpoint, all of them whack-rolled home with loud, guttural shouts of “Eh? What! You won’t laugh, putz? Then take this! That!” It’s as if he’s on Goring’s neck, gnashing through the windpipe, demanding the laugh before the final gasp.
* * * * *
The package is undeniable, especially if you happen to be a Jew of a certain age. Although Jackie, who is strangely giant in England will often rate the effectiveness of a show by how much the gentiles laugh, he knows it’s the Jews who keep him in business. “I suppose you could say I represent something special to people,” he says, “that my comedy has an element of something that is more personal or more meaningful, more of a thing to them because of their background, or what their family represents, their history. It’s not just an appreciation for my jokes, but a real love in their hearts. You don’t know what you mean to my mother!… My father was saying your jokes when he passed away. It’s like they look at me and they see something in themselves they’re afraid they’re going to lose, or maybe they’ve already lost. I feel almost a desperation in their love for me.”
Because of Sullivan, he got frozen out of the culture, and while everything else got homogenized, he stayed the way he was, a Jew in amber. The personal diaspora he experienced after the Sullivan incident was really his salvation, I expound, his exile the key to his comeback. For even if it’s quite possible that the “finger” scene was an accident waiting to happen, that the Jackie Mason who defied his imposing father couldn’t wait to assault—and be crushed by an authority figure like Big Ed Sullivan, you can still imagine Jackie’s career going a very different way. It’s conceivable that, accent and all, he’d have been offered some lame Chicken Soup-type show in 1968, or 1974, and, with its success, been domesticated into a Hebrew version of Jimmie Walker, or a haimish Freddie Prinze. Jackie could have crossed over into a realm of mass cuddliness; who knows, he might have gone all the way to canonization as a Beloved Entertainer, in the manner of his great idol, Jack Benny. But that’s not what happened. He was kept out, branded “filthy” and/or “too Jewish,” barred from the trend of the past two and a half decades. In many ways, you can say, he stayed as he was in 1960, that in him you can still sense the same unresolved identity/assimilation conflict that made the stand-ups of his generation so compelling. Now, long after Lenny Bruce (who made himself into the half-mad Jewish Lear, reading his indictments from the stage) fell onto a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm, years past the time dozens of lounge-rat Shecky Greenes and Alan Kings have dissipated whatever marginal emotional force they once possessed, Jackie Mason remains to tell thee, full of spite and bile perhaps, but still a link to a brawnier, more expansive time, a living ethnosaur.
Truly, Jackie is one of a kind. This doesn’t mean that in terms of raw talent he exceeds Robin Williams or Steve Martin, or that you can’t find bigger laughs elsewhere. It’s just that Jackie has something the hundred haircut-intensive comics on HBO specials whose only background appears to be Saturday-morning television can never match, no matter how facile or “outrageous” they may be. How “outrageous” are they anyway? Would Andrew “Dice” Clay ever give Arsenio Hall the finger, even if half his act puts down blacks? Is he that ballsy, ready to put his real shit on the line? No way. We’re all brothers in the Business, bro. Indeed, next to Jackie, the work of Rodney Dangerfield, Mason’s great, hated rival (“a low-class bigmouth who can’t wait to louse me up on every street corner”), is reduced to a hilarious but ultimately gimmick-ridden and dispassionate series of one-liners. That’s because Jackie Mason is from somewhere. A specific somewhere—when he went to Israel, they didn’t buy the act, he wasn’t their kind of Jew. Jackie comes out of a singular, fleeting American experience. In this day and age, that is something to covet, even desperately.
* * * * *
That, more or less, is the good news. But it doesn’t stop there, for every ethnosaur has his flip side. What I mean is, after four or five nights in a row of hanging with Jackie and the gang, you can feel things begin to go blooey. In fact, you can feel yourself traveling…through another dimension…back to…a Brooklyn apartment with dark wood furniture, and there you are, standing with your older relatives, looking out a seventh-story window, down to a body below, a man sprawled across the asphalt, blood seeping from his ruined head…and you know…everyone’s wondering: Was it a Jew?
Jew-Jew-Jew: It’s such a Jewish thing. That’s how it is with Jackie. Sit with him and his crew of walk-around guys—the New jersey theater owner, the Long Island real estate magnate, the trumpet player who makes “real human voices” come out of his horn—and count how many times the word Jew comes up. You’ll hit triple figures before the second course. “Them and Us” is the theme. You try to dismiss the self-referentiality as typical of the exile to say every ethnic group does the same thing. But it wears you down. It freaks you out.
For many, much of the uneasiness they feel when confronted by Jackie Mason is exacerbated by the comedian’s recent status as a Public Hebrew. Since his comeback, Jackie, never one to know his place, has rebelled against the confining definition of “entertainer.” Now he’s a “spokesman.” In this mode, Jackie has become something of a regular on the Washington lecture-brunch-Bible-reading-schmooze circuit. He’s done fundraisers for senators like Rudy Bauschwitz of Minnesota and Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania. He pals around with Howard Metzenbaum. Frank Lautenberg, AI D’Amato, and Paul Simon are also friends. Given this mixed crew, Jackie’s own political views tend toward the eclectic. Although he now privately says he’s against settlement on the West Bank (Israel is the only issue he won’t touch onstage—the reaction of his core audience scares even him), he’s been an on-and-off supporter of the lunatic Meir Kahane, a vociferous racist. And even though Jackie spent a large portion of his World According to Me show knocking the Reagan administration, his “scrapbook” contains a note from Oliver North thanking Mason for inviting him to the comic’s Kennedy Center show. North had to decline, he said, because “as you know, I have been quite busy with the sentencing process.” When asked if it bothers him that several pols might see him as nothing more than a “house Jew” to worm money and votes, much in the fashion that Nixon used to drag Wilt Chamberlain around to show his “strength” in the black community, Jackie shrugs. “Politics is my hobby,” he says. “I like to see how these people operate. If they’re using me, I’m using them.”
