Melisa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris. Well, hold on a second. Whoops. Sorry. I was practicing my juggling. Not very good yet, but it sure is fun. Why juggling? Well, here on The Takeaway, we've been trying to add a little play to our days and to yours by talking about play and how we as adults can get back in touch with the joy of our playful sides. Whether it's video games, double dutch, or banana-themed baseball, we can all use a little more fun in our lives. You've probably heard the expression, laughter is the best medicine. Our next two guests are living proof.
George Saltz: My name is George Saltz. I'm a standup comedian.
Natalie Levant: Hi, I'm Natalie K. Levant. I am a standup comedian and I'm delighted to be talking with you.
Melisa Harris-Perry: 88-year-old George and 90-year-old Natalie are subjects of the recent documentary, Still Standing by the New Yorker and Filmmaker, Elizabeth Zephyrine McDonough. After losing their life partners, each found stand-up comedy careers at the ripe young age of 80.
George Saltz: They always put me on first. They think I won't last the whole night.
Natalie Levant: Guys, I know like some of you, you have your cell phones out, please don't call 911. My family is not looking for me. They think I'm at Happy Acres, but I left. They said I couldn't use my vibrator. It was disturbing my roommate.
George Saltz: This is a very special day. I made my final payment on my student loan. 60 years goes as fast as a thought, doesn't it?
Melisa Harris-Perry: Natalie, and George found more than comedy in their 80s. They also found friendship, even though Natalie lives in Philadelphia and George in New York. Before we even started the interview, their friendly banner was well underway.
Natalie Levant: Tell Georgie not to hog.
George Saltz: I warned her to watch her mouth.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Mrs. Levant, what is so funny about getting older?
Natalie Levant: Well, what's funny, I suppose is the way people regard you as you get older, kind of like the way they regard their children. "Now, go over there, sit down and be quiet." I guess that would be-
Melisa Harris-Perry: Is that your plan?
Natalie Levant: -a short answer. No, I didn't follow that plan.
George Saltz: Tell me a little bit about the power of laughter in your golden years.
Natalie Levant: The power of laughter I think in any years, but certainly as you get older and life has many more challenges that you really weren't prepared for. You've got to find the funny. It's there. Sometimes you have to dig a little bit for it. You get up in the morning, you get out of bed, there's fun out there. You just have to make sure that you're open to it. Getting out of bed is a challenge, so you've already done a big accomplishment.
Melisa Harris-Perry: George, I want to let you in here as well. What role has laughter played for you?
George Saltz: It's been my whole life since I was 10. I wanted to do comedy. It was a dream and it's something that thank God, I've been able to realize.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Say more about that for me. What was it that made you want to do comedy?
George Saltz: I just liked when people laughed, it was not entertaining my mother. It was entertaining my middle brother, who was my role model. For example, I was once on a radio show, just a quiz show and they asked me if I liked school. I said, no, and when I came home, he said, "You should have said, it's not the school I don't like, it's the principal of the thing." He was always teaching me this way and he certainly could have done the same thing that I've been doing except he was older and he had to go to work and all of that.
Melisa Harris-Perry: I love that. I wonder if that pun play on principal, if folks would still get it. Is that part of your routine? Do you use that, and do folks in the like millennial or gen Z generation catch that one?
George Saltz: I am a wordsmith. I don't believe the pun is the weakest part of comedy. I would say to the contrary if it's done well and I'm loaded with them. One of them for example would be every year I join my family for Passover, it's a case of Seder-Masochism.
Melisa Harris-Perry: All right. Natalie, both of you started your standup careers after losing your partners. Talk to us about comedy and how it's been part of your healing.
Natalie Levant: Yes. I really didn't have an identity after my husband passed away, an identity that I was comfortable with. I didn't really relate to people in "my age group widowed." I didn't wear pink nail Polish. I really wasn't interested in going on a cruise. I'm not much of a babysitter for my grandchildren because they come away having learned a lot of words that their parents didn't want them to hear. I didn't know what to do with myself. I always loved showbiz.
I think from the moment I was born and the doctor spanked me, I thought he was applauding so it's always been my absolute dearest love. One day I was volunteering at Siloam, which is an age resource here in Philadelphia. I was sitting with another gentleman and we were horsing around and he said, "You should try stand-up comedy, go see this friend of mine. He's doing a summer show at Taboo." Taboo is a very well-known gay club in Philadelphia. I just went and I felt so welcome. I thought, "Yes, this is going to work out Natalie." So far it has.
Melisa Harris-Perry: All right, we're going to take a quick break. More with comedians, Natalie Levant and George Saltz in just a moment. Back with you now on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and I've been joking around with 90-year-old comic, Natalie Levant and 88-year-old, George Saltz. They're both stand-up comedians who didn't even start in comedy until their early 80s. They're the subjects of a new documentary from the New Yorker called Still Standing.
