There is some good news during this national pandemic — a silver lining that serves as a beacon for all humanity.
Comedian Jerry Farber is alive and well.
Well, he’s as well as he can be. He’s 82 years old and sheltering in place.
I didn’t know what to expect when I tried his number last week. But I knew we need to laugh, and I couldn’t think of a better person to talk to for this column than a man who has been cracking jokes for longer than I’ve been alive.
I was relieved when he returned the call, even though he was down. His older brother, Barry Farber, a New York talk radio institution, had died the week before. He was 90.
I could tell his heart was heavy, but found him sharp and witty as ever. I asked him to do me — and by extension, you, the reader — a favor. I asked him to tell me a joke I could print about the coronavirus.
He proceeded to tell me an unprintable joke. It made me laugh, hard. That is classic Jerry Farber.
To the surprise of no one, he’s still performing his comedy show, though he’s doing it on a computer screen nowadays. He’d done three shows over the last few weeks, one of which was a fundraiser. He’s always used his platform to help people in need.
He compared tele-comedy to surfing in a swimming pool. For those of you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing one of Farber’s shows, he leans on the audience. A big part of his shtick is riffing with the people who came out to see him. He said while he’s not a huge fan of the virtual act, it means he’s less likely to get beaten up afterward.
I doubt anyone has ever tried to fight Farber after one of his gigs. He was wrestler after all, and said he only lost one match over his career, “but you should have seen her,” he cracked.
A classically trained pianist, he landed a job playing in the Jungle Room at the Clermont Hotel in Atlanta after graduating from the University of North Carolina. He always used humor to gain acceptance, which came in handy with some of the rowdier patrons at the bar that would become the infamous Clermont Lounge.
He developed a comedy routine with some nods to Georgia and Georgia Tech football. One of his characters dons an off-center Georgia baseball cap, crooked teeth and a thick Southern drawl. He achieved enough success to open Jerry Farber’s Place on Pharr Road, which today is Barking Hound Village.
His club helped launch many notable Atlanta acts, including Jeff Foxworthy, Brett Butler and the Indigo Girls. Farber may have paid them $500 for a weekend of work, he remembered.
It also drew the likes of Ted Turner, who came with a film crew from Channel 17 after he heard it was a nonsmoking club. He had a cigar, and the bouncer denied him entry until Farber intervened. He is proud to this day of the fact that he had one of the first — if not the first — nonsmoking clubs in the country.
His patrons also included professional athletes, celebrities and the former Atlanta chief of police, Eldrin Bell, who took the stage and sang on occasion. Bell’s son, Justin Guarini, was the runner-up in the first season of “American Idol,” though I’m not sure Farber gets the credit.
In addition to his traveling comedy show, Farber ran a few clubs after Jerry Farber’s Place closed in ’89, most recently Jerry Farber’s Side Door at the Landmark Diner on Roswell Road in Buckhead, now the Punchline. About a year ago, he picked up his things and moved to Columbus to escape Buckhead’s ubiquitous traffic.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t work in a Farber joke. That is, after all, the point of this column. This one is courtesy of his son, Josh.
After attending several funerals last year with his dad, Josh asked him if he thought about death.
Farber thought about it for a minute and said it was something you have to learn to accept, and he’d accepted it.
“Good,” his son said. “Because we’ve figured out the perfect way for you to go. First, we’re going to set you up in your favorite chair and get you a glass of wine, and then we’re going to put on some videos of your old shows.
“You’ll be bored to death.”
Somewhere, a rimshot rings out.