Max went fast.
There is a melancholy, unavoidable, that settles in middle age. I put that as a universal statement of fact, assuming that my contemporaries will all nod their heads in solemn agreement. Even Joel Osteen wakes up some days, looks in the mirror, sighs heavily from the weight of it all, and crawls back under the covers for the rest of the day – right?
Maybe it’s just me.
One of the things that happens, and there’s no getting around it: the longer you don’t die the more you know people who do (did).
You get used to it, but only to the degree that you get used to anything. You can’t fight City Hall.
Max was sick, but that was nothing new. The guy had been sick for years. He was like John Wayne in True Grit – they kept taking pieces out of him, but he kept getting back on the horse. Just like John Wayne, if John Wayne had been a funny New York Jew.
He took a lot, but kept punching. The old rope-a-dope. (Not like John Wayne, like Ali.)
Max had a lot of friends, and he kept them compartmentalized. He had a compartment labeled “religious”, a compartment labeled “very personal”, a compartment labeled “Vegas”. That one was actually a subset of the larger compartment “comedy”, which had other subsets: L.A. comedy, friends from the small clubs, friends from the big 80’s when he was touring with Ann Margaret and Julio Iglesias and Bob Hope. Jerry Lewis was in a whole separate compartment. The last years he had a “New York” compartment, and that was the compartment I was in.
About a decade ago Max moved back east to be closer to his brother and his brother’s family. Max’s brother had given Max a kidney. Nice brother. I know brothers who won’t even send an email.
I met Max a few hours after he gave one of the greatest comedy performances I’d ever seen. It was a big roast of Jerry Lewis. Picture this: the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, lunchtime. Two thousand well dressed and well heeled in attendance. Star-studded dais: Martin Scorcese, Robert DeNiro, Nathan Lane, Paul Schaffer. Everybody’s killing. Elderly Jerry Lewis laughing appreciatively. Richard Belzer is the roast master. The whole thing is rolling along like gangbusters.
Belzer introduces comic Lisa Lampanelli. Lisa, as they would say back in the Paleolithic era of comedy, “works blue”. It’s her show, her crowd. Like batting practice at the peak of the steroids era, she’s launching one shock roast joke after another out of the park. Boom! Boom! Boom!
Killing. Big. She was like The Ramones at CBGBs, The Beatles at The Cavern Club. No - The Beatles at Shea Stadium. She destroyed. She did to that room what Godzilla does to Tokyo. She was fast, she was loud, she was brutal, she was relentless.
She was very, very funny.
When she was done, every single person in that room turned to every single other person in that room and said, in unison: “I’d hate to have to follow that!”
As the pandemonium began to subside, Belzer nodded to Lisa with respect as he took back the podium – and proceeded to distance himself as much as possible from what was sure to be the coming disaster. “Now, here’s a guy who’s only on the show because Jerry wanted him – Max Alexander.”
The savvier show business types in the audience (the minority who had been comped, like me) had some awareness of who Max was. The wealthy businessmen (who actually paid the exorbitant sums to be there) had no idea.
I had never crossed paths with Max. I remembered him as a funny comic I had seen on TV fifteen or twenty years earlier. Appearances on The Tonight Show with Carson, a couple of movies – the fat guy with Tom Hanks in Punchline, the fat guy with Steve Martin in Roxanne.
The laughter and energy in the room was completely gone. You could feel a palpable resentment in the audience, like they were angry that they now had to sit through anything that wasn’t more of Lisa. The entire audience had, on a dime, gone from being an over-excited eight year old pumped up on sugar at a birthday party to being a sullen, over-tired eight year old crashing from sugar after a birthday party.
Max was seated way, way at the end of a very long dais – far away from the microphone. Belzer’s intro had been as brief as it was desultory. In baseball, a “quick pitch”. The applause didn’t just die before Max reached the podium, it died before he even got up from his chair.
He wasn’t as fat as I remembered him from TV, but he was still pretty big. It took him forever to get to the podium. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Who could blame him? I thought: he’s not one of those “moves well for a fat guy” fat guys. He moved really, really slow.
By the time he arrived at the podium (about a month and a half after his introduction), the majority of the audience was stooped over, rubbing their foreheads, looking down in embarrassment. Nothing about Max’s demeanor gave the audience any hope either. He looked solemn, like an accountant about to put the audience through a tax audit.
You could hear a cricket drop a pin.
He stood at the podium and looked around, peering out through his glasses. The audience stared back (those who’s heads weren’t drooped).
He spoke slowly, with a nasally Jewish twang, like a particularly uncharismatic rabbi.
“A lot of people have spoken today about Jerry from here,” he said, patting his head. “And from here,” he patted his mouth. “But I’d like to speak about Jerry from here.” With that, he patted his heart.
