Borscht Belt Bodhisattva

1.       The Black Hole of Comedy

I made my way down the dank, filthy stairs, into the darkness where jokes go after they’ve died. I descended into Ha-Ha Hell, like Orpheus, Jesus, Dante, and Wotan, desiring not the souls of the damned, lost loves, or magic gold, but only a mad blast of bad fun.

The Humor Tomb, the Komic’s Kave, the Funny Bone, Satan’s Laff Factory, the Joke Zone, the Tee-Hee Shack, Wiseacre’s, Bananas, Zanies, and at least four different Funny Farms: all across America new comedy holes opened up, offering bad beer and the gags of the damned. In my case, my first plunge into the underworld was at a place called Yuk-Yuks. This was a chain of comedy clubs in Canada, but they’d made a beachhead into the U.S., edging around Lake Ontario. The first outpost was in Buffalo. The second was in Rochester, my home town.

This was at the time when stand-up comedy was hot, and much cheaper for club owners than bringing in rock bands, which may or may not have drawn a crowd and may or may not have wrecked the place. To become a comedy club, all that was needed were a couple of mikes, a spotlight, and a liquor license. Every one of these places had the same filth-gummed tables, wobbly chairs, and floors scarred with the pox of countless crushed cigarette butts. The atmosphere too never changed: an acrid stench of spilled beer and flop sweat. Almost universal was a brick wall to perform against, like the wall which condemned prisoners stand against before they’re executed by firing squad.

2.       Yuk-Yuks

The crowd at Yuk-Yuk was thin, more wannabe comics than people who’d paid to be entertained. A fat guy was sitting alone at a table, grunting and guffawing at his own jokes. A leathery bimbo brayed like a hyena with a four-pack-a-day habit. A troop of frat boys was whooping it up already, and the show hadn’t even started.

Open mike night attracted pathetic hopefuls and delusional class clowns. Some did impressions, recycling TV sit-com shtick. Some brought props: a doll nailed to a 2 by 4 (“Baby on board”), a bumper sticker for an abandoned Catskill resort (“Camp Homowack”), or a hairy rubber monster hand. If a guy used the word “comic” to describe himself, it was an absolute sign that he was a loser, and would be inflicting on the audience a brain-dead wail of desperation.

So what did that make me? I had been described as a “One Man Hill Cumorah Pageant,” by someone with surprising knowledge of Mormon showmanship. It’s true that like the great Latter Day Saint spectacular, I was loud, relentless, garishly colorful, kitschy, and made almost no sense. And while the Prophet Joseph Smith did spend much time grubbing in subterannean darkness (digging for imaginary pirate and Indian treasure) his holes did not stink of cheap beer, overflowing ashtrays, and Yuk-Yuk BO.

Still, taking the stage at a Kanadian Komedy Klub was not entirely unlike my infiltration of Mormondom. I used fake names for both forays (Anton Mesmer in church; Blind Dudu Process, V-Rocket, and Der Führer of Love on stage.) And in both places I worked the microphone, addressing the assembled multitudes with passionate, if cryptic, messages from beyond.

Draw a line from Toronto, home base of the Yuk-Yuks chain, to

Rochester, about a hundred miles from shore to shore across Lake Ontario. Keep following that invisible arrow twenty-five more miles in exactly the same east-southeast direction and you come to the most crucial of Mormon sites, the Hill Cumorah.

I’d lived my whole life knowing about this holy place and the pageant that took place there every summer, a huge reenactment of the most crucial of Latter Day Saints events, including the discovery of the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was supposedly written.

And as it was when I ventured into the darkness of Yuk-Yuks, so I put on strange clothes – a clean white shirt, a tasteful tie and black pants with a neat crease – and walked into the windowless (though brightly lit) Mormon inner sanctum. Asking questions in Sunday School came easily, as did singing with the choir. Once a month was open mike Sunday, when anyone could go up to the pulpit and blather. I made a big hit with the incoherent testimony I offered. Attending a funeral, I got a better look at the Mormon heavens (there are three.) The hardest part was telling the two Mormon maids who’d taken me on as their special mission that I’d have to beg off from the baptism they’d scheduled for me.

