I, like many of you, was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. You can insert The Bronx, Queens, The City, et. al. for Brooklyn here. Staten Island? Not so much. Brooklyn and Queens are on Long Island but are really not Long Island. We all know that. Nor is The City or The Bronx. But no matter which of these teeming boroughs your parents escaped from during the Great Exodus of the Late Forties and Fifties, they brought with them something intrinsic to their own at-that-time usually European Genealogy. European being anywhere from Liverpool to Latvia. From Dublin to Dresden. From Killarney to Kiev.
And that Ethnic Diversity was only equaled by our expansive Religious Diversity: Roman Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Episcopal, Orthodox Jew, Lutheran, Irish Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and on down the line. Forgive me if I left anyone out ‘cause I am sure I did. And out of all this crush of divergent humanity there is one thing I can definitively say Long Islanders have in common…
They are all just pretty damn funny.
It comes to you naturally. It comes from your Grandma’s Kitchen and your Uncle’s Garage. It comes from the cornucopia of linguistic gymnastics we all grew up with—native tongues wrestling with “English,” borrowing phrases from Italian and Yiddish and Slavic and Polish and again—on down the line.
And I do not say this lightly, or to be fawning to Islanders. I ain’t kissin’ no dupa here. But I have been everywhere, and not one part of this country can boast so many damn funny people. And I am not talking about the professional comedians we all know about: Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Howard Stern, Jerry Seinfeld, Andy Kaufman, Amy Schumer, Lenny Bruce and on and on. I once saw Massapequan Bob Nelson at Governor’s Comedy Club and about fell out of my chair. These guys aren’t simply comedians. They are giants among comedians. Distinctive comic voices and innovators. Not that Borscht Belt Milton Berle crap.
And they are all Islanders.
And Islanders are all kinds of funny: Goofy Funny, Witty Funny, Sarcastic Funny, Sophisticated Funny. And the best part is most folks don’t even KNOW they’re funny. They just are. And that is the best kind of funny.
Why this is on my mind today might be worth exploring: As some of you may know I have been working on The Devils You Knew (a documentary about the Long Island Youth Football Programs of the 1960s and 1970s.) And this has put me in touch with many Long Islanders that I have not spoken to in 50 years. And no matter who I talk to, male or female, within about 45 seconds they have me laughing. And I am not an easy audience. And this just got me thinking: Why oh why IS this?
So I hopped in the Way Back Machine and came up with a few possible reasons. I can only speak to my experience in my town but I am sure it was the same for you. My Mailman, Bob…was funny. Bobby, the Deli Man at Torino’s….was funny. The Good Humor Man…was funny. Sammy Esposito, the dough juggling owner of Sammy’s Inferno…was funny. The Checkout Lady at Food Fair…was funny. The conductor on the LIRR…was funny. And most of all, in my mother’s kitchen, the parade of neighbors that came through daily…were all funny. This inherent funniness was so prominent that when you met someone without a trace of humor in their bones they really Stood Out as being odd and unusual. Maybe from Staten Island. The poor souls.
They say all comedy is borne of tragedy. Gladness borne of sadness. I think there is something to that, considering the struggle our parents and grandparents endured while trying to make the world a better place for us and carving our futures out of the cool and relatively spacious Long Island plains. These folks struggled. These folks sacrificed. But they never sacrificed their sense of the absurdity and hilarity of everyday life. And yet, even in the good times these people were still funny and are funny to this day.
I wish I could boast of a great nationally known comedian from my hometown, Levittown, but I can’t think of one. But we did produce a pretty funny guy named Bill Griffith, creator of the Zippy the Pinhead comics franchise. It was Levittowner Bill Griffith who first coined the oft-used phrase ARE WE HAVING FUN YET? This phrase has become so much a part of pop culture lexicon it now appears in Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Quotations.
And that don’t suck.
Being funny is your birthright. Embrace it. I will leave you with this:
A Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister walk into a bar in North Wantagh.
The Bartender says, “What’ll you have?”
You finish it for me—I KNOW you can.