In her book “When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win,” comedian Carol Leifer writes about coming to terms with who she is — including her age. In this excerpt, she shares one of the painful truths about growing older: Losing the people you love.
Chapter one: But this one’s eating my popcorn
My father was a really funny guy. He lived a good long life. And he was the reason I wanted to be funny and become a comedian and a comedy writer, so to say that he’s somewhat of a mythic figure in my life would be an understatement. Every year, I sent my father the same thing, his favorite gift for his birthday. A box of Godiva chocolate-covered nuts. Big emphasis on the nuts. Because, as he was not shy of saying as he unwrapped the cellophane to grab the first piece, “Creams? They’re a waste of time.”
But this year is the first year I have no place to send anything. See, that’s the thing that truly sucks about death — no forwarding address. So on this birthday, which would have been his eighty- seventh, in lieu of a gold box of chocolates, hopefully this story will come in a close second.
I have very clear, distinct memories of looking up to my father holding court and telling jokes when I was a little girl. And for the record? I see now that as a child a lot of “looking up to your parents” has to do with height. So my father would tell jokes mostly at family gatherings or with people around the neighborhood, and I was fascinated by the power of him telling these stories. Now, don’t forget that when you’re a kid, stories are major. A big chunk of your life revolves around them. Granted, they’re mostly about princesses and fairy godmothers, moonbeams and farm animals, but that’s pretty much your iPod at that age. And here was this guy, my relative yet, telling very short stories to people who were standing up — not in bed in their pajamas. Revolutionary! Then at the end of this very short story, he would say this one line, a little more forcefully and pointedly than the rest of the story, and everybody would roar. But that one line was usually when he lost me.
What I came to find out was that these were the punch lines to “dirty” jokes being told. And I learned to distinguish them from clean jokes, because as he approached the punch line — the mystery line to me — the circle around him became that much tighter and smaller.
Here’s a joke I remember my father telling a lot. “A guy goes to the ticket window of a movie theater with a chicken on his shoulder and asks for two tickets. The ticket lady asks who’s going in with him, and the guys says, ‘My pet chicken here.’ ‘Well, I’m sorry,’ the woman tells him, ‘but we don’t allow animals in the movie theater.’ So the guy goes around the corner and stuffs the chicken down his pants. He goes back to the window, buys his ticket, and goes into the theater. But once the movie begins, the chicken starts to get hot, so the guy unzips his pants so the chicken can stick his head out and get a little air. The woman sitting next to the guy in the movies sees this and is appalled. She nudges her friend and whispers, ‘This guy next to me just unzipped his pants!’ The friend whispers back, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.’ And the woman says, ‘I know. But this one’s eating my popcorn!’ ”
Now, as a little girl, the bulk of this joke made sense. “Chicken” — sure, I was made to eat that quite a bit. “Chicken as a pet” — never seen it, but I’d buy it; I’d just bought “a cow jumping over the moon” the previous night. “Movies” — fun, mostly when they were cartoons. “Popcorn” — love it, but to get those two tightwads I lived with to spring for any outside of the house, good luck. But then that damn punch line! What gives? My older brother alluded to it being a penis joke, but all I heard mentioned was a chicken and a zipper. Forget “Why did the chicken cross the road?” How did the chicken become a schmeckle?! So there was always this mystery to comedy when I was a kid that made it so appealing to me.
But besides jokes, my father was just naturally funny. He had his version of the world and he always felt things should be done in a certain way. Kind of like the Farmer’s Almanac, but the Jewish edition. Like when we would go to Fortunoff, a popular home store on Long Island, he would park the car really far away in the lot. “You see, this way, nobody dings your car and I get a good walk in.” Or his philosophy on weight gain: “When my pants start to feel a little snug, I cut out the cake at night.”
I remember once when I was trying to get my parents to come out to L.A. to visit me, I offered to buy them plane tickets. My father was adamant, “No, no!” “Dad, look, if you come out, I’ll buy you a first-class ticket.” My incredulous father said, “Carol. First class? We’re not drinkers!”
