On comedy, a changing city, and an octogenarian who wants to surf
Charlie Varon talks about his new show, Feisty Old Jew
QUESTION: What got you writing Feisty Old Jew?
CHARLIE: Sometimes a character shows up in my imagination and just takes over. That’s what happened with Bernie Schein. He’s an aggressive, mischievous 83-year-old guy from Brooklyn, very smart but never finished high school. Fearless. Amazing guts. Also manipulative and obnoxious! He’s lived in San Francisco for 60 years and has a thing or two to say about what the city is becoming.
QUESTION: Is Bernie a mouthpiece for your views of what’s happening in San Francisco?
CHARLIE: His view is more extreme. He hates the young people he sees drinking $6 cups of coffee, hates their yoga studios and their chichi restaurants with the pink aioli and truffle butter. And he also hates them just for being young. One of the reasons I write is that my characters can do and say things I – as a shy and polite person – can’t. Bernie is such a character.
QUESTION: How long have you lived in San Francisco?
CHARLIE: I moved here from New York in 1978. I was 19 years old. It was still an affordable city, and it was a fantastic time and place to be a young bohemian and soak up all the art and culture and politics happening in this experimental city. Back then my rent was $70 a month. Now people can spend seventy bucks a month on lattes.
QUESTION: Why are you wearing a wetsuit in the photo? Do you surf?
CHARLIE: The monologue takes place on one of those hot October days in San Francisco. Bernie is out on the street, gets tired of waiting for a cab, and finally sticks out his thumb. He gets picked up by three 20-somethings in a Tesla with two surfboards strapped to the roof and a cappuccino maker in the dashboard. By the time they get to Marin, Bernie has convinced the kids to let him go surfing for the first time in his life and has bet them $400,000 that he’ll ride a wave.
QUESTION: You didn’t answer my question. Do you surf?
CHARLIE: I have never surfed and do not plan to. The photo shoot was the first and last time I will wear a wetsuit.
QUESTION: What performers have influenced you most?
CHARLIE: Growing up in New York, I listened to the radio, and that's probably had the biggest influence on me. The pure human voice. Jean Shepherd, perhaps the best American storyteller ever heard on radio. Bob and Ray, and their quietly insane comedy sketches. Malachy McCourt, Long John Nebel, Paul Harvey, a zillion radio preachers. The BBC. Oh, and my father. He wasn't on radio. He was a dentist, but he did—still does—all kinds of voices and accents. And he and my mom, a librarian, gave me a love of language, spoken, written, the delight in the infinite ways human beings can shape thought into language, and all of that infused with a very New York Jewish sensibility!
QUESTION: You are now well established as an artist in solo theater and as a satirist. What are some pivotal experiences that brought you to this place?
CHARLIE: The key moment happened in 1991. Stephanie Weisman saw me perform a rough version of a solo show that I didn't even know I would finish. She took out her calendar and offered me a 6-week run at The Marsh. First I trembled; she had called my bluff. Then I said yes, and that has made all the difference. That launched me. A couple years later, almost as a lark, I did a show called Rush Limbaugh in Night School, which was a big hit at The Marsh and then went on to New York and Washington DC.
The other essential fact is my collaboration with David Ford. Director isn't a strong enough word. David has been the midwife of all my shows for 23 years. He is the most brilliant theater artist I've ever worked with and he has taught me most of what I know about theater.
QUESTION: Who should come see this show?
CHARLIE: People who love comedy. Who care about what’s happening to San Francisco. Who aren’t afraid of characters who are smart, complex, funny… and old! And who want to find out what happens when Bernie gets in the water and tries to surf!