By Alan Swyer
To prep for his debut appearance at a comedy club, Shelley Gold spent weeks putting together what he felt would be ten minutes of fast-paced, sure-to-please jokes. Mixing the old, the new, the daring, and the blue, he practiced his routine night after night in front of a mirror until it became second nature. Some of the quips were self-flagellating:
Q: How do you define genius?
A: A “C” student with a Jewish mother.
Some were based on geography:
Q: What's the definition of New Jersey foreplay?
A: Twenty minutes of begging and pleading.
Others were knowingly offensive:
Q: How do you get a Jewish girl to scream in bed?
A: The moment you cum, wipe your dick on the drapes.
But all, as he planned to announce in his closing remarks, had a common denominator: they were based on a man in trouble.
Yet as he took the stage to face his first ever paying crowd—not the friends or co-workers he usually entertained—Shelley, though guarded and tentative by nature, found himself throwing caution to the wind.
For reasons he could never quite comprehend, Shelley chucked his well-rehearsed routine and, unlike the jokesters who preceded him that evening, started spinning tales from his youth in blue-collar Jersey towns. As his stage-fright dissipated, he told about his payback to a bully named Butchie Simo, who turned to him beseechingly when asked by the history teacher, “What happened in 1776?” Armed with an answer whispered by Shelley, the tormentor got his long-awaited comeuppance when he proudly announced, “The War of 1812!”
Next Shelley recounted the fate of the gym teacher whose idea of fun was to sneak up behind guys in the lunchroom and smack them while they were drinking milk out of a carton, thereby drenching their shirts. Until, that is, he found himself whacked on the noggin by a flying slice of cherry crumb pie—launched by none other than Shelley—which unleashed a spontaneous bombardment of peanut butter and jelly, mashed potatoes, ice cream, mystery meat, and all sorts of other edibles that covered him from head to toe.
Finally, with the audience firmly on his side, Shelley expounded about “Current Events” in his high school history class. To the dismay of serious students who diligently scoured newspapers in search of meaningful stories, it was the wise-asses and ne'er-do-wells like himself, he explained, who rose to stardom. Why? Because they gave free range to their imaginations with reports about an Abominable Snowman sighting in Asbury Park; a Russian submarine seen making its way up the Raritan River; and a terrifying weapon perfected by Nazi scientists in Argentina: the Kabuli Bomb!
That night, which would forever remain among his fondest memories, was when Shelley Gold, nè Sheldon Goldstein, discovered not just his calling, but the basis for what would become both his repertoire and his comedic identity.
Though there were dues to pay, Shelley's ascent within the world of comedy was, if not meteoric, surprisingly steady, allowing him, in far less time than he would have dared imagine, to forsake his day job. That meant saying bye-bye to the wholesale ice cream distributorship ruled tyrannically by his overbearing Uncle Burt, and hello to life on the road.
Fully aware that he wasn't temperamentally suited to be a provocateur along the lines of Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, Shelley's stage persona became that of the genial, though sometimes surprisingly prurient, storyteller. As such, he was a likeable anomaly. His act wasn't based solely on shocking, offending, or—to use a phrase tossed around by those with nothing substantive to say—pushing the envelope. Nor did he make any effort to become a human chameleon—as Whoopie Goldberg did ably, and far too many did badly—by assuming the roles of multiple characters.
Though he professed embarrassment at the first Variety review he received, in truth Shelley was far from troubled by words he came to treasure: Gold uses the trials and travails of a Jewish everyman to enlighten a human condition full of quirks, foibles, and more than a measure of misery and laughter.
While never fully relinquishing tales, both real and imagined, from his home turf, including one in which Godzilla shows up unexpectedly in Newark (“Yo, man, where'd you get those rags?” asks one street person, then another says, “Hey, what's up with that breath?”), Shelley slowly expanded his repertoire with grown-up stories and anecdotes as well. Or, as he was given to add, as grown-up as someone who considered himself to be in a permanent state of arrested development could manage.
One source was a Swedish ex-girlfriend who, upon learning Shelley's lineage, happily exclaimed, “We had no Yews in my willage!”
Another was a one-night stand, whom Shelley described as just having fallen off the turnip truck, and proved to be completely gullible when he told her that the pieces of artichoke in the salad he ordered at a vegan restaurant were, “The hearts of small South American rodents.”
Not that Shelley exempted himself from scrutiny or ribbing. His definition of the quintessential existential dilemma, he woefully explained to many an audience, came on the night he was forced to weigh an overwhelming horniness against a powerful trifecta: overflowing kitty litter that made his eyes red and watery, a medley of Laura Nyro songs, plus the attempt made by a young woman who had changed her name from Margie to Ariel to recite her poetry. The result, Shelley reported to audiences, was a migraine headache, a desperate need for antihistamines, and what felt like a terminal case of blue balls.
Another inexhaustible source of stories and schtick was an ex-agent whom Shelley dubbed “The Queen of Narcissism.” Susanna Moore was introduced into his act after insisting that the name of a restaurant called "Xian" was pronounced as in Cheyenne, Wyoming, even though only one of them—and decidedly not her—had ever visited the Chinese home of the terracotta warriors.
