Life, Death, Comedy

Eighty-year-old Jack Carter stood at the wooden lectern in the New York Hilton’s Grand Ballroom. His hair looked like a mousse of candied yams. “I did waste a lot of energy writing jokes about jams and jellies and preserves,” he said. “I thought we were doing the Schmucker Brothers.” Mr. Carter looked down at the targets of his punchline, Tom and Dick Smothers, and smiled a carnivorous smile. “I love that word, ‘schmuck,'” he said. “That is the best word in the whole world.”

That led to a joke-actually a joke that, like one of those Russian matrioshka dolls, contained a series of smaller jokes inside: “There’s a couple on a cruise ship. And they’re fighting,” Mr. Carter said. “‘You’re a bastard, Bernie. All your life you’re a schmuck!’ the wife tells her husband. ‘You never tell me when you’re having an orgasm.’

“‘Well, you’re never near a phone, you idiot,'” Mr. Carter interjected as the husband.

“‘Why can’t our sex life be like it was 12 years ago?'” the wife shrieked.

“‘Why? Because the maid quit, that’s why,'” replied Bernie.

“You’re a schmuck, Bernie. A schmuck when I met you! A schmuck when I married you in high school! And you’ll be a schmuck till the day you die!'” the wife continued. “‘And if they had a contest for the world’s biggest schmuck, you’d come in second!'”

“‘Why not first?'” Bernie wanted to know.

Replied his wife: “‘It’s because you’re a schmuck!'”

Mr. Carter bared his teeth again as the laughter erupted around him. “You think about that,” he said.

No thinking was required-except, maybe, the realization that the Friars are no schmucks. On the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 4, Mr. Carter and his fellow members held their annual roast-the first since Comedy Central had decided not to renew its five-year agreement to produce and televise the comic bloodletting-and showed that there’s still life beneath the club’s crusty cummerbund. Indeed, in June Comedy Central had taped its own hot-shit approximation of a roast-Denis Leary was the producer and the victim; Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin was the M.C., and Colin Quinn was the best thing about it-but, like Bernie in Mr. Carter’s joke, it finished second to the Friars’ more intimate twitting of the Smothers Brothers. Though neither reached the eviscerative depths of the days when Milton Berle and George Jessel ruled the roast, the Friars gave no ground to the Comedy Central crew. Indeed, though the partnership had been extremely lucrative to the Friars, they seemed relieved to be free of the yoke of national television. No longer did they have to lard the dais with young observational comics for the sake of demographics, or deal with big-name comedy stars who were afraid of working blue on national cable television. There, in the relative privacy of the Hilton ballroom, the Friars could be their filthy, funny, unreconstructed selves, and that comfort level translated into a giddy and, at times, nostalgic vibe that established itself early in the afternoon’s festivities.

Before introducing the massive dais-Chuck Scarborough! Ken Kragen! Julie Budd! Eileen Fulton! Mark Linn-Baker!-Friars dean Freddie Roman acknowledged a number of the club’s more famous members sitting in the audience, including, as he put it, “one of the hottest yentas in show business,” Joy Behar, whose well-publicized Jenny Craig diet has helped her drop a load of weight.

“It’s nice to get $100,000 a pound,” Mr. Roman said in his foghorn voice.

“It’s so I can look fuckable for all you old farts,” Ms. Behar yelled from the audience. “Honey, you were fuckable years ago,” Mr. Roman retorted. “Just ask the New York Giants, the Yankees …. “

The crowd loved it, as they did a few minutes later when Gilbert Gottfried tromped onto the stage in the middle of Mr. Roman’s introductions. Mr. Gottfried, who was wearing what looked like a leather Members Only jacket, had been a scheduled roaster, but had dropped out because of a film commitment. As he surveyed the dais, Mr. Gottfried announced in his parrot-like voice that he was glad he’d be missing the festivities because, given the advanced age of the dais, people would have been saying about him: “Look at the showoff. He sits for five minutes without shitting all over himself.”

Mickey, Stand Up!

