Gilbert Gottfried. Photo from gilbertgottfried.com

The Family Man Behind the Cranky Voice


Even if you can’t place the face behind it, you will probably recognize that voice.

Cranky and abrasive, a Brooklyn bray perfectly pitched to heckle or lob vulgarities, the voice of actor-comedian Gilbert Gottfried is unmistakable, whether he’s behind the microphone at a comedy club (where he performs regularly) or he is waxing philosophical during an interview.

Gottfried, 62, is the voice of scores of animated characters, most notably Iago, the parrot sidekick of the evil Jaffar in Disney’s “Aladdin” franchise. He squawked famously as the exasperated spokes-duck for Aflac before a series of his tweeted jokes at the expense of victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunamis prompted the insurance giant to sever ties with him.

The tsunami-tweet dust-up was hardly the first time the comedian raised hackles. Employing that voice to its greatest foul-mouthed comic effect, Gottfried has never met a sacred cow he didn’t attempt to slaughter. Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he showed up at a roast for Hugh Hefner, saying he couldn’t get a direct flight because “they had to make a stop at the Empire State Building.”

Gottfried has never met a sacred cow he wouldn’t slaughter.

But in a new documentary, “Gilbert,” which opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 10, Gottfried emerges as a private and shy guy, a quirky artist and family man who offstage leads what most would consider a fairly conventional life.

Dara Kravitz, his wife of 10 years, noted in an interview with the Journal at a Pasadena diner that for several years while she and Gottfried were dating, he never told his closest friends about her existence. Gottfried, who was low-key but laughed plenty during the interview, had a theory as to why that was the case.

“I always think of that scene in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,’ ” he said as he sat alongside his wife and the documentary’s writer-director, Neil Berkeley. “Just watch me onstage or in a movie. What I’m doing up there, I don’t want anybody to think about, I guess.”

Berkeley concurred: “There’s this uncomfortable thing with Gilbert where he doesn’t want his personal life to collide through the other life he has, his life in entertainment.”

For the documentary, Berkeley tracked Gottfried across the country and internationally, and he also had his camera rolling during times Gottfried spent with his older sisters in his native Brooklyn and with his children, Lily, 10, and Max, 8. The film shows that while Gottfried may try to keep his worlds separate, he is still a comedian and, yes, his family  also  can be grist for the joke mill.

An off-color riff on actress Mackenzie Phillips made it into the film, to Kravitz’s initial displeasure.

“Now I can never show this movie to the kids,” Kravitz said. “But I guess it drives the point: It’s a joke.”

“I can kind of go into the lowest depths of hell and still be a human being, which a lot of people don’t see,” Gottfried said. “When I got in trouble with the whole tsunami thing, I did a TV interview and the interviewer was confronting me like I was the biggest criminal on the planet, like I blew up an orphanage or something. Later in the interview, I said to her, ‘You know, there are certain jokes that are in bad taste, but people tell them,’ and I told her this joke and she started laughing and covering her face.”

Gottfried’s religious background is part of the documentary as well, although not explicitly. He was raised in a Jewish home, although he never became a bar mitzvah and has never been particularly observant. But, “If the Nazis were to come back,” he said, “I’d be on the train car with everybody else.

“What’s interesting to me, ‘Jew’ is the only actual real word that’s considered a curse word in an ethnic group,” Gottfried said. “On my podcast, I’m always revealing what famous person is a Jew. That’s one of the things I remember when I was watching TV with my father. At the end of the TV show or movie, he would point out people and say, ‘So-and-so is a Jew. Jew, Jew.”

Screenshot from YouTube.

Are Jews the Only Ones Who Need a Thick Skin?


Why would Larry David stride up so confidently on the “Saturday Night Live” stage and joke about picking up women in a Nazi concentration camp? And why would he wallow in the fact that many of the recently accused sexual aggressors have Jewish names? Hasn’t he heard about anti-Semitism?

Here’s my theory: He assumes Jews can take it. At a time when everyone is allowed to get offended by the smallest slight, Jews are supposed to be, well, different.

College students can get offended by an email about Halloween costumes, but Jews should handle gross jokes about the Holocaust. Any student can yell about a micro-aggression, but Jews are expected to handle macro-aggressions.

Maybe David figured Jews are on another level. We’re the chosen ones, right? We’re the sophisticated Americans obsessed with education and with being loved by gentiles. Who has endeared the Jews to America? It’s not the lawyers, believe me. It’s the comedians.

For more than a century, from Burns to Benny to Allen to Crystal to Seinfeld, we’ve made America laugh by poking fun at ourselves. And why not? When you’ve been persecuted for 2,000 years and you finally find a place that accepts you, what better way to show your gratitude than by being entertaining?

And Larry David surely is an entertainer. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is my all-time favorite comedy. I love, among other things, that there’s no laugh track. No one cares whether I laugh or not. I get to eavesdrop on a wacko who obsesses over stuff that makes me squirm.

That’s the key word — eavesdrop.

Last Saturday night, as David was using the Holocaust to try to make me laugh, I wasn’t eavesdropping at all. I was looking straight into the eyes of a stand-up comic. This was not the David of “Curb” who was oblivious to my presence and just going about his crazy business. This was a guy who was pushing my buttons, who wanted something from me.

One of the extraordinary things about “Curb” is David’s ability to break virtually all taboos. I’ve often watched an episode and thought, “I can’t believe he’s pulling this off.” He’s poked fun at African-Americans, people with disabilities, Palestinian Muslims, and, yes, even Holocaust survivors, and, somehow, he pulls it off.

For one night at least, I wanted to yell to my fellow Jew to curb his enthusiasm.

His mistake last Saturday night was a professional one — he overlooked the context. What works in his “Curb” bubble doesn’t necessarily work under the bright lights of a live stage. The sacred cows he could slay on “Curb” ambushed him on stage.

The funny thing is, until he brought up the Holocaust, he seemed to understand those limitations. His act was quite funny. It’s only when he veered into the excruciatingly sensitive subject of a Nazi concentration camp that he blew it.

As Rabbi David Wolpe tweeted, David was “joking about how a starved, shaved and beaten woman might still reject him. I’m helpless with laughter.” Without the protective cover of his show, David just stood there, naked. On “Curb,” he’s an oblivious fanatic who can get away with almost anything. On “SNL,” he’s a self-aware comic with no margin of error. That’s not the best moment for a Holocaust joke.

After watching his act, part of me wanted to say, “Hey, we’re Jews. We can take it. We have a sense of humor!” But the other part wanted to say, “You know what? I’m tired of trying to be better. I want to be offended, just like other Americans.”

That side won out. For one night at least, I wanted to be like those college students and tap into my sensitive gene. I wanted to be an activist with Jewish Lives Matter and yell to my fellow Jew to curb his enthusiasm.

Larry David Creates Firestorm After Saturday Night Live Jokes on Holocaust and Weinstein


In a controversial opening monologue, Saturday Night Live host Larry David ignited a firestorm with controversial jokes connected to the Holocaust and accused sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein.

David, of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame, noted the discomfiting pattern that many of the alleged sexual harassers who have been in the news are Jewish. “I don’t like it when Jews are in the headlines for notorious reasons,” he said in the monologue. “I want ‘Einstein Discovers Theory of Relativity,’ “Salk Cures Polio.’ What I don’t want? ‘Weinstein Took it Out.'”

This sent him on a tangential riff, musing about his “obsession with women,” wondering what it might have been like had he been in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Would he still be checking out women in the camp? He comes up with some conversation starters a person in a camp might use, to highlight the absurdity of trying to think of pickup lines in a concentration camp.

The reaction was immediate.

Many deride the joke as disrespectful, while others strongly hold that we should be focusing our anger on the people who oppress others, not those who joke about that oppression.

See the video here:

 

Larry David Goes One Cringe Too Far


With his appearance on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, Larry David, the undisputed king of cringe-comedy, may have finally crossed a line. It is a symbolic line, admittedly, one that artists draw for themselves both morally and aesthetically.  But it is a line nonetheless.

Of course, it’s not a line David would ever hesitate crossing again.  He’s taken that same devilish step many times in the past—all for laughs.

His monologue on SNL, however, doubled down on a theme that properly deserves to be forever buried and left alone.  That’s what we do with the dead, especially the victims of mass murder.  A certain amount of piety is expected, and one never dreams of desecration with such nightmarish events.

David pivoted from the recently disclosed sexual predations of certain men in the entertainment industry, making the unpleasant association that many of them happened to be Jews, to his own unseemly wolfish behavior.  Apparently, so indiscrete are his sexual urges that he can imagine checking out Jewish women in a concentration camp.  In fact, he gave a national audience a glimpse of David hypothetically approaching an attractive woman with death in her immediate future, and testing out pick-up lines.

Appalling, but perhaps not surprising.  David has been flirting with the Holocaust for many years.  And he keeps coming back, not taking no for an answer, a nebbish with a libido for bad taste.  Except the Holocaust is not a love interest.  It is an unsightly atrocity, incapable of attraction of any kind, and on any human scale.

This is the same man who conceived a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry was making out with a girl during a screening of Schindler’s List.  And another in which a disagreeable fast-food proprietor was renamed “The Soup Nazi.”  An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm riffed on the Reality TV show, The Survivor, in which a winning contestant squared off at a dinner party with an actual survivor of a death camp, comparing their relative suffering.  In still yet another, a man with numbers tattooed on his forearm turns out not to be a Holocaust survivor, but rather just someone who temporarily inks his lotto ticket number each week so as not to forget.

So much for Never Again.

Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption.  George Costanza, David’s doppelganger, was an enduring fool of humiliation, placed in recurring, squirming situations.  David took the Borsht Belt and twisted it into a straightjacket of Jewish self-loathing.

In France, the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has incorporated crude concentration camp humor (and jokes about gassing Jews) into his act.  And because of such material, he is routinely banned from performing and has been convicted for engaging in racial hatred.  In Belgium, he was imprisoned and forced to pay a $10,000 fine for inciting hatred.  In America, for expressing self-hatred, and mocking the Holocaust, David was honored with guest-hosting duties on SNL.

Of course, freedom of expression is a hallmark of American democracy.  David is merely taking extreme artistic liberties with his comedic imagination—Holocaust survivors be damned.  Moreover, unlike Dieudonne, David is himself a Jew.  Shouldn’t he be given the same leeway African-American comedians receive when their material invokes the “N-word”?  After all, concentration camp victims were known to tell jokes to each other in order to keep their spirits up and maintain their moral survival.