Susanna was further memorialized by refusing to budge after making a claim that Welsh men at all times use their full names—first, middle, and last—even when Shelley invoked luminaries including Richard Burton, Ray Milland, Bertrand Russell, Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, and John Cale as evidence.
But Shelley's favorite reminiscence about the self-absorbed and self-important Ms. Moore, who was given to telling business associates, strangers, and even trees, about everything from her myriad afflictions (both real and imagined) to her on-again-off-again boyfriend's unwillingness to indulge in lengthy foreplay, involved a phone call he received one Thursday afternoon.
“You don't sound like yourself,” Susanna announced once she finally allowed her client to get a word in.
“I tore something in my leg,” Shelley acknowledged, writhing in pain.
“Let me tell you about my hip,” the agent immediately countered, causing Shelley to slam down the phone.
“Something wrong?” Susanna asked when she instantly called back.
“Enough with your goddamn hip!” Shelley exclaimed, which became "the button," as it's called in comedy circles, in his night club retelling of how he came to switch agencies.
Though the world at large believed it was ambition that drove people in the arts, Shelley knew that in comedy there was a greater motivator. Jealousy was the true driving force, creating a relentless rage not merely against the biggest stars, but even more so toward those on the next rung of the food chain.
Thankfully, envy and ire were not key emotions in Shelley's life. He could say, “I like your work” without feeling “but I hope you get leukemia!”
Though Shelley had certain reservations and qualms about the niche he carved for himself, he understood that they owed less to the success of others than to the resources—both painful and humorous—into which he was reluctant to tap.
It was only after moving to Los Angeles in search of additional TV gigs that Shelley finally began telling tales involving family members. The first one invoked was his Great Aunt Ethel, the keeper of an all-night poker game, from whence came the story of the night she used pillows and cushions to prop her dying husband Herman, comatose from painkillers for his liver cancer, at the poker table. “Why? Because another hand was needed so that the game could go on.”
Next came anecdotes about Great Uncle Al, a lieutenant under Longie Zwilman, the Jersey head of the Bugsy Siegel/Meyer Lansky mob, who fled in dead of night to avoid racketeering charges.
That, in turn, led to tidbits about his own father, Dave Goldstein, who for reasons that were never explained, lived in mortal fear of confrontation, decision-making, and, above all, soup.
Then there were the tidbits about a judge named Harold Feldman who, after marrying Shelley's dad's cousin, blew the state of New Jersey's biggest mob trial so badly that his courtroom ineptitude inspired a tell-all book.
But by far the most vivid riffs were those involving the one person with whom Shelley for years had never managed to have anything resembling a civil conversation: his mother, Dottie.
Though initially awkward and uncomfortable, Shelley found it to be strangely liberating to speak in public about someone who, if he happened to say, “Day,” invariably would reply, “Night!” And who, if he whispered, “Hot,” was quick to respond with a clear and emphatic, “Stop complaining!”
Though Shelley had long resisted what he considered to be comedy-as-therapy, the result was strangely exhilarating when he told audiences about the ledger Dottie kept of slights (both real and imagined) which enabled her to sever ties with an ever-increasing number of friends and family members. Or about her determination at meals to make her son finish anything left not just on his own plate, but on hers as well, even if that meant a piece of toast that had gotten cold and hard. And, if Shelley should summon the courage to balk, Dottie's insistence that her hen-pecked husband do so instead.
In exposing family secrets, Shelley was encouraged by two disparate sources. First, not surprisingly, was the response from audiences who laughed heartily at what he referred as his “tales of woe.” But more important by far for someone who, to put it mildly, had issues when it came to intimacy and commitment, was the arrival into his life of a refreshingly open and sweet woman named Iris.
The author of several young adult novels about an aspiring rock band, Iris bestowed upon Shelley both the confidence and the courage to be more open than he'd ever been before.
Further, it was she who got him to start making weekly calls to his recently widowed mother, who had finally relocated from New Jersey to a suburb north of Miami.
Thanks to Iris, Shelley became more and more adept at steering Sunday morning conversations with his mother away from anything volatile or controversial. However, years of practice had made Dottie a world-class button-pusher. That meant that when her inability to provoke her son reached a certain level of frustration, she pulled if not a matzoh ball, at least an ace out of the hole. Aware that employment was rarely steady even for those at the top of show biz, Dottie would too often manage to make Shelley meshuga by asking ever-so-sweetly, “So tell me, are you working?”
Despite his attempts to be Zen-like, Shelley would all too often turn into a ten-year-old and explode.
It was Iris, too, who steered Shelley's career in a new direction. Convinced that his stories of growing up could be more than just fodder for his appearances—and that writing would help him through periods when gigs were less than plentiful—Iris persuaded him to try his hand at a screenplay, and when the first one he wrote was optioned by a producer, yet another. And when the second largely autobiographical script sparked an unexpected bidding war, she was the mastermind who helped engineer an offer for Shelley to develop another project that he would direct.
