I mentioned this last year. Pay attention.
On 22nd February this year, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I are reprising our Edinburgh Fringe show The Grouchy Club for a Jewish Comedy Day at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. Neither of us are Jewish and the tickets are only £5. Life is full of constant surprises.
The organiser of this fine upcoming Jewish Comedy Day is Arlene Greenhouse. We met when she came to see a couple of Grouchy Club shows in Edinburgh last August.
So yesterday, obviously, I had a chat with Arlene at Hendon Park Cafe.
Yesterday, she paid for the food.
Afterwards, I realised I had forgotten to take a photo of her for this blog. So I Googled “Arlene Gorodensky mum’s the word” on Google Images.
To find out why that name, you will have to read further.
The interesting thing is that the first actual facial image to be displayed by Google Images was one of Wonder Woman.
“I like asking the questions,” Arlene told me yesterday. “I don’t like being judged.”
“I don’t judge,” I told her.
“This is my debut into – I dunno,” said Arlene. “Promoting? Organising?”
“Well, you’ve got a great line-up for the February Comedy Day,” I said, “present company excepted. I’ve read the programme. What do you see it as?”
“It’s celebrating Jewish comedy,” said Arlene, “like a spa day – where you come and get your fill of laughter and feel better for five days afterwards.”
“It’s just a talky-talky day?” I asked.
“No,” said Arlene, “We have everything. We have…”
“Strippers?” I asked hopefully.
“Yes, we do have a stripper,” said Arlene. “We have Lynn Ruth Miller performing. But, more seriously, it’s always been a very important part of our culture to be able to laugh at all the hardship. My first gig, I performed at…”
“You performed?” I asked.
“I didn’t know that,” I said, “but I find research is over-rated.”
“My very first gig ever – if I can call it a gig,” said Arlene, “I was on-stage with Roseanne Barr in Montreal in 1983 (Arlene comes from Montreal) and we were volleying Jewish jokes back-and-forth.”
“This,” I asked, “was when Roseanne Barr was still unknown?”
“No. she was already known.”
“So your first gig was onstage with a famous comedienne?”
“Yeah. And – though my daughter thinks this is a lie – I did tell Ellen DeGeneres in 1982 after her show in a little seedy basement comedy club in New York that she was gonna be famous. She was so amazing. The type of humour I like. She was talking about bridesmaids and how the bride chooses her ugliest friends to walk down the aisle and, to make doubly sure she shines, she puts them in slime-green bridesmaids dresses.”
“How long were you doing comedy for?” I asked.
“I wasn’t,” said Arlene. “I have had one gig maybe every two decades. I have done about six now. My biggest regret in life is that I never wrote for Joan Rivers. I could never figure out how to do it.”
“You had the opportunity?” I asked.
“Why should you have written for her?” I asked.
“Because my humour is the same as hers.”
“So,” I asked, “you must be a frustrated writer-performer?”
“I’d prefer to write,” said Arlene. “I do like the limelight but I would prefer to write, because you can do that in your pyjamas.”
“You should write for Lewis Schaffer,” I said.
“About a year ago,” said Arlene, “I went and saw Lewis Schaffer and I said: Lewis Schaffer! Gimme the mike! and I got up and he was heckling me the whole time and I felt very comfortable with that because, when I was growing up, you sat around the table in my house and you heckled each other. That’s how we communicated. There was never a compliment. It was like: You think you look good? You don’t look good.”
“Lewis Schaffer is at your February Comedy Day too,” I said, “interviewing critic Bruce Dessau.”
“Yeah. He’s not gonna embarrass me is he?”
“You don’t really know Lewis Schaffer, do you?” I said.
“Well of course he’s going to embarrass you,” I told her.
“Oh God,” said Arlene. “I’m gonna have to threaten him. Seriously.”
“You like his act?” I asked.
“I like a comedian in a jacket. It makes a big difference.”
“Potatoes have jackets,” I said. “I preferred him when he dyed his hair. Why don’t you do something about writing? They’re crying out for writers at the BBC.”
“I did write a sitcom script,” said Arlene. “I thought it was quite good.”
“I’m working on something very similar myself,” I told her.
“About whatever you are about to tell me. The trouble with the Beeb is that they’re inclined to steal people’s ideas. So what did you do with your script?”
“I sent it to the BBC and that was it.”
“You heard nothing back?” I asked.
“So,” I said, “this thing tomorrow night…”
“I met this guy Avi Liberman on Facebook,” Arlene told me. “He said he was coming to London so I said: Do you want me to organise a gig for you?”
“My cheap psychology,” I said, “still tells me you are a frustrated comedy performer. Or writer. You…”
“I am such a frustrated comedian person,” agreed Arlene.
“But, in real life…” I prompted.
“I’m a psychotherapist,” Arlene told me, “but I’m winding down, because I do find comedy a lot more…”
“Me too,” I said, “You could spend a career doing therapy on comics.”
“Look at Lewis Schaffer…” said Arlene. “I’m talking as a psychotherapist now, rather than as a comedy audience. Lewis Schaffer is funny, but he has a fear of success. If he would just put the effort into it, he would be top, top. You have all these students doing academic papers on him because he really is something to study. This whole persona built on failure. Is it a persona? Is it the self? What is it?”
“I think,” I said, “that loads of comedians sabotage their careers intentionally. Well, maybe subconsciously. They know what it’s like to fail and to struggle and they know they can cope with that: the empty, slight pain in their stomach.”
“They know they can deal with the familiar,” said Arlene.
“Yeah,” I said. “But they’re subconsciously frightened of succeeding, because it’s the unknown. Lewis Schaffer would be a great presenter of documentaries – or be good on TV panel shows – because he’s got lots of interesting views and odd knowledge but he can’t duplicate the exact same word-for-word act time-after-time, which is what the want for stand-up on TV. What sort of psychotherapy did you specialise in?”
“Nothing. Eclectic. But I also wrote a book in 1996: Mum’s The Word: The Mamma’s Boy Syndrome Revealed under my maiden name Arlene Gorodensky. It’s been translated into about six languages. I made no money out of it. Somebody has.”
“That’s publishing for you,” I said. “Are comedians mummy’s boys?”
“Not necessarily,” Arlene said. “I married my husband because he’s very funny.”
“What does he do?” I asked.
“He’s a lawyer. That’s not funny, but he’s probably one of the funniest people I know. When we have an argument, I always say to him: The only reason I don’t dump you is because you’re so funny. He proposed to me on our first date and, afterwards, he said: My mother told me to ask all women to marry me so they know I am serious and I’m not going to waste their time. I was the one out of a hundred that said Yes to him.”
“You said Yes on the first date?”
“Well, I didn’t say No.”
“Where was your first date?”
“He took me to the Savoy and told me: You’re going to have a very hard time getting married. I was 36 and he was 48. Neither of us had ever been married. The only good piece of advice my mother gave me was: Marry rich. Did I listen? No.”
“Yes you did,” I said. “He’s a lawyer!”
“She wanted me to marry a doctor,” explained Arlene. “I’ve been a disappointment to my parents.”
Arlene is performing comedy at the Hendon show tomorrow.
It will be interesting.