Finding laughter in the grief

Special to The Times

“700 Sundays” began as a sad calculation. Right before my 50th birthday, I found myself thinking about how life has been like an express train whizzing by as I stand on the platform watching the blur, the wind and noise almost knocking me over. I thought of my father and our all too short relationship. He died when I was just 15 years old. He worked at two, sometimes three jobs, and our one day together was Sunday.

I remember doing the math on a piece of paper and figured that we had roughly 700 Sundays. It had a poetry about it, I thought. With that as a title, and a theme, I started to jot down stories and great moments we shared, and the ones we didn’t get to. I wrote about my anger, my thoughts, my feelings. I wrote about fate: How did I end up with this family? How did I become a comedian? It was about four pages long, and I put it away, thinking “someday I have to do something with this.” It would become the play that would literally take me home again.

You can’t pick your parents, but if I could, I would pick them over and over again. They brought me home to a Damon Runyon world filled with laughter and jazz and eccentric characters. It was like the bar from “Star Wars,” except they all had accents. As I wrote, I realized I loved most of my childhood; I would just rewrite sections of it if I could.


Writing is rewriting, right? There are no “do-overs,” as we talked about in “City Slickers.” One take, that’s all we get. Unfortunately for me, that was hammered home by the sudden death of my dad, Jack, in 1963. We were extremely close; I was his youngest son. When my two brothers left to go to college that fall, I had him alone for the first time. I didn’t have to share him with them. One and a half months — six Sundays — and he would be gone.

The impact of that belted me in the face over and over again, year after year: the empty seat at the dinner table; no smell of his shaving lotion in the morning; walking down the aisle with my mom at my wedding; not being there when my babies were born. Gone. The hurt kept finding its way into my life. Like a red wine stain on a white tablecloth, it would fade, but you always knew it was there.

Then in 2001 my mother passed away. She was my hero, a true inspiration. She kept us together when Dad died. Surrounding her passing was the death of her brother, my uncle, Milt Gabler, a huge influence on my life; the tragedy of 9/11; the sudden loss of my godmother; and then one of my closest friends, Dick Schaap, died. I could barely stand up. Five body shots like that just months apart.

What was life about? Milt was a joyous spirit, a mentor to me. Sept. 11 was stunning in its power and anger, and devastating in its loss. We all watched thousands of people die on television. Mom was hit with a stroke that disabled her at first, but then — like the shark it is — came back for the kill. Dick died of complications that were untreated after a hip replacement, a death that could have been easily avoided, but poor medical attention doomed him. Angry, confused, reeling from sorrow and fatigue, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t even sure how to smile.

So I started writing.

It occurs to me now that I always did that. When Dad died, I wrote a eulogy for him, same for my grandparents, and I gave one of Milt’s eulogies, as well as one for Mom and one for Dick. I found it hard to talk about these hurts, so I wrote. I wrote an essay called “Orphan” about the realization that at our age, we boomers are all saying goodbye to our parents, and we’re just not tethered to the earth in quite the same way. It is an odd, uncomfortable feeling, not being somebody’s baby anymore. I submitted it to the New York Times, which politely declined, saying they loved the piece, but since 9/11 everything has been so dark — couldn’t I do something funny for them? (“Orphan” would become the last third of the show.)

So I wrote, but this time with the purpose of performing the material. I had not been onstage doing stand-up since 1989, when I did an HBO special from Moscow, and I had last toured in 1986. There were moments, of course — Comic Relief, the Grammys and the Oscars — but not on a regular basis anymore. I stopped for many reasons. The travel was keeping me from my daughters, who were growing up, and I didn’t want to be “Uncle Daddy.” I was making movies, and the lifestyle was easier. I also didn’t have to worry about 8:05 p.m., the time I would usually hit the stage. I just felt like I didn’t have anything to say, which is not a good thing for a comedian. The longer I stayed away from it, the more frightened I got about doing it again. Yet when all of those sad things were piled on top of me, that’s what I wanted to do. I was now 55, closer to 60 than to 50. Yikes. If I didn’t get back on the stage now I might never do it again.

I decided to write about grief. My grief. If I could make it really funny and not lose any of the emotion, I might have something. Tell what happened to me — the loss of my folks, my anguish, my guilt — share it and find humor in it. Bring it out into the light, and maybe it wouldn’t be so ugly to look at after all.

