Old Jokes for Old Folks

For the comics who play South Florida's condo circuit, knockin' 'em dead is a disturbingly distinct possibility

The shadowy bulk of two pool tables dominates this space, illuminated by a single dim bulb near the door. Beneath the light stands Frankie Man, bit player in Bob Fosse movies, friend to Lenny Bruce, survivor of three decades of standup along a comedy trail that stretches from L.A. to the Catskills, and, most recently, to this makeshift dressing room, five square feet of carpet in the billiard parlor of the Boca Del Rey Golf and Country Club.

Slightly higher wattage awaits Man in the adjacent ballroom, where 300 retirees have gathered to either laugh at his shtick or stare at him in stony silence. Years of experience steady his wrinkled hand as it turns the doorknob to admit Tina Robin, whose drawn face, with only a thin smear of red lipstick to provide color, looks far too fragile to support the huge coils of platinum blond hair towering above it. Robin, the other comic booked this evening, has traveled from her home in Lakewood, New Jersey, for two months' worth of dates in Florida. She wants to know why Man doesn't take his show on the road any more.

"I don't need to," he answers. "And I'm doin' all right around here. Got this gimmick."

"What's that?" the comedienne asks.
"This thing with Jackie Mason's kid. They love it."
Man means the routine he does with eight-year-old Sheba Mason, who, as he trumpets to every audience, is Jackie Mason's daughter. Man hooked up with the girl through her mother, Ginger Reiter, a professional belly dancer and an old friend. (Several years back, Reiter filed a paternity suit against Mason. After a court-ordered blood test came back positive, the comedian agreed to pay his ex-lover $2000 per month in child support, plus $91,000 in back payments. Reiter recently has gone back to court, requesting that the monthly payments be raised.)

After Robin leaves, Man uses the few minutes before showtime to vigorously rub his old patent leather shoes with a Quick Shine shoe pad, drop Visine into tired eyes set deep in the wrinkles of his round face, and comb the scattered remains of his reddish-brown dyed hair around a dome of scalp. Turning from the light, he removes his dentures, rinses them in an old cottage cheese container, douses them with fixing powder, and replaces them in his mouth. Then he stirs another powder into a glass half-filled with water. "High-protein solution," he comments and gulps it down. "Gives me so much energy you wouldn't believe it. Better than drugs or alcohol."

A slightly more animated Man opens the door and walks across the dark hallway to peek around the curtain at his audience. "Looks like a pretty good crowd," he says. "Mostly Jewish." Sizing up the throng only takes a second, but as any comic knows, a good eye for crowds is crucial.

Truth is, audiences don't change much along South Florida's so-called condo circuit -- condominiums, townhouse villages, and spas that house an elderly, predominantly Jewish and Italian clientele. For most of these retirees, comedy never progressed past the routines of Las Vegas and Catskills legends such as Buddy Hackett, Jackie Mason, and Alan King, who made them laugh until they gasped for breath, back in the days when gasping for breath was to be savored rather than feared.

The condo comedy business is booming, though Man and the other dozen or so local comedians will tell you it has its pitfalls. Audience members so old that punch lines are lost on them, or so ill they no longer can find solace in humor. Routines must be adjusted, Yiddish phrases added or deleted depending on a given crowd's ethnic breakdown. And there's the issue of selling used goods. Most condo comics have been on the job so long they face the very real possibility that audience members might know all the jokes, or worse, might shout out the punch lines before the performer does.

Such obstacles, though, even combined with the limits of their own talent, don't stop people like Frankie Man from standing in the spotlight in front of a few hundred

people who probably have difficulty hearing and seeing them, much less understanding their jokes. At age 68, Man is the first to acknowledge that he has made mistakes that cost him his shot at the big time. But he has not given up on the dream of national fame. And even after all these years, at least for those few moments before the curtain lifts and the show goes on, the thrill of possibility is enough to bring up the goosebumps.

"And now, ladies and gentleman," the emcee's voice ascends through the chatter, "give a round of applause for that funny little man, Frankie Man!"

Tonight's crowd is lively, receptive enough to raise even a cynic's hopes. Although lines like "Right now if you live in Newark, your lucky number is 911" draw only moderate chuckles, Man scores when he asks for "a big round of applause for the guy who gets no respect, Rodney Dangerfield." A quick pirouette finds the comedian facing his audience with his collar riding high on his squirming neck. He grabs the knot of his necktie, raises one shoulder and then the other, opens his eyes wide until they are positively bugged.

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