Age and death. They’re staples of all Friars roasts, but they loomed larger this time around-at times seeming to overshadow even the guests of honor. The Friars had lost two giants, Milton Berle and Bob Hope, in the past year, and it seemed everywhere you looked in the Hilton ballroom, mortality was staring back. Soupy Sales was shuffling around with a wheeled walker, Joe Franklin was looking a little stiff, and the passing of former Mayor Abe Beame had meant that The Phil Silvers Show’s Mickey Freeman was now the shortest man on the dais-a distinction that Mr. Freeman did not exactly seem thrilled with as the de rigueur cries of “Mickey, stand up!” rose from the audience.

Even Friars abbot Alan King struck a wistful note in his opening remarks by conjuring up the ghost of Friar George Jessel. Mr. King began by telling a joke about how the Smothers Brothers were actually conjoined twins “connected by their cocks” and separated by a surgeon who “gave one a little more cock than the other.” Mr. King looked down at the two brothers after he said this and added: “That’s why he’s gone through life known as Tiny Tommy and he’s the big Dick.”

But then Mr. King took the audience back in time. “I guess it’s not politically correct, but do you know that the Siamese twins were honorary members of the Friars,” Mr. King said. The audience tittered. It wasn’t clear which Siamese twins Mr. King meant-Chang and Eng?-but really it didn’t matter. Sitting around one night, Jessel-“the great George,” as Mr. King called him-“told me that he fucked one of the Siamese twins.” Mr. King was silent as he scanned the audience with his hard, sad eyes. “I thought that was funny enough,” he continued. “But Jessel, in his inimitable style, said, ‘Wait, I didn’t see the girls for three years, but I was walking down Michigan Boulevard and here they come. They walked up and they said, ‘Mr. Jessel, you may not remember us …. ‘”

Jessel’s name would be invoked more than once throughout the afternoon, as would Hope’s and Berle’s, but the roast never got mired in the quicksand of the past, thanks to a handful of comics who understood that nothing banishes thoughts of dying better than killing.

One of those saving graces was the afternoon’s roastmaster, Susie Essman. Ms. Essman was not the original M.C. of the roast. The job originally went to Richard Belzer, but the comedian turned Law and Order star had to drop out at the last minute due to the series’ production schedule. Ms. Essman had taken the job only four days before the roast, but you wouldn’t have known it. Ms. Essman is one of those rare contemporary comics who can work old-school without breaking a sweat. It’s also worth noting that just as she does in every episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Ms. Essman kicked her onscreen husband Mr. Garlin’s ass in the roast department.

“How long have the Smothers Brothers been doing their thing?” Ms. Essman said in her opening remarks. “When they began, Alan King was in the early stages of alcoholism. Alan King’s liver is so black and bloated that at this point, it’s the spitting image of Star Jones.”

The audience let out a wheezing sound. Mr. King grimaced.

Dad Really Loved Dick

“I heard that they came from an alternative home,” she said. Then turning the Brothers’ running “Mom liked you best” punchline on its ear, Ms. Essman turned to Tom Smothers and said: “Actually Mom liked you best, but dad, he really loved Dick.”

Next, Ms. Essman turned her attention to the dais. “I haven’t seen a list of more B celebrities since the McCarthy era,” she said before noting that Channel 4’s Chuck Scarborough, Channel 9’s Rolland Smith and Channel 11’s Marvin Scott were all on the dais. “They actually all worked together once,” she said. “Chuck and Rolland fucked Michele Marsh while Marvin held their coats.”

“Ooooooh,” went the crowd, but Ms. Essman wasn’t stopping. “Abe Vigoda, Irwin Corey, Mickey Freeman,” she said looking at the old men on the dais. “I don’t know if I should do jokes or say Kaddish. As for Mr. Roman: “For most people, the Friars Club is a place to hang out , grab a meal, but for Freddie it’s everything,” Ms. Essman said. “You close the Friars Club steam room, he’s going to have to go home and jerk off on [his wife] Ethel.”

The roasters weren’t safe, either. When she introduced impressionist Jim Morris by saying that his “Ronald Reagan impression is just right up to date-a couple minutes ago, he took a shit in his pants,” Mr. Morris looked like he’d had the wind knocked out of him.

