Comic Relief

The central tension of adult leisure time is distinguishing between the things you are supposed to like and the things you actually enjoy. For example, I hate a parade. Sweating on a hot sidewalk while getting pelted with candy by smiling women in spaghetti straps standing on flatbed trucks glued up with carnations—not for me. Ditto the beach, which I personally prefer to experience while wearing a cardigan sweater in my air-conditioned living room via headphones blaring the sunny harmonies of early Brian Wilson.

Which brings us to last summer’s Faustian bargain: My friend Jim would drive me down to Atlantic City to see my hero Don Rickles at the Tropicana, if I would agree to spend the day at the beach with him in Ocean Grove. Such is my soft spot for my favorite insult comic—we Rickles fans are so famously wintry as to be called “hockey pucks”—that I agree to come down with skin cancer at the Jersey Shore.

Ocean Grove is a cute town of shade trees and cottages, but we aren’t here for the shade. Jim, his boyfriend, John-Mario, and I trudge to the beach in flip-flops. An umbrella is chivalrously plonked into the sand to shield my vampire complexion. I sit under it all afternoon, engrossed in a novel about a lady coroner digging up a Guatemalan mass grave. I live.

On the way to Atlantic City, Jim beams when I concede, “I suppose I can maybe, possibly, sort of see how some people would think this sort of thing might be considered pleasant.”

After we wolf down sublime veal milanese at Chef Vola’s, a congenial old-school Italian restaurant in a residential-neighborhood basement around the corner from the boardwalk, I make us sprint to my Rickles reward.

Woe to the front row. Seated there are the wives Rickles would like to sleep with, the fraternity boys in shorts who receive the requisite “Thanks for dressing up,” a man named Scott who was previously unaware of what a hilariously stupid name Scott can be until an old Jewish guy pronounces it as if it’s a synonym for turd. “Hiya, Scott.”

The shocking thing about Rickles isn’t his old-fashioned attention to Jew-this, Puerto Rican–that ethnicity; it’s his sweetness. Why is it always so much more meaningful and sentimental when the crabby guys well up? He sings an unexpectedly moving version of “Hava Negila,” goes on and on about how lucky he’s been, and thanks a roster of people he owes, from Jimmy Cagney and Frank Sinatra on down to his agent and his wife. I paid for insults, in cash and sunshine; all that praise was free.

Sarah Vowell’s most recent book is The Partly Cloudy Patriot.

Comic Relief