No matter how sneaky or snide, no matter what arcane impulse drives a man to infiltrate the Great White Church, almost nobody goes to Mormon hell. Only the worst – who’ve stood face to face with the Heavenly Father and refused his love – are sent to the Outermost Darkness. Even Hitler – rumor has it – had been swept up in a Mormon retroactive gang-baptism and so avoided eternal punishment. I’d had no up-close and personal contact with the god of this planet, yet I was condemned by my own choice to the Lowermost Darkness at Yuk-Yuks. No prayer (unless “Sweet Jesus, please make him stop imitating Gomer Pyle” counts as devotional utterance.) No tap water and white bread communion. No full body immersion wearing all-white and extra-modest baptismal costumery. And while my act did include non sequiturs (“Do I have cancer yet?” “Midget shortage!”) and a ventriloquist routine with a “quadriplegic negro baby on a stick” as my dummy, I kept it clean, devoid of the basic American obscenities the Yuk-Yukkers spewed like four years olds who’d just discovered the power of shouting “pee-pee,” “ca-ca,” and “poo-poo.”

3.       The Ghost of The Banana Man

As I kept returning to the stage and my persona took shape, I had the uneasy feeling that I was in some way reincarnating another performer. Swimming up from the depths of my memory came The Banana Man. I was devoted to the Captain Kangaroo show as a little kid, and once in a while on my TV would appear The Banana Man. This bizarre relic of vaudeville had left inky iridescent stains on my brain.

This wasn’t, however, the original Banana Man (he’d died in 1950), but a comedian who’d bought the entire act. Like the original Banana Man, he never spoke, but did emit unearthly falsetto warbles, his cartoonish imitations of a clarinet, a violin, a Wagnerian soprano. His manic ululations of delight came as he pulled a seemingly endless supply of weirdness out of his hugely baggy suit: a horseshoe magnet that picked up nonmetallic objects, a two-foot long comb, a two-dimensional cardboard mandolin, and bananas by the bunch. Digging into the nearly-lost history of vaudeville, I found out that his real name was Adolf Proper and he’d been born, like another, better-known Adolf, in Austria. 

The character I used on the comedy stage was the distant bastard offspring of this mutant clown. I played a living dead man, not a stone-faced stiff, but a highly animated soul lost between worlds. The most obvious sign were the black Xs I made out of electrician’s tape – one X over each eye on my goggles. Anyone who grew up with cartoons knew that I was already a goner when I reached the stage. My blue and white paisley jacket came from a thrift store, last worn by a country-club sleaze bag at the eternal nineteenth hole cocktail hour. Disco was dead too, but I wore my brother’s 1977 stack-heeled dance floor shoes, not a clumping Frankenstein creature but swaying and tottering as though on the lip of a freshly dug grave. My crimson-orange polyester pants were a couple of sizes too small for me, so I slit up the butt-crack and had someone lace me in and snug up the knots.

What came out of my mouth, both speaking from the pulpit of perversion and singing like a half-breed banshee, was an outpouring of private gibberish. The words were all in English (“Baby seal walks into a club!”) and I generally obeyed the rules of grammar, yet what I inflicted on the crowd was more gnomic ranting than ha-ha jokes, an inside-out parody of the desperate funny man. “I’m a homophobe. I’m afraid of the same thing.”

A few people loved it; some hated it. Most sat in bewildered silence.

4.       The Bad Womb

“Face it kid – all humor is toilet humor. Wry observations on life, dry wit, slapstick and knockabout shtick, parody, insult, sophisticated word play, savage repartee: in the end it’s all shit.”

I heard these word of wisdom from Irv Moon, the only authentic comedian I met during my season in Yuk-Yuk hell. He’d played every dump and dive in the Borscht Belt, and a few of the big name places too.

