As the Edinburgh Fringe celebrates 70 years, it’s a good time to look at how Jewish comedy has changed. Is there a generation gap in humour? Or do the themes of mothers, food and the neurosis generated by a history of persecution work for all ages?
Ivor Dembina, 66, features a mixture of vintage and original material in his show Old Jewish Jokes. All British Jewish comedians face “the same problem and that’s the Jewish audience,” he says. “It’s very conservative, very unwilling to listen to anything that is going to challenge what I think is their fear-based view of what it means to be a Jew in Britain today. And fear and comedy cannot exist in the same room.
“A young comedian who happens to be Jewish isn’t making a big story about it because the first place they go, the Jewish community, there isn’t that connection. Israelis, culturally, are very open, they all do jokes about the Holocaust, it’s everyday stuff. Here, the audience sits with a rod up its arse.”
In the 1970s, he says the Irish Catholic comedian Dave Allen showed the way for comedians from minority communities. “He did that brilliantly and found a way of opening that up to speak truthfully about quite a repressive community. That’s difficult if you’re a Jew, because there’s no support: if you open up, you’re not wanted. That’s a very infertile ground for a new comedian to emerge from.”
Lynn Ruth Miller, 83, is taking things easy at Edinburgh this year, with pop-up appearances rather than last year’s hectic three-shows-a-day schedule.
She’s a fan of Dembina, and also Gary Stone, 54, whom she praises as “the classic older Jewish comedian on the circuit, beautifully ironic and observational.” She calls their style “Leo Rosten humour”, after the author of The Joys of Yiddish.
“Younger Jewish comedians are more homogenised, I think. If you listen to their comedy you would not peg them as any particular ethnicity.”
Californian-born New Yorker Amanda Erin Miller, 33, performing in How to Suffer Better, says: “A lot of humour is self-deprecating, no matter what age you are. Older Jewish comedians probably have a closer connection to the Holocaust and to Eastern European culture and Yiddish.
“The neurosis is a constant, no matter what the generation, but maybe the [character of the] older Jewish man is explored more by older Jewish comedians. The ‘Jewish mother’ thing is a common thread.
“In terms of Judaism informing my humour, it’s a case of laughing at hardship and trying to find humour in the absurdity of the struggle.
“My father was born to a Holocaust survivor, who he never knew, as he was adopted, so I have that in my head all the time.”
It’s a matter of style, not content, according to Danny Lobell, 34, who was raised in an observant Jewish family in New York and who produces the Modern Day Philosophers comedy and philosophy podcast. “Stylistically, younger comedians are less into classical joke-telling, the boom-boom punch-line of the old-timers who were often working in strip clubs and had to keep people’s attention. Comedy has evolved into more of a narrative. It’s more casual, more conversational.
“Some people ask: ‘Why do you do the Jewish stuff?’ It’s autobiographical. I see the world Jewishly. I’ll always talk about where I am at in life. I don’t think there is an age divide: if it’s funny, it is going to translate inter-generationally.”
Another comedian who draws on her own life is Rachel Creeger, 44, an Orthodox mother of two from Barnet, in north-west London. Her show It’s No Job for a Nice Jewish Girl won the best comedy award at the Greater Manchester festival fringe. She thinks older comics have an edge because they are more relaxed: “Quite a bit of comedy is about confidence and when you have that you are more free in your writing and performance.
Some people have that naturally and some have to mature and get to a point where they are naturally comfortable with who they are — and that’s not unique to comedy.”
Younger generations have a different approach altogether, according to Mindy Raf, a 37-year-old Detroit-born New Yorker. She features her forthcoming lesbian marriage and polyamory in her show Keeping my Kidneys.
“Generally, it’s more likely someone younger would be talking about gender and identity. I grew up with the internet and LGBT and gay marriage being legal.
“Comedy is so subjective and specific to the person doing it. I go to a Jewish temple which is LGBT and the prayers are not gendered. The rabbis and cantor are gay.
Because of that visibility, I have the freedom to express myself.
“I’ve had a couple of people come out to their partners as bisexual after seeing the show. I hope I bring more people to good communication and good relationships.”
Joe Jacobs, 31, from Shoreditch says he got his Jewish background “out of the gate early.” He’s no longer keen to identify as Jewish owing to the “strange” response.
“There’s less of a Jewish comedy circuit. It doesn’t feel as prevalent as it was in the past. I know Jewish comedians who don’t identify as Jewish. Why? It’s not as cool maybe. It’s not flavour of the month.”
“The [older Jewish comedians] were in the analogue world, and the new ones are in the digital world. In the past, you did your performance and that was it. TV would make a career. Now TV is struggling and it’s not the preferred medium. You’ve got the internet and YouTube. It’s harder to stand out and you’ve got to be a bit smarter with your content.”
Candy Gigi, aka Candy Markham from Barkingside, in north-east London, could hardly be more Jewish in her high-octane, sexually-explicit Becky Rimmer’s Bat Mitzvah. For her: “Age is so irrelevant. If you’re funny it doesn’t depend on your age at all. Life experience doesn’t make you funnier necessarily.” The 28-year-old adds:
“I physically wouldn’t have that much energy if I was 20, 30, 40 years older.”
Gigi, who performs at Buttmitzvah, a gay Jewish club night at Bethnal Green Working Men’s club, in east London, also thinks age doesn’t matter in an audience. “Sometimes younger people are less shocked but I have a lot of older people who it doesn’t bother at all. It just depends on the person.”
An alternative take on audiences came from Alexei Sayle during his show at the Underbelly Med Quad. “When I came back to stand-up comedy in 2013, I congratulated myself that young people came to see me,” said the 65-year-old billed as “the godfather” of alternative comedy, “ I was pleased I had a younger demographic… then I found out it was because I was on the A-level syllabus.”