But those were their jokes to tell; they owned the experience, and they weren’t ribbing each other for laughs alone, one skeleton to another.  And there are still survivors living among us.  Isn’t there some gentleman’s agreement about un-ripened events “too soon” for comic exploitation?

And as for France and Belgium, they are democracies, too, with artistic licenses of their own.  They just happen to believe that common decency and a respect for the dead should not be debased for the sake of nervous laughter.

Larry David may have finally gone one cringe too far.  Surely, he didn’t violate any laws, other than the one of nature—with something as supremely unnatural as Auschwitz, go find another gag line.

But after all these years, shouldn’t the Holocaust be able to take a joke?  Actually, it can’t, and what’s more, it shouldn’t have to.


Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.  He is the author of “The Golems of Gotham” and “Second Hand Smoke,” among other fiction and nonfiction titles.

Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow are raising money for Vegas victims


Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow are joining comedic forces for “Judd & Adam for Vegas,” a fundraiser to be held at Largo at the Coronet on Friday, Nov 3. Tickets are $250 and proceeds will go to the National Compassion Fund, benefiting victims of the recent Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

If this dynamic duo (with the promise of special guests) doesn’t do it for you, feast your eyes on this masterpiece of a poster – caricature at its finest, with an homage to Las Vegas  icons Siegfried and Roy.

Sandler and Apatow have collaborated on flicks like “Funny People,” but their bromance predates their celebrity. Before getting their big break, the two were roommates in the Valley, splitting a $900/month unit (Sandler slept on the couch). During an interview with 60 Minutes, the two revealed that they’d frequent the restaurant chain Red Lobster (which has the best cheese biscuits, period) once a month. “That was a big night out,” Sandler added. “That was like, ‘We’re fancy now,’” said Apatow.

Find out more about “Judd & Adam for Vegas” here.

Bridget Flanery and Ross Benjamin in rehearsal. Photo by Bill Froggatt.

‘New York Water’ Promises a Fresh Flow of Laughs


West Coast Jewish Theatre often stages works that spotlight underrepresented aspects of Jewish history and culture. Its plays have broached subjects such as Jewish soldiers fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and Japanese government officials who saved thousands of lives during World War II.

But there are times that call for a good laugh.

That’s what the company’s artistic director Howard Teichman said he was thinking when he chose the newest offering, “New York Water,” an absurdist love story that he’s confident will deliver the comedic goods.

“We’re living in a period of time in our history where uncertainty is everywhere,” Teichman said. “Unfortunately, politics is creating a lot of anxiety and fear in people’s lives. I felt that we should invite people to come in and laugh.”

Teichman, who is directing this production, which will make its West Coast premiere at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles on Oct. 21 and is scheduled to run through Dec. 17.

The play follows Linda, a shy receptionist, and Albert, a neurotic accountant, who quickly bond over their shared disdain for New York, conceding only that the city has “the best drinking water in the country.”

The screwball romance spans years and locales, as the characters leave New York for, as Albert puts it, “a place where we might actually have a chance to blossom.” They try life in the Midwest before a stint in Los Angeles — a section rife with searing Hollywood commentary.

When the characters reach the play’s end, the only thing clear is that whatever they were searching for may have mostly eluded them.

“This is a play about making connection, trying to find love in a world that can feel loveless, and desperately wanting to become something,” Teichman said. “We all think that we should be better off than we are, and we are never satisfied with who we are inside. Even though it’s a comedy and an absurdist piece, it resonates with the idea that people think the grass is greener on the other side.”

“We all think we should be better off than we are.” – Howard Teichman

Two years ago, Teichman directed a reading of the play at West Coast Jewish Theatre with actors Ross Benjamin and Bridget Flanery, who reprise the roles in the upcoming production. Teichman knew then he wanted to stage the play, but wasn’t sure he would get the chance.

“We’re always on the brink of losing the theater,” Teichman said. “We try our best through donations from outside sources, subscribers, audience members, but … we struggle to get money.”

The company has two more productions slated for this season, but the funding for each is still up in the air, he said. “Here in Los Angeles, we have the second-largest Jewish population in the country, but I don’t know how much we value theater anymore,” Teichman said.

Although “New York Water” isn’t composed of explicit Jewish themes or values, Teichman said that part of his company’s mission is to present insightful works that feature Jewish creative talent — like Sam Bobrick, the piece’s Jewish playwright.

Bobrick, who has written more than 30 plays and enjoyed a long career writing for iconic television shows such as “Get Smart” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” said he couldn’t be happier with how this play is shaping up.

“I really think it’s going to be a wonderful production. I’ve already invited all my friends,” Bobrick said with a chuckle. “Sometimes I have productions where I don’t want anyone to see. This isn’t one of those.”


“New York Water” opens Oct. 21 and runs through Dec. 17 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call (323) 821-2449 or visit wcjt.org.

BRAD’S STATUS *Movie Review*


Although Ben Stiller may be best known for his comedies, his recent movies have reflected themes more contemplative in nature.  Brad’s Status is no exception to this trend.  Stiller plays Brad, a dad embarking on a cross-country trip with his college-bound son.

However, the college visits and their ultimate results have little to do with the actual story.  Instead, Brad’s Status explores what constitutes success and if a bank account is the most accurate barometer.  Brad runs a nonprofit while his closest college friends seem wrapped in the trappings of wealth and fame.

Brad’s Status also stars Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson and Shazi Raja.

For more about the themes of Brad’s Status and what clothing style is the most predominant, take a look below:

 

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

All film photos are courtesy of Amazon Studios.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD *Movie Review*


The Hitman’s Bodyguard is flying under the radar to the detriment of audiences looking for a good popcorn flick.  Prior to the heavy movies of Oscar season, this buddy comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L Jackson is pure fun as the actors embrace roles that seem tailor-made for them.

There’s nothing new and noteworthy here and if you don’t like Samuel L Jackson in pretty much any other role he has ever played, then this isn’t the movie for you, either.  While The Hitman’s Bodyguard doesn’t reinvent the wheel, there’s enough action, comedy, camaraderie and chemistry to keep it afloat.  Salma Hayek seems to relish her role as the female baddie as well.

For more about The Hitman’s Bodyguard, including the significance of all the clocks in the movie, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

All photos and video are courtesy of Lionsgate.

Photo by Koury Angelo

Basking in the ‘GLOW’ of wrestling series and playing Gilda Radner


NAME: Jackie Tohn

AGE: 36

BEST KNOWN FOR: Making the top 36 in Season Eight of
“American Idol” (2009).

LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: “At 18, I came out to L.A. with my agent
and my mom and met Jessica Biel at the TV Guide Awards.
We became fast friends and I moved in with her and her family
in Calabasas almost immediately.”


Jackie Tohn is an actress, stand-up comic, musical comedian and singer-songwriter.

Recently, two Netflix projects have kept her busy: She plays wrestler Melanie in “GLOW,” a Jenji Kohan-produced series based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and comedic icon Gilda Radner in the David Wain-directed “A Futile & Stupid Gesture,” to be released later this year. The Oceanside, N.Y., native is high-energy and independent, qualities that she brought to these and other characters in her filmography — as well as to her Jewish Journal interview at a Silver Lake coffee shop on June 23.

Jewish Journal: How would you characterize your comedy style?

Jackie Tohn: Who I am is Borscht Belty. I’m a Catskills person. I look back at that time and I relate to it: Joan Rivers, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman. I aspire to be a showman. For a long time, that wasn’t cool — it was, the more apathetic you are, that was the sign of a star. I have no aspirations to stand up there and be apathetic and not try. I like the idea that you make an act, you practice your act and now you’re performing for people. That’s why I like a Sarah Silverman: I respond more to people who want to put on a show. The apathy angle doesn’t really work for me. I’m way too excited for that [stuff]. I thought I was too big for myself, for the space, just too much. I was “Jackie Tohn: Not for Everyone.”

JJ: How would you describe your connection to Judaism?

JT: It’s a kishkas connection: It’s in my guts and who I am. I look at Mel Brooks and Gilda and Joan Rivers and even [Jerry] Seinfeld and Larry David — there’s something intangible but something you feel when there’s a Jewish vibe. I look at those people and say, hey, I relate to them. Especially the Jewish culture in comedy — they’re kindred; they could all be members of my family. Culturally, I just feel Jewish. As Jews, we’ve overcome so much and we’ve always been joking. Yiddish is the funniest language: “I can’t make it” becomes “With one tuchis you can’t dance at two weddings.”

JJ: What lessons have you learned from comedy?

JT: One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the value of support. It’s really easy to cross your arms and say, “That’s not funny; make me laugh.” Those are the worst people to perform for, so I never want to be that person in an audience. I’m lucky to be in a special little part of the comedy community that’s filled with supportive, generous and loving people, and headed by comic and comedy mentor Gerry Katzman — it opened my eyes to the importance of coming from abundance and not scarcity. Just because someone else has a successful thing does not mean that there’s one less thing for me.

JJ: Why is comedy important, especially today?

JT: I was going to say comedy is more important than ever, but it was true, too, when they were making fun of [Richard] Nixon for Watergate. It’s true always, but we’re living now, so it’s always the most important and right now, because that’s all you have. We have to laugh through this. We have to believe that the future is going to be good and funny. With our current political climate and the separations and harsh feelings in the two-party system, we have to take it seriously and get things done, but we have to be laughing. Comedy is a healer.

JJ: How do you stay centered while promoting these high-profile projects?

JT: At the guarantee of sounding cliché, it’s a whirlwind. A friend who’s also an actress advised me to “be where you are.” I think of it every second of the day. “Be present,” of course, we all know that, but “be where you are” changed the verbiage: There’s 9,000 other things to do today, but this is what we’re doing right now.

JJ: What was it like to play Gilda Radner?

JT: I was hyperaware of her and “Saturday Night Live.” Gilda was the first person hired on “SNL.” I had a VHS tape of Gilda’s greatest hits, and I played it on the TV/VCR in my bedroom [growing up]. I was intimately familiar with her work, so when the audition came in, my head popped off and I put it back on. The movie takes place in ’70s, so it’s Gilda, [John] Belushi, [Dan] Aykroyd when they were in Second City. I didn’t have the pressure of having to be Gilda on “SNL.” For the audition, I went in there with costume changes and I did every Gilda character.  

