I never said the word vagina in public until my parents were dead. That’s why you probably never heard of me.
Center stage: Comedy U, mid-town Manhattan. Spotlight on me and my jokes.
“Some people have stage presence. I have stage absence. In school, I was voted most likely to be forgotten. The teachers called me “Um.”
Thrilled to be in front of an audience, I felt the hot lights on my face. As the crowd laughed long and loud, it seemed as if the room had embraced me in a loving hug. Nothing like a great set to make me feel fearless. Afterwards, taking compliments and congratulations from well-wishers, I grabbed my coat and left the club after midnight.
On nights like tonight that ran late, I’d ask a fellow comic if I could go home with them and sleep on their couch, then train home to Brooklyn in daylight. But after a few months of that, I’d now run out of couches.
I had to take the subway. Walking alone through the chilly April wind, my adrenaline surged as my heart beat kept pace with the clickety-clack of my spike heels on cement. One foot, then the other, echoing a half block away as I race-walked the five blocks to the urine-scented subway for a 45-minute ride home on the F train.
I was 25, with , big permed hair and, enormous shoulders thanks to the oversized pads I tucked into every garment. It was 1981, the most violent year for crime in New York City. A mugging was more common than a celebrity sighting. I may have had a big mouth and big dreams for a comedy career, thinking nothing could harm me when I was on stage, but my courage shrank on the streets. And with the spin of the subway turnstile, I went from fearless to fearful.
Old muggers don’t die; they just steal away.
My orchestrated plan to avoid muggers was dressing in my “Ugly-Up-Get-Up” the shabbiest of coats over my nice club outfit, appearing to have the fashion sense of a bag woman. Carrying all money inside the coat, with no purse in evidence, I sat in the middle car of the train, near the conductor. Solo on the desolate ride, if anyone approached me, I’d start singing loudly about the solar system (Moon Over Miami was my favorite song/rant, encompassing both) so potential muggers would think I was insane.
The near-empty train chugged along the tracks as I worried about my safety, always anticipating the worst.
While my F train lingered at the West 4th Street station, waiting for it’s D train connection, I replayed the evening’s show in my head. How did I get to be in a smelly subway car around midnight after loitering in smoke filled comedy clubs with wacky guys?
My mother blamed my dad, a former comic, for my pursuits. In an era before Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, the Amys (Poehler and Schumer) or Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, my ambitions to write, direct, and star had but one role model: Elaine May. After an accomplished career in nightclubs, comedy records and TV, May was an idol to every funny girl my age. In 1963 Dad used to wake me up close to midnight to see the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May on The Jack Paar Show on our black-and-white television. A sleepy, pajama-clad second-grader, I was mesmerized watching her. Whip-smart, in a little black dress, May caused the all-male cast on the show to roar with laughter. Daddy had no idea that during our special times in front of the TV, when we were bonding in comedy, I was also setting a goal for my adult life.
When I was twelve, Dad and I saw A New Leaf, a movie in which Elaine May starred, wrote, and directed, on one of our cherished Saturday afternoon movie-and-a-meal dates. Although Dad’s comedy career ended in his twenties, his knowledge and opinions about the comedy business shaped my own.
Afterwards at a Chinese restaurant, he said, “You’re funny, kid. You saw what she did on screen. You could do that, too.”
Those words were emblazoned on my psyche for years. Dad neglected to mention, however, that I’d need lots of other people, bags of money, and most of all, unrelenting chutzpah—to turn my chubby, funny self into a funny girl onscreen.
Sadly, I was the roundest and most graceless in Madame Benet’s ballet class, where each girl had to leap into the air and then effortlessly tumble. Madame stood tall, inscrutable, black leotard, toe shoes, and that bun pulled painfully tight at the top of her head. She tapped her long wooden pointer as every girl began her tumble, counting the beats, “a one, two, three,” until each girl stood again.
Not me. Flat on my ass on the floor, legs in the air, I couldn’t get my chubby legs over my head. I was mortified as my body veered to the left or right, never quite overhead.
“Again, one, two, three.” Madame insisted. My legs were unresponsive. “One, two, three.” My body heated up with tension and embarrassment as my classmates stared at me. Just then, Madame Benet, and her trusty pointer, pounded down on the hardwood floor, again, again. Still, I was hopeful that on the next try, my legs would swing over my head. Meanwhile, Madame hit her pointer so hard, her impeccable bun was starting to unravel, as was she. After about five minutes of watching me fail, she retreated. “Let’s just move on.”
I told Mom about this, hoping she’d put a stop to my humiliations.
“It’s important to get rid of your klutziness. Ballet can turn you from a klutz into a swan.”
My dad tried to be sympathetic in the only way he knew how—with corny humor.
“A chubby girl doesn’t wear a two-two. It’s a four-four,” he said.
Compared to that, telling jokes in front of a roomful of strangers on a brightly lit stage didn’t seem scary. And years later, after hearing so many stories about my Dad performing in clubs and my watching Jack Parr, The Ed Sullivan Show, Woody Allen movies, and comedy everywhere, I decided this was my dream.
Meanwhile, still sitting in a blindingly bright subway car, trying not to be nervous or look at anyone, I ate raisins one at a time, like a chipmunk, to appear insane, and be left alone.
Two young punks running through the car, slowed to look at me. Fearing getting mugged on the train, head down, I struggled out loud with new jokes.
“I used to be so fat, they called me a Behemoth babe the size of a BUICK. Behemoth BABE the size of a Buick. BEHEMOTH babe the size of a Buick.”
The punks laughed, gesturing that I was crazy. Then they exited the car. Relieved, I stopped eating raisins. Just four more stops.