Besides actual comedy clubs, there was an even more dismal circuit. This consisted of bars that had so-called comedy nights once a week, putting on local yuckster yokels and one out of town headliner. Maybe he’d had a few shots at the high end places in N.Y.C. and L.A. and bombed. But still he could say he’d played at Catch a Rising Star (at 3 in the morning) or The Improv (for a total of seven minutes). Or, like Irv Moon, they might have been on Carson decades ago and were still using that little glimpse of triumph to get jobs.

“The red light,” Irv said, zipping up his pants. “That’s what it’s really all about. You gotta pay attention.”

The red light at the back of the room, barely visible through the haze, came on to tell a comic he had three minutes to wrap up and get off the stage. But Irv said there was more to it than that. “It’s a smoky crimson womb, a bad womb to be reborn from. You ever heard about the Bardo Thodol – the Tibetan Joke Book of the Dead? It tells you how to go about getting reincarnated the right way. In there it says to avoid any womb that’s smoky and red.”

I waited for the punchline that never came. The dressing room was also the men’s room, so performers had to make their way from the literal toilet, through the crowd, to mount the stage. Irv gave himself a quick look in the mirror, which was held together by a webwork of yellowing tape.

“Don’t go that way, don’t be reborn from a womb like that, or you’ll never escape.” Maybe this was all twisted vaudeville shtick, or maybe meeting Irv Moon was the real reason I’d gone back again and again to push my voice against the brain-dead chatter, boozy hoots, and heckling.

He said, “Listen, Buddy, here’s one for free. A Zen monk goes into a pizza parlor and says, ‘Make me one with everything.’” He shrugged. “That one never works, but I still use it sometimes.” He checked to make sure his fly was zipped and went out to face the crowd.

5.     Catch Phrases

There were two other guys whose names I remember. First was Mike Stench: the mythical comic who always preceded me, giving the microphone a heinous stink: cigarettes, beer belch, black stumps of teeth, gut reek routed upward and out the mouth. 

Then there was Dil Velva, whose claim to fame was a character he did called Osteoporosis Man. This consisted of slumping, twisting, and groaning. He also reenacted scenes from the original Star Trek. These always started with “Beam me up” and ended with “He’s dead, Jim.”

Dil’s real name was banal and boring. He was sure that to get a foot on the first rung of the ladder to fame and success, he had to recreate himself, starting with a smooth, distinctive stage name. He tried out a few by mixing and matching the names of established comedians. Johnny, Bobby, Tommy, Jimmy? A plain waspy last name: Lewis, Martin, Wright? Maybe Red, as in Red Skelton and Red Buttons. Maybe Buddy, Woody, or Sonny. Then he considered a one-of-a-kind nickname to help him stand out. It worked, briefly, for Andrew “Dice” Clay. Whoopi Goldberg got famous and people forgot how idiotic her stage name was. Redd Foxx was born John Sanford.

And so Dil Velva was born.

“If I could just come up with the right catch phrase, then I could make it to the big time.” Dil was sure that was what his act really needed.

“Well, excuse me!” “To the moon!” “Cowabunga!” “The Devil made me do it.” “Sock it to me.” Like cue cards to the audience, commanding them to “Laugh. Now, or else!” the catch phrase triggers an involuntary noise of recognition. The first time, and maybe the fifth time, the phrase is funny, but by the hundredth or thousandth time, it triggers laughter the way the bell triggered dog drool in Pavlov’s lab.

Though it seemed pathetic, Dil was right. The audience didn’t come to be surprised. What they wanted was another micro-flick of electricity to the laugh-center of the brain. Stimulated by a familiar utterance, the diaphragm spasms, and out comes the rude, raw noise of laughter. Some people chortle, some snicker, some titter and guffaw, belly laugh or hiss like pit vipers. Some explode and let the pressure loose in rattling gasps.

           “Where’s the beef?” “You look marvelous.” “Did I do that?” “I dood it.” “I’ll kill you a million times.” “Yeah, baby.”

