My parents were the Jewish Cleavers, practically scripted in their wholesomeness. I guess that would make me Wally as I am the oldest child, but I’m sure no one would be surprised by my penchant for the Beaver. Mom stayed at home to raise her children and cook and sew and garden. She decorated elaborate birthday cakes and made birthday party favors by hand and created the most impressive Halloween costumes on the block – dare I say our town. She required that my sister and I learn how to sew. Her lessons resulted in my apricot colored Bat Mitzvah dress with spaghetti straps and an accompanying white, eyelet bolero. I hated sewing every stitch.
There was no burping or passing gas or bad language in my house. Shut up and Oh my God were strictly forbidden. If we knew what was good for us, we only used the possessive pronoun before a gerund phrase, and by the time we were in high school, my mother was satisfied that we knew enough about being a lady to please any potential Jewish doctor suitor.
At the risk of painting an overly oppressive picture of my childhood, I will tell you that there was laughter, wholesome laughter of course. My father schooled me the fine art of punning, and he played the complete collection of Allan Sherman records repeatedly. He did not laugh easily, and I took great pleasure in watching Sherman’s musical parodies force the occasional muffled chuckle out of him. He reserved the real laughter, the chortles and hardy-hars for prime time television.
We lived in a split-level house, and my bedroom sat on top of our family room. After I was in bed for the night but far from asleep, my parents turned on the television to watch their favorite shows. I could hear their unrestricted outbreaks of guffaws and laughing fits that I was not privy to during our family exchanges. I was jealous of these invisible characters who had such power over my parents, to free them from their parentally induced restraint that I thought was their norm. I wanted to know the couple that sat in my family room and laughed with such utter joy.
Finally, I was old enough to stay up later and witness for myself how comedy could unleash this primal euphoria. All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show could bring my parents to tears. Later still, I watched stand-up comedians on The Johnny Carson Show with them, and though I could feel them cringe a little on my behalf at what they considered more adult humor, they couldn’t hide how much they appreciated a good joke, even an off-color one. They could never suppress their approval of Joan Rivers no matter how inappropriate her material.
Joan Rivers made my parents laugh out loud, and I laughed with them. Self-deprecating, biting, wrong in the rightest way, she was a smart, unapologetic, Jewish woman who made me want to be all of those things. She taught me that women could be bold and impolite. She taught me that humor is a powerful tool that can open doors to the controversial and the politically incorrect, preventing etiquette from bullying us into silence. Joan Rivers taught me to find the humor in everything. Personally, I find delivering a good punch line far more beneficial than sewing a dress. But that’s my bias.