We love that we get to excerpt this wonderful novel from stand-up comic Dan Naturman. As we formatted and read this book, we laughed and loved each page. Enjoy this excerpt from IRA SPIRO: before Covid and check it out on Amazon in paperback and kindle and ask about it at your local bookstore too!
Dan Naturman is a stand-up comedian and actor who has appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” “Late Show with David Letterman,” and “The Conan O’Brien Show” and was also a regular on the HBO series “Crashing.” Dan has an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from the Fordham University School of Law, though he has never practiced. In his spare time, he enjoys studying French and trying to acquire a reasonable level of competence on guitar. He lives alone in New York City and has issues with close relationships. Follow Dan on Facebook and Twitter
To the extent that such things can be measured, studies have shown that New Yorkers are, on average, less satisfied with life than most Americans. Compared even to the average New Yorker, however, Ira Spiro was a noticeably angst-ridden person. He had come to accept that he simply was not destined to experience prolonged periods of great joy or even, for that matter, moderate contentedness. Yet some moments were certainly better than others and, as he made his way down Amsterdam Avenue towards home, the perfect weather, 75 degrees and cloudless skies, a peanut butter smoothie with just the right amount of agave and that boost of endorphins that one gets after a good workout at the gym conspired to make Ira feel about as good as Ira was capable of feeling.
Ira was no gym rat, but he tried to go at least three times a week. It was a paradox with Ira, albeit hardly unique to him, that, although he was more likely to greet a new day with trepidation than eagerness, he was terrified by the thought that at some point in time there would be no new days to greet. Debate might exist as to the health benefits of dark chocolate or vitamin D supplements, but all seemed to agree that regular exercise is a good way to extend one’s allotted time on planet Earth, and Ira felt an increasing need to do just that as the years passed. Forty is far from an old man, and in any case, that landmark birthday was over a year away, but Ira was already dreading it and was considering, at least half-seriously, turning off his phone and fleeing the country as it approached so as not to have to endure unwelcome birthday wishes.
– Holy shit! screamed a young man in his twenties as he rode past Ira on his Trek bicycle in the designated bike lane.
The scream deviated Ira’s attention from the window of a new shop he had been peering into, wondering how it would ever stay in business selling nothing but artisanal marshmallows. The man on the bicycle abruptly braked, skidding to a stop several feet beyond Ira. He dismounted and then turned around and walked with the bicycle along the sidewalk, smiling and excited, until he caught up to Ira.
– I can’t believe this. I’m a huge fan! he said to Ira.
Ira had suspected that the loud “Holy Shit!,” audible for at least a block in all directions, might well be due to the bicyclist having recognized him, rather than, say, his excitement upon noticing a new place to get artisanal marshmallows.
– Jackson Taylor’s Christmas Party is one of my favorite movies ever! gushed the young man.
– Thank you, replied Ira. I appreciate it.
– I’m Ben.
– Nice to meet you, Ben, said Ira, shaking the hand Ben had extended to him. By the way, if you’re gonna ride your bicycle in New York City, maybe you should wear a helmet. I’d hate to see you crack your head open. I only have so many fans.
– Yeah right, responded Ben sarcastically. You’re amazing! Oh my God I can’t believe I just met Ira Spiro! Where can I see you? Are you doing any stand-up these days?
– Actually, yeah. I’m back at it, said Ira. I’m at the Comedy Den in Greenwich Village regularly.
– Awesome. I’ve been meaning to get down there, said Ira’s increasingly enthusiastic fan. Can I take a picture with you?
– Sure. Why not?
Ira positioned himself close to Ben, putting his arm around him as Ben held his own arm outwards, holding his phone in the selfie position.
– Wait, will this be going on Instagram or something like that? inquired Ira.
– You don’t want me to do post it? replied Ben with a hint of disappointment in his voice.
– No no, it’s ok, said Ira, reassuring him. Just don’t write a smart-ass caption like “He stunk of whiskey.”
– Promise I won’t, declared Ben with a laugh.
– Ok, snap the pic.
The selfie completed, Ben thanked Ira and rode away on his bicycle with a big smile on his face. Ben had met one of his favorite comedians and the star of his favorite movie, and he was actually nice!
Indeed, Ira had always been nice to fans but not always quite so friendly and willing to talk. Three years prior, when Jackson Taylor’s Christmas Party was a surprise hit in theaters, Ira was constantly being approached on the street by fans. Not only did it interfere with him going about his day, but it also made him uncomfortable to be treated that way. He didn’t quite trust it. Was it real or some kind of gag? Were people actually that excited to see him? Ira didn’t view himself as a particularly impressive person. He realized that he was a funny comedian and that he wrote, perhaps, a pretty good movie, but he always felt that if you added up all of his talents and positive qualities and subtracted the negative ones, the aggregate score would be about average. Among other defects that would lower the final tally — he wasn’t particularly courageous, he was bad at relationships and he couldn’t digest lactose.