JJ: What’s the most interesting thing about you that most people wouldn’t know?

JT: That I sing and play guitar, or that I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. Or that I moved out to L.A. on a break from college at U. of Delaware.

JJ: What would call your autobiography?

JT: “The Curves in Oceanside Is Buzzing.” When I was on “American Idol,” the show was at its height — even getting eliminated fairly early, I was in 30 million homes a week. And my mother said, “The Curves [women’s gym] in Oceanside was buzzing.”

BAYWATCH *Movie Review*


I’ve long been a proponent of the Popcorn Flick.  There’s something to be said for a couple of hours of brainless entertainment.  After all, that’s the very premise of “guilty pleasure” tv shows like The Bachelorette.

So, it was with that mindset that I settled into my seat for Baywatch starring Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron and Priyanka Chopra.  There could be no better truth in advertising than what the trailer promised and the full-length feature delivered.  The movie is saturated with the anticipated raunchy jokes–though they weren’t quite as over-the-top as expected from the post-American Pie generation.  The movie’s self-aware humor addresses everything from Efron’s looks to Chopra’s potential as a future Bond girl.

Baywatch delivers exactly as predicted.  Sure, the set ups are obvious and the jokes hit on the same note a few too many times.  This movie, like the long-running tv show which inspired it, isn’t academic and there are just as many manly muscles as — ahem, feminine curves.

The actors commit to Baywatch with acting gusto, a significant element in selling a movie in which Johnson and Efron must believably carry two full-sized refrigerators on their backs.  Their commitment to this silliness sells the concept and the entirety of the movie itself.

Baywatch also stars Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera and Jon Bass.

For more about Baywatch, including eagle-eye details and Dwayne Johnson’s integrative marketing, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.

HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER *Movie Review*


A movie title like How To Be A Latin Lover evokes certain stereotypes.  Rather than poking fun at stereotypes, however, Lover is comedy of interchangeable race and gender.  It relies on the hot guy/rich older woman convention to tell its story regardless of which actor is cast in the title role.

Maximo (Eugenio Derbez) retreats to his estranged sister’s apartment after falling victim to divorce.  Sara (Salma Hayek) takes him in, supposedly under duress though she doesn’t seem in any hurry to get rid of him, either.  In a comedy where the humor relies heavily upon accepting the leads despite their faults, the key is that they remain likable.  In Lover, neither Maximo nor Sara are interesting enough to overlook their faults.  He’s too brazen and never learns his lesson and she is a doormat.

The movie also stars Rob Lowe, Raphael Alejandro, Linda Lavin, Renee Taylor, and Michael Cera.

For more about How To Be A Latin Lover, take a look at the video linked below:

 

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.

Gary Shapiro. Photo from Facebook

Gary Shapiro, cantor and comic, 52


Gary Shapiro, who delighted audiences both at congregations and comedy clubs across Los Angeles, died suddenly April 27. He was 52.

A comedian who infused his act with music, Shapiro trained as a cantor at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, taking over as the synagogue’s cantor in 1984. He stayed on in that role for two years before stepping away from synagogue life to pursue his comedy career.

Seven years ago, he joined Congregation Beth Israel on Beverly Boulevard to co-officiate High Holidays services. He was well known and admired there, according to synagogue staff.

“He truly, honestly, was a pure, pure good soul,” said the synagogue’s director and co-cantor, Steve Walfish. “He was kind and considerate and loving.”

Rabbi Baruch Cohon, a former longtime cantor at Temple Emanuel who mentored Shapiro there, said, “He was always a very positive and talented young man,” with a great sense of humor.

Shapiro often combined his musical abilities and comic talents by performing onstage at comedy clubs with guitar in hand. He also took to YouTube with many of his satirical ballads. He had performed as recently as April 23.

 

His other roles included as a religious consultant on the TV shows “Six Feet Under and “Seventh Heaven,” according to a 2004 Los Angeles Times interview.

As a teen, Shapiro attended Beverly Hills public schools. His comic streak was evident even then. His high school prom date, Daryn Kagan, recalled on Facebook that he showed up for the big night in a leather tuxedo jacket with gold sequin trim.

Walfish and Cohon co-officiated a funeral at the TaNaCH Chapel of Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills at 12:30 p.m. on May 1.

Shapiro is survived by parents Judy and Aron and brother Howard.

Married couple Jess Salomon (left) and Eman El-Husseini perform stand-up comedy together during a show at the Pico Union Project on March 26. Photo by Tess Cutler

Muslim, Jewish comedians put aside political correctness in Pico Union Project show


Picture this: An Arab Jew, a Palestinian Muslim and a Canadian Jew telling jokes.

Mind you, the Palestinian Muslim and the Canadian Jew are married to each other.

Mind you again, they’re women.

The venue? The oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles, adorned with stained-glass windows and home to rows of pews. The jokes aren’t as “PG” as one might expect in such a venue, but explicit enough for the comics to ask the audience, more than once, “Is this OK?”

Political correctness was put aside on March 26 at the Pico Union Project, which, depending on the day, serves as a shul, mosque or church — but on this particular night, an underground comedy club, thanks to The Markaz, a Middle East arts center that serves to unite various Middle Eastern heritages.

“You guys are fun,” comedian Jess Salomon (the Canadian Jew) told a raucous crowd during her set. “You never know with these interfaith shuls.”

Earlier that night, Eman El-Husseini, the Muslim, introduced Salomon to the stage after her comedy routine that left no taboo subjects untouched, ranging from women in Islam, to her parents’ wedding anniversary (which happens to be on Sept. 11), to her own marriage.

“I did end up marrying a Jewish woman,” El-Husseini told the audience, which sat in silence — waiting for a punch line.

“Thank you, that’s how our parents responded,” she said.

For El-Husseini and Salomon, their same-sex interfaith marriage strayed from their traditional upbringings. None of their parents attended their wedding two years ago, although both women said they continue to have a relationship with their parents. “They want us to be in their lives, but they don’t want us to talk about our lives,” El-Husseini told the Journal.

But they do.

“I’m really excited about bringing on your next act, you guys,” El-Husseini said in introducing her wife. “She makes me go through checkpoints in my own apartment. Give it up for my wife, Jess El-Husseini!”

Applause ensued as Salomon joined her wife to partake in some onstage banter with each other.

“Thank you. I was pretty sure we were going with Salomon as a last name, Eman,” Salomon jabbed. “I thought that was going to give our children hope or something.”

They met while doing the comedy rounds in Montreal, engaging each other in conversation about politics after their sets. “I loved the way she expressed herself and the way she thought about things. And that’s what attracted us, outside of just finding each other funny or physically attractive,” Salomon said.

Those after-show discussions eventually evolved into a modern-day love story. One year ago, they packed their bags and moved to New York to pursue comedy careers.

El-Husseini and Salomon are perfectly aware of their dichotomy. As newbies to the United States, they felt impelled to attend the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where Salomon carried a sign that read, “My Muslim wife is registered at Bed Bath & Beyond,” and on the back read, “Jihad me at Hello.”

El-Husseini was born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugee parents and raised in Canada. When she finally decided to enter the comedy world, she said, “It was the saddest news ever to my parents.” But El-Husseini said she completely understands their reaction. “If we ever decided to have children and they wanted to do stand-up, I’d be heartbroken. It’s a hard career.”

“I always joke about being so happily married that it’s affecting my comedy. I’m too happy to be a comic,” El-Husseini said. “Nobody wants to see a happy comedian.”

The red-headed Salomon, whose mother hails from Peru and who has a grandfather from Egypt, poked fun at herself onstage when she said, “I just choose to keep all that Arab-Latina-Jewish-bisexual spice under this St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”

A former human rights lawyer working for the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands — a distinctly unfunny job — Salomon took a sabbatical to try comedy. She’s been doing it ever since.

The opening act for the evening, Noel Elgrably, the Arab Jew, said the show was, in essence, a chance to celebrate the black sheep of the comedy world. The brother of Jordan Elgrably, founding director of The Markaz, Noel is of Moroccan descent. He told the Journal that as a Sephardic Jew, he tends to be the odd man out during comedy lineups. “I don’t know if there are a lot of Sephardic comics,” he said before pointing out that a majority of Jewish comics are Ashkenazi, of European descent. “For a long time, I was the only Sephardic comic in L.A. I would look for them.”

For this night, anyway, distinctions didn’t matter. And in this makeshift synagogue-turned-comedy-club, there were no black sheep, no outcasts. Heritages were melded, jokes were blurted, conventions defied and lines blurred.  n

Comedian Robert Klein (right), with his son, Alexander (left), and director Marshall Fine. Photo courtesy of Starz

Documentary chronicles comedy of Robert Klein


In his 52 years in show business, Robert Klein has been in over 40 movies, hundreds of television shows and several Broadway musicals and plays, including “They’re Playing Our Song,” for which he earned a Tony nomination. His signature music-filled, improvisational standup routines spawned four comedy albums, nine HBO specials and earned him two Emmys for his music and lyrics. Altogether, they made him a comedy icon.

Now, still very much active at 75, Klein is the subject of the documentary “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg,” premiering March 31 on Starz. He is scheduled to appear on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” that same night.

Directed by author and filmmaker Marshall Fine, the documentary showcases Klein’s life on and off the stage in new and archival footage, coupled with interviews with colleagues and admirers, including comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, David Steinberg and Billy Crystal.

“I was very impressed by what those guys said. It made me feel good,” Klein said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he had booked several engagements. “Some of them speak of me in the past tense, but I don’t find it offensive. You can see in the documentary that I’m still working.”

The documentary features many of Klein’s best-known bits, including “I Can’t Stop My Leg,” which he first performed — singing and playing the harmonica — at The Improv in New York in the 1960s.

“We’ve done it in every one of the nine HBO specials. We’ve done it in Spanish, German, a hip-hop version. It’s a silly joke but it works,” Klein said, noting that he suggested clips for Fine to use in the film. “I wanted to make sure the material that he used was the best he could find.”

Some of the material showcases his favorite Jewish jokes.

“I’ve always been a high-profile Jew,” Klein said. “I’m not observant, and I have no guilt about not going to synagogue. But I had a bar mitzvah. We never had bread and butter with meat at home because my father was brought up in a kosher home. My mother’s parents came from Hungary and were very assimilated. I was born in 1942 so I not only heard about the Holocaust, I met many survivors while working in the Catskills as a lifeguard.”

