Although it might not be every parent’s dream for their child, a stand-up comedian’s job is in many ways the ultimate Yiddishe trade. Writing comedy attracts those exact Type A personalities who make excellent doctors, lawyers and accountants.
The process follows a traditional yeshivah style formula of taking an idea apart, breaking it into questions, wondering if key principles would change if you looked back through biblical history or had Beryl say that line rather than Golda.
People imagine that comics walk out on stage and spontaneously deliver anecdotes but like all good rabbis we spend hours honing, analysing and rewriting until each word has intention, exploring every pause to wring the most out of a concept for your amusement.
Constructing a solo hour is a laborious course of trial and error. It’s essential to say the words aloud to strangers to get a sense of whether your material works. An entire day’s writing may yield a handful of embryonic jokelets worth testing, via an often excruciating first performance.
You extract any nuggets of potential, rework it all, and try it again night after night, failing then succeeding, building on the best bits. In Ethics of Our Fathers, Ben Bag Bag says “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it.”
Although he meant the Torah, a comedian like me might do this with the word bagel. Or beigel.
Eventually, you get to the stage when your show consistently brings forth laughter from the toughest of crowds. And then you have to start working on something new. The process begins again. You return to feeling as unsettled as Yentl when she first noticed that Avigdor’s beard was as fascinating as his Talmudic insights.
This is our yearly process in preparation for Edinburgh, the world’s most expensive trade fair. It has a very Jewish rhythm for me, the ultimate festival. Listening to the shofar, I’m mentally writing jokes about honey.
Lighting the chanukiah, I’m wondering if there’s mileage in examining why mine’s shaped like a guitar and his a train when the Maccabees had neither? Eating hamantaschen, I’m remembering I don’t like hamantaschen. But also that I must get my venue/accommodation sorted before Pesach otherwise Tisha B’Av won’t be the only reason I’m depressed in the summer.
This behaviour is challenging to live with, we continuously audition sparks of a notion to hear how the language sounds. You’ve got to feel sorry for Rashi’s wife. That constant stream of commentary must have been unbearable.
You can imagine his teenage daughters rolling their eyes, their mother taking another deep breath as her learned husband tried to unpack any possible reason why she’d made meatloaf on a Tuesday.
Was the slightly burned crust a sign of longing for the reconstruction of the holy Temple? Or a hint that maybe he, Rashi, should have made the dinner himself?
Perhaps the substitution of matzah meal for breadcrumbs reminds us that Pesach is always closer than you think (263 days to go but who’s counting?) What does this teach us… and is it funny?
Mrs Rashi and my husband should get together and go bowling.
‘Hinayni!’ is at the Underbelly, Bristo Square 31st July-26th August (not Saturdays)
‘It’s No Job For A Nice Jewish Girl’ is at the Banshee Labyrinth August 7, 12, 14, 19 and 21
My play, Hitler’s Tasters is about the young German women who were conscripted to be Adolf Hitler’s food tasters. It’s based on true events. I heard about this story quite by accident and it hit me with tremendous force. It pushed all my buttons of concern — the way young women are treated as expendable, how children are sacrificed during wartime, and how, when a dictator is finished dividing up and devouring the “other,” he always, always turns on his own people.
I’m fortunate that the play got picked up by a number of theatres very quickly, so I got to see readings in a few cities with different casts. That really helped me dial down into to the essential elements of this play. There is no substitute for hearing live humans acting out the voices in your head.
Hitler’s Tasters is described as a dark comedy, but it is not comic in the traditional sense. There are not a lot of “yuks” or silly circumstances. I take this subject matter deeply seriously and I am particularly concerned about the level of Holocaust denial that seems rampant right now. For many young people, especially in the US where I’m from, World War Two is very firmly in the rearview mirror.
I use humour, and also anachronisms in the play to make it more emotionally relatable, especially to young people. I did not set out to write a comedy, but the situations that present themselves due to the innocence of the girls, and due to the outrageous circumstances, can’t help but lend themselves to humour — albeit dark humour. Mark Twain said, “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” Sometimes when circumstances are indescribably awful, humour is the only power we’ve got.
