By Eric Schucht
PHILADELPHIA — She’s the silver vixen of the stand-up — the comedic grandmother audiences wished they had.
“They used to say mother,” Natalie K. Levant laments.
While others may be slowing down at 88, Levant is just getting started.
In the last seven years she has made a name for herself in the Philadelphia comedy scene, performing at clubs, restaurants and dive bars.
“I always loved show business,” Levant said. “When I was born and the doctor did that little spanking, I really thought he was applauding. And ever since, I’ve been out there as an enormous fan of theater, comedy, musicals, dramas, everything.”
Levant started pursuing standup at 81. The catalyst for the lifestyle change was the passing of Bob, her husband of 55 years. The two met in Atlantic City when Levant was 18 and they married in 1954. From there, the couple settled in Philadelphia and raised three sons and an adopted daughter from Korea. Her husband worked as an attorney while Levant was a stay-at-home mother.
But once her daughter turned 16, Levant began working, first as a medical secretary at an OB-GYN office, followed by an administrative assistant position at a psychiatric practice.
But Levant was at a loss when Bob died of a heart attack in 2009.
“After my husband passed away, I really didn’t know what to do with myself. It wasn’t that my husband was my identity. It’s just that the house was empty with me and our pets. And when I was out in this new world that I found myself in, it even more so felt that I had no identity as a woman who was recently widowed.”
So Levant began volunteering and eventually ended up at the Siloam Wellness Center. One day, a colleague asked if she had ever considered stand-up and handed her the business card of Alejandro Morales. The Philadelphia comedian was producing a comedy show at the Tabu gay sports bar and, after their introduction, agreed to put Levant on stage.
“I went, and I felt nothing but love in that room. I sometimes wonder if the folks at Tabu had not embraced me as warmly as they did if I ever would have stuck with it, but they did and I did and the rest is history.”
Most of Levant’s material comes from real-life experiences. She prioritizes honesty and authenticity above all else.
“Sometimes folks will come up to me after a show and ask, ‘Oh, it’s all that stuff up there that you talk about true?’ And I always answer them, ‘Who would want to make that up?’”Levant draws inspiration from comedians like Buddy Hackett, Alan King, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman and Shecky Greene. She likes to think that her Reform Jewish upbringing in Pittsburgh had an effect on her sense of humor and cultural identity, so much so that one of her four tattoos is “l’chaim” written on her bicep.
“These are people that are part of the tapestry of my life,” she said, “Being Jewish is something that I have all been proud of. It’s a part of who I am. Maybe that’s why I love that Borscht Belt humor so much, because I heard so much of it in my home from my daddy.”
Once a month, Levant co-hosts a comedy night at Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar in South Philadelphia. Venue owner Lou Capozzoli said comedy is “a tough business,” but that Levant has found success.
“People love her. She changes her act a lot of the time, I’ll give her that,” Capozzoli said. “And she does a couple of jokes, but just tells stories about life, about her family, how they don’t get along. Her big thing is, you’re not too old to do it. Don’t let nobody tell you you’re too old to keep going. What do you do, sit home and die? That’s her thing, which is great.”
Despite being older than her audience, Levant described her set as multigenerational. Her material dips into her youth, telling stories that can resonate with people of the same age today. Stand-up is an opportunity for Levant to express herself, regardless of what’s going on in her life.
“When I go up on stage, nothing is in my head but performing, which is one of the great joys of doing stand-up for me,” she said. “When I get up on that stage, whatever sh– is going on in my life, I leave it. I mean, if somebody wants to come forward and add to the pile, that’s fine. But when I’m on stage, it’s a love affair with me and the crowd.”
For those looking to Levant for inspiration and hope to follow in her footsteps, she encourages them to perform authentically without worrying about what others think. “I would encourage anyone who is blessed with a lot of years and still relatively good health, God willing and hopefully, I would encourage them to follow your dreams. And don’t worry.
Certainly don’t worry at this point in your life what people are thinking of you,” she said.
“You don’t have time for the worry of what will my next-door neighbor or my daughter-in-law, or even my son or the person standing behind me in the line at the supermarket think.”
Levant doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon, so people should be on the lookout for her next performance. With luck, she’ll make her dream gig come true, opening for Ricky Gervais or possibly Jeff Ross.
“And I don’t make that offer lightly.”