The Funny, Feminist Side of Norman Mailer

The novelist was often portrayed in the media as a humorless misogynist. His son knew a different side of the man.
  • Transcript


Question: Your father was often accused of having no sense of humor. Was this true?

John Buffalo Mailer:  Oh, my God.  I mean, if anything his problem was that he didn’t realize that humor will not translate in sound bites and quotes and so oftentimes he would say something, you know, just off the cuff that was silly and funny and ridiculous and everyone there would laugh like you wouldn’t believe and then it would end up in print the next day and, you know, something crazy like, “Norman Mailer said women should be kept in cages.”  You know, things like that.  It was just, he loved women so much.  I mean probably more than anything in the world he loved women.  He got put into a position where he was kind of seen as the anti-feminist, although he was for the feminist movement.  He just didn’t want people to get consumed with the idea that this was going to be much better.  He said, “Look, women should be treated equally and fairly.”  There is no question about it, but there was a certain kind of totalitarian element I think when the movement was starting off.  There were so many different factions and that’s I think what he was taking issue with was the idea of, look, you can’t go from male dominance to female dominance and expect anything to be better.  We’re all shits, ultimately, and we’ve got to do the best we can together. 

So you know those who were lucky enough to know my dad know that he was one of the funniest guys who ever lived.  I mean he had this great…  Or I thought it was great.  I shouldn’t preface it by saying it was great, but he had this joke he used to tell whenever he would start a lecture.  He would flip the jokes around.  He had one he would do for a year or so, but basically he said that it was about karma and reincarnation and he said,   “You know, so I die and I go up to the gates and I see Gabriel.”  And he says, “Oh, Mr. Mailer, we’re so happy to see you. We’ve been expecting you for a while and we ask this of all of our new recipients. What would you like to be reincarnated as? It’s a question we ask everybody because we see that you’re on the list for reincarnation.”  And he says, “Well, you know, I’d like to be a black athlete, honestly. That’s, you know, put me…Start me in a ghetto. Do whatever. I’ll work my way up, but I would really, you know, I’ve been kind of this little Jewish guy all my life and I’ve, you know, done what I’ve done, but that’s what I really want to be.”  And Gabriel says, “Well I hate to tell you this Mr. Mailer, but black athletes are the most oversubscribed-to reincarnation requests we have. It’s a list that goes miles long. I can’t tell you the chances are good, but let me see what we have you down for and then we can work from there.”  And he looks and he goes, “Well we have you down for cockroach, but you’re going to be the fastest cockroach on the block.”  And that was my dad’s sense of, you know, laughing at himself, laughing at existence, the universe, all of it and not being too serious about what we do with because at the end of the day if you’re here it’s a blessing.  It’s you know life is hard.  Life is hard for everybody at some point, but it’s those who are able to laugh at it and laugh with it and roll with it that ultimately I think live the fulfilling lives that we’re all trying to do.  You know, and big step there is to not take yourself too seriously from the start.

Recorded March 30, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen