A horse walks into a bar; the bartender says “Why the long face?”, and horse says, “I have cancer.”
In our last cogent conversation, Michael asked me to give a eulogy at his funeral. And he asked me to start it with a joke.
The aforementioned horse joke is not the one he wanted me to tell.
He wanted to open with a joke about a rabbit—a joke that would not be appropriate to tell at a funeral.
Michael was funny. His favorite humor was awkward funny. Absurdist cringe humor. Embarasstainment. He loved causing and witnessing socially awkward situations.
Filling out his name on a form: a-double-s-double-u-i-double-p-e. Moments later the librarian mutters into the P.A. system, “I have a book for Mr. Asswipe. Michael marches to the counter and says with indignance, “It’s pronounced, ass-whi-pey.”
The moments throughout college, after the previews ended and before the movie began when he said in his amazingly loud voice, “No, Brian, I don’t want to hold your hand. I didn’t think you were asking me on a date.”
One other example. When a hospital social workers would ask, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Michael would hand them a sheet with lyrics to La Bamba, pull out a ukulele and say, “Sure, if you’re asking, let’s do a sing along.”
Me, on the phone with him: “Michael, you know that isn’t funny.”
Him, laughing: “It is. It was really funny. I’m laughing — then, there she is singing, but softly. She’s probably thinking about the alcohol she will drink after work. But she’s not really singing, so I say, ‘Come on Karen, I’m the one with cancer, it doesn’t feel like your heart is in this.’”
Me: “You did that?”
Him laughing: “Yes. It was hilarious.”
I’m starting to laugh too.
Me: “No, Michael, it’s not funny.”
Him: “So, then, if it’s not funny, why are you laughing?”
He’d got me there.
Like he got me by asking me to open his eulogy with a shockingly-graphic joke about a rabbit’s death.
* * *
As the dearest of friends do, we retold the story of our meeting.
The end of summer 1985. Tannen’s Magic Camp. Oakdale, Long Island. We are working with Mark on a mnemonic for secretly relating the color and number of audience selected skittles.
Formative years at magic camp. We continued as best friends at Tufts University. We performed more formally in Boston nightclubs and on the street. But, our standing gig was the cafeteria table. To make each other laugh.
Let me set the stage. Carmichael dining hall. Michael sits directly across from me. Scott on my left, Todd on his right. Michael says something particularly funny. Knowing Michael has just received news that he had been rejected from the sketch-comedy troupe for the third time in two semesters, I say, “Hey, MJ, that was funny, you should try out for the sketch-comedy troupe.”
He stares at me, blows his nose into a napkin, and, while still staring at me with his big eyes offset by his glasses and his ears, he puts the snot filled napkin deep into my glass of chocolate milk. We didn’t believe in too soon.
* * *
We spoke, often by phone. We spoke, often by phone, because we found phones a particularly effective means of talking over long distances.
The two cups were easy enough to find. But who has a string that long?
(I wasn’t so sure about including that joke. Normally, I would have called Michael to seek his advice, but you know.)
Endless talk about how to deliver lines. How we handled something unexpected in our small stage careers of being a rabbi and doctor. Obsessed with how we might have been funnier. We pondered the dead rabbit joke for years, “Could it ever be possible to open it and recover?”
* * *
As far as the magic community knows, Michael was the first person to perform signed selected, playing card into an ostomy bag. After envisioning the idea, he explained that he didn’t control his body’s outflow into the bag, so he didn’t know when he unbuttoned his shirt if the vanished card would be covered or not in shit.
To be honest, I never quite knew which outcome he was rooting for.
They were both funny. Horribly awkward, kinda cringy, but funny.
* * *
Michael laughed a lot. A lot.
A lot. A lot. A lot. A lot. A lot. A lot. A lot.
A lot. A lot.
He thought that repeating anything, even if it weren’t inherently funny, would make it funny between the seventh and twelfth time.
Michael knew something. He knew to laugh more. He knew to laugh more at the absurdities of life. Like being an endurance-pro-athlete, healthy-eater who gets colon cancer. This might be best summarized by Camus who wrote, “Cette citation est stupide. Je n’ai rien à dire en français. Connard. Connard, au connard.”
Which is French. And, I don’t speak French.
Actually, I do a bit. Michael didn’t. But, that’s kinda the point of the quote, isn’t it?
Here’s a much better quote. This one is Voltaire. And it’s in English.
“Life is a shipwreck. We mustn’t forget to sing in the lifeboats.”
You were the funniest, Michael.
Asking us all to sing along.
Why would you make your last request of me to open with the dead rabbit joke?
Because, that’s comedy.
* * *
Michael, you knew that life was a shipwreck.
I promise I will sing loudly in the lifeboat.
Just one thing, Michael.
Michael and I performing out signature routine of 25 years.
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HELLO, JEWS My four-year incarnation as a rabbi in the form most people would recognize began in 1997. I stood in front of 750-plus people to lead High Holy Day services at Temple Judea in Tarzana, California. This wealthy suburb of 40,000 named for the estate of...
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