The biracial Jewish comedian adds author to his resume.
The comedian known as Sarge takes to the stage playing piano in addition to telling jokes. His stage name isn’t one he picked; it’s a nickname he got in college.
To this day, Steven Charles Pickman doesn’t know how he came to be called Sarge, but he doesn’t mind because that name, expressed good-naturedly, makes him feel like an insider.
Born of a Jewish mother in a relationship with a black man, he had been adopted by a Jewish couple and experienced early taunting by schoolkids who made him feel like an outsider because of the color of his skin and his religion.
After his schooling, Sarge continued to wonder about his origins while finding work in sports broadcasting before making comedy his profession. Along the way, he fought addiction and now reaches out to help others overcome substance abuse.
Now in his 50s, settled down with a wife and son and free of the substances that left him homeless for a time, Sarge decided to document his experiences for his son. Garry Marshall, the late director and a good friend, encouraged the project that became a book for the public.
Black Boychik (Zanboban Publishing) brings the entertainer to this year’s Jewish Book Fair to open the event Nov. 3 with a fresh routine.
“I can’t say what my presentation will be because it’s kind of like a first date,” says Sarge, whose wide-ranging appearances have included touring Michigan as the opening act for Aretha Franklin and joining Freddie Roman and Dick Capri in an updated version of Catskills on Broadway.
“I’m looking forward to the Book Fair, and I’m sure it’s going to be great. I don’t do a lot of pre-thinking. I show up and organically create what I do in the moment.
“I’m a comedian so being humorous is a given. That’s why many of the people involved in the Jewish Community Center decision-making are bringing me there. I did a show in Florida and was seen by people from Metro Detroit.”
Sarge’s son was only 8 when the book was started.
“The goal was to give my son a living document that would let him know who his dad was in every detail from birth to the time he’s aware of,” Sarge says. “He’d be able to read it, look back on it and have a cool perspective of who I am. I’m proud that I’ve done so much, been involved in so many things and traveled the world. I have a lot of experience and a lot of perspective.”
The Jewish cultural perspective included his bar mitzvah preparations and visits to resorts in the Catskills, where Jewish entertainers served as motivation for his later appearances before Jewish audiences, some in Israel.
“I’m not a regular attendee at shul, but I spend more time in synagogues than most people I know because I’m entertaining or speaking,” the comedian-author says. “I’m on more bimahs with more rabbis. It doesn’t matter what kind. The currency of my existence is that I bring joy and humor. I don’t bring misery.”
Sarge doesn’t feel that his bent toward humor comes from his Jewish genes.
“Jews invented the art, and now lots of different people are taking to it,” he says. “In the 27 years I’ve been doing comedy, it’s changed. Women and men of all different origins and backgrounds are making strides in it. There are many more voices now because there is much more media.
“A lot of people are funny, but a lot of people aren’t good comedians. It’s a confluence of many different skills — a quick mind, a large vocabulary, a certain amount of drive and the determination to try different things, fail and try again.”
On late night television, Sarge has quipped about linking racial makeup to coffee varieties: “I’m not really all the way black; I’m more like mocha.”
Unlike his approach to comedy, Sarge associates addiction with inherent tendencies. He wanted his son to know about that so the youngster can be mindful of addiction dangers and avoid substance problems.
“I’ve been clean for 28 years,” says Sarge, thankful for the help of a friend described in the book. “I’ve accomplished something a lot of people have a hard time accomplishing.”
Sarge explains part of the fun of entertaining as being recognized and complimented by people from his past — either in person after a show or on social media.
“I think biracial people have an easier time now than when I was growing up,” he says. “I was constantly having to answer the question ‘What are you?’”
Sarge is raising his son to identify as Jewish.
“I was raised Reform,” he says. “For me, spirituality is more indicative of my existence than religiosity. I’m deeply spiritual, God-centered, prayerful and meditative.”
Sarge will perform for Opening Comedy Night at the Jewish Book Fair. His program starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3. $25 for the show and dessert reception. (248) 661-1900; theberman.org
Support the Detroit Jewish News Foundation
Support the educational mission of the independent, nonprofit Detroit Jewish News Foundation.