Mel Segal

The story goes like this: Jewish comedians gather every year for a joke-telling marathon. A new, up and coming comic performs for the first time.

As he waits his turn backstage, he hears gales of laughter from the crowd responding to other comedians, but he hears no jokes. Puzzled, he turns to the master of ceremonies and asks what is going on. He’s told in so many words, that “there is nothing new under the sun” and since everyone knows every joke, now all the jokes have been assigned numbers. Therefore, only the numbers are delivered, hence the laughter.

So the kid picks out some jokes which he assumes should knock ‘em dead and learns their assigned numbers. He gets up in front of the crowd and starts off shouting, “Number 18!” No laughter. He tries a few other numbers and still no one laughs. When he gets off the stage he asks someone, “Why no laughter?” since these were all great joke numbers. The reply? “The jokes were great but it was the way you told ‘em.”

What does this have to do with Mel Segal? He and I had a sense of humor so similar that certain words or situations would simultaneously trigger a one-liner or a punch-line of an old joke. Almost like a number.

Which brings me to the sad ending: Mel was dying and his wife, Jean called me to ask if I wanted to come to their home and say goodbye to Mel. It was anticipated that he would not live more than a few hours.

We were alone in his bedroom. Mel was sitting in his chair, his eyes closed. I sat down next to him and put my hand on top of his hand. A tube was attached to his hand delivering some kind of drug to ease his suffering. I engaged in some small talk because what can one say to a dying friend? I wasn’t sure if he even heard me. His eyes were closed and he responded to nothing I had said.

At last I said, “Mel, are you comfortable?” And he said, in a barely audible voice, “I make a living.” Number 36?