George Saltz: Then I speak to the doctor, and I was concerned. It was a rather difficult procedure. I said, "What is the mortality rate for this procedure?" He said, "Oh, one per person."
Natalie Levant: I have four kids. I know how I had them. I don't know why.
Melisa Harris-Perry: I enjoy you all. Now, George, I understand that you and Natalie are friends. Can you tell me about that?
George Saltz: We're more than friends, we're family. She's my big sister. She's 3 years older and she's my older sister.
Natalie Levant: Thanks a lot, Georgie.
George Saltz: We speak 3-4 times a day, and we're extremely concerned about each other.
Natalie Levant: Actually, we talk 6 times because you do several butt calls.
George Saltz: That's true. I'm just all thumbs and I make a lot of mistakes with the phone as well as everything else.
Melisa Harris-Perry: What I love when you say you make a lot of mistakes and I want to add that to what Natalie said about there's a lot of funny out there. We just got to be willing to find it. I wonder if getting older helps us feel funnier about ourselves.
George Saltz: I think so. Anytime you have an ability to laugh at yourself, it's grease for the milk.
Natalie Levant: Well, I like the saying that I heard and I guess I read it. If you get up in the morning, get out of bed, get the newspaper and you don't see your name in the obituaries, this is going to be a good day. I think all these other little things that have been roadblocked to having a good day. They're not out there anymore when you get older.
You truly do seize the moment. I know Georgie has the very same attitude. He always says, "It's all good. It's all good." Of course, it isn't all good but just try and keep the percentage of the good much higher than the other. Right, Georgie?
George Saltz: Absolutely.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Natalie, when you talk about seizing the moment, one of the ways you seize the moment is in some knee-high sequined boots. Can you talk to me about how it feels to be on stage?
Natalie Levant: All I know is I went online one day looking for sparkly shoes and I found my green boots. They were one size too small. They only had one pair left on sale. I ordered them. I taped my toes under my foot and I wear my green boots.
George Saltz: [laughs] Natalie, are you doing your September 10th birthday show in Philadelphia?
Natalie Levant: Well, Georgie, you know I'm going to come out of isolation to be 91 and you'll be there.
George Saltz: Yes. Okay, I'll plan for it.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Now, I hear this rapport between the two of you. Any romantic sparks or is this all friendship?
Natalie Levant: Oh, I've been hoping but Georgie just hasn't noticed my signals, Georgie.
George Saltz: I haven't.
Natalie Levant: Oh, I love that question. [laughs] He's just a little bit too old for me.
George Saltz: She's too young for me.
Natalie Levant: Right. I have my eye on De Niro and Keanu.
George Saltz: [laughs].
Melisa Harris-Perry: Don't we all?
Melisa Harris-Perry: George, I want to ask you, you were working as a psychologist.
George Saltz: Yes.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Are there any lessons you take from that part of your professional life to inform your comedy?
George Saltz: Yes, even as a psychologist at the beginning, I really controlled my humor. I felt it was disrespectful. As I got better at my craft, it's a valuable tool. One patient who had done very well and graduated, which is not supposed to happen with borderline patients, but then it turned out they found out she had some serious blood disease again, and she was angry. I wasted my time, and all of this, and so on. One day as I got up, some coins came out of my pocket, I said to her, "See, I told you they'd be change in therapy." It reached her and it was just a valuable tool.
Natalie Levant: That's a great story, Georgie.
George Harris: Thank you.
Melisa Harris-Perry: It is. I want to ask both of you as a final question, and I'll start with you, George. This conversation is part of a series that we're doing about play. We're hoping to encourage folks, no matter what their age, that they can make play part of their lives. Let's start with you, George. Do you have advice for folks about how to make play or playfulness part of your daily life?
George Saltz: A wise man once said, "Follow your passion." Now, we've all had passions when we were younger and then life got in the way. This is the time to do what you've always loved to do, whether it's dancing, painting, whatever it is, just to follow your passion.
Natalie Levant: When I close my act, I always tell the crowd, "Never know your place." That's really the best advice that I can put out there for any age but especially when you're older, do not know your place. Do not disappear. If they don't make room for you, bring a folding chair. The other, if anybody tells you to act your age, please tell them to go blank yourself.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Natalie Levant is a 90-year-old stand-up comedian from Philadelphia who refuses to know her place. Thank you for joining us, Natalie.
Natalie Levant: Thank you so much for having Georgie and me. I loved every moment.
Melisa Harris-Perry: George Saltz is an 88-year-old stand-up comedian from New York City. Thank you, George, for being here as well.
George Saltz: Thank you.
Melisa Harris-Perry: If you're in New York City, you can see George Saltz perform Sunday, August 14th at the Comic Strip in Manhattan. If you're in Philadelphia, you can catch Natalie Levant at the stand-up show she hosts at Ray's Happy Birthday Bar every month.
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