The audience sat, quietly, looking at the sincere man who wanted to speak from the heart.
Then, he slipped his hand into his inside suit jacket pocket – right where he had patted his “heart” - pulled out some index cards, inhaled, and launched into his first joke. Before he got anywhere near the punch line, a huge, rolling laugh filled the room. It was one of the most satisfying laughs I have ever heard. It started as relief (Hey, this guy is funny!), mixed in with awe (I can’t believe he turned this ship around right before the iceberg!), and ultimately – appreciation. It was a masterful act of show business combat. Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.
That night, hours after Max’s triumph, I was onstage myself. Not at a big, star studded, high profile Roast. I was working at a small-time, short-lived comedy club in Times Square. The kind of well-meaning, unobtrusive little hole-in-the-wall club that pops up from time to time in New York City, full of hope and pretty waitresses, struggles for a while, then shuts it’s doors and disappears. Comedy can be a cruel business. I was doing what comics do: working out new material, getting some laughs, not getting some laughs. There were maybe seven people in the audience.
Suddenly, there was Max. A few hours earlier he was crushing for two thousand people, Martin Scorcese and Jerry Lewis pounding him on the back. “Why aren’t you at some celebrity after-party drinking champagne out of Scarlett Johansson’s slipper?” I asked. “I just wanted to hang out with some comics,” he said.
We stood outside the club on the sidewalk, kibitzing, busting chops, talking comedy. We exchanged numbers.
We started seeing each other for lunch with other comics, I was part of his “New York comedy” compartment. Later on I ended up moving into Max’s neighborhood in the Bronx, so I was put into another sub-set compartment – just Max and me. We’d go up the block to Liebman’s for deli, or down the hill to Tibbet’s Diner. Kibitzing, busting chops, talking comedy. Gossiping about other comics. Lot of gossiping.
Sometimes we talked about real, serious, grown up stuff. We could be real, serious grown ups together.
Truth be told though, most of the time we just goofed around and gossiped. We made each other laugh. There were running gags. Any teenage boy will tell you that running gags are the impenetrable glue that holds male friendships together. The same is true for middle-aged teenage boys.
Max would make a point or say something funny that would excite me, and would trigger me into an anecdote. For some inexplicable reason, something about Max inspired me to launch into big anecdotes filled with premise, characters, dialog – but no punch line. Too often my anecdotes would peter out at the end, trailing off aimlessly.
Max never let me get away with it. After an awkward pause (perfectly timed) he’d inhale, fix me with a sly smile, and offer: “You know, when you tell a story, it helps if you actually have a point.” This happened about thirty times. Each time I’d laugh so hard I’d pull a muscle in my chest. Eventually he didn’t even have to say it, I’d start laughing on the inhale.
He got sick again. They put him in a rehab in the neighborhood. It was a good sign. They were helping him get his strength back so he could go home.
I went to see him. He wasn’t in his room. I found him in the exercise room, with a nurse and his brother and his sister-in-law. Max was in a chair, and he looked very tired.
The nurse handed him a bar, about the length of a baseball bat. She instructed him to hold it horizontally, chest high, then thrust it out away from his body. Pull it back, thrust out. Repeat. She instructed him to count with each thrust: “One! Two! Three! Four!” Repeat. “One! Two! Three! Four!”
He thrust the bar out. “One!” He grunted. It was hard. He dropped his arms.
“You can do it,” she said.
He tried again. “One!” He kept his arms up this time, but didn’t thrust. We waited for “Two!” Leaving his arms in place, after a beat (perfectly timed), he repeated: “One!”
It got a laugh.
He started thrusting. “One!” Pause. Then: “Singular sensation…” He looked around, slyly. We all laughed. Max laughed too. He knew he was funny.
Thrust. “One!” Thrust back. “Thrilling combination…” Everyone in the room – me, the nurse, his brother, his sister-in-law – joined in. “Every movement she makes…”
He kept thrusting. “One look and suddenly nobody else will do…”
We all sang: “You know you’ll never be lonely with you-know-who!”
As we sang, a thought crossed my mind: another very funny man, Kevin Meany. Kevin had a wonderful moment in his act. He did a great Johnny Mathis impression. He would start singing Winter Wonderland as Mathis. At a crucial point, a couple of verses in (perfectly timed), he would turn around with his back to the crowd and scream, in the panicked voice of the audience: “He’s doing the whole song!”
Max finished the exercise, and we all finished the song. Big finish.
I saw Max a couple of other times after that, but that’s the one (see what I did there?) that I’ve chosen to be my last memory of him. In pain, facing all kinds of terribleness, and he’s going out of his way to make everyone around him laugh.
How can you not love a guy like that?
Dave Konig is a 3 time Emmy winning comedian and the author of the novel
Good Luck, Mr. Gorsky available on Amazon.