6.     A Long Way Down

Trapped in a netherworld of hungry ghosts and laugh-track specters, even the most brilliant comics suffer in their own innermost emptiness. Though at the top, overflowing with characters and voices, they are accursed, abject, and alone.

Robin Williams hanged himself with a belt, whispering “Nanu Nanu.” Curley Howard ended up in a mad house, shouting for Moe and Larry. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer was shot to death by his best friend. John Belushi and Chris Farley did the fat-man OD routine.

Jerry Lewis – the brain damaged monkey-boy with a crew cut and self-humiliating wail – maintained a steady diet of narcotic pain pills. Whatever the words, his meaning was always the same: “Mommy, look at me! Mommy, Mommy, do you love me now?”

Peter Sellers reached his apogee as Dr. Strangelove. Struggling to keep his arm down and his hand from strangling him, he lurched up from the wheelchair, shouting at the president (played by himself) “Mein Führer, I can walk!”

I’m still haunted by the nightmare of Frank Gorshin: supremely talentless, yet front and center in the spotlight. I’d loved and hated him as Batman’s nemesis, the Riddler, in his green tights spangled with question marks, sagging at the knees and crotch. Even more horrid was his appearance on the Dean Martin show, doing an impersonation of Richard Burton in Richard the Third. A fright wig, a fake English accent, and faux renaissance tights. Sniggering and sniveling: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

Jimmy Walker had his couple of years of fame, as JJ on the TV show Good Times. Tall, scrawny, and supremely ugly, his entire comedic shtick was one word, “Dyn – o – mite!” which meant everything and nothing. After his time in the spotlight, I saw him on a daytime talk show. The host, Merv or Mike or some other hyper-bland white guy, asked Jimmy to say his catch phrase. That was the whole point of being on the show. But Jimmy refused, and decades later I still recalled his response. “I get paid plenty of cheese to say that.” Apparently his fee for the appearance on the show didn’t include a “dyn-o-mite” cheese clause, so he just sat there looking sullen and useless.

7.    Oh, Canada

I could only do two impersonations, and both involved shrieking: Yoko Ono and an enraged Nazi general. To flesh out the latter, I grew a toothbrush mustache, bought a khaki-green trench coat and made an armband: red, black and white, with a heart instead of a swastika. I called myself the Führer of Love. The manager of the club said, “There are a lot of Jews in this business. The weirdo screeching is okay, but lose the Hitler mustache.”

My primary persona was called Blind Dudu Process – a cross between a Mississippi delta bluesman and a disco discard who doesn’t know that he’s dead yet. I went onto the stage with a half-size electric guitar and a practice amp the size of a baby’s tombstone. I’d find an electric socket, whang a few chords, and plunge into the “Dies Irae,” from the Requiem Mass, with updated lyrics.

Here comes something really scary.
It’s not Curly, Moe or Larry.
It’s not banana
And it’s not cherry.

I had a rubber bowie knife for on-stage ritual self-disembowelment. And once I brought a toy chainsaw, and crammed the fake blade down the front of my pants. Question: who would buy a toy chainsaw for a kid? Answer: somebody who wanted his son to grow up to be a mass murderer or a backwoods sculptor, carving deformed bears out of tree stumps.

At the main Yuk-Yuks location, in Toronto, I didn’t just bomb; I was bombarded by beer cans. Before I even hit the stage the Canadians were booing and mooing. The MC had said my name and where I was from. Dil Velva had been there the week before and that got the drunks and doughnut fiends ready to hate anything that came from Rochester.

Clinging to the mike stand, I started singing “Oh Canada” while reenacting a car crash. The trash started flying and the noise made a tsunami of pure loathing. Somebody set a roll of toilet paper on fire and tossed it onto the stage. While not a true display of heavenly displeasure, it was nonetheless a sign from on high. I gibbered and flailed to the end of my allotted ten minutes, and then fled like Lot escaping the smoking ruins of Sodom.