Klein grew up in The Bronx with a “high intensity, very funny” father and comedy icons Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce as influences. He studied at Alfred University and Yale before getting an improv education at Second City in Chicago in the mid-1960s. In the documentary, he reminisces with long-time friend and fellow Second City alumnus Fred Willard, who encouraged him to do standup.

Klein’s fame skyrocketed after he began appearing regularly on “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Tonight Show.” Among his 82 appearances on “The Tonight Show” were a dozen as guest host, subbing for Johnny Carson. “He was so important for my career,” Klein said of Carson.

Klein hosted “Saturday Night Live” twice, including the fifth show of its first season, and remembered “SNL” cast member Gilda Radner and actress Madeline Kahn fondly.

“Both died of ovarian cancer. I do a benefit every year because they still haven’t cured it,” he said. “I don’t really watch [“SNL”] now, but I love to see that they’re doing their satirical duty by driving Trump crazy.”

Klein, who resides outside of New York City in Westchester County, has an apartment in the city and has lived in Los Angeles at times over the years, working at comedy clubs and on television shows such as “Sisters.”

Most recently, he appeared as Debra Messing’s father on “The Mysteries of Laura,” which shot in New York, a convenience he’d prefer on future TV or movie projects. ”I hope that something else will come along. I like being home,” he said.

Klein has been commissioned to write and perform four short pieces for “National Geographic Explorer” segments. He said he has enjoyed the process, so he’s considering writing a sequel to his 2006 memoir, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue,” a story that ends when he  reaches the age of 25. Additionally, although his first screenplay wasn’t produced, he has higher hopes for a script he’s collaborating on with Marshall Fine.

Though it’s still improvisational and observational, Klein’s standup act has evolved and now incorporates material about aging. “The only way to deal with the difficulties of old age is to laugh at them,” he said. But, noting that many of his buddies are dealing with health issues, he exercises with a trainer and regularly walks “30 to 40 blocks at a good clip. My doctor says I have a quiet heart.”

Klein revealed that he has been in love four times: with his college girlfriend; his ex-wife, mezzo-soprano Brenda Boozer; and two post-divorce girlfriends. He isn’t keen on remarrying.

“But it would be wonderful to have a partner, have someone to go places with,” he said. “Everyone’s always trying to fix me up, and I appreciate their kindness. But I’m so set in my ways. What woman wants to live with W.C. Fields pictures on the wall and my model airplanes?” One of the models, he added, was a gift from Jonathan Winters’ daughter.

Klein has one son, Alexander, 33, who decided two and a half years ago to try standup comedy. “I’m encouraging him all the way,” Klein said. “He’s performing two, three times a week. He’s good. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter who your father is.”

Asked what he’d still like to accomplish, he responded that he doesn’t have a bucket list. “I’ve had such an interesting life, and I’ve done so many interesting things. Whoever would’ve thought? Private jets, making money, having people recognize me and appreciate what I do. It may be somewhat pretentious to say, but I think making people laugh is a very high calling. And good times or bad times, you could always use a laugh.”

He’s gratified that “Starting with nothing — no money, no connections — I made a pretty big career. A lot of it was good fortune,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since I was 23 years old. I’ve been in [the Screen Actors Guild] for 52 years. People feel like they know me. It’s a good feeling and I enjoy it whenever I’m on stage. I have no complaints. It’s been a wonderful ride.”

Melissa Greenspan (left) and Michelle Azar co-star in the web series “How to Beat Your Sister-in-Law (at everything).” Photo from YouTube

Comedy series is all relative for sisters-in-law


Melissa Greenspan and Michelle Azar are best friends and loving sisters-in-law in real life. But in their humorous new web series, “How to Beat Your Sister-in-Law (at everything),” they play frenemies who constantly try to one-up each other.

The series, which will be available online in April, features episodes lasting from 30 seconds to just over two mintues that follow Azar and Greenspan as they compete over leading the PTA and who can drink their water faster at restaurants, smoke pot to deal with their hot flashes and vie for their children’s love. The two women, who are older than 40, also highlight topics like menopause and their sexuality.

“The idea is that we are sisters-in-law in a ‘Spy vs. Spy’ situation, where each one tries to knock off the other,” Greenspan said. “We all have families, and with some family members we get along great, while we are crazy competitive with others. We focus on sisters-in-law because it’s a fresh take on families. It’s where we got our inspiration.”

Greenspan and Azar met while they were undergraduates at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts more than 20 years ago. Both were rehearsing for a 20th anniversary staging of “Hair” and became fast friends. “We fell in love with each other,” Greenspan said. “I was enthralled by Michelle’s talent and singing.”

During the course of their friendship, they have gotten married, had children and established acting careers.

Azar has had parts in “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Community” and “Bones.” She lives with her husband, Temple Emanuel Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, in Pico-Robertson with their two children.

Greenspan, who lives in Santa Monica, is mother to an 11-year-old and wife of Michelle’s brother David Azar. She voiced a character in “The Wild Thornberrys Movie” and has appeared on “Good Girls Revolt” and “NCIS.”

Azar and Greenspan are inseparable when they’re not working or with their families. They have keys to each other’s homes and drop off each other’s dogs for play dates. Greenspan often will pop into Azar’s home for breaks on busy days.

In between audition and family responsibilities, the two came up with the idea for the series two years ago and approached their friends Susan Cohen and Sydnie Suskind, who are writing partners, to help them create it (Suskind also is married to a member of the clergy, Cantor Yonah Kliger at Temple Judea).

Once Suskind and Cohen were on board, Azar and Greenspan set up a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project and raised $20,000. “We decided to have a competition on who could raise more money, myself or Michelle,” Greenspan said.

They shot 12 episodes in five days and signed on editor and director Debra Neil-Fisher, who worked on “The Hangover” trilogy as well as “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” She directed three episodes.

“We feel very blessed to work with these women,” Greenspan said.

Azar added that they each took on different tasks during the shooting to make sure it all came together. “I was doing craft services, managing the money and doing some guerrilla shooting,” she said. “When I looked around, everybody on set seemed happy. Our leadership as a foursome was sound.”

The production received help from the women’s families, as well. “All of our husbands got involved on the side. Our families were there for us and the web series,” Cohen said.

Azar, Greenspan, Cohen and Suskind also banded together and booked guest actors from some of television’s biggest shows to appear in the series. They include Suzy Nakamura from “Dr. Ken,” Phil LaMarr from “Veep” and “MadTV,” and Brynn Thayer from “Ray Donovan.”

Though the show has not yet premiered, a bonus episode, in which Azar and Greenspan “power pee” in a race to see who finishes first, already has 3,000 hits on YouTube. At the same time that they’re promoting the series, Azar and Greenspan are campaigning to establish a national Sister-in-Law Day.

“We did some on-the-street interviews on what people thought about a possible national Sister-in-Law Day,” Cohen said. “Everyone had a point of view about their sister-in-law.”

Azar believes viewers will relate to the show. “People who have watched the small sampling we’ve done enjoy the humor of it,” she said. “It’s about family. If you have a sister- or brother-in-law, you know what it’s like to feel competitive and want more of your mom’s attention.”

Along with trying to launch a new national holiday, the team behind “How to Beat Your Sister-in-Law (at everything)” hopes to get their web series onto a network or a streaming channel. “We’re excited to see where it goes,” Cohen said.

When the show premieres, Greenspan said that viewers will enjoy the connection between the sisters-in-law. “They’re going to see these great funny moments and will recognize the love in these moments.”

Greenspan added that she and her sister-in-law do so many things as a team, and their series has only made them closer.

“We parent together, and we genuinely enjoy it,” she said. “Sometimes we tire of each other because we communicate differently and say it like it is. But through Michelle, I’ve learned to step up my game.”

The best place to watch the series will be on YouTube. 

Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh." Courtesy of Falco Inc.

‘Last Laugh’: Looking to comedy as a salve and savior


“Whoever has cried enough, laughs.” 

              — German novelist Heinrich Mann

That there is a limit to mourning, or that it must be transformed into its perceived opposite is a provocative idea. Jewish culture has historically laid claim to both emotional expressions, often simultaneously. We are a people for whom the act of remembering is central to identity, and as Jewish holidays remind us like clockwork, we are a people whose memories are tied to historical tragedy.

We were slaves in Egypt. We were exiled and held captive in Babylon. Twice, our temple was destroyed. We were victims of pogroms and anti-Semitism. And unforgettably, we were murdered, more than 6 million of us, during the Holocaust.

What tremendous burdens of memory we bear. It’s a wonder we are here at all, that we have the collective strength to remember. After all, forgetting is much simpler. What is it, a student once asked, that gives Jews such tenacity and resilience in the wake of such a long, dark history of persecution?

We laugh, I said, without considering whether it was in fact true. And certainly there are many reasons — known and unknown — that allow Jewish culture to flourish despite the atrocities to which it has been subjected. But the ability to laugh at jokes in the darkest of times may be the strongest indicator of the potential to survive just about anything.

“The Last Laugh,” a documentary film by Ferne Pearlstein that opens in Los Angeles on March 17, explores this very topic. The film opens with Mann’s statement on tears and laughter, and this strangest of pairings is the focus of the film, which cuts between scenes with Los Angeles Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone and interviews with well-known comics, including Mel Brooks, Jeff Ross, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner and Judy Gold.

After watching the film, I sat down with Ross to get his thoughts on comedy and tragedy, as well as the responsibility of comedians in our current social and political climate.

“The deeper you go with the humor, the more revengeful it is,” he says in the film. It’s “the Jewish way of getting through it.”

Jews dominate American comedy, and so it’s not the first time that an artist or filmmaker has explored the complex relationship between comedy and tragedy in the context of the Holocaust, a topic that was long considered taboo among comics. There were always Holocaust jokes, of course, even in Nazi Germany and even in the camps, some told by survivors. But never were they as pervasive as they are today, 70 years later.

In the film, Robert Clary, a survivor who entertained other inmates in the camp, says “making people forget where they were was the most important thing.” I asked Ross, king of roast comedy, what he thought about this idea. I was troubled by this statement because as a scholar of Holocaust literature my impulse is to insist that it would have been impossible to forget; to act as if it were feasible diminishes the extent of the atrocity. But Ross disagreed, insisting that it’s about context and where jokes are being told.

