“What are you so happy about?!” bellowed a voice, again and again, from a telephone held by Black Jewish comedian Sarge, who, on Nov. 14, will give an online performance hosted by Beth Tfiloh Congregation and Liberty Grace Church of God.
Sarge had no idea who the caller was, so the caller began giving Sarge a number of clues to his identity, such as where he grew up and the high school he attended. When Sarge still was unable to figure it out, the caller cried out, “It’s Garry Marshall, you idiot,” revealing himself to be the famed creator of sitcoms such as “Happy Days” and “Mork and Mindy” and the director of “Pretty Woman” with Julia Roberts.
“I’ve never seen a happy comedian on stage before,” Marshall said, according to Sarge. “I’ve been doing this since I came back from Korea. … I’ve worked with Gleason, I’ve worked with Lucille Ball, I’ve worked with Robin Williams … I’ve never met a happy one. They’re usually miserable, conflicted, neurotic, self-destructive, angry people.
“You are so happy,” Sarge recalled Marshall saying, “and the reason I can recognize how happy you are, is because I’m one of those happy people.”
The conversation led to a flight to Los Angeles, where Sarge met with Marshall. Marshall offered him a role in the 2011 film, “New Year’s Eve,” featuring such stars as Halle Berry, Robert DeNiro, Hilary Swank and Sofia Vergara.
While it was the kind of success that many of us can only dream of, the sailing was not always so smooth for the aspiring, multiracial performer.
Born in Miami Beach at Mt. Sinai Hospital and raised in the Jewish suburb of Great Neck, N.Y., Sarge was born out of wedlock as the biological son of an Orthodox Jewish mother and a Black father, he said. He explained how his birth mother traveled from her native Chicago to Miami Beach to give birth in secret. The head of the hospital’s OB-GYN department who delivered him was the childhood best friend of his soon-to-be adoptive grandfather, whose daughter was looking for a child to call her own. Soon afterwards, Sarge’s birth mother gave him up to his adoptive parents, who took him back to their home in the Northeast.
The now 59-year-old Sarge recalled one point in his childhood when he was revealed to be something of a musical prodigy. After seeing a performance of “The Sound of Music” at the ripe old age of 5, he said, he began playing music from the show, having never touched a piano before. This led to an interview at Julliard. To this day, he says, he remains able to play the piano by ear, calling his musical talent “a gift from God.”
Growing up proved something of a rocky road, though, as Sarge spoke about how he “suffered a fair amount of racial degradation, as a result of the fact that I don’t look like the other kids, skin color-wise,” he said, “and that always prompted quite a bit of jokes being played on me, and spitting, and name calling, and teachers and students alike looking at me, treating me differently.”
What’s worse, Sarge spoke about how, at first, he didn’t understand the part racism played in this behavior, instead believing that “people just didn’t like me.”
Sarge estimated that in the early 1990s, during his late 20s, he spent eight or nine months dealing with “homelessness and drug addiction and alcoholism on the streets of New York after succumbing to a rather ferocious addiction.”
A good friend of his was able to get him placed in a rehabilitation program in Delray Beach, Fla. The program apparently was quite effective, as Sarge was glad to say that he has now been clean and sober for almost 30 years.
On the third day of his rehab program, he was invited to go to the beach as part of a spiritually focused rehabilitation exercise involving meditation, where he was asked to imagine what he would do with his life after becoming sober. With his eyes closed and the sound of the ocean in his ear, Sarge was struck by a vision of his 6-year-old self with his adoptive grandfather at a Don Rickles show they had once attended. While he didn’t know what the stand-up performer was talking about, he remembered the 2,000-member audience screaming with uproarious laughter. He thought to himself on that beach, “That would be really cool, to be that guy.”
Sarge’s path to that new dream of a career in comedy, however, was not as straightforward as he might have liked. He initially supported himself by taking side jobs waiting tables and scrubbing toilets, as well as through other gigs such as playing the piano in Italian restaurants and working as a camp counselor in the Poconos and a writer at ESPN.
He moved back to New York City in 1992, and a friend allowed him to live rent-free on his couch while pursuing his comedian ambitions full time. He then began going to free open mic nights seven days a week while simultaneously doing odd jobs for extra cash.
Describing himself at this point as “dangling from a branch,” Sarge was fortunate to be signed by the talent agency William Morris after only a year of this, being given the chance to open for some of their musical performances, such as Donna Summer, The Beach Boys and The Temptations.
One particularly memorable experience, he recalled, occurred after being invited to perform in Los Angeles at a show honoring Louis Gossett Jr. The show was emceed by Garry Marshall, whom Sarge was very excited about meeting. After receiving a standing ovation from the audience, Sarge was disappointed to learn that Marshall left the event early, denying him the chance to meet one of his favorite people in show business face to face.
Personnel at the event gave Sarge Marshall’s home address to write a letter to the famed creator, which Sarge sent by FedEx to prevent it from being lost in the mail. Five days later, Sarge received the aforementioned call, and afterward Marshall became a mentor to him. At one point, Sarge recalled, Marshall told him that, while he would not necessarily enjoy tremendous commercial success, “I was singularly one of the most talented people he had ever seen,” and that he should feel vindicated by his capacity to bring joy and laughter to others.
“Everybody doesn’t get to go to the hall of fame,” Marshall told Sarge, “but a lot of people get to play the game and wear the uniform. And so, don’t worry if you’re not one of the hall of farmers, because, as far as I’m concerned, you’re as good as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
It was a compliment Sarge took to heart, he said, giving him all the confidence, praise and vindication he would ever need for the rest of his life. “I know I’m on the right track,” Sarge said. “I’ve been blessed.”