The first time Ester Steinberg gave stand-up comedy a go was during her bat mitzvah speech.
“I decided to spice up the service,” joked Steinberg, 24, originally from Tampa, Fla. “To this day, my grandparents haven’t let me live it down.”
Steinberg is one of six female comics starring in the Oxygen network’s reality show, “Funny Girls,” premiering tonight (April 7). The series follows the professional and personal lives of six Los Angeles-based female comics climbing their way to the top of the stand-up ladder. Last week, all six performed together in New York City to promote the show.
Of the six comedians cast for the show, four of them are Jewish.
“What is it with Jews and comedy? The answer seems obvious,” said Nicole Aimee Schreiber, 31, speaking from the red carpet at Gotham Comedy Club. “Jewish history is riddled with struggle and adversity — humor is the perfect coping mechanism.”
Schreiber, who grew up outside Detroit with “a life of constant disappointment to her overachieving Jewish mother,” left a successful career in advertising to pursue stand-up comedy full-time.
“It [stand-up] satiates my need for attention and rejection,” she joked. “It’s what I do when I’m not doing community service or dating a very successful Jewish doctor.”
Steinberg, who proudly “refused to change her name for Hollywood,” embraces an elderly-Jewish-woman persona in her comedy sets. Her two heroes are Queen Ester from the Purim saga and Joan Rivers.
“My nose is always running, I need a lemon with my water, and I’m loud,” she said, wearing a blue sequined mini-dress on the red carpet. “If people don’t like it, they’re going to get a mouthful in Yiddish.”
On the show, Steinberg invites viewers to marvel at her online dating escapades, including her affinity for JSwipe, the Jewish dating app that offers matches based on proximity and Jewish affiliation.
“How many David’s can you possibly swipe through before needing a Manischewitz?” she said, laughing. “Watch and you’ll find out.”
Stephanie Simbari, 29, enjoys the anonymity provided by her Catholic father’s last name.
“People never know I’m Jewish, until they hear my line-up,” said Simbari, whose mother is Jewish. In the kick-off episode, she speaks about her Muslim ex-boyfriend. “The only thing we had in common is that we both wanted to kill my parents,” she quipped.
Pushing the line when it comes to Jewish humor is important, said Steinberg, who does her best to stay away from Jewish clichés. “Jews being cheap is a stale punch line,” she said. “It’s important to be fresh, fun, but still Jewy.”
The three female comics weighed in on Lena Dunham’s recent faux pas in The New Yorker, after the actress was heavily criticized for an article comparing her Jewish boyfriend to a dog.
“Everyone needs to relax,” said Steinberg, “It’s not easy to be funny!”
“Pushing the line isn’t a crime, it’s what moves comedy forward,” said Schreiber, who grew up in a “very liberal home” where challenging the social norm was expected. “My mom was a nudist, and my grandmother would curse in Yiddish all the time,” she said, laughing. “Nothing was too inappropriate.”
Still, both her mother and grandmother agree that being featured in a Jewish newspaper is an accomplishment.
“If I can’t give my mom a grandchild, at least I can give her the cover of The Jewish Week,” she said. “She’s going to laminate it, no question.”