Anyway, it’s municipal affairs that are really Jackie’s passion. New York is his town: A semiserious mayoral candidate in 1973, he likes to “participate in the life of the city.” He has written several columns for the Times op-ed page, most recently about his trip to Eastern Europe. Jackie saw no advantage in American freedom of the press, since “everyone in New York is afraid to go out to buy the paper.” It was the 1989 mayoral race in which Jackie really made a difference, though. In fact, some analysts are of the opinion that without Jackie’s now-infamous “fancy schvartzer” reference, the Republican Giuliani, who wound up losing by less than 3 percent in a town where Democrats represent more than 75 percent of registered voters, would have won. Bill Lynch, David Dinkins’s campaign manager and now a city deputy mayor, first attempts to downplay the effect of Mason’s comments, then offers a smile and allows, “You could say it was a turning point in the election.”
Others are less politic: They say it was the turning point, that Jackie’s crack and the uproar following it went a long way toward destroying Giuliani’s carefully constructed image as an unbiased crime fighter to whom color did not matter.
Mason’s schvartzer gaffe played right into the corrosive tension between the black and Jewish communities in New York; for many it was the perfect companion piece to Jesse Jackson’s similarly alienating “Hymietown” reference in the 1984 presidential campaign—both men casually uttered the fateful phrases to “friendly” newsmen and then claimed they never imagined the depth of the offense that would be taken. The unfortunately coiffed Giuliani could have avoided the whole snafu, however, if only he and his equally asleep-at-the-switch advisers had played a tape of Mason’s memorable performance at the 1988 Grammy Awards. Jackie managed to stop the show cold by telling jokes about blacks breaking into cars and white people lying on the beach attempting to turn black. Taken one at a time, none of the lines were particularly objectionable, but the sheer weight of them, one after another, told to a mixed, moderately hip crowd a lot more interested in Terence Trent D’Arby than Jackie Mason made for the kind of slow death only a truly bombing comic can generate.
Jackie will tell you he’s not a racist. He’ll say he didn’t mean anything by the schvartzer comment, that it only means black and what else do you call a black but black. He’ll even make you laugh trying to convince you of his innocence. When he starts in on the “Giuliani tsimmes,” describing how everyone was arguing about what he meant—“Did he say schvartza? Did he say schvartzo? Where did this word come from? Did it come from Russia? From Pittsburgh?”—it’s almost impossible to maintain a disapproving look. Much of his counterattack is launched against his Jewish accusers, the same “snooty intellectuals” Jackie has always felt saw him as “too Jewish,” a “vulgar sort of embarrassment who deals only in stereotypes.” For Mason, who has long claimed that the same types who sneer at Jerry Lewis will go crazy over the exact joke told by Woody Allen, this is a class issue, pure and simple, and he responds to it in his usual combative fashion. After the schvartzer incident, during a show at the Public Theatre, Jackie called Elie Wiesel, the famous Holocaust historian and a prominent Mason detractor, “a putz.” That really shook them up; in certain circles, giving Ed Sullivan the finger, even labeling David Dinkins a schvartzer, is one thing, but calling Elie Wiesel a putz is a whole other kettle of gefilte.
But you can tell, Jackie just doesn’t get it. To this day he insists the schvartzer comment was a joke, that he’s a comedian, nothing else. Despite the racially tense situation in the city and the presence of Roger Ailes, who invented Willie Horton for George Bush, as Giuliani’s media consultant, Jackie refuses to entertain the idea that the context in which his remark was made had anything to do with the reaction to it. It’s all unfair, he rails, another sandbag job like the Sullivan thing. Why don’t they talk about all the money he’s given to the NAACP, or write how he went to Selma in the 1960s? A day later, he’ll be riding in a limo through the South Bronx, telling you even if he was received at the Grammys “like Hitler at a bar mitzvah,” it had nothing to do with the content of what he said. “I stunk, that’s all. It wasn’t funny. I just looked at all those black faces and I froze. I lost my place, so I stunk.” Then, after swearing he’s played black places and “gotten screams” with the same material, he looks out the window and exclaims, “Look at how they live!” A couple of days after that, at Madison Square Garden to receive a special commendation as the “Mayor of Broadway,” as part of a special wrestling show the cops were putting on for handicapped children, Jackie bounds into the ring, looks out into the crowd of primarily minority kids in wheelchairs, lords his hands over his head like a champ, and shouts, “Only Jew in the house.”
That’s the wrench of being with Jackie. Everything you like about him is inextricably tangled with stuff you hate, things you wish got left at the door. And for me, that’s a deep thing, because if Jackie’s great value as a comic is being from somewhere, I’m from that same somewhere, to a large extent. Besides, I know that my grandmother, a Jew who was smuggled out of Romania in a potato sack by her father just ahead of the coming pogrom, would likely agree with Jackie Mason about most things. If she were alive today, she’d be threatened by blacks and others just the way he is. I’m sure of it. Once she lived at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. It was the greatest of treats to get to stay with her. My grandfather took me to baseball games at Ebbets Field. Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter on my birthday one year. But then they tore down Ebbets Field, my grandfather died, and my grandmother couldn’t live on Eastern Parkway anymore or work in the Kameo children’s store, she was an old lady and all around her were young black people who made her afraid. I loved her, but it killed me, hearing her say things about blacks and Latinos, to know her fear was on the verge of something worse, and how all-consuming it was.
That’s why a guy like Jackie Mason can mess you up. He’s so much like those people I used to see on Passover, eating those flavorless crackers, speaking in foreign tongues. He’s a vicarious trip back to that evanescent shadow world, except he won’t allow you to bask in the unsullied nostalgic haze. He’s constantly shoving real darkness into your face. One minute he’s telling you Nelson Mandela is “a schmuck,” lambasting Tutu. The next you’re in a taxi buzzing down to Ratner’s, the ancient, faded dairy restaurant, and suddenly three hundred people are rising as one, screaming “Jackie! Jackie!” the matzo brei on the house, everyone telling jokes, and you’re thinking: This is fabulous. This is the Runyonesque New York I love, not the place worn to the nub by the yuppies and a grind of poverty and race hatred. And you know, it’s a problem, one of those conundrums Jackie claims a Jew must have the answer to except he’s not smart enough to think of it.
