Me (far left) in my stand up years. Springfield, MA January 1993
Our story continues with my stand up comedy career. Stand up was something I had always wanted to do. I loved watching comedians on “The Tonight Show” and “Ed Sullivan”. My parents owned a number of comedy albums, and when I was in my teens, while my classmates were buying the latest records by Kiss and Led Zeppelin, I was picking up Richard Pryor and George Carlin albums.
My father had a great sense of humor. At family gatherings, I used to watch as he was the center of attention, always joking and producing laughs with his wit. For a few years, my mother took an extra job on the weekends, working as a waitress in a pizza place. My father had to watch me and my younger brother and sister. He would not let a trivial thing like his children interfere with his normal activities. He used to take us with him to OTB. Seriously. I was ten years old and he would hand me a racing form and ask me, “Who do you like in the double at Aqueduct, Paulie?” After placing his bets, he would take us to his favorite watering hole, The Club Eleven on Snyder Avenue, a few blocks from our apartment in Brooklyn. I was able to observe him interacting with his friends, he was always the funniest one. (No small feat in Brooklyn where a quick wit is legally required for all residents) I thought how great it would be to be the funny one in the group. It appealed to me. And fortunately, I inherited my father’s sense of humor. Between watching him and all the hours I spent listening to comedy albums, (and Woody’s were the ones I wore the grooves out of) I instinctively picked up the art of stand up.
When I finally decided to take the plunge, I didn’t buy any books, didn’t take classes. I felt then, as I still do, when it comes to stand up, you either have it or you don’t. And there was no doubt in my mind I had it. This is important because it has become my approach to learning every show business skill that interests me. I wrote some material and went to an open mic at a local bar. This was 1989. My ex came with me for moral support and my mother insisted on tagging along. I did five minutes and it went well. I got plenty of laughs and some guy gave me a high five as I left the stage. I was hooked.
Now, I’m not going to say that it was all great nights. One of the most difficult things about stand up is that, unlike acting, singing or any other performing art, there is no rehearsal hall, no practice room, classroom or workshop. You can write and refine offstage but the only way to learn is to perform in front of a live audience. These are your lessons, your rehearsals, your practice sessions. Every mistake you make is viewed by strangers, assessed and critiqued, often quite harshly. It takes guts. Mostly, it takes a need, more than a simple desire to do it. That’s a basic truth about comedians. We don’t do it because we want to, we do it because we have to.
For me, it was an outlet. I am a very guarded and personal individual offstage. There are things I share with no one, not even family or close friends. But onstage, it was different. I dealt with deeply personal issues, my fears, my hopes, my dreams and all of my neuroses. I would step onto that stage and rip myself open, spilling my guts to crowds of strangers. It was cathartic and once I gained some experience, effective. People enjoyed the honesty, many could relate to the failures and pain that I turned into hilarious bits. And I do mean hilarious. I’m not one to brag, but I do like to be honest about myself in every way. I’m the first one to point out my shortcomings, but I will also discuss my strengths without holding back.
I was a good comedian. Really good. As I gained experience, I learned more about myself, infused my personality more deeply into my performances. And my stage persona was born. It wasn’t anything brand new. A street-smart wise guy with a big ego, who was nonetheless neurotic and a complete failure with women. It was based on who I really am but exaggerated for comedic effect. It worked. Very well.
As my act improved, I worked more and more. I was living in New York, working the showcase clubs in the city and also traveling the road circuit. There was a little problem. Remember my pregnant girlfriend from Part 2? Women don’t remain pregnant forever. Two years before we broke up, she gave birth to our son, who I adore to this day. Even though we spilt up, I spent time with him and was always there for him. I loved him and I didn’t want him to grow up disconnected from his father as I did. I even named him “David” because in Hebrew it means “beloved one”. That way, for his whole life, every time he hears someone say his name, it will remind him that his father loves him.
As my stand up career developed, I had less and less free time to spend with David. I remember one day, he was maybe eight. He looked at me with sad eyes and said, “Daddy, I used to see you a lot more. I don’t see you as much anymore”. It broke my heart. I realized that nobody ever got rich or famous just for being a parent, but is there a more important job? I made a tough decision and left comedy to raise my son. The plan was to get back into show business once my son was grown. I missed stand up badly, but I have never regretted that decision. My son is now twenty-five, a grown man. He’s a terrific person and I am enormously proud of him. His mother deserves most of the credit for that, but I was always there, a big part of his life and he learned some things from me.
In Part 4, I’ll talk about my return to screenwriting and how I finally wrote my imaginary ideal woman script.