May 8, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

COVID-19 and comedy: Mother-daughter duo finds laughs on Zoom

Walkers, one would think, are made for walking. But Arline Geduldig’s doubles as her desk. “It has this tray that’s always covered in bills and stuff,” says her daughter Lisa Geduldig. “But now there are all these Post-its.” Notes about the “very muscular” firemen Arline saw in Aisle 10 at Publix, or the time she got banned from Costco, or the simple joys of Dannon coffee yogurt.

“It’s all these ideas she has,” says Lisa. “For jokes.”

At “89 and three-quarters,” Arline has launched something of a comedy career. She performs, alongside the pros, in a monthly online show her daughter produces called “Lockdown Comedy.” “It’s one of those COVID silver linings,” says Lisa, herself a professional comedian. “I’m now mentoring my mother on how to do stand-up.” Lisa recently bought Arline a proper comedy notebook. “I was like, ‘Mom! Enough with the Post-its!’”

In early March 2020, Lisa flew east, to Boynton Beach, Fla., for a visit — and never left. “I still live in California, I just haven’t gone home yet,” she says. “Remember when we thought this whole COVID thing would only last a few weeks? I just kept changing my plane ticket — ” and suddenly it was December.

A Long Island-raised Jew, Lisa Geduldig has cherished Christmas since 1993, when she hosted her first sold-out comedy supper show, for 400, in the Chinese banquet room of the now-shuttered Four Seas Restaurant on Grant Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“Kung Pao Kosher Comedy” has been spicing up Christmas for Bay Area Jews ever since, selling out two shows over three nights at New Asia Restaurant and featuring comedians from the late Henny Youngman to Margaret Cho and Marc Maron. “Kung Pao” nights end with a sweet punch line: Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory treats that are custom-stuffed with Yiddish proverbs. (“With one tuchis, you can’t dance at two weddings.”)

“In 2019, I distinctly remember walking out thinking, wow, 27 years and I still have 200 people a show; I guess I’m doing this until I die,” says Lisa, who is 58 with long, scraggly hair and an Elvira gray streak that’s grown wider in recent years. “Or until there’s a pandemic. I’d never even heard of the word ‘pandemic’!”

She’d never heard of Zoom either. Then in July, she launched “Lockdown” — to bring some normalcy to her new abnormal life. “Except everything was not normal.” she says. “The other day, I looked at my mom and I was, like, ‘I can’t believe I’m producing comedy shows from your guest room, in a retirement community, with an iPad I bought with my stimulus check, propped up in an underwear drawer.’”

Lisa, left, and Arline Geduldig.

(Wanda Altidor)

On a whim, Lisa asked Arline if she wanted to be a special guest on “Lockdown.” “She’s just so damn funny and fearless. She is constantly making me laugh. I thought: Why not?”

Lisa and her mom eat breakfast and lunch and dinner together; do frequent curbside pickups at Target; and binge-watch shows like “Shtisel” and “Friday Night Dinner” — the 2011 British sitcom about Shabbat dinner at the home of a middle-class family. For fun, they play Rummikub; paint pictures of palm trees from the patio; and discuss the animosity among the “snowbirds” and “the snowflakes” and the “year-roundahs” (“as in year-rounders, but said with a New York accent,” explains Lisa. “It’s a caste system.”)

Lisa initially excluded her mother from “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy’s” 2020 lineup, which included veteran Judy Gold and Alex Edelman. “I told her, ‘I’m sorry, mom — this is the big leagues!’” Arline understood. Mom planned a nap instead. But guilt got the best of Lisa, who alerted her mom’s aide, Wanda, to a change in plans. “I started talking to [Wanda] like she was her manager. I was like: ‘I need her up and dressed and fed by 8 p.m.!’”

This year, “Kung Pao” drew some 3,000 viewers from Australia to Amsterdam and more than 30 states. Lisa surveyed the City Box Office roster. “We had a Jew from Alaska!” she marvels. In lieu of the sit-down, seven-course banquet feast, she supplied a recipe for kung pao chicken (or tofu) from a site called Woks of Life and urged everyone to order takeout and support their local Chinese restaurants, which desperately need it.

There were no Lazy Susan-topped tables for 10, but family and friends schmoozed in Zoom breakout rooms, boasting the same long-running table names used at the in-person shows — from Anatevka and Barbra (Streisand, obviously) to Verklempt and Yenta. Lisa decided to drop Woody Allen. “We’ve just had too many complaints.”

Another complaint: “Not all Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas,” one viewer kvetched in a post-event survey. Ethiopian. Palestinian. Thai. Jews eat it all, the woman wrote. Lisa appreciated the feedback but was confounded. “This was a virtual event! You could have eaten anything you wanted!”

Public attention, let alone any attention, isn’t something most near-90-year-olds are used to, but Arline is enjoying it. “I love people saying they like me,” she says. “I have a swelled head already.”

Like most comedians, she mines her own life for jokes. Some date back decades: “When I was 13, I visited my sister Marilyn. She had two little kids, and I was sitting in her living room and her brother-in-law, Richard, was sitting with me on the couch and all of a sudden, he kissed me,” she riffed at November’s “Lockdown.” “Well, this was my first kiss. I’ve never had a kiss like that before. Or after. I swear.” She raised her right hand. Then Lisa interjected: “But what about 70 years married to Dad?” “Oh, my husband didn’t kiss right. Absolutely not,” said Arline, making a face. “But Richard … was wonderful. Guess what I named my boy? Richard.”

Not one to rest on old material, Arline will retire her anecdotes about hearing aids and uniformed hunks and write a fresh bit for her next virtual “Lockdown” gig, Jan. 21 — the day after Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. She’ll open for Ophira Eisenberg and L.A.-based comedians Greg Proops and Sandra Valls. Arline doesn’t know what jokes she’ll tell, but she’ll leave the politics to Proops. “That’s not the kind of comedy I do,” she says. “There’s nothing funny about what happened [Jan. 6].” What she will do, though, is what she’s done at the end of every brief performance — and it’s not something most comedians do: wish the audience good health.

Lisa loves helping her mother find her comedic voice. “We’re still working on punchlines,” she says. Also, occasionally daughter needs to cut off mother and summon the hook. “You know, ‘Aaaaand, let’s hear it for Mom, everybody!’”)

Still, Lisa loves this unlikely, everyday quality time with her mother. At a time when so many families are separated by COVID, Lisa and Arline have grown closer. “My mom said to me yesterday: ‘You went away for 40 years and came back.’ I got teary,” Lisa says. And then she laughs.

Levin is the co-author of “Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews.”

‘Lockdown Comedy’

Where: Streaming on Zoom via Kosher Comedy

When: Jan. 21 and every third Thursday; 7 p.m. (6 p.m. starting in February)

Tickets: $10-$20 at City Box Office.