I tell Jackie this, and he just starts screaming. As far as he’s concerned, I’m just another one of those liberal-putz, self-hating, bleeding-heart Jews who don’t know which side their bread is buttered on. Giving “everything” away to the blacks is tonight’s topic. Jackie’s against it. “When’s the last time a Jew ever asked a black for a handout?” he demands. “Has a black ever given a Jew a quarter?”
“There are other people in the world besides Jews and blacks,” I counter.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he screams back. There is no winning. You have two alternatives: You either keep arguing, keep playing the game, or you tell him he’s pathetic and you can’t stomach his chauvinist bile, that it’s exactly the sort of shit your parents brought you up to understand as pernicious, evil. Then you can walk out, leaving him with the check.
Faced with that choice…I dunno…I stay. Maybe I stay because we’re having this fight in Kiev, a little hangout on the Lower East Side, and it’s 4:00 in the morning, and the place is packed with blacks and Latinos, and weirdos of all types, and one of them, a guy wearing a dress, with a hundred hospital bracelets around his wrist, is leaning over our table, and he smells like hell, but Jackie keeps talking to him, asking tender questions about the guy’s ravaged life. He does this, he says, because face-to-face, Jackie Mason might scream and yell at you, but he doesn’t have the heart to turn his back.
And maybe I stay because a few nights later we’re in a car, going to a synagogue in Queens. For weeks Jackie’s been “practicing” the new jokes he plans to use when he returns to Broadway in the fall. A shul is as good a place as any to practice, he says. A week before, he was down in Atlantic City, where he gets as much as $65,000 a show. But tonight, everything is free. The temple, you can tell, is not exactly flush. The president, who picks us up, is still wearing his car service chauffeur’s uniform. Jackie doesn’t care, $65,000 or nothing, it’s all the same to him, as long as he’s standing in front of an audience, “fighting for laughs.” Not that he’s pleased when we get to the shul. The neighborhood is “on the cusp,” the temple doesn’t even have enough money to buy the rabbi a house. Most of the richer congregation members have long ago moved to Florida. “Old Jews,” Jackie grouses as we get out of the car, “I can’t stand these old Jews. They don’t get the jokes, if they do they’re offended. What a waste of time this is!” He keeps complaining even as the rabbi, a small man in his seventies, comes over to shake his hand. Usually, the rabbi says, they have trouble getting a minyan, but tonight is different. Jackie Mason is here! Tonight, as many as fifty people might show up.
Then, it’s the same as always. Stooped, gray-haired men and women approach, bearing photos of grandchildren, great-grandchildren. “I’ve seen you before,” a woman says. “Everyone’s seen him before,” chides her husband. “Oy gevalt,” Jackie says. But then you can tell: He’s nervous. Getting ready to stand up in front of these broken-down Jews, in this broken-down temple, Jackie Mason, international sensation, is nervous. Soon, however, he’s in front of the tabernacle, wearing a yarmulke, telling his jokes, mixing the old ones with the new. “I’d like you to know this is the longest a Jew has ever sat still without a piece of cake,” Jackie says. “You have to watch out for Jews on cake. A Jew on cake is more dangerous than a gentile on crack any day.” Now Jackie’s happy. His fight plan is working; they like him. He sees the opening, so he pours it on, brings out the doctor routine, follows it with his number about Jews suing everyone. “A Jew wakes up in the morning and thinks, Who can I sue?”
When he’s on, there’s no mercy. You’ve got to give it up. I give it up. When we got to the temple, I realized I’d been there before, with my grandmother, after she’d moved away from Brooklyn. The temple’s right around the corner from where she used to live. She’d go there every once in a while and pray. I figure if she was sitting in that audience, she might be tough, because she was never an easy laugh, but eventually Jackie would get to her. He’d make her laugh. Should I do less?
I’d probably say just calm down. Don’t worry so much, the way you tend to in your twenties. When young actors ask for advice, I tell them to treat it like a business. You lower the awning of the fruit stand at the beginning of the day and you do the best that you can, and at the end of the day you reel it back up and go to dinner. Somehow if you understand it’s a long-term business, it eases you into not beating yourself up. That’s a tendency of a lot of younger people — they’re pretty hard on themselves.
…You lost a brother and your parents at a young age. Later, your wife of 30 years died. How does a man handle loss?
You have to respect the fact that no solution is realized in a day. I remember the first Thanksgiving after my wife died: I’m with my three kids and we’re at the table and trying to do the same Thanksgiving thing, and we kind of look at each other and I said, “OK, let’s say what it is. Thanksgiving this year isn’t going to be what it was, but it will be, eventually.” The mark of the man is to figure out how to regain strength and move on the way the person you lost would want you to.
When Bob Hope died in 2003 at the age of one hundred, attention was not widely paid. The “entertainer of the century,” as his biographer Richard Zoglin calls him, had long been regarded by many Americans (if they regarded him at all) “as a cue-card-reading antique, cracking dated jokes about buxom beauty queens and Gerald Ford’s golf game.” A year before his death, The Onion had published the fake headline “World’s Last Bob Hope Fan Dies of Old Age.” Though Hope still had champions among comedy luminaries who had grown up idolizing him—Woody Allen and Dick Cavett, most prominently—Christopher Hitchens was in sync with the new century’s consensus when he memorialized him as “paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny.”
Zoglin, a longtime editor and writer for Time, tells Hope’s story in authoritative detail. But his real mission is to explain and to counter the collapse of Hope’s cultural status, a decline that began well before his death and accelerated posthumously. The book is not a hagiography, however. While Zoglin seems to have received unstinting cooperation from the keepers of Hope’s flame, including his eldest daughter, Linda, he did so without strings of editorial approval attached. Hope’s compulsive womanizing, which spanned most of his sixty-nine-year marriage to the former nightclub singer Dolores Reade (who died at 102, in 2011), is addressed unblinkingly. And with good reason—it was no joke. At least three of his longer-term companions, including the film noir femme fatale Barbara Payton and a Miss World named Rosemarie Frankland whom Hope first met when she was eighteen and he was fifty-eight, died of drug or alcohol abuse.
