'I know what makes us funny. Seriously.'

By Mark Maier, September 25, 2008
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Ahead of his first Jewish stand-up show, comedian Mark Maier reveals why, in his view, we are our own funniest sources of humour


Comedy, as we know, is an area dominated by Jews. Woody Allen, Larry David, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mel Brooks... countless others. Just as well known is the explanation as to why Jews are so funny. We are outsiders with a long and troubled history, and making jokes is a good way of dealing with the pain and, at the same time, making non-Jews feel slightly better-disposed towards us. Possibly.

Allen, David and the rest grew up among Jews, who, just by being themselves, provided them with a rich source of comic material.

As a professional comedian, I spend a great deal of my time observing others, looking for behaviour that can be turned into humour. The peculiar character traits I have noticed displayed by Jews over the years are the comic equivalent of gold dust.

Not everything observed will strike a chord. Such is the nature of comedy. The thrill for me as a comedian is discovering things that only I thought I had noticed resonating with an entire room.

It reassures me to know that it is not just my mother who cleans the house before the cleaner comes round. The last thing Mum would want Ivy to think is that we have a dirty home. Not only to think it, but, far worse, spread the news to other Jewish families.

And apparently my father is not the only father who assumes the authority of a front-line soldier of the Israeli national army while on synagogue security duty.

My Jewish upbringing fell very much under the traditional banner, which I have always enjoyed as a category. Being traditional is the equivalent of the pick 'n' mix counter at Woolworths.

"Days off work because of the High Holy-Days? I'll have a couple of them. A Yomtov dinner at some relation who I have nothing in common with, but the food's always terrific? Yup, one of those. Keeping strictly kosher and going to shul every Shabbos? You know, I think I've got enough here, thanks."

There is nothing quite like the challenge of trying to unearth this common comedy ground. And it is not always plain sailing. I have performed to Jewish audiences on charity nights where the only thing the audience did not give generously was their laughter. They appreciated the jokes, but were more interested in analysing the gags than chuckling at them.

I once performed to an audience of, shall we say, a slightly older generation in Bexhill-on-Sea, where the only feedback was that I and my fellow performers "could have dressed a little better".

And let us not forget the time I was physically assaulted by an 87-year-old Jewish man.

I was hosting a night of alternative comedy in a large marquee in Barnet, in North London. The place was packed with Jews of all ages, the vast majority above 70.

At the end of what had been an admittedly quiet night, I was wrapping up the show when a gentleman, senior in years, shuffled from his seat directly to the stage. I explained I was closing the show and asked if it could wait a moment. Apparently it couldn't. He snatched the microphone out of my hand and proclaimed in a strong Eastern European accent: "I have never seen such crap in all my life."

Such was the force of the collective intake of breath around the marquee, I swear I saw the tarpaulin roof quiver.

"Thank you for the feedback," I responded. He was not happy. The gentleman, clearly believing I had misunderstood his review, slapped me across the cheek. Not forcibly, but with enough intent to let me know not to mess with him.

It is the self-consciousness of being Jewish that, I think, makes us a source of such good comedy material. The knowing nod, the casual smile one Jew gives another. As if to say: "I know that you know and you know that I know, but let's not make a big deal about it. Other people don't need to know."

If this were not confirmation enough, the more confident among us venture into casual conversation, hoping for some kind of coded verbal acknowledgement.

Some years ago, while performing at the Edinburgh Festival, I spotted a large Orthodox family studying the daily listings magazine. If I could let them know of our shared faith, I was positive they would come to my see show.

"Busy day?" I asked.

"We've just walked up from Princes Street," the father replied.

"Wow. On a day like this. You must be schvitzing. It's quite a schlep," I said.

My comments were met with blankness.The mother turned round and I noticed a cross hanging from her neck. Turns out the family was Greek Orthodox.

I have found myself going to see a film that has an albeit oblique connection with Judaism, but there, en masse, are Jews. They will be a lot of chatting and munching of popcorn throughout the film, until the credits roll, when we all point at the screen announcing who we know.
It is this commonality, this bonding, that I find is the very essence of what makes us funny. When a non-Jew goes to a wedding, do they really care where they are sitting, how near they are to the top table, how far away from the kitchens, and why on earth have they been put right next to the band when the hosts know full well they suffer from terrible migraines?
These idiosyncrasies that perhaps we were not even aware of form the backbone of my first-ever observationally Jewish one-man stand-up show The Nine O'Clock Shmooze. That, and with the help of the audience, trying to find a wife for my younger brother.
Come along and perhaps you will see in yourselves what makes you funny, but never realised before. I shall look forward to meeting you, unless of course you happen to be a very elderly man from the Barnet area with a tendency towards physical violence. I can assure you, you won't get in. My father's on the door.

The Nine O'Clock Shmooze is at the New End Theatre, London NW3, from Sunday October 12, Information at www.offwestendtheatres.co.uk

 

    Last updated: 5:29pm, October 6 2008