During the period of his life when his movie was becoming popular, Ira had briefly tried sporting a beard and mustache. It didn’t help much, however. Ira was still quite recognizable. He was tall and thin, about 6 feet 2 inches and 172 pounds. This lanky silhouette came from his mother’s side of the family, of mostly Dutch, English and Scottish ancestry. His mother herself was about 5ft. 10 inches tall, and her father, Ira’s late grandfather William Deridder, was 6’7.” As for his other physical features, they came mostly from the Spiros, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He had his late father’s wavy hair, though Ira’s was medium brown, not black like Steven Spiro’s had been. Their faces were quite similar, narrow with deep-set eyes and prominent noses. Father and son also both had full lips and a pronounced square chin which, in addition to his nose, was the subject of occasional taunts by Ira’s schoolmates growing up, and even once by an eighth-grade math teacher who got big laughs from the class when, in mid-discussion about polygons, had said that “the sum of the angles in a rectangle, like Ira’s chin, was 360 degrees.”
In the years since the movie, Ira’s career had lost most of its momentum, for a variety of reasons. Ben was only the second person to approach him that day, and it was already late afternoon. Ira found this relatively low level of attention tolerable and even at times enjoyable.
Entering his apartment, Ira plopped his gym bag unceremoniously down on the floor next to the front door before planting himself in front of his laptop computer. He was in the mood to watch music videos on YouTube. He could, of course, watch them on his internet-enabled television, but he preferred his YouTube videos inches from his face and in non-full-screen mode. This made it possible to scroll through the comments and, if the desire arose, to google facts about the particular video he was watching. Even without these ancillary benefits, however, Ira still felt YouTube was a pleasure best meant to be enjoyed while staring at a computer or even a smartphone.
Ira tended to go through phases with YouTube videos. The recent 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War One had precipitated no less than two weeks of scouring the video-sharing site for documentaries on the Great War and old interviews with veterans. However, for the previous couple of days, it was with the sights and sounds of the early MTV era that Ira wished to inundate his senses. Music videos were a staple of Ira’s online video diet, and in particular he returned to ‘80s music fairly regularly, simply because that era was a relatively happy time in his life.
Ira’s apartment was a two-bedroom on the twentieth floor of a high-rise building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He had purchased it two and a half years before at the urging of his then-girlfriend Harlee Shaw. Ira would have been happy with a much smaller place, but Harlee was one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood. She herself had beautiful homes in New York and Los Angeles, and it was out of the question that the man she was dating would live in a one-bedroom or, God forbid, a studio. She was willing to date several rungs below her on the show biz ladder given Ira’s potential, but there were certain conditions, so Ira laid out 1.5 million in cash for the apartment.
Harlee then insisted that her interior designer friend Giovanni, from Barletta, Italy by way of West Hollywood, do the decorating. Giovanni had a habit of sparing no expense with his clients’ money, which explained the pricey lithographs on Ira’s walls, including a couple of Picassos and a Miró. A designer coffee tabIe in the living room set Ira back nearly eight grand. It featured a thick round slab of polished white calacatta marble set on a brushed aluminum frame. Ira was also the proud owner of a Victorian mahogany bookshelf that cost almost as much as the coffee table. The bookshelf and a few other vintages pieces were completely out of place in an apartment otherwise decorated at the leading edge of modernity. Giovanni was expensive, but not necessarily any good. The kitchen, though small, was custom built with generous use of Italian marble and exotic hardwoods. The appliances were all top of the line including the stove and oven that Ira never used. The closest he generally came to cooking was making a sandwich, and even that was a rare event. Getting food delivered was just too easy in New York and dining-out options too plentiful.
Harlee’s decorative contribution to the apartment was a cylindrical multi-shelf display case in which she had Ira put a shooting script for Jackson Taylor’s Christmas Party as well as the Best Original Screenplay Oscar he had won for that film. Rude though it might be to decorate and run, she broke up with Ira not long after. In the years since there had been no new awards to add to the display case, and Ira had since moved it, with the script and the Oscar statue, from the living room to the guest bedroom, where Ira ventured even less often than the kitchen.
