Today is Mother’s Day in some 80 countries around the world, including the US. France, being France, celebrates it on the last Sunday of May, unless Pentecost happens to fall on that day, in which case Mother’s Day is moved to the first Sunday of June. France has to be difficult. I think it has something to do with Charles de Gaulle and their break with NATO in 1966. Please know that I have nothing against the French. In fact, some of my best friends do not use deodorant.
That last bit of sarcasm is the point of this post. It is what I affectionately call a josephine. A josephine, oddly enough, could be a French word but is actually my mother’s first name: Josephine. I should say at the outset that my mother adores France (elle adore France), as I do, and would probably live there if given the opportunity. When she was younger, she certainly looked like a mademoiselle.
My mother has a unique gift. She has a comedic/satirical streak that is witty, articulate, incisive, honest, leveling, and hilarious. She was slicing and dicing long before Vegematic. She also has a talent for doing what Frank Sinatra claimed only Tony Bennett could do consistently: hit the middle of the note. By that, he meant reach the essence of the note, the phrase, the particular arrangement of a song. Mom can do the same thing, except she doesn’t do it with music. She does it with people.
Of course, not everybody likes being compared to “a band of Russian monkeys” or a Nazi in tight underwear. But she did have a point when the doctor asked if my father got any exercise. “Sure,” my mother replied. “He walks from one cigarette to the next.”
There are josephines too numerous to mention. I have started collecting them, being somewhat of the family historian. The list includes: “There are so many assholes around here, it’s a wonder people don’t wear their underwear on their heads,” and “I learned early on that when you walk past a monkey cage, you don’t wait for them to sling shit at you.”
This is where I find the comparison to comedian Don Rickles most apt. I don’t know if monkeys hold a special place in mom’s heart. Having four children (three boys) would certainly make it understandable. But her interest and even fascination with monkeys is related to criticism that was leveled at Rickles, “Mr. Warmth.” It was that his humor was so bizarre it bordered on the absurd.
Toward the end of Rickles’ life, David Letterman observed that much of Rickles’ sarcasm made no sense, as when he compared people to “monkeys sitting on a rock.” I don’t know what it is about comedians and monkeys, but I do know that Letterman would just throw up his hands. I am also reminded of the scene at the monkey cage in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Now, that was funny.
Mom’s humor, like Rickles’, works for a number of reasons: pace, delivery, and the ability to do free association. Rickles was a master at improvisation and mom is alongside him every step of the way. There’s nobody quicker. But it is important to note that for both of them, their humor was self-deprecating. They were often the target of their own attacks.
What does this mean for Mother’s Day? I can think of two things. First, the Rickles gene has been passed down from my mother to me, and from me to my three children, all of whom can do stand-up in their own right. Two of them are mothers and, in at least one case, the gene has been passed down again to my redheaded granddaughter, which may mean double-trouble, sort of like Rickles on steroids.
Second, this ability to see the absurd in life and weave stories around it is, indeed, a gift. It reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously, not to succumb to despair, and not to forget to be compassionate.
That’s what sarcasm can do at its best. True, it’s root in Greek means “tearing of flesh,” but that is not what Rickles did, and it is not what mom does. It is a form of intimacy in which you hold up truth, not delusion, as a mirror to reality. After all, we can all do with a little less delusion and more truth, even if the truth touches some tender spots. Especially if it does so.
As mom reminded me just the other day, we all put our pants on one leg at a time, even if some of us should be wearing them over our heads.
Don Rickles photo by George Rose, Los Angeles Times. Note to self: Remember to phone home! DJBK, today is the day!