It's not alway a laugh, being a comedian

Do I tell them I'm Jewish? That's the dilemma for stand-ups facing antisemitic audiences

November 24, 2016 23:22

Next week I will be hosting a Jewish Christmas/Chanucah comedy night, an event that has become something of a seasonal tradition.

When I started organising this year's gig, I rang other comedians to check their availability. In each conversation the subject came up of what it's like being a Jewish comedian performing for non-Jewish audiences.

I told them about the occasional gas-like hissing and antisemitic comments I hear, as well as a recent experience I'd had while performing at a corporate event in South Africa.

I was in Cape Town, and before I went on stage, one of the delegates - not knowing I was Jewish - told me two gags. One was a vile antisemitic joke, the other was a vile racist one. Unsurprisingly I didn't laugh at either. After my performance he said: "Ah, sorry I didn't know you were Jewish. Now I understand why you didn't laugh." He then paused and said: "But you're not black, why didn't you laugh at the other one?"

There have always been difficulties in admitting to being a Jewish comedian. However, I do feel that nowadays, probably as a result of the problems in the Middle East - perhaps being used as an excuse and opportunity more than anything else - it has become increasingly difficult.

I wanted to know if that feeling was shared by other Jewish comedians.

Josh Howie told me that he felt "a change in the audience" when he told them he was Jewish.

He said: "I had someone outstretch their arm and shout 'Sieg heil!' I suggested that they put their arm down or I would do it for them.

"Some audiences react in a way that probably wouldn't happen to any other ethnic group; as though it's now socially acceptable to shout something out if someone is Jewish."

He pointed out that most of the abuse stemmed from ignorance. "Most people around the country - out of the major cities - don't know what being Jewish is. They've never met a Jew, don't know what being a Jew means, and have probably only ever seen one on TV, as a stereotype in a 'Jewish' sitcom," he said.

Steve Jameson's experience was more positive. Like me, he mentions the fact he is Jewish as soon as he gets on stage, but hasn't had any recent problems with antisemitic abuse.

"Years ago, when there was an increase in violence in Israel and Lebanon, after I said the line: "We Jews, we're not as popular as we used to be," someone shouted out; 'Because you're killing everybody!'

"But there haven't been any real problems recently."

Mark Maier and I have performed at many Jewish shows together. Mark never mentions the fact he's Jewish when he's performing to a non-Jewish audience. Why?

"When I first started as a comedian, I did a gig in Greenwich, in south London," he said. "The moment I mentioned I was Jewish, someone shouted "Why don't you f*** off back to Golders Green?'

"That's when I decided I would only talk about being Jewish to a Jewish audience. I don't want to give a non-Jewish audience an excuse to shout anything unpleasant."

All of the comedians said they enjoyed playing to Jewish audiences but found them much more judgemental.

Mr Maier recalled: "An old man once walked onto the stage, took the microphone, looked at me and said: 'Jackie Mason you're not!' and walked off!"

November 24, 2016 23:22

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