It is a sort of axiomatic principle that each family has at least one pariah. This person comes in many forms: the creepy avuncular sex fiend, the obnoxious in-law, the perpetually unemployed grandchild, the thrice-divorced daughter. They provide a terrible sort of constancy to Passover dinners, but it’s a constancy that’s frequently more comforting than obtrusive. It comes with the general acknowledgment that they are family, and family is, as certain refrigerator magnets might say, forever, and forever is a horrendously long time.
Beth has been in traffic now for a horrendously long time. She has severe road rage, the diagnostic kind for which she has a sponsor. She calls as I leave work to tell me this in her quintessential Beth parlance, her voice an odd but unambiguous synthesis of Bobby Durst and Lindsay Lohan, all acidic and raspy and biting. Beth is my aunt, my mother’s sister, the family oddball, if you will, a forty-eight-year-old recovering alcoholic with a rhinoplastic schnoz and synthetic blonde hair and a wardrobe of itty-bitty tops and six-inch heels that she unabashedly wears to synagogue.
“Fucking Seth broke up with me yesterday,” she says nonchalantly into the phone. “Because of my fucking road rage . . . I’m like . . . realllyyy??” I ask her how bad it could have been to merit a breakup.
“Well, I’m on my commute because I took this new job in Virginia. Listen, Jake, your mom has road rage too so don’t think you’re fucking exempt. The commute is just brutal.” Brutal is her favorite word. To Beth, a lot of things are brutal: the dolefully slim selection of cheeses at her neighborhood supermarket, her ex-boyfriend’s “tiny dick,” her father’s descent into senility, fasting on Yom Kippur, alcohol and drugs (both of which she was hooked on from the age of seventeen until about fourteen years ago), and, of course, her new three-hour commute. “So, I was losing it on the road. I mean, you have no idea, driving through D.C. is brutal. And I threw my Big Gulp Diet Coke out the window at another car.”
“You defenestrated a Big Gulp, Beth? Obviously he broke up with you.”
“You would’ve done it, too.” I repeat that I would not have thrown the big gulp at another vehicle. She tells me she and Seth got back together a few hours later.
Beth’s life story is one of comedy and pathos. The latter is a product of a deeply complicated life, filled with the obstacles of addiction, unemployment, two failed marriages and a temperament that makes her unfit for most social situations. The comedy derives, then, from a combination of comportment and experience, but it’s not put on or self-conscious, rather a sort of larger-than-life, almost Stoppardian humor. She is the intractable byproduct of our family’s Peruvian- Jewish dysfunction; wine has been tossed, cigarettes smoked, matzoh-balls launched across tables alongside unintelligible and unsavory Spanish insults, the family ruptured and then rebuilt each and every time.
Though Beth and my mother do not always get along—Beth and my twenty-four-year-old sister, too, are radically different and have never seen eye-to-eye—she and I have always had a deep connection that belies our near thirty-year age difference. I’m an available ear and buoy to her; she, a bottomless source of hilarity and a weird sort of wisdom to me. What I think most attracts me to Beth is her brand of platinum-blonde recalcitrance, defined by a willingness to subvert convention at the expense of her reputation. She is a loose cannon, at any moment capable of saying something ridiculous or aphoristic: she employs Alcoholics Anonymous vernacular to help me quit shitty lovers, talks Aristotle and Schopenhauer and the theory of recollection, asks me if Trump “would really be so bad,” and smoked a cigarette indoors, in Beth El synagogue, at my Bar Mitzvah, as I sang on the bimah.
When I told Beth I’d been assigned to profile the funniest person I know, she immediately guessed I’d be profiling her. “You have to get out more,” she responded self-deprecatingly. Perhaps Beth doesn’t see herself as the family’s resident comedian because much of her life she’s been treading water, asking my grandparents for loans and going from one freelance job to another, staying sober for the last decade-and-a-half and quitting cigarettes too. Drugs and alcohol forced her to drop out of the University of Maryland and forsake her philosophy degree; at her worst, she was “drinking three or four bottles of wine a night, like it was water, and mixing it all with Ambien.” She says this with her typical dramatic intonation. I can think of no one better to narrate a documentary about Beth than Beth herself.
To say I find Beth funny is to sell her woefully short. She is not merely funny; she is raucous, empowered, wise, mercurial, jocular, quick, and incorrigibly herself, something she may have learned from my grandfather, a frustratingly obdurate man who immigrated to the states from a Jewish enclave of Lima, Peru in 1955. The two share a curious bond; maybe it’s his coddling, paternal instinct, or their shared alcoholism, which results in a different inclination, felt by them both, for complete and utter misanthropy. If my grandfather conflates both an anecdote about punching an anti-Semitic medical school professor and President Obama’s putative “anti-Israel ideology,” Beth is wont to polemicize, in the same breath, her revulsion to her ex-husband’s naked body and the collective idiocy of her fellow Annapolis dwellers. She is not so funny as to be beyond reproach—my family members find her not funny at all but simply disruptive, “a mess,”—but I retain a certain feeling of mesmerism for her disregard for social cues, her sometimes-unsavory temperament, her inability to mince words, all qualities encompassed in the several voice messages I receive from Beth each week.
