The jokes deserve a special section, because Joel loved comedy more than anything and his knowledge of it was encyclopedic, as it was for most things relating to Jews. Our Wednesday lunch, which began as a kind of ad hoc support group for Joel after his wife Jane died, has been for us the oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York. For 25 years, the six of us — Joel, Jeff, the two Jerrys, Michael and I — have gone through a lot: marriages, unmarriages, deaths and births. Through all of it what held us together was our love for one another, our appreciation of each other's infinite peculiarities and the endless, roaring, screaming laughter. One had only to say "2-30," the incredibly appropriate time for this funeral and the punch line of an ancient and idiotic joke concerning a Chinese dentist to get Joel howling. Or "the mice were hunchback," said in any context at all, would produce that laugh you could hear a mile away.
The lunch has had many locations, and Joel was a prime mover in our ever-widening search for the perfect place, for the simple reason that he effectively got us banned from a number of New York's finer dining places. The old Russian Tea Room threw us out, then more ominously, Fresco by Scotto threw us out. We told Joel that his picture was being pasted on kitchens all over Manhattan as a public enemy, but he could have cared less — if he requested a simple hamburger, no cheese, no tomatoes, he expected to get it. The expression on the faces of the hapless waiters proudly bringing a tomato-and-cheese-covered burger to set before him, only to incur Joel's truly fabulous, flame-throwing rage was easily worth the price of admission. A ritual was repeated over 25 years: the rest of us would order, then the waiter would stand beside Joel as he scanned the menu as if it were a text of the Torah. Finally he would order something — and this far preceded his illness — he would order something and then totally deconstruct the dish, telling the waiter what exactly to leave out and what to substitute. The order would of course be totally screwed up and we would prepare to get thrown out of yet another restaurant.
Like a child, however, whenever you were ready to throttle Joel he would do something so fabulous that you would instantly forgive him. He was incredibly generous and his Christmas presents were always the best and the most thought out, as were his fabulous holiday cards, my favorite being the one where Iron Mike Tyson had his arm around a smiling Joel, with the inscription, "From Our Home to Yours."
When he had his first surgery, many years ago in the beginning of the 100-round bare-knuckle fight that was Joel's truly epic battle with colon cancer, at that time I visited him. He was a little woozy and he looked at me and said "Why did this happen to me?" "Because you're a movie critic," I told him. He started laughing, of course, and then asked me not to say anything else funny, because he was still sore from the surgery, but I realized later I was wrong. He was not a movie critic; he was a movie lover, as he was a lover and enthusiast of so many, many things. Unlike most critics who see films as targets in a shooting gallery, Joel really, really wanted to love the movies he screened and particularly in the past few years had been increasingly disappointed, like a spurned lover.