In Edinburgh I am very curious to see how an international audience reacts to Hitler’s Tasters. World War II is not as distant for you as it is for Americans.
I was essentially brought up as High Holiday Jew. As the comedian Sarah Silverman says, I was a little more “ish” than “Jew”. When I had my son, I wanted him to have a barmitzvah that had great meaning for him — not to just go through the motions like I did. In the tradition of Judaism, I wanted him to question and find meaning. Therein is what I most love about being Jewish. We are encouraged to question. This is an essential part of me and an essential part of my writing.
I don’t know how much reporting there was in the UK about last year’s shooting up of a synagogue in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It just so happens that Squirrel Hill was the community where my great grandparents settled after escaping the pogroms in Russia. I was hit with the full realisation that it doesn’t matter if I feel more “ish” than “Jew.” When it comes to the oppressors of this world, I will always be seen as a Jew first. My choice is to let them define what that is or take it for myself. I’ve decided to take it.
I was recently made a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Scocroft Center for Strategy and Security. It’s a think tank out of the US that is has some interest in translating national security and military issues to the general public. In service to my fellowship, I am writing a play called, War Words. This piece consists of personal stories from people I’ve interviewed who have served or who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the US there is an enormous chasm between the people who serve and those of us who can’t imagine doing that kind of work. The goal is to bridge that gap a bit. These personal stories are woven into monologues and will be read on-book, very much in the spirit of the Vagina Monologues. I even have members of the RAF and the Royal Marines! This project has sincerely opened my eyes. It’s thrilling to be a part of it.
I was once in Edinburgh for about two hours and I swore I would come back sometime during Fringe. Coming with Hitler’s Tasters is the best possible way to return. Unfortunately, I have been so busy making adjustments to the script and securing plans for my family to be away from home for a month, that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of shows I want to investigate. I am looking forward to the long flight over to dig through the programme and start putting checkmarks next to everything I want to see. I suspect there will not be enough days in the month!
My Edinburgh show Tipping the Scales is about my lifelong battle with my weight. But on a deeper level, it’s about how that battle led me to finding and loving myself. It’s funny, heartfelt and relatable to anyone who is trying to get over ever-present obstacles in their life. Hopefully, it will inspire those who see the show to take action and face their demons.
I have been workshopping it for the past year and just performed it for the first time in front of a live crowd for several shows in Hollywood, where I live. Happily, it was a success.
I talk about my Judaism in the show, though it’s not specifically a show about being Jewish. I tell a story about the year that I played Santa Claus for my non-Jewish cleaning lady’s Peruvian Christmas party. My mom, a Jew from Glasgow, is a protective Jewish mother and she was afraid she might have lost me to the magic of Christmas. To keep me from falling away from Judaism, she devised a very specific plan for how I would take on the role of Santa. To hear more about it, you’ll just have to come and see the show.Judaism plays a large role in my life today. I belong to a local synagogue with my wife, Kylie Ora Lobell, who converted to Judaism. I just finished an arts fellowship for Jewish artists at American Jewish University. I got to meet many kinds of cool, creative Jewish people from all walks of Judaism and life. Some of my favourite times take place around the Friday night table, where Kylie and I are lucky enough to always have an eclectic and fun mix of Jewish friends (and also sometimes non-Jewish friends) joining us for Shabbat.
Aside from the fact that I am a Scottish Jew who grew up hearing about the Edinburgh Fringe my whole life, I think Edinburgh is a wonderful city and I enjoy getting away from the horrible August heat in Los Angeles. The festival has made me a better comedian because I’m competing against the best of the best in the world for audience members. It forces me to really bring my A-game to the stage every night.
I can’t wait to see Andrew Maxwell, Tommy Tiernan, Jimeoin, my old buddy from New York Dan Soder, and Colt Cabana, a Jewish wrestler who is also the most recent guest on my podcast, Modern Day Philosophers.