After many discussions with Janice, my wife of 35 years, I decided I had to try to do this. This was not a one-person decision, this was also about us — the time and energy it would take to commit to doing this. I wanted her to produce the show with me and a close friend, producer Larry Magid. Janice knows me better than anyone, and without her involvement, it wouldn’t feel the same. I gathered people I trusted and believed in. Des McAnuff of the La Jolla Playhouse, where we would workshop the piece, would direct. I brought in Alan Zweibel, a close friend and a wonderful writer, to sit with me and watch and help me shape the stories, the images, the laughs and the pain, into a play — not an evening of stand-up, but a play. A funny, touching play that would not be about my career, but about the people and moments that helped me become a man.

We were due to open at the Playhouse in four weeks, and we had yet to start. I took out my original “700 Sundays” outline, and we began. We rented a small space at Pepperdine University and I just started improvising to selected jazz pieces I had chosen. I love improvising to music. It opens my senses up and frees me. I feel like I’m part of the group, and I’m just taking a solo. It makes me hit different notes and gives the monologues their own beat. Des and Alan would watch and listen as I tried to find my way.

Questions were asked. Alan became a shrink-like character to me at times. Things I had not thought about for years came to life again as we talked late into the night. It was exhilarating, and scary at the same time. After each eight-hour day, a shape was forming, jokes were written and rewritten, new characters created. The set, which is the exterior of my childhood home on Long Island, was being built; home movies and photos, to be projected onto the house, were edited. It was just Des and Alan and I, and Lurie Horns Pfeffer, who would become our production stage manager, and a P.A. who was working our CD player as music cues were created.

Performing for such a small group and with such raw emotional stuff was exhausting, but after so many years of being away from the stage, it was so natural a feeling to be back there. After three weeks, we had two hours of material with an elaborate outline — no real script was committed to paper. It was all key words on note cards and in my mind. “Trust the play,” Des and Alan would say to me every time I asked, “Is this interesting? Will people care about this?”

We moved to the La Jolla Playhouse for a two-week run. Large notepads were set in the wings, with stagehands flipping the pages as I went in case I got lost. It was dangerous and daunting, and so exciting. From the first performance, I knew Des and Alan were right. Trust the play.

Yes, the audience laughed in all the right places, but they cried in places I didn’t expect. They cheered at moments that surprised all of us. We performed at night, rehearsed during the day, cutting, rewriting, discovering. Only 12 shows later, we were on Broadway. What I found in those first performances was the universality of life. My grief was their grief. My hurt was their hurt. My family was their family. It didn’t matter if they were Italian, black, Jewish or Catholic, we were all connected by the same spidery web. We had all laughed and loved and lost. How we deal with it all became the driving force behind the show. I had something to say again.To be able to tell these stories of my life and the people who helped shape it, sometimes just a few blocks from the Broadhurst Theatre where we played, made the words resonate in a new way. Audiences were spectacular. I couldn’t wait for 8:05. The laughs were huge, the tears were real. You can go home again, I thought.

The shows are an emotional workout. Two and a half hours or so, alone up there, is tiring to be sure. The pace of the comedy is fast and strong, the emotions deep and dark, the concentration relentless. Yet I still can’t wait to hit the stage every night. I have never felt so reconnected not only to my folks and those other distant voices, but more important, to me. I’m doing what I love doing the most: performing live. It’s not a movie; no one says, “Cut! Let’s do one more.” It’s just me and the audience and all of these wonderful characters and moments to play. If I screw up, it’s on me; if there’s a problem, I have to work it out. I do something new every night; it’s never been the same. When it’s good, it’s the best feeling in the world. It has healed me. It continues to heal me. I miss my parents less because I am with them more. I know now why I stayed away from the stage all those years: I was waiting for this. I just hadn’t lived enough yet.

Getting laughs is always the joy of being onstage, and there are big laughs in the show. But it’s the quiet times in the play that I love the most. When I don’t hear anything but sniffles and a choked-up cough, usually by the men in the audience, then I know I’ve got them in a different way.

When I sit in our green lawn chair and look at my house lighted by the moonlight of an autumn night, I am grateful that I have had the life that I’ve had, and grateful that I can honor my parents in this way. Basic lessons have been relearned. Write what you feel, write what you know. Be daring and brave. Believe in the power of silence. You don’t need to have a laugh every few seconds. If it’s real to me, it will be real to them. It’s just me and 2,000 people, and I like the odds. Maybe the lesson of the whole process for me and the audience has been “Trust the play.”

So now we come to Los Angeles. I can’t wait, because no matter where I perform the show, I’m sitting in front of my house. I’m always home.

‘700 Sundays’

Where: Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. Call for exceptions

Ends: Feb. 18

Price: $40 to $95

Contact: (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878;<252>