When David Letterman enters a small club, other young comics make way for him, and although he moves among them, he is separate. They haven’t hosted The Tonight Show and he has. The other young comics have to beg audiences for their attention at lonelier clubs, on later nights, attacking them, splaying their personalities onstage. They do imitations of Bigfoot in different dialects, they imagine the Elephant Man doing ads for the Chrysler K-car, they evoke and torture their parents’ domestic intimacies before a high, dark room full of people in Westwood or Santa Monica or Hollywood. Blinded by a spotlight, a young comic stands on a stage and calls jokes into the night, waiting for the laughter, hearing his own voice in its terrifying clarity—a sound garnished by a few low coughing chuckles from the crowd. “So you hate me,” the young man says with sweaty anger. “What do I care? Anyone got a cigarette?” He is given one. “So you hate me… so I’ll talk to my dick.” He pulls his waistband and talks down into his crotch. “Hello, Poky!” he says. “How are you Poky? Jump, Poky. Please?” There’s a silence, and the young man glares out into the black. “I always get best when I feel mean,” he says, and resumes talking to his crotch. The audience turns its head and coughs.
No such quiet fills a room when David Letterman comes through a curtain; quiet skitters away like many fleeing waiters. People yell, “Hey-yo!” and they yell, “How hot was it!” They seem to feel very close to Letterman indeed, and he stands and laughs in his white sweater and blue jeans and swings the microphone around like the old pro he’s practicing to be. “Hey-yo!” a straggler calls. “What a fine crowd,” Letterman says, and that gets the laughs it seeks. The audience is all in favor of allowing Letterman to make them laugh; they know he’s funny. He just has to talk, and they work so that he’ll acknowledge them. “This is more fun,” Letterman tells the crowd, “than humans should be allowed to have.” They laugh and clap. “Hey-yo!” someone yells.
Other young comedians come and go. They work the rooms and they yearn for their moment under the television lights—the moment that can turn them into paradigms of our age, the names cut into the marble walls of our culture halls: BRENNER. CHASE. KLEIN. Some can do dialect humor, others can simulate young people on drugs for an audience’s satisfaction, others can insult their wives. None of them will do anything that really hurts because that would keep them off television and push them into selling aluminum siding (which DANGERFIELD almost had to do).
The comedian who can make it on television is the one who can preside over the talk show landscape. He’s the comedian who can keep things going and react to the traffic of guests sitting down on and leaving a couch; he’s the comedian who represents security and durability to a network. Who knows, who even cares anymore, whether Johnny Carson is actually funny? We know that we like to laugh with him, but who knows whether he actually pushes the catch lever that leads to the joy-pain spasm? He is, more than anything, a triumphant and reassuring habit; he can react and act with the flow of the society, and because of that he’s worth more than any eight sitcoms.
David Letterman is that sort of good horse, the good choice in the morning lineup to provide thirty or forty or fifty years of solid, non-scalding comedy for national consumption. Like Carson, he knows that the long run is left to those who know to hold off and save it for the stretch. He’s not the one to wing it up toward the sun or to kill the audience a thousand times and himself last. When he works an audience, Letterman works at half speed so that he can generate while he goes; it’s the broadcast tradition of the talker. He goes on and on when he works, sending tendrils out into an audience, practicing. Just a funny guy is David L., just a firm hand who keeps his hostility in check, unsheathing, like Carson, a measured fury, and this restraint is what entitles him to the right to endure in a television age. Someone’s yelling “Hey-yo!” at Letterman, and because of that, all of that, NBC is paying him one million dollars a year. Letterman will inherit the air and the cables, gather his resources, and almost never reach for the emergency weapon—the lethal anger behind the sheet of glass—that the smartest ones keep in reserve for the moment of crisis when they doubt, and so need to demonstrate, that they are unchallengeably in charge of their audience.
If you dig Richard Pryor, go get Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor and David and Joe Henry’s Furious Cool. Listen to Pryor’s best albums–”Craps”, “That Nigger’s Crazy”, “Is It Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert”. (If you’ve never seen it you should watch “Live in Concert”–perhaps the finest filmed stand up performance of them all–or any number of his better movies: Blue Collar, The Mack, Greased Lightning, Which Way is Up?, Lady Sings the Blues, Stir Crazy.
In the meantime, check out “Richard Pryor Is the Blackest Comic Of Them All” by our pal Mark Jacobson. Originally published in New West, August 30, 1976, it is re-printed here with the author’s permission.
The zooty mobiles are rolling slow and sweet up the Strip. In front of the Roxy there’s style a block long. Hats, satin, dudes with their names rhinestoned on their eyeglass lenses, jumpsuits emblazoned with the word “coke,” denim cut every which way: an impressive preen of edgy cool. Inside his rose-decked dressing room, Richard Pryor feels the electric vibes. His leg is stiffed up like the beginnings of a really good nut, his back creaks, and maybe he’ll throw up. A bad case of the comic’s hazard: fear of not being funny.
Tonight, however, Richard is sweating double; his underwear is a mess. Tonight he’s going to record his new album, “Bicentennial Nigger.” A good title. For Richard, who once was accorded an honorary degree from San Jose State in “black street history,” has an unwavering eye for the doings of the past 200 years. He is also the man who took the word “nigger” — once feared like Godzilla by the liberal black and white communities, but always legal tender in street language — and made it his trademark.
Even so, Richard thinks about the people in line and gets sicker. He knows niggers don’t let you fudge; every space you leave they’re bound to fill it up with some sort of rap to make you cringe. And outside everyone knows the scene, too. They’ll be looking extra hard to see if this Pryor nigger is as crazy as ever.
Crazy. Hustlers who never got to die of natural causes and sharks floating around the pool halls of Peoria, Illinois, screamed, “Nigger, you crazy!” at Richard years ago. It was the old story; Richard couldn’t fight so he was funny. Fell on the floor, did impersonations, a regular ghetto jester. The name stuck. Now you find plenty of housewives bounding into the black middle-class calling Richard Pryor a crazy nigger. Mostly they say it when they hear Richard’s albums. And get an earful of Pryor’s “characters” — crazy niggers all. There are cats like Oilwell: six feet, five inches, 242 pounds of man, a police-punching-type nigger who’d bite a dude’s privates to keep from being fooled with. And the junkie, the kid who used to be the smartest nigger in town — he could book numbers without the aid of paper or pencil — but now he can’t even remember his name. No mistake that Richard’s most famous record is called “That Nigger’s Crazy”: After all, who ever heard a nigger talk like a nigger and get away with it?