A corner of the living room served as Ira’s office, where Ira was seated at his L-shaped $3,000 metal and glass desk staring at his MacBook Pro. After having watched music videos for several new wave songs and a couple of U2 songs from “The Joshua Tree” album, he clicked on and sang along to the video for the 1986 Van Halen single “Dreams.” That video featured the aerial acrobatics of the Navy’s Blue Angels, leading Ira to change themes and start watching air show videos, which is what he was doing when he heard a sound that seized his attention and ended his relative state of tranquility.
An envelope being slipped under a door doesn’t make much noise, but its volume seemed far greater to Ira given its significance, just as a mother might hear her baby crying above the roar of a raging storm. It was the bill for the monthly maintenance payment for his apartment. Even though he owned the place without a mortgage, he still had to pay 3,500 dollars a month for the upkeep of the building. Elevators needed to be serviced, boilers repaired and doormen paid. In addition, the lobby was undergoing a complete renovation.
For the moment he was above water, but for how long? His only income was the hundred dollars a set he made performing at the Comedy Den a few times a week, something he recently started doing after over two years of making no money at all. He could move to a smaller apartment and buy some time, but even then, sooner or later he’d be running on empty if he didn’t start making real money again. His financial anxiety had become intense in recent months as his savings dipped to disquietingly low levels. At that moment, hearing the envelope being slid under the door, he felt moved to take action.
Ira paused the video of the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds as they were flying in an inverted wedge formation in the skies above Winnipeg.
– Siri, call Dave Rothman.
Ira called Dave Rothman from time to time just to shoot the breeze. They were friends in addition to being talent manager and client. In fact, they were barely talent manager and client anymore as, apart from performing at the Comedy Den, Ira was all but out of show business.
– Spiro, what’s good?
– Hey, Dave. Any offers for personal appearance work come in lately?
– Yeah. And I say you’re not available. Those are my standing orders, right? No more high pressure headlining shows.
Only about half of Ira’s money came directly from Jackson Taylor’s Christmas Party. It was his first screenplay and his first lead role in a film, and he was thus paid relatively modestly. The film was a great success, but Ira did not get a piece of the profits. However, the film gave him a decent amount of fame, and fame can usually be transformed into revenue, especially if one is a seasoned stand-up comedian. Ira performed in theaters and at private corporate events for five and sometimes six-figure sums. Ira had never been at ease on stage, but the pressure of people paying big money specifically to see him made each performance an ordeal. After a disastrous performance at a theater in Denver, he stopped performing altogether until his recent return to the Comedy Den.
– Dave, I think I’m ready to go back out there. Any good offers?
– Wait, you wanna do a show? asked Dave with a mix of shock and excitement. What’s happened? You finally get into therapy like I’ve been hounding you to do for years?
– What do you got? responded Ira, ignoring the question about therapy.
– A few things. Got a call from an Orthodox synagogue the other day.
– Is that gift I got you still on your wall, Dave?
On the wall next to Dave’s desk was a framed word image that Ira had given him as a belated birthday gift years back. It said, in beautiful cursive calligraphy, “NO MORE ORTHODOX JEWISH GIGS.”
Orthodox Jewish organizations have frequent fundraising events and often hire comedians. However, at least in Ira’s experience, they generally preferred jokes centered around Jewish themes, which Ira could not deliver given that, though Jewish on his father’s side, he was raised with almost none of the religion or culture. He wasn’t raised with much Christianity either, even though he would one day write a movie about Christmas parties.
Once, back when Ira was still mostly unknown, after about twenty laugh-free minutes into a show at a wealthy Orthodox synagogue on Long Island, the Rabbi stood up and said to Ira “Ok that’s enough thank you” before announcing to the crowd that they’d be bringing out dessert and coffee. A thunderous, and for Ira terribly insulting, round of applause followed the dessert and coffee announcement. Fortunately, the synagogue had paid in advance, as a fight to get the money might have ensued otherwise. At that point, Ira told Dave he would do no more shows for Orthodox Jews. Dave continued to present offers to Ira for such shows, however, until Ira felt compelled to give Dave the aforementioned framed image which he insisted Dave mount on the wall next to his desk.
– Yes, it’s still on my wall, answered Dave. Wasn’t sure the rule still applied. I got some other stuff. Let me check what I have and get back to you.
As bad as the show at the Orthodox synagogue in Long Island was, it wasn’t nearly as humiliating as the show in Denver which all but put an end to Ira’s live appearances. He was thinking of the Denver show as he went back to his Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds video. The show in Denver had scarred him, probably for life. Ira would write about it in the opening chapter of his memoir which, though he would start working on it only a couple of months later, was not even a thought in his head at that moment. The memoir would ultimately be called Ira Spiro: Before Covid.