After years of wondering if she could do it, wondering if she would ever do it, Anita Garlick was ready. Slowly, she made her way to the microphone, turned toward the audience, and started in on her first joke as a stand-up comedian.
“I can’t stand up so long,” she said, “so I’ve decided I’m going to be the world’s first sit-down comedian.”
And with that, Garlick took a seat on her walker as the crowd erupted in laughter. She had them, but it was a soft crowd. Everyone in the room already loved her. That’s because she made her stand-up debut recently at her 90th birthday party.
The road to that first laugh began in the fall, when Garlick, a Brookline resident, enrolled in a stand-up comedy class at the Boston Center for Adult Education.
“To be honest, when she first walked into class, using a walker, I didn’t know what to think,” said Dana Jay Bein, who has been teaching the class for several years to a student body whose average age is about 24. “But she just lit the class up the second she opened her mouth. She was witty. She had anecdotes. She came ready to write. And she took the class on her back, despite coming in with a walker. Everybody was more alive because she was there.”
Garlick wasn’t a complete stranger to comedy. In high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., she had written a humor column for her school newspaper, “Corridor Capers,” and after moving to the Catskills to raise her family, she spent years watching the great Borscht Belt comedians during their heyday at the famous Catskills resort hotels.
“I’ve always loved comedy, and I’ve always loved to make people laugh,” she said. “There are people who appreciate comedy, and there are joke-makers.” She was definitely a joke-maker.
But the stand-up class, a gift from her son, Jonathan, was the encouragement she needed to enter the craft of comedy, to sit down and think and write and try to pull it all together into a 10-minute set.
As she prepared, she had a lot to choose from, because, as she likes to say, “I’ve had three lives.”
The first was her childhood during the Great Depression and her young adult years during World War II, when she worked in a personnel office in New York handling paperwork for the scientists who were developing the atomic bomb. (She did not know what the scientists were working on until she read their names in The New York Times after a bomb was dropped. She also didn’t know that her husband, who was in the Air Force, was secretly on the island in the Pacific where the plane carrying that bomb took off.)
Her second life was in the Catskills after the war, where her family owned, and lived above, a Jewish funeral home for 40 years. “There’s a lot of black humor there,” she said. “We called it the ‘Fun Home.’ ”
Then there was the time when she learned what a “contact high” was because her husband, Joseph, happened to be the mayor of Monticello, N.Y., in 1969 when nearly a half-million young people showed up at a farm in nearby Bethel for a music festival called Woodstock.
And then there is her third life, in Boston, where she moved in 1998 to be close to her sons, and where she continues to lead an active social life while living independently in her own apartment. On the day a Globe reporter visited, she was finishing up “The Great Gatsby” for a book club that would be coming over that night.
But the question remains: “What would make a little old lady want to do this?” she said of her decision to try stand-up comedy as a nonagenarian. “Well, I’ve lived so long, I’ve seen the humor and tragedy of life.”
And so, as she stood in front of 50 family and friends to celebrate her birthday on a recent Saturday night inside a function room at the restaurant Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square, she performed a set that played on that line of comedy and tragedy.
“Would you like to know how a 90-year-old starts her day?” she asked, before explaining that she goes to her door, picks up the newspaper, and checks the obituary pages for her name. “If I don’t see my name, I go right to the kitchen and make coffee. After breakfast, I very carefully brush my remaining tooth.”
She talked about the parallels between being young and being old. “When I was young I had long red hair and great legs, and I used to stop traffic when I crossed the street,” she said. “I can do the same thing now. I raise my cane and the traffic stops.”
She spoke about the stand-up comedy class, and how hard she worked to get an A because “Do you know how hard it is to get into a good senior residence without an A?”
And she spent a good bit of time making fun of her three sons. “Between the three of them, they have eight graduate and advanced degrees,” she said. “So sometimes I wonder why none of them knows how to change a roll of toilet paper.”
And, like any great comedian, she was willing to go right up to the edge to get a laugh, which she did when speaking about her son Jonathan, who is an oral pathologist and a professor at Tufts.
When he visits her, Garlick said, he likes to examine her gums and cheeks and tongue very carefully, looking for early signs of cancer.
“Each time he does this,” Garlick said. “I can’t help but be grateful that he’s not a gynecologist.”