Stand-Up Guys

Funny how some words get laughs while others simply get old

Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld tooling around.

Wanna hear a joke? Go elsewhere. I don’t tell jokes. I do, however, tinker with them occasionally.

My friend Jeff is the comedian. Well, my friend Jeff is a lawyer in his mid-50s who spends his hours away from the office crafting a second career in comedy. I’d like to think that when Jerry Seinfeld gets tired of inviting Chris Rock into his car and out for coffee, he’ll call Jeff. Jeff probably likes to think that, too. For now, though, Jeff has to get in his own car, get his own coffee and ask his pal who hadn’t been to a comedy club in nearly 25 years to now and then help iron out his material.

Jeff eschews lawyer jokes, opting instead to share slightly racy stories that might not hold up under cross-examination. Experience in the dimly lit comedy trenches has taught Jeff that racy or randy or bawdy or any such synonym — though preferably one his primarily youthful audience would have used in their comparatively short time on Earth — is the coin of the fairly filthy realm he’s chosen to enter. He strives to be a clean comedian yet has to work at least a little blue to be heard over the watering down of two-drink-minimum cocktails. Still, Jeff’s not really naughty by nature.

I’m tempted to say Jeff is less dirty than dusty, except dusty rhymes with musty, and musty would just reinforce that he’s the oldest guy working the room on any given night.

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My friend the comedian tries to sell the idea that there’s something inherently funny about a long-married guy in his mid-50s wanting more sex than a long-married guy in his mid-50s is considered capable of getting. Comedy club sensibilities haven’t grown any more genteel since I stopped seeking entertainment inside their smoke-stained walls, so I can see the utility in going on about getting some. I can see why a genuine sweetheart like Jeff frames himself as a randy old(er) man leering at the attractive young women in his workplace. That image strikes me as more unsettling than hilarious, at least until he gets to the part where he pictures what would happen to him if he ever acted on his randiest impulses.

When he tells the audience that in one of his scenarios he finds himself “called into HR,” they laugh every time. That’s my contribution: “HR.” Two little letters. “HR” somehow equals “HA!” “Hump day,” before the insurance industry rode off with it, was mine, too. Jeff has a bit about small-talk phrases used in elevators and how they can be interpreted differently when you hear them in varied settings. “It’s hump day!” in the elevator amounts to innocent time-killing chatter between floors on a random Wednesday. But when you’re in the bedroom and you hear “It’s hump day!” ...

You get the idea.

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“Moo shu pork” is also mine. It’s part of a bit Jeff does about the efficacy of fortune cookies. Fortunes never tell you anything you really need to know, he says. Better to have “hindsight fortunes,” such as “you shouldn’t have ordered the moo shu pork — you’ll understand why in half an hour.” Jeff changed my “moo shu pork” to “kung pao chicken” for a synagogue social group because, he reasoned, pork isn’t kosher. For about twenty minutes worth of e-mails, I sent him a steady stream of steamed beef over his culinary alteration. “KUNG PAO CHICKEN IS NOT AS FUNNY AS MOO SHU PORK,” I implored him.

Imagine cracking open a fortune cookie and discovering that mysterious message.

But back to sex and Jeff’s failure to obtain as much of it as he would like. According to the comedian version of himself, Jeff’s wife was contemplating buying another purse. “What do you need another purse for?” he asked. “I only need one wallet.”

His wife didn’t care for his attitude and countered, “Then maybe we don’t need to have sex more than once a week.” To which Jeff, at my suggestion, explained, “So I bought her seven pocketbooks.”

Another HA! Success! Except the more Jeff told it, the more anachronistic a particular element of the joke felt. I had saddled him with the word “pocketbook,” which is the word I use for one of those bags which women use to tote their stuff around. My mother called hers a pocketbook. That was a long time ago, but it made an impression. A purse, to my musty thinking, is where change and maybe a few rumpled dollar bills are kept. The purse goes inside the pocketbook with all the other junk.

Doesn’t it?

My wife doesn’t call it a pocketbook. My sister doesn’t call it a pocketbook. Apparently nobody in Jeff’s comedy club circles calls it a pocketbook. He hung in there with it, out of respect for my linguistic instincts and Neil Simon’s "Sunshine Boys" lecture that words with the “k” sound are funnier than words that lack the “k” sound. Jeff held my “pocketbook” until a female comic, far bawdier than either of us, offered a valuable insight.

“Jeff,” she said, “maybe if you didn’t use words like ‘pocketbook,’ you’d get laid more.”

So he ends the bit with seven purses.

Tags: memoirs

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