“It’s very rare that I can be on a panel of this many high-profile stars and not find one of them that I would remotely consider fucking,” Ms. Essman told the crowd. But then she corrected herself. “I would fuck Judy Gold, but only because she has a really huge cock.”

The first roaster up, Stewie Stone, told Ms. Essman that she had a cock too, in so many words.

“Susie, you should never wear a miniskirt because your balls would stick out,” he said, adding: “You’re the reason Jewish men don’t get hard-ons.” Judging from the looks that Ms. Essman gave some of the comedians who didn’t kill, Mr. Stone had a point.

“I thought all gentiles were handsome,” Mr. Stone said, looking at the Smothers. “They’re ugly fucks. They look like German U-boat commanders.” Mr. Stone also said that back in the 60’s, when the Smothers Brothers were hot “and all the groupies would come to your room, you were so close you would only blow each other.”

After that joke, however, Mr. Stone seemed to grow nostalgic for, of all things, Milton Berle’s genitals. “Remember, Alan,” Mr. Stone said to Mr. King, “when we talked about Milton Berle’s cock, that was important. We Jews were proud. We had a Jew with a big cock,” he added. Then Mr. Stone told his funniest joke-about himself. “Jewish guys don’t have big cocks. I have no cock. When I take a piss, it’s like a turtle. I have to hold a piece of lettuce there for the head to come out.”

Dom Irrera didn’t need to be coaxed out of his shell. His set was one of the best of the afternoon. “Before the show, Tommy said to me, ‘Dickie’s dick tastes funny when I blow him,'” said Mr. Irrera, whose set was one of the best of the afternoon. “He said, ‘It’s a little bitter.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe it’s his diet.’

“How clever they were,” Mr. Irrera said of the Smothers Brothers. “They had one guy who played the smart guy-get this-the other guy played dumb. And nobody has ever done that before, except for Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Cheech and Chong … and Louie Anderson.”

“I hope I get to work with you someday,” he told the siblings. “Maybe you guys could open for me at Manny’s Chuckle Hut.”

Dom Irrera’s Cassock

Mr. Irrera didn’t just roast the Smothers, he pushed the envelope. “Child molestation-maybe this isn’t the right forum-is a horrible, hideous thing to most people,” he said, prompting more “oohs” and hisses. “But there is a flip side to everything.” As an example, he cited “the Catholic priests-it’s so sad what they did to all these boys. I was an altar boy, and there’s a part of me that’s so neurotic and insecure, and I look back and I think, ‘What about me, father? I wasn’t good enough for you, father? I wasn’t sexy enough for you, you twisted old bastard? The Mallory twins got it twice a week, but you couldn’t lift up old Dom Irrera’s cassock once in a while?’

“Comedy’s changed a lot since you guys,” he continued. “I’ve always thought about how you set the stage for a lot of the young black comics. I wish I was one of those young black comics. They never need punch lines. They can just do that black cadence and get a laugh.” Mr. Irrera’s voice began to sound like Flip Wilson’s Geraldine character: “I was at the bus stop the other day. Bus didn’t come. Why they call it a bus stop when the bus ain’t even stoppin’? What’s up wit dat? Where’s my ink pen?” The laughs came spottier this time. The audience couldn’t seem to decide whether Mr. Irrera was riffing on Rush Limbaugh’s recent ESPN faux pas or heading into uncharted comedy territory.

Referring to the censorship (and ultimately cancellation) that the Smothers Brothers’ 60’s variety show endured at the hands of conservative CBS, Mr. Irrera said: “You weren’t allowed to curse then. They threw you off the television for fucking political things. It was so bullshit.”

From there, Mr. Irrera seemed to draw a line to the present. “Isn’t it amazing the way language has changed,” he said. “It’s like old Italian women and young black men get away with more cursing than anything.” He imitated his grandmother swearing in Italian, then translated: “It’s like ‘Fuck you, grab a dick and ram it up your ass in Naples.’ Gee gram, way to bring the family together at holiday time with your own special brand of cheer.” Then Mr. Irrera did his impression of a Def Comedy Jam comic. “I love these guys, they curse so vile, then they say God Bless you at the end. As if God in any way sanctions this language. “Stanky pussy,” he said. “Stinky, stanky, crusty, musty, yeast-filled pussy. Hey, God bless you, Peace out.”

