By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 10, 2016
Mental: Funny in the Head is an engaging collection of personal essays by comedian Eddie Sarfaty. The book, published in 2009, conveys a variety of moments from across the Long Island native’s adulthood, starting with the story of his coming out to his nonagenarian Orthodox Jewish grandmother (a tale that was previously published in the 2005 anthology When I Knew).
The book’s topics range from the amusing to the morose. Both of the opening essays, “Second-Guessing Grandma” and “Lactose Intolerant,” about a milk run gone awry, belong to the former category; among the latter are “Cheapskate,” about a soul-crushingly thrifty boyfriend, and “My Tale of Two Cities,” in which Sarfaty and his mother take his father, who suffers from dementia, on a second honeymoon tour of Paris and France. But even in his darker moments, the author manages to wring some humor out of the situation — a trait he may have inherited from his father, who once told a Jehovah’s Witness, “I’m sorry, but my covenant is with Lucifer.”
Sarfaty writes clearly and has a gift for sketching characters. Take for instance this passage from “Can I Tell You Something?,” which tells how the author’s summer gig doing stand-up in the gay haven of Provincetown, Mass., led to his teaching comedy to a group of utter beginners. One of them is Helen, “a Jew worn down by thirty years of teaching in a Catholic school” who says her friends think it’s funny when she gets angry:
“[I]t’s 2004 and kids are still asking me why the Jews killed Christ.”
“I point to the crucifix and tell them, ‘If you think what we did to him was bad, wait and see what I’m gonna do to you if you don’t sit down!’”
“That’s a pretty funny start. Keep it. What else makes you angry?”
“What about your mother?”
“She doesn’t speak to me.”
“I tried to kill myself once; I slashed my wrists. She’s Orthodox; she thinks it’s a sin.”
“Why? Did you use a dairy knife?”
I laugh at my own joke and Helen cracks a smile. “Write that down,” I say.
Maggie Wasilewsky, resentful of the expectations put upon her as mother, breadwinner and lover, is handling things innovatively. She avoids unfulfilling sex with her potbellied husband by zapping him with a Taser at bedtime, then convincing him in the morning that he zonked out after a mind-blowing orgasm. She also sells her kids’ organs on eBay to finance their education (and well-deserved spa treatments for herself). She commits to her premises so effortlessly that I wouldn’t be surprised if her children showed up in the audience with IVs and their kidney recipients. She is hands-down the funniest one in the group.
One of the most interesting essays in Mental is “The Eton Club,” named after the gay gentleman’s club on East 56th Street in Manhattan where Sarfaty labored for years as an assistant manager. He was initially repulsed by the work (“I viewed the Eton Club, an institution peopled in large part by closet cases and drunks, as a homosexual hall of shame”) but eventually gained an appreciation for the clientele. All of members’ lives had been burdened by homophobia, and they had countless friends who had lost their lives to the scourge of AIDS.
The book closes with “Supporting Characters,” perhaps its most amusing story, which describes a fiasco of a production of The Phantom of the Opera that Sarfaty helped mount in Lisbon. The producer turns out to be the author of the musical, which isn’t the well-known Andrew Lloyd Weber work — and that’s just the start of Sarfaty’s woes. He ends up trying to satisfy the clashing whims and needs of the egomaniacal producer, a neurotic stage manager, insecure cast members and the handsome dance captain who ardently pursues the author’s boyfriend.
All in all, Mental is an engaging and interesting journey through highs and lows in the life of a gay New York comedian.