Did a show the other night in Cherry Hill, N.J., for Jewish National Fund. No solicitation of funds before or after the performance. Just a heavy reminder that if people don’t contribute, the State of Israel will cease to exist. This is what’s known in the Jewish world as a “soft sell.”
What stands out in my mind about the performance was my opening act. I had a wonderful opener named Eric Dash. He’s a singer-songwriter from Cherry Hill, in his 20s, now living in New York and L.A. and appealing to that ever-important 10-22-year-old female demographic. As Eric himself said after the show, “Tomorrow I’m doing a concert for tweens in Connecticut.”
Eric did everything an opener should. He was charming. Loosened up the crowd with his music. Even cracked a few well-received jokes. But most of all, he taught the audience how to be an audience. This might sound silly, but until an audience knows that they’re an audience, they’re just a bunch of people in a room eating hors d’ouevres. (Or, at a shoestring-budget Jewish events, chips and water.) A good opener unifies the disparate groups of people into one single group with a common mission: to enjoy the upcoming show.
What made Mr. Dash such a welcome addition is that, at least in the Jewish world, my opening acts have often proven more of a challenge than a help. This is because a typical Jewish-world opener is a 7-minute video about whatever charity is trying to raise money that night. And as you can imagine, these videos are rarely, shall we say, uplifting. In my years on the Jewish circuit, I’ve taken the stage after videos about suicide bombings in Israel, slide shows about Jewish children living in poverty, and Power Point presentations about the myriad of autoimmune diseases permeating our Jewish genes. Sure, colitis can be funny. But not that funny.
If I’m lucky, the evening’s MC will follow the sad video with a smooth transition — something like, “Now that we’ve learned about Jews and Type 2 Diabetes, it’s time to reflect on the funny side of life…” —and then bring me to the stage.
And if I’m not lucky? Well, that happened a couple years ago, in Arizona, I think. The crowd had just watched a 10-minute video about birth defects among Russian Jewish newborns growing up near Chernobyl. Then the house lights came on. The evening’s organizer took the podium. And, wiping away a tear, whispered, “Now — Joel Chasnoff.”
The key in these situations is to acknowledge the challenge. When I was starting out, I tried to ignore this elephant in the room. Now, I actually look forward to performing after a downbeat presentation, because it provides instant tension that I can immediately play with. It’s not hard, either. Just a quick opening line, something as simple as, “Well, now that we’re all in the mood for comedy after that hilarious video about Tay-sachs…” is usually all it takes.
So — what would be my ideal opening act?
Eric Dash, singer-songwriter. Sharing a soulful ballad about terrorism.
Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian and author of “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” about his service in the IDF. Visit him at www.joelchasnoff.com.