It’s inevitable as sunset, or nausea on Yom Kippur afternoon. After every show, someone — usually a man in his 70s — will approach me at my table near the exit. While other people buy books, the man will stand at the back of the line, waving people ahead of him, until it’s just him. And me.
“Funny stuff,” he says.
“You know, I, uh … used to do some comedy myself.”
“Nothing fancy. I was in the service. To keep things light I’d tell a joke. If you’ve got a minute—”
“I’ll tell you one. And if you like it…”
Then comes The Line — the one that absolutely must precede any joke told to any comedian after a show.
“…You can use it in your act.”
The man, having just witnessed an hour of my comedy, knows that my act is clean. Appropriate. Family friendly.
“Go ahead,” I say.
“Heh-hem. So. This rabbi goes into a sex-toy shop…”
I tell this story not to demean the Old Joke Teller, but to demonstrate a point — namely, that there are certain moments that happen at every Jewish show. Others include:
Anywhere between two years and one week prior, an organization will ask if I’m available on a certain date. I’m always amazed when they call two years ahead of time; in my experience, Jews are notoriously last-minute, because we never know what tragedy might befall us between now and some future date. (“Why book the hall now when there could be an earthquake next summer and then I’d lose my deposit?”) No less surprising are the people who call ten days before their Lag B’omer party and are shocked I’m not available. “You should have called sooner,” I say.
“It took us a while to choose the date,” they respond. Which is odd, since we can predict the date of Lag B’omer for the next 80,000 years.
Despite budget issues, most Jewish organizations are fair: they realize that if they want entertainment, they have to pay for it.
But because it’s the Jewish world, there’s always someone out there looking to score a show for free, in exchange for some kind of better-than-money opportunity. Some favorites:
• The Tax Letter. “I’ll write a letter explaining that you donated your services, and then you’ll take the deduction at tax time.”
• Exposure. “The presidents of three synagogues and the head of Federation will be there. If you’re good, they’ll book you.”
• The Chance-that-Comes-Once-in-a-Lifetime: “My wife has a cousin whose ex-husband knows a guy who’s a vice president at Universal. I’ll send him your book and maybe he’ll turn it into a movie.”
An hour before show time, I show up at the venue and meet the organizers. Within moments, one of them — usually the oldest woman on the team — expresses grave concern for my health:
“You look so much skinnier in person, do you feel OK?”
“I’m naturally thin.”
“Barbara, doesn’t he look skinny?”
“And pale. He should call Marc.”
“My son Marc. He’s a doctor.”
“No really, I’m—”
“A gynecologist. But he can check your blood pressure; you look like you don’t eat. Do you need to eat? You look so pale.”
Just before I go onstage, I take a stroll through the building and scope out the environment. It’s great to begin a show with jokes about the environment, and if it’s a Jewish venue, there’s plenty to make fun of — be it the plethora of donation plaques (“This water fountain generously donated by Jane and Milt Silverstein, in honor of their parents”) to the light-up yahrtzeit wall in a game known as “Deceased-Jew Lite-Brite.”
After 10 years in the business, I consider the performance the easy part. Still, there are certain obstacles I encounter time and again at Jewish shows:
• Mr. Crossed-Arms: the guy in the front with arms crossed and a look on his face that says, “Just try to make me laugh.”
• Mrs. Oxygen: At every Jewish show, there’s at least one elderly woman who shows up with a portable oxygen tank. I’m always hesitant to make her laugh.
• Mrs. Jewish Geography: The Bubbe who interrupts my show to ask if I know the Martin Schwartz family in Skokie, Ill. (See my Oct. 1 Jewish Week column for more on her, thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/opinion/heckled-old-jewish-lady.)
The Meet and Greet
Post-performance, I rush to a table near the exit and set up my books for the meet-and-greet and sale. You may be wondering why I don’t just set up my books ahead of time. The truth is, I used to. But whenever I did that, old Jewish women stole them, stashing them into their purses right next to the napkin-wrapped knishes they swiped from the hors d’oeuvres table two hours before.
In fairness, they likely didn’t realize they were stealing my book. In fact, they probably didn’t even think of it as a book, but, rather, as just a really thick, hardcover brochure, like the thousands of other brochures we Jews are inundated with, plugging everything from The Jewish Approach to Stress to how to choose a nursing home.
It’s at this post-show meet-and-greet that Old Man Joke Teller shares the anecdote I can “use in your act.”
And it’s also where I receive the highest complement of all — often from Old Joke Teller’s wife:
“You were really funny. What’s your day job?”
Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian, author of “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” about his experience in the Israeli army, and co-author of the cookbook “Balaboosta.” He also blogs for The Jewish Week. On Dec. 24, he is hosting “Christmas Eve for the Jews” — a stand-up comedy live event at City Winery, in conjunction with The Jewish Week. More on Chasnoff at jjoelchasnoff.com.