“Jake, I’m sorry I had to hang up, I was panicked, it was fear and panic. I went a different way today because the highway was gonna be gridlocked and I didn’t know where the fuck I was. It was horrible. Anyways, call me!”
“Jake, I called you twice! That’s not right. You should really call me back. Call me!” “I can’t believe you. Fucking call me. That’s kind of brutal. Anyways, call me.” “Hey, it’s me! Give me a call so that we can discuss Socrates’ dialogues. Bye.”
“Jake, listen, I want you to stay home tonight and watch The Matrix. And I want you to see how Neo is asked whether he wants the red pill or the . . . what the fuck is it? the blue pill, because, really, that opens up a really interesting dialogue about whether you want to live in reality or not. Stay home. Watch The Matrix. Bye!”
“Jake. You are so bad. I am your aunt and I will always be your aunt. You better call me. Bye!”
“I’m gonna call you Jake the Flake because you dropped a call on me in the middle of the conversation a few weeks ago and just never. Called. Me. Back. Bye, Jake the Flake.”
Beth’s brazen shtick, an equilibrium rather than a contrived gag, comes in sound bites like these, though reading the words without Beth’s voice is half as entertaining. No small part of her comic effect comes from her raspy, nicotine-inflected manner of speech and the quasi-Real Housewives delivery of her whiny complaints and snarky gibes. Though she’s no acolyte of the comedy landscape, some of her favorites also adopt personas, generally Jewish, obtrusive and New York-y, as a means of reproducing their characteristic gags. “I love the whole neurotic, Jewish, New York neocon thing . . . it’s funny ‘cuz they’re so bruuutal.”
Beth’s apartment, where she and I devour an eight-film box set of Woody Allen movies, has several nods to New York (cheesy black-and-white photographs, books, postcards). She lived here for a few years at the turn of the century, working as the New York correspondent for a D.C. paper. Her time in the city, on Wall Street, specifically, also corresponded with 9/11, an open wound she discusses readily, with the fighting words of an honorary New Yorker. “The fact that they attacked us like that . . . I mean, New York. Not us.” She hasn’t lived here for thirteen years, but her spunk, her pride, is very much of the Island. “I mean, you just don’t, you just do not fuck with New York,” she tells me, her voice shifting imperceptibly from anger to heartbreak as she recalls the attacks, a tragedy that ran parallel with the lowest depths of her alcoholism.
9/11 is one of those disturbing events that actuate other, more opaque ideas. I can’t help but think of it in relation to memory, and how certain traumatic events carve out for themselves an indestructible place in our collective consciousness. I was just six years old when the towers fell, and I remember nothing else from my sixth year of life, only being wrangled into the gymnasium at Krieger Schechter Jewish Day School and waiting for my grandmother to pick me and my sister up. Beth remembers the aural sensation of the attacks, the embers and the muck. She also remembers being proposed to with a fake diamond by a sociopathic ex-boyfriend. She claims to see the premonitory numbers nine-one-one all around her, in emails, on billboards, on highways. She recalls, as do I, Michael Jackson’s death, and the way the sudden mortality of America’s troubled patron saint made us all feel severely out of whack. But there’s also a great chunk of life Beth doesn’t remember; she used to take pills before dates, black out at Shabbat dinners, show up to work drunk and high. She jokes that she’s “pre-Alzheimer’s” when we chat and she has an inexplicable brain-fart, even though her forgetfulness is more innocuous now than it was when she was using.
Comedy, really, is nothing without memory. If there’s any sort of algorithm to good stand-up, it’s to use the past—blunders, break-ups, bad sex—for humorous aims. Beth’s humor is unique in that she doesn’t remember anything particularly good or funny or light, only the cosmic imbalances and romantic faux pas that lend her life its tragicomic flair. These come back, she explains, in paroxysmal sort of flashes, but she is largely forward-thinking and forward-moving, making grotesque jokes about her dog’s testicles, starting a scene at an Annapolis crab house, power and control wielded by her comic id.
We watch Allen’s Love & Death, one of our mutual favorites, more experimental and satirical than the standard Woody Allen picture. Beth has wine stored in the apartment for oenophile guests like me. Her dog of some fourteen years, America, has gone blind and is walking into the walls and attempting futilely to jump onto the red chaise lounge where Beth generally reads her Danielle Steel and her Plato. She looks at a framed portrait of her and America from last Halloween; the two of them, each other’s roommate, dressed in matching Batman costumes. She looks back at the dog, then at me, then at the brie she’s eating, and, finally, again at the dog, walking itself masochistically into the couch leg. “I mean, really, it’s just brutal,” she says, before we both burst into a fit of laughter.