I was 20 minutes into my set. The audience? Rolling — I had them in the palm of my hand. It was a shul fundraiser in Jacksonville, Fla., 300-plus people in the room, and I was, as they say in comedy, “killing.” In a matter of seconds I would launch into my favorite string of jokes, the ones about how, as a kid, I sold Barton’s Candy door-to-door to gentiles to raise money for my Jewish day school …
And that’s when she raised her hand.
“You said you went to Solomon Schechter in Chicago,” she yelped from the second row, not waiting for me to call on her. She was 80, with hair I can only describe as light blue and a Lion of Judah brooch three times the size of an Olympic medal.
“And?” I replied.
“My brother-in-law’s from Chicago!” She beamed. “Do you know Howard Kaplan?”
And thus is the biggest difference between comedy club audiences and an audience of Jews: Hecklers at comedy clubs curse. Hecklers at Jewish shows play Jewish geography.
I didn’t set out to be a Jewish comic. As a child I idolized Steve Martin — first from “The Muppet Show” and later, when my mother said I was old enough, from “The Jerk.” Weekends I rode my bike to the library and checked out every Steve Martin record I could, then sat cross-legged in the living room and memorized his routines. (Readers under 30: a library is like the Internet, except instead of the Cloud, information is stored in books, and the people in charge of the books don’t make money — like Borders. A record is an iPod, except it’s shaped like a plate, and black, and instead of 10,000 songs it holds nine.)
It was at the University of Pennsylvania that I began taking comedy seriously. I joined an all-male sketch group called Mask and Wig; we dressed in drag for the women’s parts. Between my svelte figure and lack of facial hair, I often found myself cast as the female lead. Mask and Wig taught me many things, like how to tap dance in heels. Apply mascara in the dark. Pull on pantyhose without incurring a run.
But most of all, I learned to treat comedy like a job. I carried a notebook and pen in my pocket, jotting down anything I found potentially funny. (A notebook is like an iPad, except instead of one screen there are hundreds, each one disposable. A pen is like your finger.) I soon noticed that most of my observations had to do with being Jewish. This isn’t surprising: as a day school kid still active in Hillel, it made sense that I found humor in the most meaningful aspects of my life.
April of senior year I asked the Hillel director if I could perform stand-up at the annual banquet.
To my horror, he said yes.
These days I perform 50-100 dates a year, almost all of them at synagogues, JCCs, day schools and other Jewish venues. I still do clubs, and every so often I’ll work a college, usually a Catholic school. (Because I’m “clean,” I’m invited to the likes of Cardinal Stritch and Mount Holyoke, where “f-bombs” and procreation jokes are banned.)
But my favorite shows, by far, are for Jews. With a Jewish crowd, I connect to the audience on a deeper, more authentic level. At the Comic Strip, I entertain. At Congregation Beth El, I get to share the most intimate, honest story of who I am.
On Oct 10, I’ll unveil my new blog on The Jewish Week website. It’s called ‘Making Jews Laugh: A Comic’s Journey,” and in it I’ll chronicle my upcoming North American comedy tour. I’ll share insights into the life of a working comic and offer tips for the aspiring comedian. When possible I’ll post video clips from recent shows.
I’ll also discuss the Jewish angle of my tour — namely, what I learn about our people as I travel the country attempting to make Jews laugh.
And, of course, the blog will be interactive — so if you’ve got a question about comedy or even a joke you’d like to share, simply post it in the Comments section or e-mail me directly through my website, joelchasnoff.com.
The journey begins Oct. 10 in Tampa. See you there.
And as for the blue-haired bubbe in Jacksonville who cut me off mid-joke?
Yes, I do know Howard Kaplan. His daughter was my first grade teacher.