Playwright Herb Gardner found success when he was just 27 years old. The Brooklyn boy, who graduated from the High School of Performing Arts and sold orange drink at the Cort and National theaters, won the New York Drama Critics Prize as most promising playwright of the season when his show “A Thousand Clowns” opened on Broadway in 1962. His play won acclaim from every corner — except the Jewish Daily Forward.
At the Gardner family’s Passover Seder that year, the playwright’s Aunt Rose decided to read the Forward’s review of “A Thousand Clowns” aloud.
“It was his only pan,” Gardner’s wife Barbara C. Sproul recalled this week, speaking to me at shiva after the playwright, 68, died on September 25 from lung disease. “Rose didn’t know. As she read it, the family was at first silent, and then they all began laughing.”
After that incident, Sproul told me, a new tradition began. At every Gardner family Seder, the review of “A Thousand Clowns” from the Forward was read after the Four Questions.
It could be a scene from one of Gardner’s plays. What he knew intimately and captured theatrically was that quirky, warm, undermining, iconoclastic New York sense of humor and humanity. In a theatrical world where any Jewish identity was camouflaged by bland names and characters with no ethnic backgrounds, Gardner broke an important barrier. In many ways, his plays — including “A Thousand Clowns” and the Tony Award-winning plays “I’m Not Rappaport” (1985) and “Conversations With My Father” (1992) — were the first to have leading characters who were openly Jewish outside of a folklore setting or politically based drama. Looking back on all the stage comedies and drama in which we assumed the characters were Jewish, Gardner was one of the first not to whitewash. Television shows like “Seinfeld” or plays like Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” were made possible by Gardner’s bold and truthfully hilarious strokes.
He once said in an interview in The New York Times, “I grew up with these people who lived on top of their voices.” Whether he was creating Rappaport, the socialist waiter who idled away his life in Central Park inventing stories of past grandeur, or the bartender based on his own father in “Conversations With My Father,” Gardner had a pitch-perfect ear. He knew his customers. He knew why they were funny and how they ached. A Herb Gardner play is not sentimental; it’s warm and ironically humane in the way that growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s was. He was channeling and creating those characters straight out of Characterville.
Gardner and I met through our mutual professional relationship with director Daniel Sullivan; “I’m Not Rappaport” and my play, “The Heidi Chronicles,” both were directed by Sullivan when he was artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre. On a plane ride across the country, Gardner and I swapped mother stories. “Mine is a classic: Her name is Lola and she’s a dancer,” I confided in him. “She wears leather in your neighborhood on the Upper East Side.”
”I’ll look for her,” Gardner twinkled at me. He loved a good New York character story. “But let me tell you about mine,” he continued. “On the opening day of ‘A Thousand Clowns,’ my mother arrives at the theater at 5 p.m. and no one is there. So she calls me and says, ‘Herbie, empty! Empty!’”
There is a lot of competition for the best Jewish mother story, especially for the best theatrical Jewish mother story, but his immediately became my favorite.
Even as Gardner’s health declined, he continued writing. He would write reams and reams, and his friends would visit — Sullivan, Jules Feiffer, Elaine May. As his own character, Gardner had the authenticity that Murray Burns in “A Thousand Clowns” was searching for. An evening with Herb was inevitably funny, paternal, uncannily intelligent and most of all, loving. It doesn’t surprise me that he was close to some of the best American humorists. He understood the seriousness of comedy and had the generosity to enjoy the gift in others.
Any man who had worked so closely with actors like Judd Hirsch, Jason Robards, Cleavon Little, Walter Matthau and Marlo Thomas had many anecdotes to tell. But my favorite story about Gardner involves him going out to lunch with his young sons, Jake and Rafferty.
Gardner had a writing studio on the West Side, and on Sundays he would take his boys out to brunch and then for a swim in his office building. One Sunday, I happened to be wandering to O’Neill’s Restaurant where I saw Gardner with his sons and a man in a clown suit.
He introduced me. “Wendy, you know my sons, Jake and Rafferty. And this is Loony Lenny.”
“Hello,” I said to the clown. “Nice to meet you.” He shook my hand and left the table.
“Herb, I didn’t know if you know him well enough that I could just call him Loony,” I said, laughing.
“We come here every Sunday,” he explained. “Because Loony Lenny does lunch here.”
For months, I went back to O’Neills but I never saw Loony Lenny again. I decided that Gardner had conjured him up like a character in one of his plays. Only in Herb Gardner’s New York did Loony Lenny not only appear, but sit down at the table with you.
It’s difficult to examine comedy, especially character comedy, and assess its place in theatrical history. The humor and warmth clouds any pretentiousness or declarative statements. But in fact, Gardner’s plays brought the humor of immigrant New York — which is now considered the core of American humor — boldly to center stage.
While passing through Broadway on the day my friend and mentor Herb Gardner died, all I could think in my heart was, “Herbie, empty! Empty!”