And Ross knows a lot about context. He has done comedic specials at places such as Westboro Baptist Church, police departments and prisons with inmates tattooed with swastikas. He’s done stand-up for soldiers and college students. But when it comes to telling jokes in places like concentration camps or war zones, he says the comic is “shining a light.”

Comedy “is resistance, so if no one is listening, if it doesn’t offend somebody somewhere, it’s probably not a joke,” he said. And so we find that telling jokes, even about the Holocaust, can be a way of continuing to resist the fascist and anti-Semitic impulses that led to it, as well as giving those who suffer a reprieve, if only for a moment.

But I had my doubts about the idea of a joke only being a joke if it offends someone, and I couldn’t help but think of my 4-year-old son who won’t stop telling the joke about the chicken crossing the road. Nothing offensive there.

As if he’d read my mind, Ross continued: “Why did the chicken cross the road? Well, somewhere in the world, right now, some kid’s chicken died crossing the road and it’s not funny, it’s not funny. Maybe his only meal crossed the road, and he’s hungry, it’s not funny. So context, timing, audience” matter.

“Even a bad show,” he said, “it can be good, it can be bad, it just can’t be boring . . . it’s torture if it is, just reminding you that you’re stuck.”

Imagine the pressure felt by a Jewish entertainer in the camps, struggling not just to tell jokes but also to make them good so that the audience wouldn’t feel stuck.

But comedy in retrospect differs from comedy during the Holocaust. One survivor in the film says: “Without humor, I don’t think we could’ve survived.” Another tells us, “you can’t live in the shadow” of the Holocaust — and that laughter is her revenge. Yet one cannot but live in its shadow. And so we find that humor, even outside the barbed wire of the camps decades later, works to help the survivor forget, for a moment, that she lives in the shadow of what was lost.

Humor is almost always connected to darkness. Inheritors of trauma, recipients of darkness, often laugh a lot. How else does one shoulder such burdens? Some of the best comics carry the heaviest burdens, I suspect. Or maybe we all carry burdens, and comics have chosen to take some of ours onto their own shoulders. I couldn’t help but ask Ross about his own personal darkness, about what made him do what he does. It’s a question I silently ask the ones who help us laugh until our insides hurt — a glimmer of the pain from which comedy often comes.

“It’s a skill,” he said. “What makes me good at that skill is really your question. And the answer is that I never really got the proper therapy to answer it. … Is it that my mother loved me too much? My parents passed away? Was it that I grew up around tough neighborhoods? Was it a defense from school bullies? Was it a way to get attention, to get girls to talk to me … a fun way to be punk rock and express my freedom of speech? I would say all of these.”

It’s complicated. And it’s a lot to bear.

Given my interest in tragedy, I can’t help but be drawn to the Jewish comic. The collective Jewish load is heavy — temples destroyed, years in exile, death marches and crematoria — but it is expected. It’s what’s added on that is intriguing, the unique, individual darkness colliding with what is carried down generationally. The ability to laugh and make others laugh in spite of it all: it’s a gift.

But with any gift comes tremendous responsibility. Some say that if the Jews are chosen, it is to be more responsible. Given recent news about desecrated Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats, I had to ask Ross about how the world of humor is changing. My own experience as a professor suggests that young people are laughing more than ever. “I love my generation,” tweeted one of my students, “we make everything hilarious.” Students are deeply troubled by the turbulence of our era, yet they laugh constantly. The threat of terrorism is dark and ambiguous, but it’s also the norm into which they were born. What choice do they have but to laugh if they want to survive?

And the new occupant of the White House, Ross suggested, permeates everything that’s happening. “It’s going to affect all comedy, all movies … painting, literature, even the Oscars, it’s less of a party now and more of a protest … Everyone has an agenda. It’s kind of a Trumpian buzz-kill going on right now. But having said this, my jokes about Donald Trump kill.” Ross dives into one of these jokes: “He’s an old friend, and I’m ghost-writing his book; it’s called ‘Mein kampf is bigger than your kampf.’ ”

Ross is quintessentially Jewish. He is never without a deep awareness of his responsibility. I asked him whether his comedy might change over the next four years, and he suggested that he has already become more politically aware, realizing that his niche is getting off the stage, out of the comedy club, into the field. Boots on the ground. Comedians have a responsibility “to not talk just about Trump, but about what’s on page 2, page 3, page 4, and make that interesting and funny,” he said. “Is our responsibility to resist Trump or to assist everybody else who’s lost in the Trump flood right now?”

Those are the kinds of statements that make Judaism great, I thought. And suddenly comedy seems like the only vehicle for hope.

I know — the idea of comedy as savior is ridiculous. Or maybe it’s not. Has humor taken on a messianic shape for this generation? As “The Last Laugh” confirms, humor helped people survive the unthinkable. Some see our current political situation as exceedingly dark, and certainly many young people feel this way. The messiah may or may not be coming, but one thing is certain: laughter is on its way, and in this laughter we find the capacity for hope and resistance. 

Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture.

Anger becomes comedian Lewis Black


Remember Pixar’s 2015 film “Inside Out?” It was about an 11-year-old girl, Riley, and the five primary emotions raging inside her: Joy and Sadness, Fear and Disgust. And Lewis Black.

Sorry. We meant there was Anger. It’s an easy mistake to make.

From railing against AT&T (“it’s a [phone] carrier in the same way a mosquito carries malaria”) and high school guidance counselors (“I may as well have had a tortoise”), Black is the standard-bearer of comedic rage, his voice apoplectic, his hands shaking, frustration with the world’s indignities streaming from him like a hurricane-swollen creek.

Black, 67, after years as a comic, actor, playwright and producer of off-Broadway shows, rose to national fame thanks to his Back in Black segments on “The Daily Show,” offering choleric riffs on current events (as he’s always introduced, when a news item falls through the cracks, Black catches it).

Recently, for example, he riffed on newly released Osama bin Laden papers, including an application form for would-be martyrs. It asked them to list their hobbies and insisted on legible handwriting.

Black’s take: “You’re telling me you get a guy who’s willing to blow himself up, but you’re gonna turn him down because you can’t read his handwriting?”

The periodic gigs on the Comedy Central show led to more bookings, bigger venues and HBO standup specials, including one filmed at Carnegie Hall. Black has had several supporting roles in films and guest roles on TV, as well as a limited run on Broadway four years ago.

Now he’s returning to Broadway, performing four shows over five consecutive Mondays starting Sept. 12 — skipping the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Oct. 3.

Black was Pixar’s first choice for the Anger role. Accepting the role was a no-brainer, he told JTA in a telephone interview. As he tells it, his agent called and said, “’Pixar called and would like you to play Anger.’”

“There literally was no pause,” he said. “I said ‘yes’ immediately, and they sent this incredible box filled with Pixar material and DVDs in case I wasn’t acquainted with the company.”

He continues: “They really showed a kind of humility you never see in the corporate films world. It was like, ‘we really hope you do this and deign to join the film.’ I got to go to Cannes. … I never thought anything I was part of would be shown at Cannes.”

Although Black may have been happy about that, he admits he didn’t have to stretch much to channel anger.

“The persona was part of me from the get-go, but I didn’t really discover it as a performer until later,” he said.

Black said he “fumbled around” early in his standup career.

“I talked a lot about my sex life,” he said. “Plus I didn’t perform for a while because I was much more dedicated to writing plays and doing theater.

“I was doing material that had a certain amount of anger, but I was sitting on the anger. That doesn’t make people laugh; it makes them uncomfortable. Then a friend of mine said, ‘You really ought to start yelling up there.’ That was revelatory.”

In addition to his appearances on “The Daily Show” and his standup TV specials, Black yells at his audiences some 100 to 120 times a year, touring the country mostly by bus — not because he’s afraid of flying, but because he’s “afraid of airports,” he said. “They’re horrible places to spend time.”

Counterintuitively, perhaps, the current political campaign has made his life more difficult.

“How are you supposed to satirize what is already satirical?” Black asked. “Almost everyone in the audience already has 300 Trump jokes, so you need another route.

“There’s one part of me that’s done with all that,” he adds. “I’m tired of listening to the same thing all over again. The Republicans believe the entrepreneurial spirit will create jobs and people will wander the earth and it will be happy time. The other side believes in government distribution and government stimulation, and they’re both right. Why don’t they just sit down and figure out what’s the best and compromise?”

It sounds somewhat reasonable, but as Black speaks, he is building a head of steam and there’s no way to stop him — not that I wanted to.

“In terms of Trump, this could lead to the ends of the earth,” he said. “It’s beyond human imagination that in a country of this intelligence that this would happen. That this is even a possibility. All of a sudden, Trump is making Mitt Romney start to look like Churchill.”

In a way, Black owes his talent to his parents, Jeannette and Sam.

“My mother was very sarcastic and I followed suit. I was really sarcastic and it helped my sense of humor,” he said.

But his dad is funny, too. His father was recently hospitalized, Black explained; a physician asked Sam a number of questions to check his mental status, including who was the president — at which point “my father looks at him like he’s Dr. Schmuck and says, ‘Of what country?’”

His family also influenced his relationship to Judaism: Growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, Black had to attend Hebrew school until he was confirmed, then he could make up his own mind.

The family attended Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., where the spiritual leader at the time was the famed Reform Rabbi Balfour Brickner.

“He inspired me; I really liked listening to him,” Black said. “A lot of these guys are stiffs, let’s face it.”

Around the time of his bar mitzvah, Black even considered following in Brickner’s footsteps and becoming a rabbi himself.

“I probably would have been a good one,” he said. But when Brickner moved to New York, he apparently took Black’s rabbinical aspirations with him.

Religion used to have a place in his routines.

“Only the Jews could come up with a holiday that is so depressing,” he has said of Yom Kippur. “The only people who’ve taken this a step further are the Muslims, who take chains and actually beat themselves.

“I’m surprised the Jews didn’t think of that. But we don’t work well with tools.”

More recently, though, Black used his Judaism to accentuate a joke.

“It’s a trump card I use when I talk about economics and finance in my act,” he said. “I point out, ‘I’m telling you this as a Jew.'”

Julie Klausner talks ‘Difficult People,’ her ‘very Jewish’ comedy series


“Difficult” only begins to describe Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein, the snarky, pop culture-obsessed, 30-something New Yorkers at the center of the Hulu comedy series “Difficult People.” They’re best friends and aspiring comedians whose get-ahead schemes fail spectacularly — and hilariously. 

And like the actors who play them, they’re both Jewish, which is an integral element of the show.

