Murray Pic

June 25 2009 was a downer. A major downer. I was at home, getting ready to leave the warm comfort of Brooklyn for the mean streets of Manhattan, when I checked my Facebook and saw Lefty Lucy had updated her status. It said “Ed McMahon, Farah Fawcett…Michael Jackson?” I thought she was kidding. I commented “<gasp!> You just jinxed him!” Then I saw that the news feed was adding posts rapidly. People from all over the world were saying the same thing: Michael Jackson, RIP.

It put me in a strange mood. Eat your heart out Don McLean. History happens pretty fast. Next thing you know, you’re ninety, telling a bunch of pre-pubescent kids stories about stuff nobody believes was really real. “What was it like in the 90s in New York grandpa?” (Cue elderly Jimmy Stuart voiceover.) “Well kids, there were a bunch of fun, hole-in-the-wall clubs, like Fez, and the Zipper Factory. In Brooklyn, when the Greenpoint Tavern (a. k. a. the Holiday Bar) was the only place to drink on Bedford Avenue, the Fake Shop ran massive warehouse parties on N. 11th with a bar, drugs, and forty foot high inflatable sculptures made out of green tarpaulins. One of them was a walk-in womb, complete with green tarpaulin labia and vagina. We used to go there to see the weird stuff. The stuff we moved here to see.”

Then you wake up and it’s gone.

Lucky, who works on the Upper East Side, told me recently that one afternoon not too long ago he saw Woody Allen shuffling in a circle around a mail box, looking lost in that distinctive Woody Allen way. Lucky thought Woody was acting. I said, he was probably thinking to himself, “I lived most of my life in this neighborhood, and I don’t recognize a thing.” That’s what it feels like to live in this beautiful, horrible city. Unlike Paris or Rome, where nothing gets built cheap or fast because every foundation you dig becomes an archaeological site, New York destroys its history almost faster than it’s made. It’s fitting that Mercury sits atop the front door of Grand Central Station, because everything in this town is mercurial. At least he survived. The old Penn Station, the beautiful one made of granite, intended to last a thousand years, was torn down and replaced with a tacky monstrosity — just for the sake of newness.


Murray appreciates this about New York. Much of the last half of his act was a wistful remembrance of downtown in the late 20th century, when artists and kids were transforming SoHo and the LES from a middle class nightmare into a haven for the financially secure. Those of us who moved to the LES back then have ended up in Brooklyn, and those who started in Brooklyn have found themselves farther and farther out. (“East Williamsburg” is now euphemistically used to describe the area around the Morgan Avenue L station.) Another friend assures me the the current recession will bring poverty back to the city, and consequently all the rich people will move to the suburbs like they did in the 70s and 80s. But I think that’s just nostalgic wishful thinking. When change happens it’s never what you expect.

Not what you expect is why Murray’s show is so entertaining and far from being merely an exercise in nostalgia. It is true, Murray’s act is firmly founded on a love of the Rat Pack, Borscht Belt comedians of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Murray has obviously done his homework. You see it in the little touches: reading awful, corny jokes written down on bev naps; rapid-fire, off-the-cuff patter with the audience; and Murray’s signature polyester patterns. They evoke Henny Youngman, Don Rickles, and Milton Berle. Some typical gems: “My wife asked me to take her someplace she’d never been before for our anniversary. I said, how ’bout the kitchen?” “I asked for an everything bagel. The deli guy asked what I wanted on it. I said nothing! It’s already got everything!” Murray has a steel trap mind. It comes out of somebody’s trap, he steals it, and hopes they don’t mind.

Also like those legends of yore, Murray is more than a reciter of jokes — he’s an entertainer. He sings songs, he cuts a caper, and oftentimes goes off script for a half hour at a time. Like them (and unlike the Seinfeld comedians of the 80s and 90s) he wears a tie ’cause it adds a touch of class (seriously), and you have to have class as a foil to your crass. Take his backup band, The Stiff Gimlets. (Please! <rim shot>) Featuring the top shelf horn of Brian Newman, aided and abbetted by the Fisherman Tiki Trio (Brian Lease, Kyle Forester, Eric Farber) and pianist Paul Leschen, the band’s sound is smooth and sophisticated. When Murray is ready to bring it down a notch for a soulful ballad, they’re the wind beneath his wings.

But the core of Murray’s philosophy, what makes his anachronism timeless, is distilled into one word you’ll hear him say a hundred times a night: Showbiz. When Murray says it, it means glamour, being somewhere, and making a scene (in every sense). Nervous embarrasment, the sublimely sexy, those elusive moments of being are all elements of Showbiz. It means being there, experiencing it, making a break in the flow of time to crystallize the moment, and treasuring it up to a life beyond life.

Sometimes the past (often our personal past) can feel like a trap. But Murray takes the past and makes it new again, makes it new in unpredictable ways, renovates it, updates it, makes it better than it was in the first place by performing it. And by performing it he casts a magic spell on it and makes it real. He is a character, but he also is. This is just what Murray told us at the end of the act. It’s not easy bringing your life into focus and into being through performance. Let us remember Michael’s mythical success and his all-too-human pain. Let us also remember Stonewall and Harvey Milk and the lessons learned about showing the outside world the reality of your inside world. Nothing lasts forever, but sometimes the dream is real. We are such stuff as dreams are made on. And our little life is rounded with a sleep.

Murray is nobody’s fool though. He knows what century we’re living in. As you can see from the ticket stubs the show last night was “live on tape.” Immortality has become a lot easier to achieve since the advent of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Expect to see the “Murray Hill —  Live at Comix!” long playing download and feature length digital short soon in a search engine results page near you. I counted no less than three video cameras in the audience, and one poor guy, with a telephoto lens longer than my arm, got the brunt of Murray’s humor for ten minutes. I thought for sure that Murray, canny as he is, would be secretly behind every camera and mic in the joint. That and it’s generally a rule that people not involved with the show aren’t allowed to take pictures.  (I think the guy with the massive lens was with Michael Musto of The Village Voice.) But as I looked around the room I noticed plenty of people — lots! — trying to surreptitiously record the proceedings with their tiny point and shoot machines or camera phones. I guess that’s why they call it viral media. Everyone is doing it, and you never know who has a picture of whom taking a picture with who or whoses.

The show definitely lifted my mood. I laughed until I cried when he sang his Regis Philbin song. And I thank him from the bottom of my heart for telling me the tip was included in the tab. If I had to pay an extra 20% for the food and drink we consumed, I’d need to take out another subprime mortgage. At the end, when he told us to get out, scram, make room for the next crowd, I felt like I’d experienced showbiz one more time, like I knew I would, with Murray.