We Are What We Pretend to Be (10 page)

BOOK: We Are What We Pretend to Be
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Berman said, to them and everybody else there, “Adolf Hitler is still alive. Adolf ’s in a rest home for retired SS officers and Gestapo agents in Argentina. Adolf says he is as sorry as he can be for any actions of his which, however indirectly, may have had anything to do with violent deaths suffered by 6 million Jews, 4 million Germans, including his girlfriend, and 22 million citizens of the Soviet Union during World War II.”
Gil Berman was then forty-two, and he had been discharged only two months earlier from the Caldwell Institute, a drug-treatment complex in Salem, Wisconsin, founded in 1903—in Berman’s words, “before Ritalin or Valium or Percodan or M&M’s had been discovered, when opium and cocaine and morphine
were in open stock at pharmacies and doctors’ offices. You didn’t have to kill somebody to get some. Coca Cola contained cocaine. ‘The pause that refreshes?’
me about it! Asthma sufferers smoked
cigarettes, which were
Mary Jane
That was some of his new stuff. The really old bits he’d used this night were in his introductory remarks, old stuff as well to most of the people there, but welcome old stuff: “I am as celibate as any heterosexual Roman Catholic priest. I have for your inspection a notarized statement from my urologist to the effect that I am in all respects a healthy male. I am a flaming voluntary neuter. One day I hope to march in a parade on a Neuter Pride Day. If you don’t like that about me, why don’t you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut? Take a flying fuck at the moooooon.”
Supermarket tabloids adored him. “They didn’t believe it was possible,” he said, “but damned if I didn’t invent a new kind of scandal, no monkey business at all.” When casinos and nightclubs would still take their chances with him, despite periodically disruptive problems with drugs, an easy way for them to get publicity was to send out photographs of a bevy of smiling, succulent, nearly naked showgirls with Berman in the middle, lean and quite nice looking, wearing his customary onstage costume: three-piece suit, shirt and tie, buzz-cut red hair, and white basketball shoes. And with Berman seeming about to drop dead of ennui.
And back when he was still welcome on late-night talk shows, not only because he was a freak but because he was an excellent comedian, Gil Berman had the same answer for any host who
asked about his being a flaming neuter: “Want to stop smoking cigarettes? Don’t light ’em. Want to stop having trouble with women? Don’t kiss ’em.”
He had made only one comedy CD so far, eight years ago now. It was still selling fairly well in college bookstores, but nowhere else. It was called
Who’s Sorry Now?
It was time he made another, for which he had this working title, displayed on the theater’s marquee in the cold and rain outside: IF GOD WERE ALIVE TODAY. That was half of the last sentence in
Who’s Sorry Now?
The whole sentence? “If God were alive today He’d be an atheist.”
“I was actually offered full scholarships to Cal Tech and M.I.T.,” he went on now. “Can you believe that? I was so good at science at Knightsbridge High School outside Boston, everybody wanted me to be a chemist or biologist or a physicist or a mathematician or engineer. If I’d become any one of those things, I guarantee you, because I was so smart in high school, the world, or at least this country, would be even more fucked up than it is today. I went to Columbia instead, in pre-law, so my scientific brilliance could be neutered by depressed and obviously insincere teachers of the liberal arts. It worked! The last thing we need is another Bill Gates or Albert Einstein.”
It was true about the proffered scholarships in science. His grades in all subjects at Knightsbridge High, arguably the richest public secondary school in the country, were so high that he might have gone on scholarship wherever he chose, and studied whatever he chose. But he could not and should not have accepted a scholarship to anywhere, since his parents were, as he
himself said, making a joke of it, “fabulously well-to-do.” He paid full tuition during his five semesters at Columbia. “I could have become anything instead of what you see and hear tonight,” he said onstage of all his opportunities. “Maybe a veterinarian. Can’t you just imagine what a great veterinarian I might have been? Anybody here got a sick aardvark or skink?”
Knightsbridge High, whose class ring Berman would still be wearing on his dying day, was a rare example of the synergy that is possible when the tax base of a fabulously well-to-do suburb has sky-high hopes for its children. That most enviable of communities spent as much per capita on its students as most private schools spend, the exceptions being luxurious oubliettes on the order of the Nellie Prior Academy.
