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.”