THE THING ABOUT Sam Levenson is that you either love him or you love him. When I was a kid, I'd run home from school to play his comedy record, "The Family Goes to Coney Island," backed by "The Story of a Bar Mitzvah Boy." Other kids listened to Patti Page; with me it was Sam Levenson. In the late 1950s, I watched him guesting on television shows, jealous that he was sharing his talents with the rest of the world. I read his best sellers, Everything But Money and In One Era and Out the Other, and now his new book, You Don't Have to Be in Who's Who to Know What's What, a kind of celebration of the humor of the average guy, Mr. Anonymous.
Meeting Sam Levenson was a thrill that turned me 12 years old again. He looks like a healthy man in his fifties, that familiar bow tie still bobbing under his chin, his hair - more gray, of course, but abundant - still worn in a longish crewcut. His smile is dazzling; he looks like a happy man. You would never call him "Mr. Levenson"; he's Sam.
Sam Levenson grew up in East Harlem, then a neighborhood of large Jewish families and open-air markets. He was one of 10 children, poor but well-fed, well-cared for, well-loved. "We had a lot of security, even if we didn't have a nickel. What else do I need?" We talk a little about his new book, published by Simon and Schuster, which features time-honored anonymous jokes on every subject that unites humankind, then and now.
"I'm convinced that there really is a family of Man; people are so identical it's frightening. Variations among us are so minor. As a kid who grew out of an orthodox home in a Jewish community, I am yet in demand as a speaker for the Baptists, the Lutherans, Catholic church groups. I go right on telling my stories as I lived them, and these people will suddenly say: Of course, my mother was like that. I have come to the conclusion that the roots were the same, although the branches have spread out in many directions. But if you can hit the root, the feelings, everybody understands completely.
"Being the child of immigrants myself, I used to tell stories of the disillusionments of the golden land. We come to America expecting the streets to be paved with gold; then we found out that we were supposed to pave the streets. And each hope gets pulled down a little bit, but man still tries. He tries to believe in God, but there are forces pulling him away from that. God ain't what He used to be. Faith today ain't my father's faith. In the worst disaster, my mother would say, "God will help." Now a man goes to the government; there are agencies who do God's work.
"I'm an optimist, and very frankly I think I can educate and improve the status of human life through my humor. My book indicates where things begin to fall off. The family begins to decline...children...marriage begins to decline, man and God are not doing too well together; man and war have not improved much. But we're very conscious of it. Humor tells the truth. Read the joke, the joke will tell you the truth. The joke looks at American democracy and says: the great advantage of American democracy is that only one of these guys can get elected.
"I think people are very uncomfortable in this era and were more comfortable when things were less opulent. The choices were fewer. How many brands of bread to we need? Baked by day. Baked by night. Enriched. Re-enriched. De-enriched. Vitamins added. Vitamins removed. People are just standing there going wacky, trying to pick a loaf of bread. In the old days God knew what bread was, and you knew what bread was.
"This is a very sad era. Let the humor speak for itself. Every institution is affected by it. Allow man to be funny; he says some very true things: "The more I think of life, the less I think of it." Death comes anyhow, and the only reason they give you a birth certificate is that without it you can't get a death certificate."
"The whole space program does not appeal to the little guy. They find it very hard to make it glamorous to the little guy. But you know what throws 'em? They shouldn't mention how much it costs, because when the average guy hears numbers like $400 billion or $24 billion to find out how gravity operates around Mars, while he's standing in line trying to figure out whether to buy real tuna fish or dog meat to feed himself, he ain't at all impressed. Man is suffering on earth; half the world goes to bed hungry. To invest in so many hundreds of billions in what is not top priority stuff.... Man doesn't see it like a sociologist, but he's not comfortable, and you see it in the joke: "Is there intelligent life on Mars?" "Of course there is. You don't see them spending $24 billion to find out about us!"
"How about the person who could have discovered a cure for cancer, but died on the streets of Bangladesh at the age of two? How much disappears because of our inability to handle our world's problems? I feel the world has lost great geniuses; maybe it's lost its Messiah. Its Messiah may have starved to death somewhere. And I always feel that maybe we're such a mess because somewhere we lost those great talents.
"In humor there are such talents, but most people love to laugh because it's a defense mechanism against pain. Only man can laugh. Only man can cry. God gave man those two choices: laugh or cry or work out some balance.
"I've had my ear to the ordinary guy for a long time. I thought that all the world's wisdom was in the ordinary guy. I've come to the conclusion that a lot of it is, that this Mr. Anonymous, whoever he is, is quite a remarkable fellow who has survived millions of disasters over the many thousand years. Don't dismiss his knowledge or his feelings because they don't come from a laboratory or an academy. He knows a lot about life. He really does." CAPTION: Picture, Sam Levinson