Mike Buzzelli

Column Mike Buzzelli

Mike Buzzelli is a stand up comedian and published author. He is a theater and arts critic for 'Burgh Vivant, Pittsburgh's online cultural talk magazine, and an active board member of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, the Carnegie Arts Initiative and the Carnegie Screenwriters. His book, "Below Average Genius" is a collection of essays culled from his weekly humor column here in the Observer-Reporter.

Putting the fun in funeral

May 3, 2013

Norman Zaney Jr. passed this week. It’s OK if you don’t know him. I didn’t know him either, but I was a guest at his wake. Actually, I wasn’t a guest, I was the entertainment.

Zaney loved to laugh. With a last name like Zaney, it must have been a prerequisite. His family wanted to honor his gregarious spirit by hiring a comedian for his wake. This is where I come in. Yes. I was hired to tell jokes at a wake. I know some of you are thinking, “You’re making this up.” It’s odd, but it’s true.

Here’s how this went down. Earlier this week, I got a Facebook message from Norman’s brother-in-law, a local actor named Rob James. He offered me the gig. I had seen Rob in Stage 62’s production of “The Full Monty.” Then, I saw another show, “A New Brain,” and he was brilliant in it. Because we had mutual friends, I decided to Facebook friend him. I followed his career, and he must have been following mine. We never met in person. Until the wake.

On Sunday, when I read the message, I said out loud, to myself, “I can’t do that.”

I walked away from my computer and thought about it. Could I really tell jokes at a funeral? To strangers? I did what I always do when I am confronted by difficult situations. I took a nap. Actually, I stretched out on my bed, thinking. I never went to sleep. After 15 minutes went by, I went back to the computer and said yes. My heroes, Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin, never turn down a gig. I could never follow in their footsteps, mostly because I can’t walk in heels, but I thought I would take their advice.

If you think it’s weird or vulgar or distasteful, that’s fine. I thought it was weird, vulgar and distasteful, too. At first. But once I made the promise I wasn’t going to back out of it. Someone was counting on me to show up. So, I did. The only thing worse than accepting an unusual gig is accepting it and not showing up.

Then, I met the family. What a wonderful bunch of kooks! I heard some great stories about Norman. At one point, Rob passed out fake moustaches, and the family all wore them in Norman’s honor. Some of Zaney’s zany relatives decided to adorn other parts of their face with the moustaches. I played to a room of men, women and children with fake moustaches on their faces, a roomful of Wooly Willies. I looked down and saw a tiny baby, less than a year old, with a moustache under his little, button nose. I almost fell off the stage laughing.

Before I launched into my act, I told the story about my Aunt Eleanor. When I was 12 years old, I went to her funeral. I got so angry at everyone standing around laughing in the parlor, telling jokes. It was there that I learned that laughter is how we cope. Laughter gets us through the tough times. Laughter lightens our load.

I don’t know what made me say yes to this sentence: “Can you do comedy at a wake?” But I am so glad I did. I didn’t meet Norman Zaney Jr., but I’m glad I got to celebrate his life. I am sending my love out to his wife, Cathy, his children, his Yorkie, Roscoe, and all of those who loved him. Norman, you may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.



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