8.     Mormon Hormones

My six month infiltration of the Mormon church didn’t overlap with my Yuk-Yuks Year. But there were eerie echoes when I attended a Mormon date night at the biggest church in town. Four or five hundred people – mostly young couples eager for church approved entertainment and unlimited cups of hot chocolate – came out to listen to testimony, song, and comedy by Alex Boye, who’d been part of a boy band called Awesome. Then he became a member of the Motab – the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He’s black, and as part of his testimony, he said that singing with the Motab he felt “like a stick of licorice in a sea of marshmallows.” That line got him the biggest laugh.

He also did a routine about the Three Nephite Disciples, guys from the Book of Mormon days who were told by Jesus that they’d “never taste death.” It was all new to me, so I couldn’t figure out how this could be a blessing and not a curse. This much I did get: the Nephites were – according to Mormon doctrine – a “white and delightsome people.” The three super-Nephites were “caught up into heaven,” but zoomed down again and again, helping out Mormons in distress. They were cast into prison, buried alive, thrown into a furnace, and into a den of wild beasts, but were unharmed because of their Christ-given miraculous powers. The Prophet Mormon himself states, “I have seen them and they have ministered unto me.”

As I drove home, it seemed I was waking from an opiate dream. The whole night I’d been afraid of being outed as an imposter, the place was rank with the hormones of horny young Mormons, and the Nephite stories blurred in my mind with other famous comedy trios. The Three Marx Brothers (Zeppo never really counted.) The Three Stooges (actually there was a total of six.) The Three Ritz Brothers (whose first names I could never remember.)

9.      One Man Against the World

The comic yells his catch phrase, the stage magician appears in a puff of smoke, the priest approaches the altar in a hush and cloud of frankincense fumes, the pan-handler on the street finds his mark and comes wheedling for spare change, the eulogist climbs into the pulpit to proclaim good words for the dead. And I approached the lone mike stand and faced the Great Wall of Idiocy.

There were two paths, two fates, for every self-proclaimed comic: killing the crowd or dying on stage.    

Again, the moment has arrived, when the solo act stands before the audience. A few heartbeats of silence and then the world divides into two inimical halves: the One, the Singular, the Other, versus the rest of the human race.

“What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back? A stick.” My timing was terrible; I never gave the crowd any room to laugh.

“Did you hear about the Danish writer of sad children’s stories, who had a sex change operation? Trans Christian Anderson.”

Some smiles catch the spotlight: gleaming dentition, like a killer ape about to attack, a dog snarling and yanking at its chain, or a TV ad for ultra-whitening toothpaste.

“Heavy-weight champion of the world plagued by flatulence: Gaseous Clay.”

A few titters.

Every comic performs an act of public self-degradation. Whether the slick tuxedo-clad lounge act or the brick wall comedy club smart-ass – it’s all human sacrifice. The comic is the scapegoat for all the vileness of the crowd: adultery, drunkenness, petty resentment, ugliness, stupidity. One man against the seething tide of wretchedness, desperately wanting their sign of approval: the laugh, the primal spasm of the diaphragm making wordless noise.

“Where did they put Mickey and Minnie after they croaked? In a mousoleum.”

The groans are louder than the laughs. The hecklers get ready to attack. The red bulb in the back comes on, throbbing in the haze of smoke and loathing.

“Heck is where people go who don’t believe in Gosh.”

A drunk yells, “Get off the stage!”

Don’t go toward the fiery light. “That’s a bad uterus.” Irv Moon isn’t on the bill that night, but I hear his warning. 

“Menstruation isn’t funny.” No pause. “Period.”

The mike goes dead.

10.   True Story

My path crossed Irv Moon’s again.     He was the headliner. I was never anything but a warm-up act. “Wild stuff,” Irv said. Another toilet conversation. “Are those real dog biscuits you were eating?”

“No,” I admitted. “Ginger bread. I cut them out by hand.”

“Funny. But prop humor is a dead end. You’ll never get on Carson that way. He hates that kind of stuff.”