“That Nigger’s Crazy,” despite a little X-rated sticker on the cellophane, became the first comedy record in recent years to break into the top twenty on the charts. Sold a million pieces — enough to “go platinum” — a precious metal indeed. Pryor’s next, “Is It Something I Said?” — the one with a picture of Richard being burned at the stake by men in hoods — did as well. Richard now might be sweating in his dressing room, but “Bicentennial Nigger” is already assured of “shipping gold” — $1 million worth. Stats like that make Pryor the largest selling comedy artist in America.
But all that is doodly-squat compared to what’s coming. Sometime last year, Richard decided that being a crazy nigger on vinyl wasn’t enough. He turned down more than a million smackers worth of concert gigs to become a movie star. People around him said, “But Richard, we don’t have any movie offers.” Pryor, one of those vision-seeing niggers, told them to cool it, the pictures would come. He was right, of course. If you spend any time at all watching movies in the next year, you should be able to trace Richard Pryor’s mellow face from memory. Right now, you can see him as a barnstorming baseball player in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. He just wrapped Silver Streak, in which he played opposite Gene Wilder. Before that he was a Reverend Ike type in Car Wash. Now he’s off making Greased Lightning with Michael Schultz in Georgia. At the end of the year he’ll do — get this — the Giancarlo Giannini part in Which Way Is Up? a semi-remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Seduction of Mimi. Next year, Pryor has already blocked time for the lead in Paul Schrader’s new depresso opus, Blue Collar, the story of assembly line workers in Detroit.
Check those names: Schrader, Wertmüller, Wilder. These aren’t Superfly projects. This crazy nigger has broken into the big leagues. And more scripts come in all the time. Not that Richard can accept any for a while. A couple of weeks ago, Universal, tossing around phrases like “uniquely talented” and “bankable,” signed Richard to a six-picture, multi-million-dollar deal. Pryor will offer his services as both screenwriter and actor. Company officials say It is the first such contract in the studio’s history.
All of which makes Richard Pryor one hell of a potential corporate nigger. Being the biggest-selling comedy artist in America and a movie star too is quite a parlay. And Richard’s got the accessories to prove It. A demure Mercedes, a classy brown and gold office for Richard Pryor Productions complete with a fishbowl full of exotic underwater plants, a lawyer who used to be partners with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, a full staff of frontmen and go-fers to shield him from prying eyes and push his T-shirts, and a brand new house in the Valley. Richard is especially fond of the Northridge house, which he is currently redecorating. After years of hotel rooms and rented cottages, at last he’s got a safe place. Stability is strange to Richard: The first month or so after moving in, he had dreams of men carrying briefcases coming to the door and saying, “You mean you own this house, Mr. Pryor?” But now that dream doesn’t recur. Richard says, “I feel secure, more than ever, maybe for the first time.”
Until tonight, that is. Being a star is terrific, but when you’ve got to go out on stage to face 500 niggers, knees get weak. Especially curious niggers. Tonight they’ll be asking a reasonable question: Can perhaps the hottest personality in Hollywood — white, black, or polka dot, as the old civil rights marcher used to say — be a crazy street nigger, too?
No doubt Richard used to be crazy. It seems as if everyone hoisting a tequila sunrise at Hollywood parties has at least one Richard Pryor horror story. There are tales of how Richard stabbed his landlord with a fork, jeers about Pryor’s supposed predilection for smashing women about his apartment, knowing smiles about his fabled Hoover-suck intake of cocaine. Pryor’s failures to show up for appointments, even dates to tell jokes on the Ed Sullivan Show, are the stuff of showbiz folklore. After all, who could be crazy enough to forget to show up for a Sullivan shot?
But then again, what do you expect of someone who claims to have been born in a Peoria whorehouse, says his father died in the saddle, and speaks of being kicked out of school for hitting teachers? Not to mention knowing all the bad news “characters” that Richard talks about on his records. That kind of background inspires gossip. But a little investigation reveals certain facts. Pryor did indeed miss a few Sullivan shows, once choosing instead to stay home to try out his new 16mm movie equipment. He did snort enough coke to “buy Peru” — sometimes $100 worth a day. He collects guns. He was sued for wife-beating. Also for knocking around a hotel clerk. Did a turn in the slams for not paying taxes on yearly earnings of nearly a quarter of a million.
Last week, however, around the Silver Streak set, you could see the difference a few years make. Pryor sat in an old XKE mounted on a platform and acted a scene with Gene Wilder in front of a process screen. Studio hotshots hovered. All of them seemed to be talking about how Richard hadn’t missed a day of shooting, how he’s never forgotten a line, how he “hasn’t been a problem of any kind.” They sounded relieved. In Hollywood, everyone knows the Pryor legend.
As for Richard himself, the man is looking good. No more dissipation or benders for this cat. Now Pryor is into health foods. Vitamins, too. “I’m through actively messing with my body,” Richard says like a born-again Californian. It’s paying off in many ways; a nice-looking lady in a perfect jumpsuit just told Richard how much weight he’s lost. From the smile on Pryor’s face, you figure lettuce means more to him today than a good freeze. About the old days, Pryor gets a little more solemn. Just thinking about that lunacy makes his body literally quake, like the first jolt from the Quentin death house. Looking at the ceiling, he says, “I was just a kid then. That was before I changed.”