The comedian the audience saw and heard that night, outwardly at least, and possibly inwardly as well, wasn’t all that different from the one they would have seen and heard nine months earlier, right before he went bananas when he was a headliner at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At the show that night, he had congratulated Donald Trump in absentia on his comment about the scandal of President William Jefferson Clinton’s having had sex in the Oval Office in the White House with women not his wife, all blowjobs. “Nothing but blowjobs, if you want to call that sex,” said Berman. Trump said he couldn’t get over how bad-looking the women were. But then Berman went out onto the floor of the casino itself, and, in his own words there in Northampton, talked about “watching all the people with the gambling sickness putting their savings into Trump’s pockets, with the help of slot machines, cards, dice, and roulette wheels.”
The next thing he knew, Gil Berman had dived onto a craps table. He flopped over on his back and cackled like a chicken, “
,” and so on, and kicked chips and drinks everywhere.
Another quote was about his going ape-shit in Atlantic City: “Enough of America wasn’t enough for me anymore. Enough had finally become too much even for me, and I committed myself to Caldwell, the famous laughing academy in Salem, Wisconsin—one hell of a town, may I say, where they made me trade old pills for new ones, which I have thrown away.” He was so drug-free now that he wasn’t even taking the antidepressants Hazelden had prescribed for him. His description of the antidepressants? “Absolutely harmless unless discontinued.” This line, incidentally, was swiped, as Berman would have gladly confessed, if challenged, from a fable about a bear with a drinking problem by the old-time, ink-on-paper American humorist James Thurber, long dead.
Berman was dressed onstage exactly as he had been when he, as he put it, “tried out for the Olympics on a craps table at the Taj Mahal.” The suit and basketball shoes were already his trademarks in 1978, twenty-two years earlier, when he had dropped out of Columbia University to become a professional comedian. He had first dressed that way, and sported a buzz cut, as an amateur on open-mike nights at “Cutty Sark,” an allegedly mob-owned comedy club only eight blocks down Broadway from his dorm at Columbia. He explained to his roommate at the time, Barry Dresdener, that he didn’t “want to look like a baggy-pants comedian or a Bob Hope, or a Beatnik or a Hippie or a Yuppie.
I want to be a clown for our generation, a clown such as has never been seen before.”
The bitter and retired comedian Gary Ash, who was once half of the radio and early-TV team of “Bing and Ash,” caught a performance of this twenty-year-old redheaded college kid in basketball shoes at Cutty Sark in 1978. Ash was eighty-eight and in a wheelchair, with a nurse in attendance. He lived and raged in a retirement home one block west of Cutty Sark. Ash had asked to be taken there that night in order to confirm this self-serving opinion: “Comedians used to have brains. They don’t anymore. Nothing but sex and toilet jokes.”
Some surprise at Cutty Sark! Gary Ash found himself thunderstruck by this redheaded college kid in basketball shoes.
He didn’t look happy when he accosted Berman, who was sitting at a table, wholly drained, waiting to watch the amateur acts that would follow his. Berman hadn’t a clue as to who Ash was. He had never seen Ash and his partner, Jonathan “Bing” Spiegel, or heard them ramble on and on as pseudo-imbeciles about hypocrisies or idiocies in the news that day. Their sign-offs: “This is Ash, the Dorical of Elphi,” and, “This is Bingo reminding you: ‘It’s no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’” Bing Spiegel had been dead for sixteen years when Gary Ash caught Berman’s act at Cutty Sark. “They had been man and wife, except for sex and a marriage license.” So said Spiegel’s obituary in the
New York Times
To hear Gil Berman tell it: “I was minding my own business when a nurse wheeled this absolutely furious old man in a wheelchair up to me. I didn’t know who he was. The manager of the club had to tell me afterward. And this old geezer snorted and
sneered, and then he said, ‘You have just scared the living piss out of me. Thanks a lot.’”
Berman didn’t know what to say. Finally, he said, “The haircut and the shoes?”
Ash blew up. “Fuck the haircut and shoes,” he said. “What scared me was a pretty face with bushy eyebrows and a voice like God on Doomsday.”
