Photo illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Getty Images
This Friday, Columbia University celebrates the 75th birthday of Philip Roth. And even though we’re planning on being there that afternoon to hear Nathan Englander, Hermoine Lee, Jonathan Lethem, and many others toast someone who is arguably America’s greatest living writer, we can’t help but wish that another august institution — one just as appropriate to Roth’s status as the grand dirty old man of letters — had taken charge of roasting Philip Roth: The Friars Club. Oh, to be a fly on that wall… —Sarah Weinman
Gilbert Gottfried: Good evening, everybody! We’re here to wish a very happy birthday to Philip Roth: The man who put the putz in the Pulitzer, the number-one author in the Library of Cockgress. As a tit man myself, I will always be grateful to Philip Roth for writing an entire book about a giant breast. Jesus, Phil! My superego masturbates to that book! And we can thank Phil for this, too: After reading Portnoy’s Complaint, millions of readers learned the joys of fucking a bologna. Now, every time you buy a bologna in the grocery store, you have to think to yourself: Whose dick was in this bologna? Am I right? Anyways, we’ve got a number of fine guests tonight, but let’s start things off with one of Philip’s favorite ladies (and second ex-wife)…Claire Bloom!
Claire Bloom: I know, you’re surprised to see me here. I’m surprised to be here! But when my good friend Gilbert called me and said, “Come on over and let’s tear Phil a new one,” I couldn’t resist. My relationship with Philip was…shall we say, difficult. I suppose I should have known what was in store when, after he kicked my opera-singing daughter, Anna, out of the house, her favorite role was…Elektra. And then we break up, and he writes a supposed piece of fiction depicting him as a philandering wild man and me as dull and middle-aged! I slept with Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, and Richard Burton. But now that we’ve traded revenge — me with my memoir, he with I Married a Communist — there’s hardly any ill will between us. I wouldn’t even dream of pointing out that Philip’s been reduced to cybersex and ruminations on his poorly functioning penis.
Gottfried: Oooh! I think it’s time for Claire to write another memoir. She could call it Indignation! Oh, wait…it’s time for our next speaker? Sure, introducing…John Updike!
John Updike: At the rate he’s going, it’s not a question of whether Philip is more prolific than I am…but whether he’ll outpace Joyce Carol Oates! But I feel like this would be the place to let you all in on a little secret. Back in the early seventies, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Roth, and I got together at my house in Connecticut and made a wager: whoever pissed off the most people would collect a year’s royalties from the other two. I thought Mailer was a shoo-in with the fracas with NOW, and for a while Bellow seemed to be the front-runner, but, Philip, you’ve managed to infuriate Jews and women for several decades running. But I know it must be tough going to know Doris Lessing got her Nobel Prize before you did.
Gottfried: Ouch, there’s a real sting in that tail! And I don’t mean the kind you chase. Heh, heh. Which reminds me, Mia Farrow couldn’t be here, but she told me that she knew her relationship with Philip was over when American Pastoral sounded too much like Annie Hall. Finally, to wrap up this roast, who better to hear from than Roth’s most famous alter ego? That would be…David Kepesh… No, Philip Roth… No, E.I. Lonoff… Hey, you, in the back, that was a very unfunny joke about Margaret B. Jones! Why, it’s Nathan Zuckerman!
Nathan Zuckerman: Oh, the stories I could tell you about living in Philip Roth’s brain. Both of them! It’s hard work waiting every year for a phone call from the Nobel Prize guys. Or crying out for a chair because he has the temerity to fuck — I mean, to write — standing up. But it’s funny: Here’s this big stage, this big chance for me to toast my creator, and I’ve got nothin’. Well, that’s not true, I have this: So, last week, Philip walks into Andrew Wylie’s office on 57th Street all excited. I’ve never seen him so giddy. He has a new idea for a book. Of course, Wylie’s interested — Roth could write a grocery list, and it would sell around the world for millions — but he’s also curious, because he’s never seen Philip light up this way. “So, what’s the idea here?” Wylie asks.
“It’s the culmination of my career,” Philip crows, “a 900-page polemic told from the point of view of Zuckerman, Kepesh, Lonoff, a penis, a vagina, two breasts — one real, one silicone — everyone I’ve ever written about — even the bologna gets a few pages. It ends with a 150-page orgy in which every character is slowly replaced by me, until it ends with two dozen naked Roths sitting around grousing about their limp dicks.” So Wylie nods, right?
“Interesting. Very interesting. I sent out a couple of e-mails while you were talking, and the auction’s already on. So what’s it called, Philip?”
And my creator says, “I call it The Aristocrats!”
Gottfried: Woah, nice one! Okay, dinner’s being served. Everyone tuck into your food — no bologna today! — and we’ll be back after a break with Tom Wolfe, Carlos Mencia, and the ghost of Saul Bellow.
Philip Roth’s 75th Birthday Tribute [Library of America]