It can be dangerous being a Jewish comedian who talks about being Jewish — or in Josh Howie’s case, being a Jewish comedian who talks about finding his Jewishness, having been brought up as a Buddhist by his Jewish mother. And about adopting the identity of an American Indian, immersing himself in black rap culture to become “more street”, and enrolling in a Jerusalem rabbinical school only to be chucked out after the rabbi discovered him in the process of losing his virginity — with a Catholic.
All this has happened to Howie. And to prove it, his autobiographical stand-up show, Chosen, is accompanied by photographs... although not of him losing his virginity.
“I am proud about being Jewish and have absolutely no qualms about going on about it,” says the comedian, who is previewing his show at various London venues before taking it up to the Edinburgh Festival in August. “But talking about being Jewish has genuinely got me into trouble. When I’ve done gigs out of London, I’ve had pretty mad reactions by people who have never met a Jew. In Newcastle, a big group of lads at the back started shouting ‘Yiddo’. In Wales, there was a guy Sieg-Heiling me, and I got off the stage to punch him in the head.”
Howie is the son of the famous public-relations “guru” Lynne Frankes — the woman who, it is said, inspired Jennifer Saunders’s character, Edwina, in the BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous. Though his mother’s name is never mentioned in his show, her influence is ever-present — the Buddhism, the Native American culture, the painfully funny New Age “re-birthing” ceremony in a Jacuzzi.
“These were things that were put on me by my mum, and that really is what the [show’s] story has become — my choosing Judaism. I knew really that that is where she would never follow me. For her, [Judaism] was not cool, and her embracing of New Age and all that stuff was her way of reacting against what she saw as a very patriarchal, boring Judaism. And embracing Judaism was my reaction against that. It has come full circle. Chosen is about being able to choose for yourself.”
At his most expressive when his Woody Allen eyebrows arch over his Woody Allen glasses like a couple of circumflexes, the slightly balding, very willowy Howie is hard to imagine punching anyone in the head.
“I was doing some gig in Maidenhead and I’d said to a member of the audience, ‘What do you do for a living?’. And he said: ‘I’m a Jew-burner’. It doesn’t happen that often — once every six months or something — but when it does, it hurts,” he says.
But getting up on stage at some provincial dive and announcing you are Jewish... isn’t that asking for trouble? “That’s like saying women who wear short skirts deserve to get raped.
“It is a strange thing, because it feels like — and I’ve talked to other comics — but it’s like being antisemitic seems to be the one last socially acceptable sort of prejudice from the audience. If someone was to ever call an Asian comic the ‘P’ word, that person would be kicked out.”
So that doesn’t happen when the abuse is directed at Jewish comics? “Nobody gets kicked out, the audience doesn’t react,” he says. “A black comic friend was saying how she thinks she’s got it much easier than the Jewish comics.”
Sometimes it is the Jews who react. Two years ago, Howie’s gig at a UJIA fundraising dinner made front-page news in the JC when some of the guests took offence at his Holocaust jokes. Of course, it was not the Holocaust he was making fun of, but people’s attitudes towards it.
Larry David did it in an episode of his sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm in which a contestant from a trashy reality-TV show called Survivor is mistaken for a survivor of the concentration camps. Howie does it differently.
He says: “Don’t you just hate it when non-Jewish friends tell you to get over the Holocaust? One said: ‘Take the good from it.’” Cue long, thoughtful pause, followed by: “Schindler’s List was a good film…”
Like David, Howie is happy to take risks, but he knows what’s funny and what is not, even if some of his audience do not.
“I’d never make fun of the Holocaust, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it,” he says.
“It [the UJIA row] was crazy and things were taken out of context. Context in comedy is the most vital thing of all.”
For Howie, context is almost as vital as his Jewish identity.
Did we miss anything?
“Did I say was Jewish?”