At the Jewish Week’s 17th annual “Funniest Jewish Comic” contest on Sunday night, one competitor gave the audience a scare right at the start with a hackneyed set up as old as Moses.
“Knock knock,” he said, pretending to be his parents in a hoarse, crackling voice.
The crowd cringed.
Tentatively they played along, “…Who’s there?”
“Not our son because he never visits us."
The audience roared.
When in 2015, a “knock knock” joke elicits genuine laughter from an intelligent, sober crowd (the show started at 6 p.m. and the median age was 40), the evening promises delightful surprises.
The ability to steer the room in one direction only to have them end up somewhere completely unpredictable set the tone for the rest of the night during the contest's finals at Broadway Comedy Club. Throughout the evening, amateur comedians took the stage, some of whom were performing stand up for the second time in their lives, and what they pulled off exceeded expectations.
Replete with material on Jesus as a disappointing but generous carpenter, a young woman’s conflicted love for a gay shiksa she met in a sandbox and the eternal struggle of finding that special someone (a therapist) in New York, the evening’s acts honored the second word of the contest’s title. But more importantly, they honored the first: These people are funny.
After three preliminary rounds spread out over the past several weeks, the seven finalists reconvened in the main room of the iconic comedy club on West 53rd street to perform their best five minutes to a packed house. Contestants competed for paid spots and other prizes.
New York comedian and comedy teacher, Geoff Kole, who has produced the contest for the past 12 years, thanked The Jewish Week, which has been sponsoring the event since its inception, by saying, “Sometimes the best way to help is to stay out of the way and let people do their thing. The Jewish Week has really perfected that.”
This year’s judges were David Goldman, founder of the David Goldman Agency; Gloria Nadel-Davidson, author and actress who produced and hosted her own cable show, “In The Spotlight"; and Kole, who is the creator and star of “Geoff Kole Presents” on MNN Network and a regular at Broadway Comedy Club.
Roy Schaeffer, 55, an insurance man from Rye Brook, took first place, with Kole calling him the “clear winner,” describing his set as “poised, with excellent timing and flawless delivery.”
Schaeffer talked about his struggle with losing weight, saying that exercise is exhausting and “cuts into his eating time.” When he asked his wife to diet with him she was offended, reminding him that they’ve been married for 25 years and that she can still fit into her wedding dress. “She forgets she was eight and a half months pregnant at the time,” says Schaeffer.
He went on to say that early on in his first marriage he really wanted to hire an au pair. “My first wife, she thought we should have children first.”
Coming in second place, Belinda Boxer, a 23-year-old Manhattan native, won the judges over with her unapologetic candor and laidback likability.
The third runner-up, Rena Blech, was also this year’s first-ever “popular comic,” taking home an extra dose of confidence along with her cash prize. “Not everyone agrees with the judges. So here was a chance for the audience to contribute to the process. We gave them a people’s champion,” says Kole.
Blech, who has been entering the contest for the past seven years, found her voice this time around, which falls in the inherently ticklish place between fresh and frum, “I was so nervous. I took the microphone out of the stand. My hand began to shake up and down, faster and faster. I didn’t come in first, but the guys in the front row got excited.”
The 35-year-old, in a long skirt and headscarf, wades in the pool of risqué without ever leaving the shallow end, “I met a guy on frumster who asked if I was shomer negiya, (the phrase used to describe someone who doesn’t touch a member of the opposite sex until marriage)," she said. "I took one look at him and said, 'I just started.'
Blech’s mother complained that she needs to find a guy to marry, saying she had a dream her daughter met the perfect guy, “He’s cute. He’s smart. He makes a good living….” “So I said ma, go back to sleep and get his phone number.”
Boxer talked less about dating and instead focused on the idiosyncrasies of living in New York City and why everything is her parents’ fault, “Whenever anyone asks where I live, I say Brooklyn … Heights. So they know I’m not poor.”
Recognizing that it’s become the status quo to have a therapist in New York, Boxer explained that she loves her therapist, but now she has a problem, “We would briefly talk about my issues and then play cards for an hour. So now I blame my parents’ divorce for my gambling problem.”
Boxer laments that her father forced her to see a financial analyst, insisting that he is “Gross and always using dirty words like budget and credit-card limit, and asked me to separate the wants from the needs which I told him is ridiculous. Because I need everything …food, water, bi-weekly mani-pedis.”
Other contestants opted for topical sets. David Weinbeck talked about the historic, landmark decision for the 5-4 vote to legalize gay marriage, “The Supreme Court of Borough Park has decided to legalize in all 50 states: Kiddush clubs. It’s a great date for schmatlz herring!”
In addition to the contestants, the lineup included a handful of professional comics who weren’t competing for a prize. Freddie Roman, creator, producer and star of “Catskills on Broadway” opened the show as he has every year, and a number of the club’s regulars, including Davin Rosenblatt, delivered polished sets.
Elon Altman, a New York based comedian, who is in the final four of Cozi TV Comedy Search, hosted the event. Even NY Blueprint's resident editor and stand up comic by night, Maya Hackity-Hack Klausner, took the stage for a quick set. Last year’s winner, “High-Powered Howard” Newman, closed the show.
In addition to cash prizes and paid spots, this year’s contest came with an enormous bonus prize: A paid spot in Israel at the Jerusalem comedy club, “Off The Wall,” run by David Klmnick.
The curveball: The winner has to find a way to get there. But who wants predictable?