This Thursday, comedian Joel Chasnoff hosts the 8th annual “Christmas Eve for the Jews” comedy show. This year, due to the pandemic, the show will be online.
A Chicago native, Joel now lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife and kids. He’s the author of the comedic memoir “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” and has performed at more than 1,000 Jewish events in 10 countries.
We recently spoke with Joel about the upcoming Christmas Eve show, his life in Israel, and comedy in the age of Zoom.
This marks the 8th year of the show, which you co-produce with City Winery. How did it start?
I’d performed a few times at City Winery’s downtown Seder. I pitched the idea to the owner, Michael Dorf, that we produce a comedy show on Christmas Eve – so that finally we Jews would have something fun to do besides just ordering Chinese food and watching a movie.
Or, God forbid, going to mass. How was it received?
Honestly, that first year I didn’t know if anyone would come. It was cold, it was the middle of the week, people would have to find a babysitter. But it sold out, and it’s sold out every year since. Since 2014 we’ve been doing a second show at the City Winery in Chicago on Christmas Day. Before Covid, I mean.
What’s on the bill this year?
We’ve got Mark Normand headlining – he’s done Conan, Colbert, and pretty much any show you can imagine. Plus other comics from Letterman and the Tonight Show, and sketch. I’m the MC. A really strong lineup. And if you don’t like it – hey, you’re only out 20 bucks.
Because of Covid, the show is virtual. How does that change things?
It changes everything – from how I structure the show to who performs and how I promote it. For the first time, this year’s show will have sketch comedy – I hired a really great group from Canada, called “Comedies Never Win,” to write a sketch just for this show.
In past years you had to be in New York or Chicago to attend. This year you can be anywhere. So I’m promoting it all over the US and Canada, as well as to Jewish communities in the UK, Australia, South Africa, and Israel. I worked out a deal with City Winery so that when you buy a ticket you get access to the stream for 48 hours. So if you live in Israel you don’t have to wake up at 3 am to watch it. Though personally, I’ve done that quite a bit since the pandemic started, and it’s not that bad.
You get up at 3 am to watch comedy?
I get up at 3 am to do comedy. I live in Israel, but most of my online shows are in the U.S., at 7 or 8 pm U.S. time.
Talk to me about performing online – I assume on Zoom.
It’s nothing like live comedy. To be honest, my first few online shows were…let’s just say, less than stellar. I almost had to relearn the art form.
What’s different about it?
The most obvious thing is that I don’t have the audience in the room with me. Every comedian has his or her own style, but my approach has always been to start off with three or four minutes of solid material, then let the show develop based on whatever vibe I’m getting from the crowd. But there’s no such thing as “vibe” on Zoom. A quarter of the audience doesn’t don’t even have their cameras on – it just says Robbie Finkelbaum or whatever, and it might not even be Robbie, it could be his wife or mother or who knows what. So I had to learn how to perform without relying on the audience to take me where I need to go. Kind of like flying blind. Just trust the material since there’s no feedback.
That means everyone is on mute?
I have comedian friends who like to hear the audience on Zoom, but I’ve found that if even one person opens a bag of pretzels – and then starts chomping on them – that ruins it for everyone. So I ask them to go on mute.
Any other changes you’ve made?
I now try to take advantage of the medium. Because there are advantages to performing online – for example, I can show funny pictures and video clips. It adds variety to the show. I also use the chat box to engage the audience.
Tell me about Israel. You moved there, or I guess moved back there, when?
I did the army about 20 years ago. Then lived in Chicago and New York til the summer of 2015. That June my wife and kids and I sold everything we had and backpacked around the world for a year. We didn’t have anywhere specific to go, we’d always wanted to try raising the kids in Israel – my wife’s a sabra Israeli. So we came here in August 2016.
And how is it so far?
Wow. Where to start? Often wonderful, definitely challenging. Before the pandemic I flew back to the U.S. once a month to perform comedy – I made 52 trips in just over four years. Covid has made things tough for everyone, but on the upside is that I finally get to feel what it’s like to live in Israel. And have health insurance.
“Christmas Eve for the Jews” streams this Thursday, Dec. 24 at 8:00 pm.Tickets are $20 perscreen. Use the promo code JW10 for 10% off. Each ticket grants you access to the stream for 48 hours. The show is PG13 – suitable for teens and up.
Information and tickets here.