Finally at my train stop, I rushed up the stairs of the desolate station to the street. Gusts of wind swirled through trees as I passed gated storefronts and groups of men congregating on the corners along the barely lit Church Avenue to home. As a chill brushed my cheek, the memory of my show’s laughter warmed me when a room full of strangers adored me. Now, I wished there was someone at my side to walk with me. Turning the corner to Ocean Parkway, house keys in hand, the warmth waned. This was the part of stand-up I hated—the profound after-show loneliness—the emotional crash of life alone in my studio apartment.
I hated being solo, with my inner voice screeching unrelenting criticisms.
“You idiot, you’re not funny enough. You blew that punch line. The neurotic guy with the mother issues, his set three comics before you, he could have saved it. He’s a crazy jerk, hungry for more stage time than you. He’s out six nights a week. Do you want this badly enough to keep coming back night after night? Can you do it all, clown girl?”
After the death of disco, New York City was a hotbed of new comedy—and male comedians (geeks, nerds, misfits, and man-children). The club scene was a man’s world where “girl comics” were allowed to participate, but not be taken seriously. Small clubs and restaurants needed performers yearning for stage time.
I’d worked my way through school writing jokes for other comedians, with plenty of gags to spare, but I wanted to tell my own. Dad, my comedy cheerleader agreed. When I’d started college, he’d waltz into my room early on Sunday morning mornings carrying a brown paper bag brimming with hot bagels, shaking the bag under my nose to rouse me, stirring the smells of fresh garlic and onions, saying, “Get out of the rag business. Become a comedian, your true calling. And don’t forget to find a husband.” He called this “bagel hypnosis.”
Dad was a Catskills comic in his early 20s, in the 1940s. His agent, Rose, also booked gigs for him at dinner theaters and supper clubs in Brooklyn and Manhattan, like Leon and Eddies, where food was served on fine china with cloth napkins and waiters wore tuxedos. That sounds worlds classier than working in dive bars, like me. Rose had two other comedians she booked on the circuit; Irwin Alan Kniberg, who became a comedy success as Alan King and Leonard Hacker who had a great comedy career as Buddy Hackett. In that era Jews either changed their names or their noses or both, to be accepted in the Gentile world. Rose revised Dad’s name too, from Al Schindler to Hal Chant. Sadly, neither Hal nor Al was as successful as Alan or Buddy or his other contemporaries Stubby Kaye, who went on to star in the original Guys and Dolls or Sammy Shore, comedian, club owner, and father of Pauly Shore. But Dad was happy, telling jokes in his comedy life, until his father made him quit and get an “adult job.” Former comedians may stop performing, but they don’t stop being funny. He hoped someone, somewhere in his world, would work in comedy and he was banking on me. So for me, performing was the natural progression of my comedy education, the way the son of a dentist goes into the family business.
“As I look into your faces, I see your faces need looking into.” That was a line from Dad’s act in the Catskills, years before I was born. Goofy to me, but he said it sparked laughter.
My first night onstage was at an open-mike night at a club called Good Times. The room brimmed with underworld bravado, like an early Scorsese film. Dark, ugly faces appeared interesting. I had a hard—or should I say, flat-out impossible—act to follow, the kind of “talent” many comedians have nightmares about. The comic, a guy dressed in one of those shiny, printed Huckapoo disco shirts from the late ‘70s—same era it was last washed—jumped on the dimly lit stage, cleared his throat and began reading from a small box in his hands.
“For relief of occasional constipation or bowel cleansing before rectal examinations.” Then he opened the box and continued reading. “Lie on left side with knee bent, arm resting comfortably.” He assumed the position. Curled up on his side, when he said the word insert, the crowd went wild. Maybe his comedy hero was Andy Kaufman, that was my only justification for why someone would read enema directions as their act. How could the audience find this funny?
“Why can’t I follow someone who has actual jokes?” I whispered to another comic for validation and a consolatory smile. There’s fight or flight. I chose a third way: complain.
Up next, I had no choice. I thought, “I should get in a cab right now.” Heart pounding, I paced the back of the room, longing to flee. Nervously running fingers through my hair, I mumbled my jokes to myself like a Buddhist chant till his set ended. It felt like forever.
Finally, Paul, the MC said, “Next, we have a girl from Brooklyn. Welcome, Arlene.”
I took the stage. The spotlight prevented me from seeing faces in the audience. Looking to the back of the room, I saw myself in a mirror, looking sleek in a black jumpsuit and low-heeled lace-up boots, pleased my hair had cooperated and didn’t frizz, just this once.
“Hey, that’s me!” said my little-girl inner voice in amazement.
“That’s me?” said my doubting inner critic. I almost froze from the thrill of being somewhere I’d always wanted to be. After practicing jokes as a girl in my bedroom, this was my moment. “I only wear designer clothes,” I said into the microphone, unaccustomed to the echo, my mouth too close to the mike. I pulled back. “My favorite designer is final sale.”
A few people chuckled.
The sweating began. I felt it drip down my sides and back. My scalp under my permed hair heated up slowly, then fiercely, feeling like a tin of Jiffy Pop popcorn cooking on top of my head. Was I pursuing comedy at the wrong time in a world where timing is everything?
In spite of my discomfort, somehow more jokes tumbled from my mouth, in a surreal out-of-body experience akin to being underwater, (which would have been refreshing). Everyone’s favorite joke from my set was, “I’m a procrastinating bulimic. When I’m ready to purge, it’s already turned to fat.”
I didn’t kill that night—but I didn’t bomb. I was hooked.
I quit a good job as a copywriter at an ad agency to become a gal du jour temp secretary, so I’d be available for auditions, cattle calls, and other forms of soul-crushing that entertainment hopefuls endure.
Think American Idol in a blender, with the top off.