Meet Natalie Levant, 88, a stand-up comedian from East Oak Lane.

• Four-letter funny: “I know that people don’t expect me to use the language on stage that I use, but that’s just in a long line of things they’re not expecting, which, to begin with, is that I’m even standing."

• UnButtoned: “Aging gracefully, I’ve come to realize, is slowly disappearing, like Benjamin Button.”

At her recent stand-up performance at Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, Natalie Levant worked the steamy back room in black spandex pants, green sequin boots, and a tank top that read: “NEVER KNOW YOUR PLACE.”

Some might say a Saturday night at one of South Philly’s oldest dive bars — where the dinner menu is beer, and smoking inside is still legal — is no place for a woman like Levant, who turned 88 in September.

Good thing she knows better.

“Ladies, do not listen to any of that s— about aging gracefully. Don’t be boring,” she said during her act. “So what if your arms look like bags of dead mice? More room for tattoos!”

Levant herself has four tattoos, including the word “L’Chaim," — a Hebrew toast meaning “to life" — written upside down on her bicep, so she can read it. She doesn’t give a damn if you can.

Stand-up comic Natalie Levant has four tattoos and wants to get more, "but nobody tattoos tissue paper," she said.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Stand-up comic Natalie Levant has four tattoos and wants to get more, "but nobody tattoos tissue paper," she said.

For the last seven years, Levant has been performing stand up at clubs, restaurants, and “the best dive bars in the tristate area," from South Philly to Cape May. She’s even performed at an Uno Pizzeria and Grill in South Jersey.

Sometimes she asks herself: “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" but she always responds: “Just lucky.”

Levant — who describes her style as “wickedly evil” — didn’t get into comedy until she was 81, when a man she was volunteering with at Siloam Wellness Center suggested she try doing it at Tabu, a Gayborhood sports bar. Though she’d never considered stand up before, she didn’t hesitate.

“The last response that I would have ever made was ‘At my age?’” Levant said.

She remembers talking about her life in that first performance and telling jokes like: “We thought safe sex was pulling the bed away from the walls so you didn’t bump your head.”

But most of all, Levant remembers how it felt.

“I remember feeling totally like I had discovered treasure, like I had discovered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” she said. “You get back so much more than what you could ever give when it works.”

Natalie Levant describes South Philly as "the Vatican with dollar stores," during a monthly stand-up comedy night she hosts with fellow comedian, Dan Mahon, at Ray's Happy Birthday Bar.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Natalie Levant describes South Philly as "the Vatican with dollar stores," during a monthly stand-up comedy night she hosts with fellow comedian, Dan Mahon, at Ray's Happy Birthday Bar.

Levant grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Pittsburgh with a serious mother and a father — whom she still lovingly refers to as “daddy" — who found humor in everything. When she was 18, she met her husband, Bob, an attorney, on the beach in Atlantic City.

The couple, who were married for 55 years, lived in Philly’s East Oak Lane section and raised three sons and a daughter.

While Levant is still close to her daughter, she’s estranged from her three sons. Yes, she talks about it in her act. No, she doesn’t want to get into it here. And yes, she wakes up every damn morning hoping it will change.

In the meantime, when she feels really bad, she watches true crime stories on the ID Channel and says to herself “Natalie, your life is not so f—ed up."

Levant was a stay-at-home mom until her daughter turned 16. Then, she became a medical secretary at an OB-GYN office, and after that, she worked as an administrative assistant at a psychiatric practice.

Throughout that time, she also participated in community theater and became active in politics, volunteering for the Citizens for Dwight Evans and for Hardy Williams’ campaign for mayor.

But after her husband died of a heart attack in 2009, Levant didn’t know what to do with herself. She’d never paid attention to what people expected of her before, but now she found she wasn’t doing the things society told her she should be doing at her age, like babysitting, knitting, or keeping quiet.

And she continued to need the things she needed when she was younger — current events, politics, theater, makeup, excitement.

“I realized, at some point, I’m not acting the way I’m supposed to act," Levant said. "And as I’ve gotten older and older, I guess I’m acting less and less that way.”

That’s when Levant began volunteering and then, started doing stand-up, which has taken her to dive bars and comedy clubs across the region. And once a month she hosts a stand-up comedy night at Ray’s with fellow comic Dan Mahon.

Most of her material comes from real life (“It takes me like four or five hours to get ready and not look like Mike Pence”) and from how seniors are treated in society (“The commercial says ‘You must buy burial insurance, you’ll have peace of mind.' Guys — you’re f—ing dead! You’ll have peace of mind”).

Natalie Levant performs her stand-up routine in her beloved green sequin boots. Even though they were a half size too small she bought them anyway because they were cheap. "They'd been reduced 100 times because who the f— would wear them?" she said.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Natalie Levant performs her stand-up routine in her beloved green sequin boots. Even though they were a half size too small she bought them anyway because they were cheap. "They'd been reduced 100 times because who the f— would wear them?" she said.

While she hasn’t encountered ageism in the comedy scene, Levant does feel it in real life. Nothing irks her more than when she sees a senior citizen at a store with their adult child or caregiver who tells them they don’t need something they want.

“You do need. Maybe you don’t need the same things, but you need just as much as you needed when you were 35 or 15, it’s just different,” she said. “And most of all, you need to be valued.”

After watching Levant perform, people will often tell her they thought they were too old to learn to dance or play guitar or follow whatever their dream may be, but now, they’re inspired to do so.

Her favorite compliment though is when someone comes up after her act, hugs her, and whispers: “Never stop.”

“I always tell them, ‘That’s my plan,’" she said.

Levant — who counts Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, Jeffrey Ross, and Dave Chappelle among her favorite comedians — said her dream gig is to have Ricky Gervais open for her.

“Or I could open for him,” she acquiesced.

Natalie Levant asks the crowd at Ray's Happy Birthday Bar: "Do you know what the average bra size is in Miami Beach? 38 long."
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Natalie Levant asks the crowd at Ray's Happy Birthday Bar: "Do you know what the average bra size is in Miami Beach? 38 long."

If that ever happens, she’ll end her act the same way she ends every performance, imparting “the only two things" she’s learned in life.

“One: Never know your place,” she said. “Two: If anyone tells you to act your age … tell them to go f— themselves.

"I guess that’s how I feel about ageism.”

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you'd like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at sfarr@inquirer.com or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

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