It was during that exciting period in which the two lovebirds, having decided to get married, were searching for a house in which to start a new life together, that Dottie once again asked Shelley's least favorite question.
“So tell me,” she said one Sunday morning, “are you working?”
“Mom, listen to me,” Shelley responded. “I'm no longer just a schlepper grinding out a living. I'm doing well—better than I ever dreamed possible. Okay?”
“Still, nothing. When I was growing up, who did you consider comfortable?”
“Dr. Nussbaum, the proctologist.”
“Then let me explain. Your ne'er-do-well son is more comfortable than Dr. Nussbaum, the proctologist. In fact, probably more comfortable than him and that ambulance chaser—Plotkin, right?—put together. So please, one favor. No more questions about whether or not I'm working. All right? For me?”
A moment's silence followed, giving Shelley hope that maybe—just maybe—his long-distance request was being honored.
“So tell me,” Dottie finally asked.
“Is Iris working?”
Perhaps the most important lesson Shelley learned thanks to his new calling as a screen-writer was to avoid at all cost a phenomenon known as deus ex machina. Taken from the Greek and translated literally as God from the machine, Shelley interpreted it to mean, in dramatic terms, the arrival of an unexpected and purely artificial event based solely on convenience. Which he redefined as writerly bullshit.
Though his writing remained surprisingly free of such contrivance, such was not the case with his life. After what he considered to be a successful appearance on a cable comedy special, Shelley found himself ambushed by a female blogger who viciously denounced him as “a misogynist,” a “woman hater,” and “a singularly unfunny no-talent!”
Though Shelley was tempted to claim that instead of being a “misogynist” he was actually a misanthrope, and rather than being a “woman hater,” he was in truth an equal-opportunity hater, what offended him most was being called a “no-talent.”
But before he could mount a counterattack, a hue and cry erupted. All sorts of people—some that he knew, plus others he didn't know at all—rose to Shelley's defense as what started on the internet exploded into the mainstream media. The result was that instead of remaining a cult figure, albeit one cherished in certain circles, Shelley found himself catapulting into crossover status. That meant, Iris told him playfully, that soon enough delicatessens would be naming sandwiches after him.
“Ham-and-limburger on rye, heavy on the mustard!” was Shelley's none-too-kosher reply.
To the dismay of his fans, Shelley's stories about his mother stopped abruptly one day, never to return as part of his act.
The reason was that the force of nature known at Dottie Erlich Goldstein suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered.
Choosing not to dwell on difficulties from their past, Shelley did his best to make his mother's remaining years as comfortable as possible, providing her with the finest medical attention and care.
All the while, he did everything he could to avoid a repetition of their lifelong skirmishes, turning the other cheek at even the first hint of provocation.
Though Florida was far from his favorite place on earth, Shelley made frequent trips, sometimes linking them to gigs at comedy clubs he would have otherwise avoided.
While most of the journeys were made solo, that changed when one of Dottie's doctors made it clear that the end was near.
“Know how you're always saying you'd like to accompany me?” Shelley asked Iris one Friday over lunch.
“Now's the time,” he whispered sadly.
The Dottie that Shelley and Iris found when they got to Deerfield Beach was a frail and shrunken version of her former self.
Monitored day and night by caregivers in the apartment she refused to leave, Dottie seemed all but oblivious to her visitors on their first two days there.
But on day three, for reasons no one could determine, there was a sudden rally. Though Dottie was clearly in no shape to play tennis or run a marathon, she was suddenly not merely alert, but also characteristically caustic.
“So tell me,” she said to Shelley after getting a hug from Iris, “how did a schlump like you get somebody as nice and pretty as her?”
“Luck, I guess.”
“Must be,” responded Dottie with a laugh.
The three of them made small talk for a while, then Iris prepared coffee to serve with the ruggalach she'd brought from Dottie's favorite local bakery.
“Seen anybody I know?” Shelley asked as they were eating.
“Only Bernice Cohen,” Dottie answered with a shrug.
“How is she?”
“Crankier than ever.”
“C'mon, she was always sweet.”
“What do you know?”
“What do I know?” Shelley asked. “I've known her since I was a kid.”
“Mom, come on. It doesn't hurt to say something nice once in a while.”
“Shelley,” Dottie said with a look Shelley remembered too well coming over her face.
“Do me a favor.”
Without a word, Shelley stood, took his wife's arm, and led her toward the door.
Alone with Shelley in the hallway, Iris was stunned. “What was that all about?”
“I want to remember her in character,” Shelley said.
Though Shelley replayed his last words with his mother over and over while driving, lying awake in bed, and even shooting baskets, it wasn't until several years later that he came to understand what they actually meant to him.
It was thanks to Dottie, he realized, that he learned to challenge authority. And to use humor as a defense.
That's when he decided to take a break from his other endeavors and write a play about what it meant to be her son.
There was no question in his mind as to what the last lines would be.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and boxing. His fiction has appeared in Ireland, England, India, and in several American publications.