“I think the whole show is very Jewish. Being Jewish is a very important part of who I am, at least culturally,” said Julie Klausner, who created the sitcom and stars in it opposite Billy Eichner (“Billy on the Street,” “Parks and Recreation”) as her gay best friend.  

Klausner didn’t specifically set out to do a Jewish show. “But I wanted to write something that was very honest and true to life. I think one of the reasons people respond to the show is that it’s so specific,” she said. “I don’t turn away from exploring that, even if there are people watching who aren’t Jews and have no idea what a shiva call is.”

Jewish holidays, family dynamics and references pepper the plots, many of which are inspired by Klausner’s experiences as a writer, performer and single New Yorker. There was a Yom Kippur episode in the first season, and in the second — which begins streaming July 12 — Julie talks her way into a group of high-powered Jewish showbiz women, but it doesn’t exactly work out. 

How close is the TV Julie to the real one? 

“I think she’s dumber than me. I think she’s less self-aware. And she has better hair than me because there are people who are paid to make sure it’s in place,” Klausner said. 

She wrote reality show recaps like her character does, and her love of Broadway is apparent. In one new episode, Julie takes revenge on a scammer who sold her fake theater tickets on Craigslist, “which really happened to me,” she said.

Klausner and Eichner met when he contacted her to write for his “Billy on the Street” series and they bonded over common circumstances, interests and envy of others. “I’m 37 and I spent my 20s and 30s watching my friends go onto really great things,” Klausner said, and that jealousy motivates a lot of the characters’ bad behavior. Often obnoxious and sometimes offensive, the duo are redeemed by their vulnerability and foibles.

“One of the charming qualities of these characters is their gleeful lack of self-awareness and their surprise whenever someone calls them out on acting completely inappropriate,” Klausner said.

Klausner said series executive producer Amy Poehler, whom she met in 2000 when she became part of the collaborative comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, was crucial to developing the comedic tone. When Klausner wrote the spec pilot script that became “Difficult People” based on her experiences and bits from her “How Was Your Week?” podcast, she sent it to Poehler, who came up with the title, fleshed out supporting characters and helped her turn the idea into a series. 

“She was very instrumental in shaping it,” Klausner said. “She insisted that the characters remain vulnerable. It’s important for the emotional investment of the audience and to make the characters more interesting and fun to watch.”

This season, Julie and Billy have victories as well as setbacks. “They’re slowly getting more opportunities. They’re inchworming ahead in the Hollywood food chain,” Klausner said. 

Their love lives are still a big part of the show, as are big-name guest stars in often unexpected roles. In addition to Poehler, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Joel McHale, Sandra Bernhard and Amy Sedaris appear this season, along with Nyle DiMarco, cast before his “Dancing With the Stars” win.

“I have a reverse casting couch where I promise not to sleep with them. It usually works like a charm,” Klausner joked about scoring celebrity guests. The reality, though, is “they love the show and come to us and we fit them in or write a part for them,” she said. Meryl Streep, Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest top her future guest wish list.

Klausner, who still does her podcast in addition to writing and starring in “Difficult People,” always wanted to write and perform, “but it was easier for me to get work as a writer. I don’t audition very well,” she said. “My skill set is very specific. For whatever reasons, I never got jobs as an actor. I knew that if I wanted to act, I needed to write something for myself.”

She began writing in her adolescence “as a means of dealing with my social surroundings and feeling like I wasn’t popular and would never have a boyfriend, or that I was fat and I didn’t fit in,” she said. Joining the Upright Citizens Brigade enabled her to experiment and find her comic voice. 

A native New Yorker, Klausner is from a Conservative Jewish family, attended a Jewish school and had a bat mitzvah. “I grew up with a very strong Jewish identity. It’s a big chunk of who I am,” she said. Today, she goes to services during the High Holy Days and has Passover seders with her family. But she feels her Jewish influence most significantly in the strength it gives her.

“I’m blessed with some pretty tough DNA,” Klausner said. “We are blessed with intelligence and resilience. I think the clannishness of Jews has served me well as someone who is seeking her own tribe in my creative community and being OK with not appealing to everyone.”

Now adapting her 2010 book, “I Don’t Care About Your Band,” into a screenplay and co-writing a pilot for actress Shannon DeVido, Klausner considers “Difficult People” her greatest accomplishment to date. 

“I don’t take this chance lightly. I take this opportunity seriously and put everything I have into it,” she said. “I’m very proud of it.”

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING *Movie Review*


Real-life best friends Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone have mastered the art of working with friends.  Together, the three created some of the most iconic viral videos that “Saturday Night Live” has featured in years.

Now, moving on to bigger screens the three, who call themselves The Lonely Island, star in POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING, which they also wrote and directed.  It’s a mockumentary filled with back-to-back celebrity cameos and start-to-finish laughter.  The trio managed to get half of Hollywood to sign onto their project: P!nk, Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey, Maya Rudolph, Sarah Silverman and many more.

For more about POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING take a look below…

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

The insecure narcissist


Joshua Silverstein wants your validation.

No, he’s not seeking political office. The 35-year-old actor/comedian/performance artist wants the world to tell him — and tell him often — that he’s funny and talented, that he’s not an outsider, that women find him attractive, that his brand of entertainment isn’t awful.

“I grew up not liking myself for most of my childhood,” Silverstein, an L.A. native, said during a recent interview. “It’s a work in progress. Liking myself has been something that I’ve definitely struggled with.”

Take pause before you break out the violins or dismiss Silverstein as heir to Woody Allen’s neurosis-laden throne. In his solo show, “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” playing through May 7 at the Bootleg Theater, Silverstein examines his insecurities through the skewed lens of satire, humor, self-deprecation and beat boxing. So if you don’t tell the man he’s pretty, by God, he’ll give you chapter and verse why you should. 

Accompanied by three musicians, Silverstein sings, dances and waxes poetic. A segment of his quite eclectic show celebrates the milestone of achieving 5,000 Facebook likes. In a comic performance piece titled “Yellow,” he considers the dichotomy of having light skin within the African-American community, and he later gets his audience members to join hands in prayer. 

The son of a Jewish father and an African-American mother, Silverstein embraces both cultures, even though those cultures haven’t always embraced him back. For Silverstein, finding one’s way as a biracial, clothes-loving, heterosexual male in present-day L.A. is a work in progress, as well. 

It starts with the physical. As a young man, the light-skinned, ponytail-wearing Silverstein carried the nickname “Pretty J.” Yet as many times as he has heard his personal appearance praised, Silverstein said the satisfaction is fleeting.

“My appearance and my shell were so important to me growing up, that [the notion of] ‘Tell Me I’m Pretty’ stems from, ‘If you don’t tell me what I am, then I don’t know what I am,’ ” Silverstein said. “I’m not even sure that I would have been an artist if a cute girl hadn’t walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re good at this.’  

“I think the world makes us who we are through the various experiences we’ve had, bouncing off cultures and our parents’ ideas,” he continued. “We digest all that stuff, and that spits out this personality that we take on. ‘Tell me I’m pretty’ has been like the mantra I’ve walked around with.” 

Silverstein is an only child whose mother, Beverly, was an educator, and father, David, works for Walters Wholesale. Both parents were politically active — David directs the community activism division of the transdenominational spiritual center, Agape. The quest for approval may be a universal one, but David believes his son’s upbringing may have played a particularly strong role in his need for validation.

“He questions himself and his value in the world,” David Silverstein said. “Both his mother and I supported him in being sure of who he really is so that he can step into that confidence and get out of [the] blindness of looking for people’s approval so much. At least I hope so.” 

For nearly 14 years, Joshua Silverstein has co-hosted Downbeat 720, a high school open-mic night. He has also performed the two-person show “So Fresh, So Clean” with his creative partner, Joe Hernandez-Kolski, in Los Angeles and New York. Toward the end of 2014, Silverstein was invited to create a solo show at the Greenway Court Theatre.

He started with a lot of material related to race and the economy. He intended to create a show that examined feelings of vulnerability, but his director at the time, Benjamin Davis, felt that he was taking the wrong approach. 

“The story was about me essentially complaining onstage for two hours,” Silverstein said. “In the solo show world, you have to figure out why your show is relevant. Why does an audience want to see you perform? I had essentially created a therapy session for myself. Once I got past my narcissism, my director said, ‘Go back and make this about us.’ ”

When Davis became busy with other projects, Silverstein sought out veteran director-choreographer Diana Wyenn, who had worked with many solo artists. As the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Wyenn was interested in Silverstein’s investigation of his multicultural heritage. The restructured show played brief runs at the Greenway Court Theatre and the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) before arriving at the Bootleg. 

“When Joshua came to me with this piece and shared his similar background of coming from a household that practiced more than one religion, I was interested in helping him share that story,” said Wyenn, whose late grandfather, Than Wyenn, was an actor and a drama consultant with the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education. “Both of us are very proud and interested in our Jewish heritage.”

Silverstein grew up in a largely secular household, and the camps he attended and holidays he observed often fed into the pursuit of social justice. Silverstein declined to become a bar mitzvah in large part because he was afraid that if he’d had a large party, nobody would attend.

“It all played into that self-esteem factor,” he said. “I didn’t like temple. I loved Jewish girls. Still do. Being biracial or multiracial, I can see the correlation that I’ve experienced. Both Jews and African-Americans are very prideful of their history. Both are filled with the importance of education and the importance of literacy and art and culture. I find that I am a beautiful mix of two worlds, and I get to celebrate that.” 

In person, Silverstein is as cerebral and introspective as he is forthright. Not one to hold things back, he’ll confess to being a slave to fashion. (He says he’s spent more on clothing than on food.) Seemingly no event from his childhood is off limits, no matter how embarrassing. Silverstein has battled severe asthma for most of his life, and being the kid at school with the bag full of medical supplies often subjected him to bullying by his classmates.

His father maintains that the extensive amount of time his son spent around pediatricians contributed to young Joshua’s early desire to become a pediatrician. Before he turned 5, he would tell anyone who asked that when he grew up, he wanted to be a doctor and a clown. 

At one family occasion, in front of a living room full of people, David Silverstein prompted Joshua about his life’s ambitions. When Joshua replied simply, “a doctor,” his father asked, “What about being a clown?”

“He put his little hands on his hips, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Daddy, I’m already funny,’ ” he said. 