Berman’s voice, and he was a baritone who had taken voice lessons at Knightsbridge High, could be astonishingly rich and vibrant when he used it at full power. In his performance this night, he had used it, as he would for every subsequent performance in his comedic lifetime, sparingly, startling the audience by suddenly turning it on for a few lines, and then turning it off again. When Berman became famous or infamous, take your choice, a well-known caricaturist complained: “I thought Gil Berman would be easy: a pretty, demonic young thing with a skinhead haircut and bushy eyebrows, and a shirt and tie. But how the heck was I supposed to draw that pipe-organ voice he has, which is half of his persona?”
“Is it my voice that bothered you?” Berman asked the seething Ash.
Ash ignored the question. “Where did you get material like that?”
“I wrote it myself,” said Berman. “You thought it was funny?”
Ash blew up again. “Who ever told you a comedian is supposed to be funny?” he said. “The great ones are heartbreakers, and that’s what you did to me tonight. Who are you? What are you? Where did you park your flying saucer?”
Ash told the nurse to get him out of “this firetrap.” His farewell to the flummoxed Berman? “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. Please take that as a compliment.”
The material Berman had tried out that night, which would become a classic on
Who’s Sorry Now?
and in his cabaret repertoire, was about the appalling conditions in New York City public schools in the poorer neighborhoods. It began, “I know a lot of people think evolution shouldn’t be taught in public schools. I have good news for them. Fuck evolution. There are some schools in New York City that don’t even teach kids how to read and write. How do we do it? We pay the teachers less than garbagemen, make sure there’s no money for books or to unclog the toilets, or to fix the leaks in the roof, and make sure there are forty kids in every smelly schoolroom. Makes you wonder who won the Civil War.”
Berman hadn’t visited any of the awful schools. He read about them in the newspapers. And when a piece of a school building fell on a student and killed him or her, it would be on TV. That was all the research that he—or anybody else, including the mayor—had to do to find out how uninhabitable some of the public schools were.
Now he ceased to be a baritone Jeremiah and became a falsetto female teacher: “Children, please stop sneezing and coughing and weeping, because I am going to tell you a secret that many powerful people wish I wouldn’t tell you. It’s called ‘evolution.’ It is about how the policy of winners mating with winners, starting with germs, has given us the giraffe and the hippopotamus.” Berman here made a baritone aside: “Just because I
believe in evolution doesn’t mean I have to
of it.” And then back he went to the falsetto life-sciences lecture, saying that a great scientist named Charles Darwin noticed how upper-class Englishpersons in his day always strove to marry winners instead of losers, and then realized that all animals must pair off that way. “Hey presto! Rattlesnakes and lightning bugs!”
And on and on. The police arrive and haul the whole class to the station house for questioning about teenage pregnancy and juvenile delinquency. The school’s roof and ceiling crash down on the dilapidated chairs and desks, but the children are safe and sound down at the cop shop, “eating free sandwiches made of salami and Wonder Bread.”
One of the few old men in the Northampton audience on the night of December 11 in the year 2000 called out to Berman as the comedian was gathering his wits at the lectern onstage, before the comedian himself had said a thing: “Hey Gilbert! You gonna do the one about evolution?”
Again about Gil Berman’s so-called “pretty face”: His father, a ladies’ man if there ever was one, had features that were similarly symmetrical and understated, somewhat dainty. He and his son were what a physical anthropologist would term “paedomorphs,” not to be confused with “pederasts.” That meant they had pleasing features somewhat reminiscent of childhood. All women who are said to be beautiful are paedomorphs. The greatest of old-time comedians, Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, had a pretty face, and yet he was neither a castrato nor an androgyne. The late Oliver Hardy had a pretty face. The late Oliver Hardy had rosebud lips!
Berman said in response to the old geezer: “Please, no questions from the audience, and no autographs or interviews afterward.” There came now, as a formal announcement, a bit he had done for
Who’s Sorry Now?
He hadn’t planned to use it, but it now seemed apt. “I know the question on the tips of the tongues of all who might wish to interview me: ‘Mr. Berman, where do you get your ideas from?’ Well, you might as well have asked the same question of Lewd-vig van Beethoven. Young Lewd-vig was horsing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden all this shit came pouring out of him, and it was music. I was horsing around at Columbia University like everybody else, and all of a sudden all this shit came pouring out, and it was embarrassment about my country.”
BOOK: We Are What We Pretend to Be
5.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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