07 June 2008

Stiller & Meara

At the memorial service for Madeline Gilford a few days ago, I made a resolution: I want to die before Stiller and Meara do. So do you. You want these people to speak at your memorial.

Like approximately 80 percent of people in show business today, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara got an early and important break from Madeline. That was more than 40 years ago, and by now their repartee is so polished that their loving recollections of Madeline had the crowd at Sardi’s in stitches. She dithers, he blusters; she needles, he nags. There’s a great deal of recognizable psychology in their routines, and in their personae you see other couples you know, perhaps even the couple you’re in. They’ve watched and listened to the human dynamic in quadrophonic stereo for many years. They’ve done their homework, although you’re certain they haven’t done it at home: it’s by observing others, and not by portraying themselves, that they’ve found their material.

How do I know this? Well, they’re still together, aren’t they?

It can’t be said that I know Stiller and Meara personally, although as an Upper West Sider I saw them around often enough, as one sees any of one’s neighbors. And that’s telling. They don’t behave like celebrities, even though most of our neighborhood encounters coincided with the period of Jerry Stiller’s greatest fame, the years when he played George’s father on Seinfeld. To run into them on the street, one might think they were schoolteachers, or accountants, or insurance executives, and the fact that they cut loose with the random funny remark seems a function less of their being comedians than of their being New Yorkers.

Take for example the time I ran into them at Filene’s Basement. George Pataki was still Governor of New York, and the Stillers and I were taking advantage of one of his periodic waivings of the state sales tax. None of us really understood the thinking behind this — something about stimulating the economy in the aftermath of 9/11 — and while we waited for a cashier, Anne Meara and I talked for a few minutes about all the other, more urgent problems in the state, that couldn’t be addressed by shopping but might be addressed by taxation.

Our strongly held political opinions didn’t prevent us from buying low-priced socks, but there you have it.

So if you run into them at the corner deli, don’t quote his lines from Seinfeld or rhapsodize over her contributions to Archie Bunker’s Place and Rhoda. Don’t fawn, flatter, or ask for autographs. Just ask whether the pastrami is any good today.