As anecdotes go, that one is positively tame compared to some of the content Silverstein reveals in “Tell Me I’m Pretty.”

“I learn more about myself and about the process if I can find my most vulnerable pieces,” Silverstein said. “If I’m writing about something that has little to do with me, I feel like it’s a cop-out, especially if I have an audience. I feel like, ‘How dare I waste their time?’ ”

“Tell Me I’m Pretty” 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through May 7 at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.

Remembering Garry Shandling


When Garry Shandling was a young comedy writer, he got into a near-fatal car accident. As he was preparing to die, he heard a voice asking if he was living the life Garry Shandling really should be living. He realized he wasn’t — and he decided to change it. He became a stand-up comedian. He worked nightly at clubs around Los Angeles. At the time, I was an economics major and had only dreamed of writing. I didn’t realize one could do it professionally. 

But, in March of 1980, when I was 19, Garry was headlining a show at the UCLA Comedy Club, where I was performing with a group of other student comics. Garry approached and asked if I wanted to hear the truth about my set. He pointed to two jokes in the 20-minute set — two jokes — as evidence that I had a future in this if I wanted it. The rest, he said, I could discard. He talked about the importance of voice, attitude and trusting myself. He then asked if I’d be interested in writing with him. He not only was the first to tell me I could pursue it — he introduced me to the person who gave me my first job. He hired me a few years later on his own show. Years after that, he spoke at my wedding. Halfway through the wedding speech, Garry walked off. He’d just gotten a big laugh and didn’t think he could top it. 

But don’t get me wrong: Unlike most comedy writers who kneel at the altar of The Joke, Garry was the opposite. Break a story with Garry and you’d think you were writing a drama. “Where is the truth? What is the emotional core?” He never worried about jokes — the jokes will come if the character is lined up. He was a stickler for character — on the page, on the stage, and in life. Especially in life. 

In 1981, when comedians went on strike from The Comedy Store, Garry didn’t support the strike. So when they “won” and subsequently were paid for their sets, Garry refused the money, claiming that he couldn’t ethically take the fruits of a movement he didn’t stand behind. And he was a truly great friend — but in the way that, as those who knew him know, only Garry could be. (Or couldn’t, as the case may be.) As he said in a joke we once wrote in his kitchen: “My friends say I have trouble with intimacy. But they don’t really know me.”  Or, as he once also said: “To know me … is to not know me.” 

And while no one who knew him would ever claim that Garry didn’t wrestle with demons, it was actually that wrestling that became Garry’s defining struggle. Meaning, ultimately, he found peace in the never-ending search for peace. A kind of peace that was an acceptance, perhaps, that this constant state of “not-knowing” was, in fact, the only place he could meaningfully reside. 

And so while I don’t think that Garry ever achieved “peace,” I do think he achieved meaning. And purpose. And a lot of that came from his relationship with other comedians — like minds and souls, almost all of who have similar stories of Garry’s incredible selflessness when it came to guidance — professional and personal. 

Garry was my first — and my most important — mentor. But I wasn’t the only one. Comedians, writers, actors — hundreds have stories of Garry sitting with them in all-night punch-up sessions, or taking long walks and talking about life. There are so many that, ultimately, even more than the groundbreaking television shows that he created and starred in, Garry’s true legacy will be in the many lives he so generously guided. 


Ed Solomon began his career as a joke-writer and stand-up comedian. He subsequently went on to write plays, and then the screenplays for “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” “Men in Black” and “Now You See Me,” among others. He was also a staff writer on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” He is currently working on “Mosaic,” a 10-hour HBO film directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Michaela Watkins: A supporting player takes the lead


If you’re one of those people who pays attention to supporting characters and comedy, you probably already know who Michaela Watkins is. She has been in the cast of “Saturday Night Live” (2008-09), as well as TV’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “Enlightened” and “Trophy Wife”— and in memorable supporting roles in the films “In a World” and “Afternoon Delight.” She also wrote and directed the USA Network show “Benched.” And this fall, she’s starring in “Casual,” director Jason Reitman’s upcoming show for Hulu.

“This is the first time I’m entrusted with the lead of a show,” Watkins said over tea and a chewy sesame roll at Bricks & Scones in Larchmont Village. “It’s a beautiful experience to get to know your character, as the membrane that connects all the scenes together.” When you’re a supporting actor, Watkins explained, “unless you’re adding info to the scene, you’re not featured in it. When it’s your narrative, you get to see the minutiae of a person’s life. I’ve never felt more connected to and protective of a show.” 

The show opens with Valerie (Watkins) living in her brother Alex’s (Tommy Dewey) house with her teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), and trying to get through a difficult divorce with her ex (Zak Orth). In the process, she tries to date and picks up Leon (Nyasha Hatendi) for a one-night stand, but he’s as awkward and clueless about the world of casual dating as she is. 

“Casual” feels more like an independent film, Watkins said, in that it has “that kind of pace and exploration of character. It’s a beautiful little show, and I hope people find it.” She called the casting “perfect,” Reitman “extraordinary” and the writing “so good,” calling out the ninth script as particularly impactful. “I had to put it down and cool off with a walk in the neighborhood because it just shattered me,” Watkins said. 

Although the show is a comedy, “I don’t remember a funny thing happening to my character,” she said. “She’s not a happy person. She is in the mourning process of a divorce and coming to terms with an effed-up childhood. She starts out at a low point and is learning how to walk again.” 

With this interview scheduled for the week before the release of the “Wet Hot American Summer” prequel episodes, in which Watkins plays Rhonda, a visiting choreographer, Watkins shared some camp memories of her own. “I went to music camp and played flute and piano. I saw myself as a bit of a chanteuse … I had a concerto in the morning, making out in the evening, and sailing, swimming and archery in the middle. In my real life, I was a bit of an oddball, but at music camp I was considered cute.” 

Her parents separated when she was 8; as the youngest, she saw her role as being “the one to keep everyone laughing, keep it light, bring some levity,” she said. “It was my way to be seen by my family and then the opposite sex. My way of flirting was, ‘Watch me shove a whole hamburger in my mouth.’ ”

Now connected to some of the most creative names in comedy — she recently booked a role working with Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell in “The House,” currently filming — Watkins has an explanation for her luck in terms of the projects she’s been offered. 

“I made a pact with myself when I was 12 that I would only work with people who make me happy. I choose happy. At one point, I felt I needed to choose pain and depth, because that is the reality of being an adult person. And while that is true, it doesn’t mean that you have to forgo happiness. You’re going to have moments of utter devastation, but for me, I keep striving to do what I want, and I’m a people person. I say yes to everything if I like the overall thing that’s being put out there. I’ll do anything with David Wain,” she said of the actor-writer-director with whom she has worked on “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” “Children’s Hospital,” “They Came Together” and “Wanderlust.” 

Watkins is also excited by the opportunities available to women in Hollywood today, noting special admiration for actor-writer-director Lake Bell (“In a World”), writer-director Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight”  and “Transparent”) and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” executive producer Kari Lizer. “I feel like it’s a new time, a renaissance. The way they comport themselves is kind, respectful, loving, decent, and they get the job done their way. How Jill talks to background actors is more respectful than I’ve seen anyone do it.”

Watkins and Soloway have developed a close friendship and a working partnership as well. Watkins remembers their first meeting in 2007, and that Soloway made an immediate impression. 

“She said, ‘Here’s what I want’ — she made her demands,” Watkins said. “This woman came from a place of power and not of need and begging; she just completely owned her worth and value in this conversation.

“I was blown away. [Soloway] looked at me and said, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I replied, ‘-ish.’ ‘Are you funny?’ ‘Who knows?’ I said. ‘You’re funny, I can tell,’ Jill said. ‘I think you’re my muse.’ She was not wrong,” Watkins said. 

Over the course of a few years, the two became consistent collaborators, working together on a short film, “Una Hora Por Favora,” followed by “Afternoon Delight” and “Transparent,” all of which brought Soloway critical acclaim, a powerful reputation in the industry and — with “Transparent,” particularly — wild popularity. “We are going to keep that party going, I hope,” Watkins said, noting enigmatically that she would return for the second season of “Transparent,” “but not in the way you think.”

Meeting Soloway also had an impact on Watkins’ Jewish identity. In 2008, Soloway nominated Watkins for the Reboot Summit, an annual three-day conference of sorts, in which participants — many of them power players from various industries, including Hollywood, who were not particularly connected to Jewish life or practice — exchange personal experiences about Jewish identity. 

“Reboot was the biggest turning point for me,” Watkins said. Beforehand, “I barely identified as Jewish,” she said. “ ‘You’re the perfect candidate,’ Jill said. I looked around at the people who were brought up similar to me, realizing who we are, starting to feel connections to other Jews. They never make you feel that there’s any kind of agenda. It’s you realizing that this is not so bad.”

Two years later, Watkins was introduced to actor Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”), on what she calls a “friend-date” — a brunch at Radnor’s place. There, she met entrepreneur Fred Kramer. “He had sweet eyes,” she said, noting that in an unfamiliar place, as a self-identified “extroverted shut-in, you look to the nicest person in the room to direct your conversation to. I didn’t want to date him; I just wanted to talk at his sweet face.” 

Once she and Kramer started dating, Watkins realized that he presented a challenge. “He was really the first Jew I ever dated seriously. When he told me he went to temple with some regularity, I had to figure out how to date him.” When Kramer —  the former board chairmam of IKAR who was very involved with the L.A. spiritual community — asked her to go to services with him, Watkins said that she regressed to the 8-year-old version of herself. “‘Ugggh, do we have to go?’ I got bitchy like a teenager. But when I heard [Rabbi] Sharon Brous speak — and I don’t even remember what she was talking about  — I was totally crying in temple. Kids were running around happy. You never saw that in temple. People were playing percussive instruments, and it was such a happy, connected, spiritual experience that I was forever changed.” 

Brous presided at the marriage of Kramer and Watkins in July 2013. Watkins admitted she still doesn’t attend synagogue with any regularity, but she said she has a real appreciation for IKAR.

“In the places I grew up with, people didn’t have the vocabulary about making it resonate, making it relevant on a spiritual level. I had completely separated from it, because there wasn’t anything connecting me in the first place. But here, the kids are so empowered with feeling … they’re connected to the community and the world at large, making the world a better place. That certainly wasn’t the way it was for us.” 

“Casual” premieres on Hulu Oct. 7.

