When Natalie Levant stepped onto the stage at a New York City comedy club to perform for fellow stand-up comedian George Saltz’s 84th birthday party in 2018, nobody had any idea who the 87-year-old Philadelphian was.
But they quickly found out.
“I got on stage and said ‘Big f—ing deal George! I’ll see your 84 and raise you three,’” Levant said.
In the audience that night at Comic Strip Live was Elizabeth Zephyrine McDonough, a writer, director, and actor who’s done work for The New Yorker and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. She was filming Saltz as part of a documentary she envisioned about the open mic scene in New York.
“We were filming the show already and Natalie comes out on stage with her sequined boots, her f-bombs, and her tattoos, and I was smitten,” McDonough said. “It was love at first sight, and we began filming her story as well.”
McDonough’s documentary short, Still Standing, which was shot over the last three years in Philadelphia and New York, evolved to be solely about Levant, now 89, and Saltz, now 86, both of whom didn’t get their start in stand-up comedy until they were in their 80s.
“To their credit, sure you get some shock and awe when someone their age walks out on stage, but you’ve got about 10 seconds to prove to the audience whether they should keep listening,” McDonough said. “If George and Natalie weren’t funny in their own right, they wouldn’t be successful.”
The 26-minute film premieres Saturday at the Lower East Side Film Festival in New York. Following the screening, Levant and Saltz will have a Q&A with stand-up comedian, writer, and actor Tig Notaro. While the in-person event is sold out, virtual screening passes are available online at the Lower East Side Film Festival’s website.
“It’s crazy! Like, is this really happening?” Levant said. “I love Tig Notaro’s comedy style and I have a great respect for her because she’s somebody else who doesn’t know her place.”
Levant, an East Oak Lane resident whom The Inquirer profiled last year as part of its We The People series, grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Philly after she met her husband, Bob, on the beach in Atlantic City. The couple, who were married for 55 years before Bob died in 2009, had three sons and a daughter.
During that time, Levant worked as a stay-at-home mom, a medical secretary, and an administrative assistant at a psychiatric practice. But her true passion was always theater, from making frequent trips to Broadway shows to performing in community theater productions.
She didn’t get into stand-up until she was 81, when an acquaintance suggested she try her hand at it at a Gayborhood sports bar and she got hooked. Ever since, Levant has taken her act — which is bluer than Picasso’s Blue Period (but a lot more funny) — to the finest dive bars in the tristate area.
“I have come to realize that this is not the norm for everybody’s life. This has just been my journey, one thing went and connected to another,” she said. “When you’re older and everybody around you is wearing pink and exchanging recipes but that’s not your bag, then you’ve got to find your bag, even if it makes your children uncomfortable. Just do it, because this is your trip around the block.”
According to McDonough, Saltz, who grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, dreamed of becoming a comedian as a kid, but the first time he performed stand-up at 18 in the Catskills, he bombed. He gave up that dream, and instead, became a clinical psychologist and married the love of his life.
Like Levant, Saltz got into stand-up at the encouragement of friends after the death of his spouse.
“They both had long, loving happy marriages and lost their partner later in life and were confronted with being a solo individual and the question: ‘What is my identity now?’” McDonough said. “That led both of them to stand-up comedy.”
While Levant’s comedy is “raw and unfiltered,” Saltz’s is more “PG-13,” McDonough said, but both aren’t afraid of a sex joke or five.
“By making jokes about sex, it’s like claiming their place and saying ‘We’re real people, too. We’ve had sex! We’re not just grandma and grandpa, we’re three-dimensional people who have a whole lifetime of experiences to share,’” she said.
The ageism Levant faces in everyday life is something she often talks about in her routine.
“The subtleties of ageism are no different than the subtleties of other isms,” Levant said. “It’s just harder, especially if you have cataracts, to see them.”
“We didn’t know what we were getting in to,” she said of Ray’s, where smoking inside is still a thing, and of Tattooed Mom’s, where “the bar itself looks like it’s tattooed.”
“The places are a really important part of the story, too. The fact that they’re in Philly and New York at this age allows them to pursue this dream,” McDonough said. “The cities are characters in the film.”
Above all, what McDonough hopes people will take from Still Standing — which she plans to submit to other festivals, including the Philadelphia Film Festival — is the love Levant and Saltz have for life and the message that it’s never too late to be who you are.
“I hope that it makes people see the older people in their life a little differently, to think about them more three-dimensionally and ask questions about what we can do to shift the conversations about how we value older people in our society,” she said.
With the premiere of the film falling on what would have been Levant’s 67th wedding anniversary, she said she’s experiencing a “torrent of feelings,” but most of all, she’s proud and humbled McDonough cared enough about her and Saltz’s journeys to put them on film.
“For anyone watching it, even the younger people, tuck this away: Do not let age define you,” Levant said. “Continue to be ALIVE in capital letters, as opposed to little tiny ones.”