Whether Richard has actually changed is hard to tell, but there was a night when he started to go in another direction. It was an evening in 1970 when Pryor — then 30 — was telling jokes at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Richard was doing a typical show for him in those days: fairytale parodies, army jokes, talk show routines. It was the way Richard had worked since coming out of Peoria in the early sixties, except that he had dropped his second-rate Sammy Davis Jr. impression. That was the way Richard thought he had to work. People who knew told him if you were a black man who liked to play for $5,000 poker pots like Pryor did, then you should tell jokes like Bill Cosby, because the I Spy black man was the kind of Negro white folks wouldn’t mind coming to their door to sell encyclopedias. So it went for Pryor; renowned as the baddest dude in the desert, he played it harmless for the tourists. It helped him pick up a couple of movie roles, like the fifteen-year-old drummer in Chris Jones’s Wild in the Streets rock band, but something told Richard he was heading for insanity.
The craziness built inside of him until that night at the Aladdin when Richard blew it, or so it seemed. What happened is the pith of Pryor legend, a great Richard story, better because it’s true. Someday, after Pryor becomes a major movie star, someone will paint it as part of a series entitled “Showbiz Nightmares.” The picture will have Pryor reeling around the stage in his evening clothes, asking himself aloud, “What the fuck am I doing here?” and then walking off in the wrong direction. The tourists, all wearing corsages in the shape of cabbages, will look confused and horrified. The cigar-chomping owners will be screaming, telling Richard he’ll never work Vegas again.
Pryor missed that six grand a week, sure, but he didn’t care if he ever played Vegas again. He made an artist’s choice, and an artist he was going to be. That meant being “himself” and extending his act past the usual boundaries of stand-up. The last few years in Vegas, Pryor had begun to think in terms of “characters,” or assuming the personas of people he thought made meaningful statements about what it meant to be black in a white world: For Richard, these were winos, preachers, tough guys, and fakers. The typical black street scene, one he knew well. Vegas wasn’t buying that. So Pryor packed his coke spoon and went off to a place where the rules were slightly more bent: Berkeley. He took a little pad by the freeway — a $110 special — and “woodshedded” for nearly a year to bring together his new vision. For Pryor, it was a wonderful time. “It was when I got naked; I just sat in my house and didn’t come out until I was ready.”
When he finally did work again, Richard was a different sort of comic. Not only was he black, but he was real. Also real dirty. His first “new” album, some funky baggage called “Craps After Dark” (still in many ways his funniest), recorded for the fly-by-night Laff label, had Pryor saying things like, “Winos, winos know Jesus Christ…. They say ‘Yeah, nigger runs the elevator down the Jefferson Hotel.’ ” This was weird stuff, no lie. He talked about niggers at police lineups. Niggers who get caught with their pants down by irate fathers. He introduced several “characters,” including Black Bertha, “the 300-pound woman with the 280-pound-ass.” Richard said all the words you weren’t supposed to. No way to hide the teeth of it, either; this was black comedy for a black audience, and Whitey came in for his lumps. Example: “They don’t give a nigger a chance. Jackson Five be singing their ass off, they be talking about The Osmond Brothers… motherfuckin’ Osmond Brothers.” Forget Vegas now; TV too. Pryor burned up all the bridges. Just to make sure, he ended the record with a bit about how he took off all his clothes and ran around the casino, jumping on the gambling tables to scream, “BLACK, JACK!”
Defiance, to be sure. And who would have figured it would have worked out so sweet for Pryor? A few years ago, Richard could have wound up going back to Peoria to sit on the stoop and tell kids about how he was a great rebel who got crushed. Credit the black middle-class with changing the scenario. They had the money to spend and weren’t so deep into bedroom sets that they couldn’t relate to what Richard was putting down. No coincidence that Pryor’s big break came in that all-time great black middle-class movie, Lady Sings the Blues. Ostensibly a screen bio of Billie Holiday, the picture was the phoniest thing to come down the pike since Sal Mineo got addicted to grass in The Gene Krupa Story. But Pryor, in the role of Diana Ross’s hophead piano player and armed with firsthand knowledge, gave perhaps the most convincing portrayal ever of being stoned on the screen. People said he stole the show; you don’t grow up one generation out of the ghetto and not know when someone’s smashed or when they’re just acting silly. Seeing a black man acting real on the screen was so unusual at the time that most audiences pronounced it “crazy.” All of which neatly paved the way for Richard’s “That Nigger’s Crazy” album.
Crazy like a fox, maybe. Because when you compare Pryor’s success to that of the other big-time black comics, it tells an interesting story. Cosby, Pryor’s old idol-adversary, is cuter than ever; even if he’s got a hokey variety show coming up this fall, he seems to have reached his natural metier doing peachy-keen Del Monte commercials. Redd Foxx, the classic black X-rated comic, has made his big killing. But now he’s more Fred Sanford than Redd Foxx, and people say Foxx gets pissed when they won’t let him get dirty in Vegas. Dick Gregory did the honorable thing by running back and forth for peace, but it makes you wonder if he wouldn’t have more effect had he stood up on television more often. As for Godfrey Cambridge and Slappy White, where are they?
There was probably just a small opening for all that talent anyway. Pryor found it. And most likely it all comes back to Richard’s willingness to call a spade a spade, so to speak. While the TV dials have been full of watered-down black street life since the “ethnic shows” got on the air, Pryor has remained hard. Too hard for TV, a medium he doesn’t do well anyhow, except for rare shots like Lily Tomlin specials. Using the word “nigger” was the masterstroke. It aced him out of the mainstream, plus it made it quite clear where his racial allegiance lay. Everyone knows white people are not allowed to say that word. But, mostly, he was good. His “characters” are the essence of hanging-out humor. They’re languid, more improvisatory, with more emphasis on performance than the punch line. And in the characters, Pryor found a basic difference between black humor and Jewish humor. Which is why he is the first comic to make meaningful strides past the humor of Lenny Bruce.
* * * * *
Add all that up. The legend and the success. And it prints out into one dynamite image: the crazy nigger who had the courage to say no to bullcrap and come back bigger than ever on his own terms. It should be bottled and sold to politicians.
All the ingredients for a hero. And the other night at the Comedy Store, the showcase for young ha-ha merchants on Sunset, you could witness the worship. Not one of the several black comics didn’t use the word nigger. Every comic, all races, including even American Indian, did Pryor-like characters. But the show really began when Richard himself made an unscheduled appearance. Most everything Richard does is unscheduled: Change or no change, many of his activities still tend to have a fluid quality. Still, the word passes fast in the Hollywood Hills, and a half-hour before Pryor pulled up, scores of fly-looking people poured in. Big-shots, too. Redd Foxx peeked through the curtain; Freddie Prinze sat by the bar. Freddie is a special Pryor fan. Once he said he really felt like he was happening because he was staying in the same room Pryor once had. And as soon as Richard pops on stage wearing a white gangster hat (Richard: “Hats are good for your attitude; niggers love hats; when you ain’t got no money, you gotta get yourself an attitude”), Freddie starts punching people in the arm, screaming, “He’s the best, he’s the goddamn best…. Man, Pryor knows what’s right; he’s paid all the dues. If I could get five minutes like any of his stuff, I’d come for months.”
Pryor, who says he really likes Jonathan Winters, digs the admiration, but he’s wary. “Nice that they say they love me, but I see it like the Western movies, just the young gunfighters waiting for the old man to slow up.” But then again, Richard Pryor is always wary. The horror seasons in Vegas and the exile that followed did more than turn him into a gun collector; they hurt his heart, too. Richard is not the trusting sort. Every once in a while he’ll chill you with a statement like, “You know me; I’m cool until you lie to me, then I get bad.”
Pryor is probably a poor choice to cross. The other day Mel Brooks came by the Silver Streak set. Mel and Richard once had business dealings. Pryor wrote a script called Black Bart that Brooks eventually made into Blazing Saddles. Richard is not anxious to talk about it, but the story goes that Pryor expected to get the lead part in the film. Then Brooks supposedly got cold feet when Warner Brothers contended that Pryor’s coke rep made him too unsavory a character to be a star. Cleavon Little copped the role. Richard was further depressed when Mel garnered all the applause for the picture (especially after the movie was a tremendous smash with blacks who related to many of Pryor’s joke lines). It made Richard cry. But today he’s doing his best to keep a stiff upper. Mel is playing his Yid imp around the set, paling around with Gene Wilder. Richard is polite. Polite even when Mel cuffs him around the neck, saying that Richard is “wonderful and talented” even if he isn’t Jewish. Richard arranges his face into smiling position and even manages a Sammy Davis-style breakup for one of Mel’s funnies. But as soon as Wilder and Brooks disappear, Pryor makes a sneer and collapses sourly on his dressing room bed.
For Pryor, the Blazing Saddles number had racial overtones. In Richard’s world, everything has racial overtones. On the “That Nigger’s Crazy” album, Pryor’s wino tries to rally the spaced junkie back to this planet by saying, “Boy, you know what your problem is? You don’t know how to deal with the white man. I do, that’s why I’m in the position I am in today.” That’s Richard at his best, applying the touching irony. A combination of hip and poetry — a guy who knows every street word and still wants to discuss John Hersey books about Hiroshima. But ironic, too, that the more Pryor becomes a mainstream success, the more dealings he’ll have with the white man. By now a large segment of his audience has to be white. In that there are problems. Much of his white-black comparison routine is tiresome. Pryor will do seemingly endless portrayals of blacks as vital, hip, and honorable under fire while whites are all stewardess-sterile and have the style of accountants. A common harp, but a white person would have to be terribly guilty to accept much of it. Pryor shrugs off such criticism, saying, “It’s just characters.”
No doubt, however, that Pryor’s crazy nigger legend comes in handy. It helps him frighten press agents and other unwanted types away from his door. Tough attitudizing is old-hat for Pryor; he knows he only has to squint to send Beverly Hills souls running.
But there’s a more subtle, poignant side to Pryor’s relationship with the white world. There should be for a man with an obvious capacity for great love who’s twice been married to white women. You can see it in Pryor’s acting in Bingo Long. Richard plays Charlie Snow, a black ballplayer in the pre-Jackie Robinson days who desperately wants to make “El Bigtime,” the white leagues. He figures if he pretends he’s Cuban, no one will notice that he’s black, so he goes around talking like Ricardo Montalban. The ruse succeeds in getting Richard battered about by a passel of baddies. The moral could be easy, but Pryor’s sensitivity to the issues of power longing and self-doubt in his character make for bittersweet moments.
Very complicated and painful stuff. Let’s say Pryor is easier to hang out with than to ask questions of. “I hate interviews,” Pryor says. “Let’s hang out.” So we hang out at Denny’s while Richard eats chef’s salads and breaks up at the way David Banks, his record producer, gently pulls an old waitress’s leg by asking her what she’s doing after work. No one laughs as picturesquely as Pryor when he’s hanging out. If you make a funny, Pryor’s on it in a second. Immediately, he’s gagging from the bottom of his throat, his hands are shaking, his eyes tumbling. If he’s standing up, his feet stamp and he bends from the waist. If he’s sitting down, he lets his butt slip off the chair until his chin rests against the table top. Genuflecting for the jokes. But the man is thinking all the time; picking up rap. The other day he quizzed me about a story I once did about rough kids in Chinatown. A few nights later the whole spiel was in his Comedy Store routine.
The best hanging out we did was the night of the Ali-Inoki fight. Some cats on the Silver Streak set told Pryor that this could be the night Muhammad finally had his ass whipped. The idea threw Pryor into a cold sweat so he bought sixteen $25 tickets so that the champ would have a solid rooting section at the Hollywood Palladium where the closed-circuit was showing. After a bunch of phone calls, people like Jim Brown — looking more massive than ever — showed up to watch the battle. The fight was a total dog. The wrestler lay on the canvas all fifteen rounds, hoping to kick Ali in the kneecap. The lack of action was getting Jim and Richard pissed off. “What the champ gonna do?” Richard said, “Jump on him and screw him?” There was one great moment. Yelling at his corner, Ali blurted, “Shut up, motherfucker!” into an open mike. That mangled Richard’s brain cells. His feet started moving, his mouth was gagging, and he couldn’t sit down for five minutes. Later it was agreed that this was the first time such a word had been said on an outerspace satellite.
