Jerry Farber – The Tumultuous Years: 1938 … ?
By Guest Columnist BO HIERS, a semi-retired marketing officer in the reinsurance industry and super-proud grandfather of his beloved grandson, Fletcher
Here’s an introduction I used over the years when introducing Jerry Farber at various client and industry events. It worked then, and it might just work here:
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m super excited to introduce a truly legendary Atlanta comedian, a close personal friend of Michael Jordan, and an aspiring author who is currently putting the finishing touches on his new book, “Sex, Wealth and Power – How to Live Without Them.” Our special guest fully expects his book to sell well UNDER a million copies. Please put your hands together for the one, the only…JERRY FARBER!!!
I recently caught up with Jerry in Columbus, his new hometown on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. Jerry was casually attired in shorts and a white T-shirt with a slogan proclaiming, I’d Kill for a Nobel Peace Prize. Admit it, you laughed. Jerry turned 83 in early March, and thanks to brisk daily walks of 5 to 7 miles – often with two Army Ranger buddies – he’s keeping fit as a fiddle.
My master plan was to ask Jerry 10 to 12 scripted questions, then get out of Jerry’s hair and hightail it back to Roswell. One question in, and I knew the plan was doomed. Instead of an answer, I got back a string of amazing stories and at least 10 epic one-liners. I couldn’t even remember the question, so I did the one and only thing I could do: I put the pen down and simply enjoyed my time with Jerry.
I will say this: Spending the day with Jerry is like spending a day in a candy store – only way better.
Jerry and Columbus – A match made in Heaven
Next to the Aflac duck, Jerry is well on his way to becoming the second-most beloved character in Columbus. Just walk a few blocks with Jerry in downtown Columbus, and you’ll understand. Shouts of “Hey Jerry, how’s it going?” or “We love you, Farber!” pierce the Columbus air.
Jerry’s decision to move from his longtime home in Midtown was spurred by a phone call from his close friend, Buddy Nelms, owner of several of the finest restaurants in Columbus – including Saltcellar, Mabella and The Loft. Jerry and Buddy have been fast friends ever since the days Jerry began performing at the Loft, some four decades ago.
A few years ago, Buddy called to wish Jerry a Happy 80th birthday and asked how Jerry was holding up. Jerry came clean. “I told Buddy the Atlanta traffic and noise was wearing me down, and there was no joy left in Mudville,” Jerry said. “I was compressed, repressed and depressed. Trips that used to take 30 minutes were taking two hours, and it was ageing me out.”
Buddy offered a compelling solution: Move to Columbus. Jerry continued, “I always loved Columbus. I’d been performing there for over 40 years, and I really liked the idea of a slower pace of living. Buddy said come on down to Columbus and just be your gentle, liberal Jewish self. You can expect a few skirmishes, but generally everything will be fine.” Jerry was sold.
Buddy is part of Jerry’s support team in Columbus – a tight group of cherished friends who take great care of Jerry. The love from his Columbus friends is palpable and means the world to Jerry. Mamie Pound, an award-winning author and proprietor of the Rothschild-Pound Bed and Breakfast Inn, is also a heartfelt friend of Jerry’s and integral member of Team Jerry. Mamie was introduced to Jerry at one of the musical events she hosted at the Inn, and the two have been super-close friends ever since.
“Jerry is such a thinking, thoughtful person,” Mamie said. “We always reach below the surface with our conversations, which are always charged and passionate. Jerry is so alive, incredibly creative, always nervous and excited, and really strives to find the nerve of laughter in everything. He’s a true thinking person. What keeps Jerry young is the way he’s always looking for the spark in everyday life.”
I had the pleasure of walking with Jerry to his modest residence, a one-bedroom loft above one of Buddy’s restaurants. It’s spartan-like, for sure. But it suits Jerry. “I think of it as Jerry’s creative tree house,” Mamie said. “It has a little bit of everything Jerry needs, and he’s perfectly happy there”.
“Here in Columbus, people ask how you are, and they really mean it,” Jerry said. “People are available. They make time for you. Columbus is as close to Heaven as I want to get in the next 20 years.”
Jerry has found his slice of Mayberry. And who couldn’t use a little Mayberry these days?
The time Jerry’s dad used humor to quell Jerry’s fears of Nazis storming their Greensboro home
Jerry was born into a close-knit Jewish family in Greensboro in 1938. Jerry’s father, Raymond, owned a highly successful women’s sportswear manufacturing company, Marcus and Farber. Jerry’s mother, Sophie, did a masterful job designing the clothing line, while Raymond traveled the Southeast and played the role of the company front person. It was a truly dynamic business duo.