“Me, on Carson?” Unlike the others, I had no delusions of such late-night grandeur.

“He’s had weirder acts. That moron who smashes watermelons with a sledge hammer.”

“But you just said it was a dead end.”


“How long have you been doing this?”

The sorrow of all humanity shone in his face. “Since Jesus was in diapers.”

“So why do you – ”

He didn’t let me finish my question. “You’re the guy who did that Führer of Love shtick, right?”

“You saw that?” I’d only done it once.

“Sure. Very wild stuff. I caught the whole thing, waiting for them to kill you. Laughing and lynching – that’s what we get. You know, Al Jolson’s real name was Asa Yoelson. He was a Jew in black face singing about his mammy, and people absolutely loved him. You can’t pull that kind of shit anymore. Your Führer shtick took some real balls.”

“It didn’t make me any friends.”

“Lenny Bruce was a Jew and he did Nazi jokes.”

“And look what happened to him.”

“Yeah. Jail and junkie heaven. On stage and off, he was a real asshole.”

“You knew him?”

“Buddy,” he said with a woe-is-me shrug, “I go way back.”

“How far?” 

His delivery shifted, as though he was working a good audience. “Did you know that Harpo Marx’s real first name was Adolf? And he didn’t change it because of Hitler. There was another Adolf Marx already in vaudeville. Everyone hated him, not Der Führer. That’s why Harpo changed his name to Arthur.” No punchline, no laughs. “True story.”

The MC announced Irv and he said, “See you around, Buddy. I gotta go break some funny bones.”

11.     The Ju-Bu  

“What does a Buddhist comedian says when the audience stops laughing? ‘I know you’re out there. I can concentrate on your breathing.’”

I’d changed out of my absurd stage-rig and was hanging around incognito at the back to catch Irv’s routine. 

“You ever heard of the Wandering Jew? Jesus cursed him and he had to travel the entire world until time was no more. So he goes into a delicatessen and orders a nice hot pastrami on rye, with slaw on the side, and a dill pickle. He hands the owner a twenty, which he pockets. ‘Hey,’ the Eternal Jew says, ‘where’s my change?’ ‘Change,” the owner says back to him, ‘must come from within.’”

The audience should have been getting ansty with this kind of material. They weren’t laughing, but they weren’t heckling either. Irv came from the long line of Jewish comedians, and everything about him said Borscht Belt. The hangdog expression, the frumpy suit, and his delivery, pure Brooklyn whine. But he was using all Buddhist jokes that night.

“So, I had this nasty burning sensation every time I used the toilet. I went to the Zen doctor and he told me I had the one hand clap.” 

Dil Velva sidled over to me. “What the hell is he doing?”

“I’m not sure.” That wasn’t true. Irv had an infinite store of material and that night he’d tailored the act for only one person, and that person was me.

“Why did the Buddhist coroner get fired? Because he recorded every death as a rebirth.”

Dil said, “What the hell? They should be tearing him to pieces.”

I was standing right underneath the red light. It hadn’t come on yet. I had a feeling that it never came on for Irv. He’d taken the Ju-Bu Bodhisattva vow not to not escape the Wheel of Karma until the last soul in the universe laughs.

“How many Zen monks does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” The place was dead silent and I realized that was the punchline.

I never went back. I hung up my hideous jacket and gave the disco shoes back to my brother. Yuk-Yuks closed and I heard that the manager ended up clerking in a porno place. Dil Velva moved on to zero-budget movies and fronting a pitiful rock band. Mike Stench continued to emit his foul vapors. And Irv Moon disappeared, leaving no trace. He was gone, and like The Banana Man, there’s almost no one alive who remembers him, and no video evidence that he ever existed. But I knew he was still out there on some sleazy nowhere circuit, working his ancient material.

“Way out in the desert, a guy comes upon the Wandering Jew, who’s carrying nothing but a car door. The guy asks ‘Why do you have that?’ ‘In case I get hot, I can roll down the window.’”

image: “bodhisattva” by Dean Hochman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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