Or when AIDS was first happening in the early eighties and I was at my folks’ house watching a news piece on it, and my father said, “I don’t understand how it gets into the bloodstream.” And I said — quite uncomfortably, I might add — “Dad. From anal sex.” And my father goes, “Anal sex? Carol, they don’t go in there! They simply rest it gently in between the buttocks.” His conception of gay sex was basically a hot dog in a bun.
My father also had an offbeat, quirky way of phrasing things. Like when it was really cold outside, he would say, “It refuses to get warmer.” Not “It won’t get warmer.” It “refuses.” Or if he wanted all the info for an event, he would say, “Give me the particulars.” “Particulars.” Or when he said his favorite phrase to just about anything disappointing that happened in our lives, “I maintain that everything happens for the best.” “I maintain.” It’s just so much better than “I say” or “I believe.”
My father also had a great facility with the “callback” joke. When my marriage many years ago was falling apart, my mother was in complete denial about it. I would call my folks for our weekly Sunday chat, and my mother would invariably interject into the conversation, “And how are the Shydners?” which would make my father lose it. “Anne, they’re splitting up! Stop asking about the Shydners!” So for many years after that, whenever someone made any kind of inane comment, my father would always say, “Yeah, and how are the Shydners?”
My shrink says it’s important not to deify someone when they die, but he’s a killjoy who has to open his big fat trap about everything. But lest I get too sentimental, my father could also, at times, be a really insensitive know-it-all. I once played the Westbury Music Fair opening for Jay Leno, and it was quite a big deal. This was my “hometown” theater, and I can’t tell you how thrilling it is playing the place where, growing up, I’d seen the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and six different versions of the Beach Boys, among others. My father came along to the gig with me, and it was really cool. They had a sign backstage welcoming us and generally made a big fuss over him. I went on and had a great set, and I was ecstatic.
Now, at the time, I was doing this joke about how I had been married for four years, and how the gift for that anniversary is wood. The joke being “Honey, I know you had your eye on that antique necklace, but, heck, you’re so special, I got you twenty yards of one-by- eight.” So when my father saw me after I came offstage, the first thing he said to me was, “Carol, lumber is sold in feet, not in yards.” Not “Congratulations.” Not “You killed!” It was one of those things where he just couldn’t help himself, unfortunately. (Little footnote to this story — the next day, our local newspaper, Newsday, did a review of the show and favorably reviewed Jay and panned me. My father read the review and said, as any good Jew would, “The reviewer is clearly anti-Semitic!”)
My father was an optometrist for sixty years, and he enjoyed his professional life. He never lived his dream of becoming a comedian or a comedy writer. But he was really happy for me that I did, and I never felt one pang of resentment or jealousy from him (the lumber joke notwithstanding). The first time I did the Letterman show, he said he “cried like a baby” when he saw my name listed in the TV section of The New York Times. But whenever I feel bad that he never got to make it professionally, I think about what everyone says to me when they find out that he died. They always say, “He was so funny.” And I think if my father could know that being funny is the first thing people say about him, that would be enough and make him really happy. I know it makes me happy.
Obviously, at this age, I’ve lost people in my life. But with a parent, it’s just different. I was very attached to my father and had this naïve little-girl notion that he’d always be around. So I’m finding acceptance of my father’s death is the hardest thing to accept.
See, I’m one of those people who don’t take no for an answer well. A big kicker and screamer from way back. You want your money back for something? You want some kind of compensation for some bad treatment somewhere? I’m your girl! But that’s what stinks about this whole experience. There’s no manager to ask for. Well, I guess that technically would be God, but come on, he’s got more important stuff on his “to do” list than coming down to customer service for this.
I do wonder whether I’ll get to see my father again. I’m sure most people wonder about this when someone they really love dies. But my father was very matter-of-fact about death. I know he believed that when you go, you go. Heaven was for gentiles. But if he’s wrong, then I think he’ll be sorry that he didn’t make a plan with me. ’Cause a plan would have been right up his alley. “Carol. When you get here, there’s got to be an information booth of some type. So meet me to the left of it. Not right in front of it. That’s where everybody will go. Left. No, facing-the-booth left! And when I see you and kiss that punim of yours, I’ll give you the rest of the particulars.”
Excerpted from “When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win” by Carol Leifer. Copyright © 2009. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.