SALEM – The holidays mean spending time with family, and Roz Chast and Patricia Marx have compiled some friendly advice to help everyone avoid killing each other:
• You only get to kvetch for three minutes and then your time is up (unless you’re in a Chekhov play.)
• It’s more fun to be the pessimist than the optimist, so everyone needs to take turns.
• You’re allowed to be late for an event twice, and then you must move westward to a different time zone.
Chast and Marx provided these hard-bitten pointers, with Chast’s zany cartoons to match, at the Peabody Essex Museum on Dec. 1 for a Jewish Book Month event sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore entitled “An Afternoon of Ukuleles, Cartoons, and Conversation.” To a sold-out crowd, Chast and Marx provided all three in spades. They strummed the turquoise ukuleles they call their “blukes” to songs like “I should be working on the railroad, but right now I’m working on other stuff, and when I finish that I promise I’ll get back to the railroad,” “Two Middle-Aged Ladies,” (to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”) and the story of a husband who killed his wife over a thermostat dispute. With songs like these, it’s no wonder Chast has come to be known as the “Poet Laureate of Urban Neurosis.”
The bluke-strumming was interwoven with a slideshow of doctored photos and cartoons on how to fold fitted sheets correctly – if such a thing is indeed possible – and “how to drive your man crazy in bed” (nag him and ask a lot of stupid questions.) Many of the cartoons were taken from either Chast and Marx’s past collaboration, “Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It?,” a 2019 book written by Marx and illustrated by Chast about Marx’s difficult relationship with her prototypically Jewish mother, who laments on that cover that, “In retrospect, I should have brought you up in a warm and loving home.” Their sad but true relationship advice was taken from their next book, “You Can Only Yell at Me for One Thing at a Time: Rules for Couples,” which will come out in January.
Even if Marx’s mother missed the memo on warm and loving homes, the world has one thing to thank her for: introducing her daughter to Roz Chast. “My mother called me after [her first article, which Chast had illustrated] was published, and she said, ‘I read your piece, and I really liked the illustration. You should call the illustrator!’” Marx recalled. “It was like when you’re seven years old and your mom says, ‘See that little girl? She’s seven, you’re seven, go play with her!’”
“Basically, Patty’s mother set us up on a playdate,” Chast interjected. It was quite a fateful playdate. Chast and Marx learned that they knew many of the same people, and shared the same sarcastic, somewhat fatalistic, and unquestionably Jewish sensibility. Over the years, they became a potent double act: Marx wrote stories about things like comfort animals and virtual reality that Chast illustrated. Both are accomplished in their own right: Marx is a staff writer for The New Yorker who has written for “Saturday Night Live,” and was the first woman elected to The Harvard Lampoon. She has written numerous books, and received a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship. Chast, meanwhile, is a staff cartoonist who has published more than 800 New Yorker cartoons for over 40 years, and has written or illustrated more than a dozen books, including a 2014 graphic memoir about her own parents entitled “Can We Talk About Something A Little More Pleasant?” In 2016, she even had an entire museum exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, which is apt given her distinctly New York Jewish style of humor.
That Upper West Side-inflected shtick played well to a largely Jewish crowd on the North Shore, who roared with laughter throughout the whole performance. “They teach us all how to have a Jewish sense of humor,” said Susan Steigman, who is part of the Jewish Book Month committee and wanted to book Chast and Marx after seeing them speak at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. “This was a fantastic event and we were very fortunate to have them – they’re so fantastic and original and timely.”