This week, Richard is too antsy even to hang out. It seems strange that a comic who’s been on the boards for fifteen years should be as nervous before a performance as Pryor is tonight, but there are solid reasons. Right now, Richard is in the middle of his “transition.” Last year, before cutting “Is It Something I Said?” Pryor worked the Comedy Store every night for six weeks. He polished the characters until they were perfect — so perfect that he could throw away the original stories, improvise madly, and still have it come out right every time. But that was before the movies hit — when Pryor only had one career to worry about.
Now, for “Bicentennial Nigger,” Pryor has done the Store a total of three times. He couldn’t help it; he was shooting Silver Streak until a few days ago. The Roxy gig has already been rescheduled twice so Richard could have more time to “get his head ready.” He hopes it comes out right the first time, too, because three days after the show he’s leaving to do another movie. Preparation is a comic fallback, good to have when the gags muff, even for someone like Pryor. His major new character — a preacher who gives a sermon entitled “How Long Will This Bullshit Go On?” — is not nearly worked out. But Richard is loath to spend more time. For him, life as a stand-up could be drawing to a close.
“Can’t do this forever,” Richard says. “I don’t really want to go around the country playing clubs, seeing cities. I did that already. I have this new house. I want to stay put and do films.” It was inevitable. Anyone who sees Richard’s theatrics on stage can tell that stand-up is restricting for him. That’s what the Vegas beef was partly about. Richard’s imagination is too big for the one-man-show shtick: Besides, Pryor has always been a tremendous movie fan. Asked what he sees, he says, “Whatever’s advertised.” Comic Jimmie Walker, another Pryor disciple, remembers hanging out with Richard. All they did was go to grind houses. Richard has been translating his passions into film scripts for years. And now, with the Universal deal, he’ll be free to do what he wants. More to it than that: Pryor says, “Hey Jack, saw Logan’s Run the other day; twenty-third century, but there wasn’t no niggers in it. Guess they’re not planning for us to be around. That’s why we got to make our own movies.”
Quite a ways from the twenty-third century to the Roxy tonight. Well, maybe not that far. Black Hollywood is out for Pryor, and space-age outfits abound. Minnie Riperton has a Martian hairdo; Smokey Robinson is dressed like a Sunset Cossack. White people look sharp too; record industry types really lay on the turquoise bracelets when they know they’re going to party with blacks. And as soon as Richard ambles on stage, rather timidly, he acknowledges the Caucasian presence. “WHITE PEOPLE!” he shouts in mock horror. The scream must be primal, because it seems to loosen him up. It’s a hip crowd; they all know the Pryor legend. They titter when Pryor mentions white women, applaud when he talks about coke. Richard is doing well, especially with a bit based on Jim Brown’s version of the Ali-Inoki fight. But so far it’s all fairly sedate.
The audience knows what it wants: Pryor can act in Lina Wertmüller movies next week, but tonight they’re looking for a crazy nigger. Cheers are heard when a guy shouts, “Get crazy, man!” Pryor looks at the heckler with a sly smile, then stamps his feet and screams, “What you talking, nigger, want to fight?” The challenge has been voiced and met. But Pryor really sticks it when he introduces black actress Rosalind Cash with a standard laudatory show biz patter and tops it with, “Wish I could get some of that pussy!” That’s gall. Rosalind giggles. And the heckler surrenders in stitches: “Richard, goddamn!”
The place breaks up; Pryor, too. Now people are calling for Mudbone. If Richard creates any lovable characters, Mudbone has got to be the one. One of those history-knowing niggers, Mudbone is full of old stories about how he came up from Tupelo, Mississippi, way back when. He’s one of those cats who’re lying all the time, but looking at their faces tells you they’re authentic, as if just “being around” imbues them with a certain trust.
A typical Mudbone story is the one about the two dudes boasting about the size of their respective organs. They decide to settle it with a dangling contest off the Golden Gate Bridge. “Man, that water’s cold!” says the first. “Yeah,” agrees the second. “And it’s deep. too!”
Tonight there’s a special Bicentennial Mudbone. Except for the two opening lines, the whole routine is different. Richard makes the whole thing up on the spot. Lines like, “Jimmy Carter! I ain’t votin’ for anybody that owns a plantation!” The crowd goes mad and gives him a standing ovation.
Later, Richard says, “See, I can’t do the same thing over and over again. Even Mudbone changes.” After which he drives away in his spanky Mercedes, heading for the movies.
“I thoroughly disapprove of gambling,” actor Walter Matthau explains primly as he whooshes toward Hollywood Park racetrack in his bronze Mercedes at 80 mph. “But I’m too rich and it’s good for me to lose.” He chuckles wickedly, rolling his eyes like dice. “Actually, I wallow in the pain of it all. It’s like an expensive psychoanalysis.”
“Big Walts,” as he is known, is Hollywood’s most flamboyant loser—one way or another he drops about $75,000 a year. “He will bet on anything,” says a Walter-watcher. “Sunspot cycles, mouse races, toenail-growing contests.” But the nags get most of his action, and on rough days L.A. horse-players see some Oscar-worthy Matthau performances.
“There he is!” the gateman cheers when Matthau arrives, and the actor does a little ramble through the turnstile. Once upstairs at the Turf Club dining level, Matthau airily dopes the daily double, then goes off to plunge $200 on Perla in the first race (“a shoo-in”) and War Souvenir in the second. A waitress arrives at the table Matthau is sharing with the track physician, Robert Kerlan. Matthau inquires about the chow mein. “Any roaches in it, Velma? Don’t like roaches. Too many calories.”
Cee’s Flair wins the first race. Matthau groans and claws his dewlaps. “Jerk! Why do you come here?” he asks himself. “Wasn’t one coronary enough?” (Matthau is referring to his 1966 heart attack.) Lunch arrives. Matthau stares at it. “I don’t know what it is, but I’d rather eat it than step in it.” Leaning close to a table mate, he mutters earnestly, “Do you think [film critic] Pauline Kael has put a curse on me?” After he bets War Souvenir again, Swordville wins a 30-to-1 shot. As the horses parade before the third race, Matthau whips out his field glasses. “Look for one with a bowed neck!” he whispers fiercely. “A horse with a bowed neck is a horse with confidence!” Dropping his glasses, he leers. “Though what I really like is a horse with a shapely ass.”