Jerry’s brother, Barry, was eight years older and destined for fame as a pioneer and trailblazer in the talk radio business in New York City. Barry, who spoke 20 languages, was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2014. His legendary career as a pioneer radio talk show host would span 60 years.
World War II news from overseas dominated Jerry’s formative years. The family would gather around the radio every evening and listen intently to news update from the war front. Barry kept a detailed map of Europe letting the family know the Nazis exact whereabouts on any given night. Young Jerry became increasingly edgy, to the point he remembers asking his dad about the prospects of the Nazis storming the Farber home.
Not to worry. As Jerry put it, “My dad assured me Barry would take out the first two Nazis, he would personally take care of the next four, and your mother would easily take care of all the rest. Just hang back with your mother, and you’ll be fine.” And you wonder where Jerry gets his humor.
Playing the piano and telling jokes easily trumped a lucrative career in the clothing industry
Ever have that moment in your early years when a lightning bolt hits you and you know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life? Jerry did. It happened at his Bar Mitzvah when 13-year old Jerry owned the room and left everyone laughing and wanting more – the true hallmark of a professional comedian. “My mom hired a professional comedian from Baltimore. He bombed, so my mom told me to get up and make everyone laugh. It worked. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do.”
But there was a potential stumbling block waiting in the wings: Raymond’s long-term plan was to eventually hand the company keys over to his two sons. Unknown to Raymond, the plan was flawed from the start. Both sons ultimately turned their dad down – Barry because he was well on his way to gaining notoriety in the radio talk show industry, and Jerry because his heart simply wasn’t in it. Not when Jerry could be doing what he truly loved – playing the piano and telling jokes.
Jerry certainly gave his father’s wish a try. “I attended college at the University of North Carolina, and I was in the Army for two years (Jerry was stationed at Fort Jackson). Then I started working in the family business. I was given a company car, a company credit card and a $40,000 salary, which was a ton on money in those days. I was on the road for eight months in places like Valdosta and Gastonia, selling our women’s sportswear to Belk’s and other department stores, but my heart wasn’t in it.”
The time for a heart-to-heart talk with Jerry’s dad had arrived. “When I told my dad I wasn’t interested in continuing working for the company, it did not go over very well. My dad said I was their last hope to keep the family business going. Not only was my heart not in it, but my dad had built an incredibly successful company, and I didn’t want to mess it up. My parents were also concerned I wasn’t funny enough or talented enough on the piano to become successful as a performer.”
How’s this for a happy ending? About a year later, the Farber’s sold the family business to a company in Philadelphia, and happily retired to a condominium complex in Pompano, FL. Even better, there was a time when one of Jerry’s legendary comedy heroes – Henny Youngman – lived next door to Raymond and Sophie. “Henny would hang out in the corner of the swimming pool in a giant raft reading the New York papers. He didn’t like to be bothered,” Jerry said.
Just for kicks, here’s a classic Henny-ism… Some people ask the secret to our long marriage. We take time to go to a restaurant two days a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music and dancing. She goes Tuesdays; I go Fridays.
Gambling was fun and easy money … until it became Stephen King-like scary
It seemed like easy money at the time. Jerry placed a $20 bet on his beloved Tar Heels to beat its hated rival, Duke. The Tar Heels won, and Jerry was hooked on gambling. It became an almost five-year addiction, which led Jerry down the path of owing a lot of people a lot of money, and plenty of it at the same time. All that growing debt eventually left Jerry in the dark. Literally. Like the time when Georgia Power cut Jerry’s power off.
“All this was going on during my 50s, which was probably the height of my popularity. There wasn’t a football or basketball game I wouldn’t bet on,” Jerry said. “San Jose State versus Nevada? Heck yeah! Count me in.”
The gambling addiction eventually led Jerry to join Gambler’s Anonymous. As Jerry put, “The head of the program put his hand on my shoulder, looked me square in the eye, and laid 8-1 odds that I wouldn’t last a week.”
The many lowlights in Jerry’s gambling days included threatened physical violence after a comedy show. “A couple of loan sharks paid me a visit after my comedy show at the old Brothers Two restaurant. They liked my show, but that wasn’t the point of their visit. They wanted money for Big Al. I said I didn’t have any money. That’s when they said they were going to have to break a finger, because that’s the way it works.” Thanks to the club owner, Jerry’s fingers remained intact.
Then there was the time Jerry’s dad was forced to drive up from Florida to settle his mounting gambling debts. Jerry remembers it well. “My dad never raised his voice, but the look of disappointment and hurt he gave was something I never wanted to see again. My dad took me to the old First National Bank of Georgia and put up stock in exchange for a loan to pay my gambling debts. My dad told me all that money I was losing could have been invested. Instead it was gone forever.”
