A sense of dread hung over me for most of the hour Brad Garrett commanded the stage. It was nobody’s fault, really, least of all the comedian cracking up the packed house. But it sat with me nonetheless.
Earlier, I had insisted my friend Walt join me. Walt is the elder half of The Olds, a couple I regard as surrogate gay grandparents and who provide a makeshift extended family in this city so far from my blood relatives.
It wasn’t easy to get Walt out. Nearly 85 and in physically excellent shape, he’s begun to turn away from even things he loves. And Garrett’s part of something he loves most, the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. When Walt said no on the phone, I drove over and made sure he came. I’ll be damned if the geezer’s going to rot without a fight.
At the Tropicana showroom, an usher wanted to seat us in the back. Both Walt and I have the hearing of 85-year-olds, so I asked for better seats and we ended up in the front row.
That seemed great until it became evident that Garrett channels Don Rickles, picking nearby stereotypical people as running jokes. Walt, then, became the standing target for old jokes, which he played along with cheerfully.
Yet I sat anxious. Garrett mines his marks’ marital and sex lives, so it seemed only a matter of time before he quizzed the old dude about sex.
Did I mention Walt is gay?
Garrett was sweet to Walt even as he mocked his great age. He asked Walt his profession and then led a round of applause after Walt announced he had practiced medicine for 50 years. That led right to the next sex-related quip as Garrett decided Walt had been a gynecologist and asked about all those vaginas he probed. Walt zinged back: “You know they all look pretty much the same, right?” The crowd roared.
Still, I kept wondering when Garrett would ask about banging women or why Walt and I were together. I envisioned disgusting gags borne of the idea of an 85-year-old and 37-year-old gay couple. Walt has a terrifically foul mouth himself; would he battle back with a remark about sucking dick?
It never happened, intriguingly, because Walt avoided it. Garrett eventually asked whether Walt was married and Walt retorted: “Do I look like I’m married?” Garrett pressed no further; perhaps he’s too practiced not to instinctively sense danger.
Crisis averted, though, I felt sad. Walt should have been able to say, “I’ve been with my partner for 30 years and yes, I was once married to a woman.” Something stopped him despite decades of being a pretty open queer.
On the ride home, Walt showed no indication of being moved by the incident. He, as I, found Garrett very funny and held nothing against him for doing his job, which requires making assumptions. An Arab guy, for instance, was mistaken for Latino for half the act and he also didn’t take it personally.
But as I dropped him off and mentioned I’d be interviewing Garrett on Tuesday for my podcast, Walt turned back to say, “Tell him that I was a doctor in the Korean War.”
A light went on for me. I had worried about Walt’s gayness causing a stir, but Walt had something else in mind: He’s not just some doddering old dude. He’s lived a full and important life, seen and done amazing things. It’s the reduction of his experience to wrinkles, impotence and bad fashion sense that irked him. He knew Garrett meant nothing by it, but it stung nonetheless.
The gay part, ironically, was probably pretty helpful. It taught him long ago how to pretend not to be bothered by how people see him. That, I suspect, made it much easier for him to seem amused by something that stuck in his craw.