Dick Capri returned to the subject of the very white Smothers. “They were big, big stars in the 60’s. They fucked every folk singer that was around those days. Burl Ives. Peter, Paul and Mary. I’m not sure about Mary,” Mr. Capri said. “And Tommy claims that he once got oral sex from Mama Cass. And then she ate a ham sandwich to get the taste out of her mouth.

Mr. Capri dubbed the Smothers the “Sunshine Goys” as well as “true legends.

“And we all know what a legend is,” he added. “Someone who works dinner theater.”

Two other legends, Dick Cavett and Bill Dana stunk up the joint with a bit where Mr. Dana posed as his comedy alter ego, José Jiménez, and Mr. Cavett as the guy who asks him questions. When it was over, Ms. Essman said: “What do you get when you cross Bill Dana with Dick Cavett? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t want to fuck it.”

You’ve heard it a thousand times, but it was funnier than anything Mr. Dana and Mr. Cavett did.

Roast virgin Tom Cotter, followed. He read a poem that began: The Smothers Brothers we honor today/Tom is the drunk, Dickie is gay/The stand-up bass and guitar they play/CBS is right, they should just go the fuck away.” Mr. Cotter also included the line “I’m the same age as some of your children and like them I’m addicted to porn,” a veiled reference to adult video actor Dick Smothers Jr. who once told CNN he wanted to be the “Orson Welles of porn.” But that was about as personal as things got, and neither Smothers ever seemed genuinely stung. Maybe Ms. Essman’s comment later in the afternoon was true: “It wasn’t that rough. Because there’s not much to say.”

Jan Murray’s Nap

Mr. Carter had plenty to say. First he threw out a few quickies:

“Phyllis Diller would have been here, but she had a terrible thing happen. A peeping tom threw up on her windowsill.”

On their 20th anniversary, a couple are heading up to the same hotel suite that they shared on their wedding night. “What were you thinking on our wedding night,” the wife asks her husband. “I was thinking, all I want to do is fuck your brains out.” says the husband.

“What are you thinking tonight,” says the wife.

“I was thinking what a good job I did,” he says.

The crowd cheered and Mr. Carter went on an extended riff about the graying of the Friars Club. “It’s a thrill to be here as an elderly comedian. Because actually, all the rest are dead,” he said. “I’ve done 12 eulogies in the last three months,” Mr. Carter said, mentioning Hope and Berle. Then he added: “Jews bury quick. Jews move fast. Buddy Hackett was buried during his eulogy. And the other day, Jan Murray was taking a nap – a nap! – and they started to throw dirt on him. Threw him in a casket. He fought for his life to get out. Luckily, he takes Viagra. They couldn’t close the fucking lid.”

The crowd was howling. Mr. Carter had plenty more. He told the schmuck joke then one about a prostitute that was sent to Dick Smother’s room at the Las Vegas Hilton.

“Oh, the tits and the body and face,” Mr. Carter exclaimed, his face looking flushed beneath the stage lights. Mr. Smothers asked how much for a handjob. “$1,500,” said the hooker.

“What, are you nuts?” replied the comedian.

The hooker took Mr. Smothers over to the window of his hotel room. See that gold Rolls Royce. That’s mine. Hand jobs.”

Mr. Smothers consented. Mr. Carter’s hands fluttered around him. “He fainted. He exploded.” He wanted more.

“What do you get for a blowjob?” he asked.

$3,500.

Another trip to the window. “You see that McDonald’s franchise on the strip? That’s mine. Blowjobs,” the hooker says. Mr. Smothers consented again. He was not sated.

“What do you get for pussy?” Mr. Carter-as-Dick Smothers asked.

Again, the window. “See the Mirage Hotel over there?” the hooker said. “If I had a pussy, I’d own that joint.”

The crowd exploded. Mr. Carter smiled carnivorously. Ms. Essman looked at the 80-year-old comic like maybe she’d do him. And then he left the crowd with one last piece of wisdom. “Remember one thing,” Mr. Carter said “If you’re going to fuck an animal, make sure it’s a horse. That way, you’ll always have a ride home.”

-Frank DiGiacomo