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Kate Clinton

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My Comic Mom

Posted: 04/17/07 03:03 PM ET

My mom had a wonderful sense of humor. And she would often dissolve into gulping fits of "I don't know why that strikes me so funny," laughter after hearing grim bits of news. I loved to feed her stories and get her to laugh inappropriately. She loved her family fiercely, worked the beatitudes daily in her church and civic community and would be embarrassed that I am telling you about her sometimes perverse streak of humor.

My mom also had five children. She was of the generation of Moms, on the cusp of Betty Friedan, who planned meals, went grocery shopping once a week, baked and cleaned daily, washed and folded loads of laundry, was there for us after school, oversaw homework, etc beyond etc. She said she loved it. After attending her 6:30 a.m. mass, she was on the move until late every night. She was busy.

My comic mom was the mother of one of the funniest, most charismatic girls in my Catholic high school. When my friend invited me over to her house after school, I met the woman who was to be my comic mom for almost 45 years. My friend's dad was a respected thoracic surgeon in the city. There were three kids in her family. They had more disposable income than my family. Her mom had help and seemed to have more leisure time than my mom. I was talking about that recently with Jane, now 85, and she looked me in the eye and said, "I made time for you."

Did she ever. That first afternoon I met her, she breezed into the elegantly appointed kitchen - i.e. they had a dishwasher!! - wearing one of her trademark, full length caftans and tossed me an orange. Normally an excellent catcher, I was distracted, still processing the caftan at 4 p.m., and the orange sailed by and smashed a cut glass goblet on the counter behind me. She said, "Oh, my uterus," and we all fell out laughing.

At that point I had no idea what a uterus was, but thought the line was hilarious. I can still see the shock on my own mother's face, when at the family dinner table that night I entertained them all with the story about meeting Jane. The repeated and perfectly delivered punch line, "Oh, my uterus," thudded like a Don Imus. To my Mom's credit, she never kept me from going to Jane's. Her own sense of self was never threatened by Jane's sense of humor.

Thank goodness. Jane was a connoisseur of found humor. She did great show and tell. She clipped cartoons, headlines, want ads out of the paper and made notes of funny sayings or situations. She was pre-post-its. She got Mad magazine delivered. We sang the Mad magazine movie parodies. In what were some of my earliest out-of-my-own-house performances, she would specify a foreign accent and have me do on-demand dramatic readings of some of the more tedious Christmas letters they received.

In our little town in upstate New York, she was very media savvy. Through her I was introduced to comedy records: Bill Cosby, Totie Fields, Moms Mabley, Hello Mudda, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. For years we've done their routines, now compressed into comedy shorthand, "Suture. Suture. Clamp. Clamp. I love you. What?" We roared through early Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Pink Panthers, Joan River's Rabbit Test. We vetted possible friendships based on whether or not they laughed at Young Frankenstein. Now it's Napoleon Dynamite. She would call my house at odd times and say, "Channel Four, right now." I would turn on our TV and there would be Bette Midler on Merv Griffin for her first time. We watched a lot of early SNL and loved Jane Curtin and Bill Murray doing the news. She now sends me the best of any YouTube videos I get.

To be with her in public was totally upstate New York transgressive. She was stylishly Auntie Mame brash with a shocking bawdiness. She was primordial pre-Maude. And yet she could generally get anyone to play along with her. She was an invaluable model for the stand-up comedy I came to do for a living. Jane is justly proud of my accomplishments because she is such a huge part of them.

Every year I look for a Mother's Day Card in the Hallmark tiers under a Comic Mother section. Nada. Every year I buy her some over-the-top, embossed, glittery card. I write it to, "Jane, you ignorant slut." I sign it, "Thank you for everything, love, Kate." I always circle the price on the back of the card.


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