Comedian Jackie Mason (1928-2021) died two weeks ago in New York City. I saw him once at a French cafe on the Upper East Side. I was having lunch with a friend, and Mason and a caregiver sat several tables away. He was unmistakable with his jowled face and frizzy hair. Frail and slow-moving, he didn’t look like he wanted to be interrupted, so I didn’t. You learn not to do that sort of thing living in New York just as I am sure you learn the same thing in Hollywood.
Even though I didn’t approach him, I rehearsed what I was going to say. I would tell him how much I appreciated his humor and, to show that I wasn’t putting him on, would repeat his joke about the ballet and living in New York City. I even imagined his delight upon discovering that someone remembered his material.
The joke went something like this. When you ask people why they live in New York, they’ll tell you because of all the social and cultural opportunities that exist there. Like the ballet. But when you ask if they’ve ever been to the ballet, more often than not they’ll say no. They just feel better knowing they could go if they wanted, which is to say they feel better knowing the ballet is there.
So, you may be thinking that this joke isn’t funny. Admittedly, it may need a little work or is the kind of humor that doesn’t come across in a blog post. But you have to hear it on stage from a comedian like Mason. Timing, after all, is everything.
Speaking of timing, my father would have been 88 today. He died seven years ago in an automobile accident (see Lessons from Fathers and Sons). He was a fan of early television and Borscht Belt comedians like Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Abbott & Costello, Henny Youngman, Don Rickles, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jackie Mason. He especially liked Mason for his Brooklyn-Yiddish accent and leveling humor in which he pulled the rug out from pretentious attitudes and “poi-sons.”
Mason’s was a working-class humor that allowed people to laugh at themselves and those in power in a way that wasn’t abusive or impolite. Listening to Mason made you feel as if you were conversing with a cabbie, which, interestingly enough, was what my father did when he wasn’t working as a New York City fireman.
The man was a hard worker. His death has forced me to think differently about fatherhood. I used to see it in more or less conventional terms with the father as provider and protector, someone who helps his offspring learn about, enter into, and deal with the cold reality beyond the maternal warmth of the nest. And there’s no small amount of do-re-mi involved in that.
I still think those things are important, even crucial, but I have come to regard them as secondary. I now see one thing as primary, forming the foundation upon which fatherhood rests. Without it, the entire structure weakens, falls apart, implodes. What is this primary function of fatherhood? In a word, it is Jackie Mason’s ballet.
People feel secure knowing that the ballet is there even if they never attend. Attending isn’t the point. They want to know they could attend Giselle if they desired. In a similar way, children, families, and society need to know that father is there should they need him. He may be in the background, but we need to know that he is there–will be there–should it become necessary (see The Dance of Fatherhood). That he isn’t in so many cases for so many people has been catastrophic.
Then there is the way a father is present. A father can be present through stability, restraint, and acceptance. Mine was. He exercised what I would call extreme virtue through my totaling a car, abandoning another in a blizzard on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, getting in trouble with the police, fathering a child when I had no business doing so, making all the wrong choices in romance, and skipping over various careers like a rock over the surface of a pond, thereby wasting time and talent.
My father was there through it all, unwavering and unchanging. I felt him in the background, following the contours of my life even if at times he had been out of mind. Still, he was there. I knew I could go to him anytime. Like the ballet.
Image credits: feature by Pieter Pienaar on Unsplash; cigarettes by Angela Loria on Unsplash. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” Dedicated to the memory of Arthur Anthony Brancatelli.