This was a group — Doc Benis, Bob Greene, Harry Hofheimer, others — that my barber (he coincidentally cut most of their heads) describes as "the closest group of men I have ever seen. They were truly devoted, in a meaningful and genuine way, to each other. They simply loved each other."
That love was manifest in their lunches at the Neil House. They would meet and discuss the day, but mainly they would practice their jokes. They didn't tell jokes as much as practice them. They would repeat each, day after day, for years, hoping to get each one — with timing, inflection, the precision of wit — exactly right.
The waitress played straight woman, in the style of Gracie Allen. Bob would insist that the Mayonnaise reach all corners of the bread. She would always retort with derision.
On the day after they had given her their annual holiday tip, she was absent from work. "She'll be back," Harry said, "when that's all spent."
I know that my typing betrays all the personality-driven talent these men had for being funny. Please just believe: they were well educated, clever, and very funny.
Harry Hofheimer was the funniest man I ever met. ("Funniest person," I'm told, is reserved for his wife, Lois. She wrote much of his best material.)
In life, I didn't know that Harry was the funny one. He was surrounded by so many great wits — my father included — and he was the quietest one at the table.
At his funeral, the following story was told:
Harry's response: "Just who is in charge of timing little Timmy under the ice?"
You see, Harry, wasn't a joke teller. All these men could tell formal jokes, but that wasn't the primary display of their talent. They were — and Harry, the best of them — masters of found comedy.
More evidence from Harry's funeral:
"The synagogue needs new carpet, Harry," answered the rabbi.
"But Rabbi," Harry answered, "I never walked on the old carpet."
Harry's humor was not without deeper meaning. On his shaving mirror was a Post-It note that declared a primary ambition in life:
I love that. That is my ambition, too.
I'm sorry if you never met my father and his friends.
Here's a poor, but very worthy substitute. It's called Old Jews Telling Jokes and that's a fair description. There are plenty there. "Plumber" is a classic. So is "Health Care." So are all the others.
All sorts of people can be funny. But isn't there something about the Jewish diaspora experience — as strangers in strange lands — that heightens our ability to find the humor in daily life?