The next-to-last bet Jerry placed was on a Super Bowl. Jerry owed his bookie $8,200. “I told my bookie I was placing a $10,000 bet. He warned me not to do it because I would owe almost $20,000 if I lost. I ended up winning the bet and paying off my debts. I placed one more bet on the USC-Michigan Rose bowl game. It was a $200 bet, and I lost.”
Jerry may have lost the Rose Bowl battle, but he won the war. It was Jerry’s last bet. “I was so wrung out that I felt like a worn-out dishrag. I had no more interest.”
Ripley doesn’t believe it yet … but Jerry believes it with his whole heart
Ripley’s Believe It or Not may not believe it’s possible, but Jerry believes it to be true with all the enthusiasm of a child entering the gates of Disneyland for the first time. Jerry’s hatching a plan to walk from Atlanta to Savannah to raise awareness and donations for the homeless community. The current launch date for Jerry’s walk is Sept. 26. “This has been a bucket-list dream for me for years to try and raise awareness for the plight of America’s underserved, especially the homeless,” Jerry said. “I want to walk like Jesus did.”
When it comes to the homeless community, Jerry is far more about actions than words. Case in point: Jerry has served as a 25-year board member of the now-shuttered Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter, in Downtown Atlanta. It breaks Jerry heart knowing there are thousands of homeless individuals on the streets on any given night. And he aims with all his 83-year old might to do something about it.
Jerry is working the phones and momentum is building. Already, two corporate entities have stepped forward and pledged generous donations: Stuckey’s, Corp, makers of legendary pecan log rolls, has generously pledged hundreds of healthy pecan snacks to the cause. In addition, Bombas, a New York-based comfort clothing company, has kindly donated 1,000 pairs of unisex socks for the homeless community in support of Jerry’s charity walk. (Bombas can add that tally to the 40 million items the company has already donated to the homeless community.)
The immediate hope is to find a corporate sponsor to help finance the expenses involved with Jerry’s walk. Failing that, Jerry will likely establish a GoFundMe page. “It’s the regular people I’m trying to reach for donations,” Jerry said. “That way more people are engaged in our mission to serve the homeless community.”
As Jerry continues to share his passion and vision for the charitable walk with his legions of cherished friends, more details will emerge. And don’t think for a moment that Jerry will be walking alone. “Many have already pledged to join me for a least a part of the walk, including U.S. Army Rangers and many bicyclists,” Jerry said. “I’m 83 years old, and I still get to live and do my part to help. I see this as my last hurrah, and I can’t wait to get started.”
Plain and simple, the day will soon come when Jerry is marching in a southeasterly direction towards the oldest city in Georgia. You would be wise not to doubt it will happen.
Mr. Ripley prepare to meet Mr. Farber.
The burning light of Jerry’s life…and the art of always leaving ‘em laughing
Jerry’s beloved son, Joshua, recently celebrated his 21st birthday. Yes, your math is correct. Jerry was a first-time dad in his early ‘60s. At the time, I remember Jerry saying “Joshua” was a Hebrew word for “He who pees and poops a lot.” Today, Joshua is the ever-burning light of Jerry’s life. And not just any bright light. No, sir. We’re talking as bright as the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve.
Like his father and his Uncle Barry, Joshua appears to be well on the road to fame. For openers, he’s already successfully recorded a hit rap song on Spotify under Joshua’s rap name, Ray Rockman. Joshua’s song has been heard by over 1.2 million Spotify subscribers. He’s got the Farber smarts, too. Joshua will be attending UGA in the fall on a Zell Miller Scholarship, the one for high academic achievers. He plans to study business. You might say he’s off to a great start: Joshua has already earned his real estate license. And all this in 21 years. Just imagine the next 21.
Meantime, his father is beaming with pride. As well he should be.
I asked Jerry about his go-to joke, or any icebreaker he can pull out and dust off whenever he’s meeting someone for the first time. “Bo, I don’t really do jokes. I share my observations, and I tell stories. Real-life stories. Well, maybe not exactly real life…”
Jerry would like to close out the set with this one …. ”Bo, this is a true story. Last time I played The Punchline in Buckhead, on April 23, I was pulled over. I was running late and driving erratically. Our conversation went like this…
- Officer: Sir, you were weaving between lanes. Do you have any drugs in your car?
- Me: Of course! I’m 83. Which drugs were you looking for?
- Officer: What are you, some type of comedian?
- Me: I am! My name is Jerry Farber. I’m playing the Punchline tonight, and I’m running late.
- Officer: Any tickets left?
You’re still laughing, right? Perfect. Jerry wouldn’t want it any other way.