Jon Stewart homage to Andy Kaufman gave professional wrestling a lift


This article originally appeared on

Judd Apatow: Comedy drawn from an ‘Unfair Life’


Judd Apatow’s phenomenal success seems the result of a willed and desperate act of adolescent defiance against a childhood that threatened to destroy him.  Apatow was adrift in Syosset, Long Island, where his parents were always viciously fighting before they divorced when he was in junior high.  His mother left, and he remained with his father.  His brother, now an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, was sent to live with grandparents in California.  His sister went to live with their mother.  The family imploded, but before the final meltdown, he remembers a family malaise where his parent’s only advice was to keep repeating an annoying mantra about life being unfair.  Young Apatow had already figured that out, and the future producer, director, and writer of such stellar works as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin, “Knocked-Up,” and “This is 40” knew very early he was on his own in an unsafe world where he would have to make his own way.  Comedy called him, first as a chubby school boy who took solace watching the comediennes’ perform on the Merv Griffin show after school, and later on when he took special pleasure from their rebellious anger that somehow still managed to come across with a detached sense of cool.  He left for California after high school and tried to make it in the comedy clubs while attending USC and studying screenwriting.

Even after all of his success, Apatow is a restless 47-year-old man who continually looks for sparks to help him cope with his anxieties about matters large and small.  He has tried therapists and hypnotherapists and flirted with Buddhism and meditation and massage, but his nervousness remains.  His wife, the adorable Leslie Mann and his two precocious daughters, all of whom are frequently featured in his films, have provided some measure of comfort, but answers to his own misery remain elusive.  One senses that his friendships are guarded, and even his wife has confessed that he has often been emotionally absent from their marriage.  He tries his best with his daughters but admits he sometimes has trouble focusing on them after work when his mind drifts elsewhere.  He has recently returned to doing stand-up comedy and is enthused by the immediate charge it offers; an intensity he has trouble feeling while working on one of his movies.  He is also putting out a new book called “Sick in the Head Conversations about Life and Comedy” (Random House) which is a series of interviews he has held with comedy’s biggest legends.

But Apatow is a poor interviewer.  He interrupts too much, or lets his guest drone on.  He is a choppy talker and chaotic in his organization.  He switches the topic at odd moments, and reveals too much about himself or too little to the interviewee, which often leaves them feeling ill at ease.  Apatow isn’t trying to throw anybody off, but is a step out of tune with conversational flow.  When one of the comics gets rolling on the specifics of his comedic process, Apatow shifts gear.  When some of them attempt to empathize with what he has endured, he turns cold and we hear them grow quiet.  There always seems to be some sort or envy present; a one-upping one to his inquiries that is disquieting.  Yet, even with all this awkwardness where he seems to combine the worst traits of interviewers like Charlie Rose and Howard Stern with their feigned intensity, there are compelling moments.

Albert Brooks talks about his late in life happiness through meditation, but Apatow doesn’t seem convinced.  Chris Rock discusses his preference for keeping his act fresh even if it means leaving the stage for years at a time to come up with new material, which seems to frighten Apatow who we sense fears losing his relevance.  Gary Shandling, whom Apatow wrote for years ago, talks about his belief that what made his old television show spectacular was that the writers understood that what they needed to write about was what people tried to cover up.  This sounded like the beginning of an interesting conversation about the sophistication of certain comedy, but Apatow cuts him off.  Jeff Garlin actually confronts Apatow on his behavior by reprimanding him for not looking directly at him while he speaks.  Jay Leno seems frustrated by Apatow’s disappointment in Leno’s allegiance to stand-up comedy as his only goal. 

The reader will notice that although most of the interviews took place in the last two years, some are from the early 1980’s.  A brazen young Judd Apatow would call comics from his high school radio station in Long Island pretending to be from a major New York radio station, and scored interviews with big comics who didn’t know they were speaking on a 10-watt radio station that barely reached Apatow’s high school’s parking lot.  The funny thing is young Apatow sounds exactly like old Apatow.  It’s almost as if there has been no shift at all in perspective.  There is the same sad feeling of muted aggression and desire, but the older and younger selves seem interchangeable.  Perhaps that is Apatow’s real problem.  He never gets past himself.

Apatow is impressed by Seinfeld who writes every day on large yellow legal pads brief outlines of bits that will be polished to perfection.  He finds Seinfeld’s Zen-like persona troubling.  They are polar opposites.  Seinfeld insists he is a happy comic and works because it brings him pleasure and is simply who he is.  There is no hidden drama.  He explains to Apatow that he remains doing comedy because he loves the life it offers him; “the independence and the joy of hearing laughs and making jokes.  It’s as simple as that.”  But Seinfeld’s refusal to embrace the complexity of those drawn to perform stand-up is as disconcerting as Apatow’s mental chaos.

Jimmy Fallon stands out from the bunch as a genuinely happy and delirious clown from a happy and loving home.  Stephen Colbert rhapsodizes about how he learned not to lose heart after losing his father and two brothers in a plane crash while still a young child.  His mother slowly stitched his heart back together by reminding him to remain resilient even while accepting that all had changed.  Jon Stewart, who seems taken aback by Apatow’s brittleness, talks about how important it is for him to remain a good guy even though it grows harder with fame and money and the power to influence others.  Rosanne, whom Apatow also wrote for, discusses her mental illness and the strains show business success placed on her children. 

Apatow’s power has enormous reach, and the amount of comic luminaries who spoke with him are testimony to his elevated status in Hollywood where his films have grossed over a billion dollars.  But one senses Apatow would give a lot of that up to have the innate charisma and joy of his old roommate in Los Angeles; a young Adam Sandler.  He would often return home and find Sandler making phony phone calls and hanging up and exploding into gales of uninhibited laughter.  Usually, Sandler would be doing something silly like calling a Jewish deli in the voice of a kvetchy old Jewish lady pretending to be sick from one of their sandwiches and asking for another to be sent over.  For free, of course.  Apatow spotted a joy in Sandler, and a comic euphoria he could never emulate.  Perhaps that is why, before moviemaking, he turned to writing for other comics who had a more assured voice.  It was the twinkle in Sandler’s eyes that haunted Apatow; the delight he took in his own devilishness.  Apatow is still trying to find it.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Laughter is comedian’s fountain of youth


Legendary comedian Marty Allen, who turns 93 March 23, has a simple secret to longevity. 

“I try to have an upbeat attitude all the time,” he said. “I enjoy entertaining, and I enjoy life.”

To celebrate his birthday, he’s performing at the Downtown Grand Las Vegas hotel and casino March 22 and 23 with his wife, comedy partner and singer Karon Kate Blackwell. Onstage, the two will talk about Allen’s autobiography, “Hello Dere!” which came out last year and features stories about his interactions with former first lady Betty Ford, Elvis Presley and The Beatles. 

“We’ll also do a comedy routine, and then a song-and-dance number and that’ll be it,” Allen said. “They’ll bring the cake out, and I’ll spend the rest of the evening blowing out candles.”

Allen is known for his trademark black hair — which sticks up from his head as if it’s controlled by static electricity — and his catchphrase, “Hello dere!” The latter became popular when he was part of the comedy duo Allen & Rossi with Steve Rossi in the 1950s and ’60s. The two toured the country together, opened for Nat King Cole and performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 44 times. The most memorable appearance occurred in February 1964, when they followed The Beatles’ debut American set. 

“Sullivan put us on with The Beatles, and that was one of the greatest things that ever happened in our lives as far as show business is concerned,” Allen said.

The comedian, a Pennsylvania native who was born as Morton David Alpern, currently lives in Las Vegas but got his start in Los Angeles. Upon returning from World War II, he enrolled at USC as a journalism major. When he started to get work doing comedy in local clubs, he dropped out of school to pursue show business. He eventually met Rossi, and the partnership lasted 15 years. 

During Allen’s time in Los Angeles, he became a regular on “The Hollywood Squares” (a celebrity tic-tac-toe game show) and made numerous guest appearances on shows such as “Password,” “The Big Valley” and “Circus of the Stars.” 

“Acting was quite a thrill for me,” Allen said. “I played a lot of different parts and characterizations. My favorite show that I enjoyed being on was ‘The Hollywood Squares.’ I was with so many talents, like Paul Lynde and Charley Weaver [the alter ego for Cliff Arquette]. The fact that you could ad lib on the show and do your own jokes made it wonderful to be on.”

At the same time that Allen’s television and movie career took off, he met Blackwell, to whom he’s been married for 30 years.

“I met Karon in a restaurant she was managing on the Sunset Strip,” he said. “My agent and I came in for lunch. I took one look at her and said, ‘Bingo! That’s the one.’ ”

The two went on a couple of dates, and Allen heard Blackwell sing. “I thought she was terrific,” he said. “I was enraptured with her talent, and I asked her to join me not only as a wife but as a partner in the act.” 

Throughout their marriage, the couple has worked together, going onstage on their birthdays in Las Vegas and touring other cities in the United States. In the act, Blackwell assumes the role of straight lady, just like Rossi did for Allen on stage. Allen offers such one-liners as, “Married women come home, see what’s in their bed and then go to the refrigerator,” and Blackwell plays piano and sings. 

Allen said the two have a strong marriage because, “We understand one another. We combine our talents and have an excellent show.”

Although Allen does get the chance to perform a few shows per year, he said he spends the rest of his time watching movies with his wife, reading and going out with friends. As for his next birthday, which is swiftly approaching, he couldn’t be happier. 

“It feels very good,” he said. “I’m looking forward to 100.” 

We’re all ‘Old Jews’ at heart


An old Jewish man walks into a restaurant, walks up to the maitre d’ and says: “Pardon me, how do you prepare your chicken?” The maitre d’ says, “We tell ’em right up front they ain’t gonna make it.”

That’s just one of the many jokes that exemplify Jewish humor in the comedy revue “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2012 and ran for 16 months. It has since continued to play in cities around the country and is being presented at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza through March 15.

Audiences have been of varying ethnicities and ages, proving, according to co-creator Peter Gethers, “Everybody’s an old Jew if they have a sense of humor.” (Because of the risque nature of some jokes in the show, however, it may not be appropriate for very young Jews.)

Gethers collaborated on the show with his friend of some 35 years, Daniel Okrent. They were inspired by the website oldjewstellingjokes.com, a collection of vignettes containing old and new Jewish jokes told mostly by amateurs. Okrent said they conducted research, gathered jokes from friends and took their show beyond what is offered on the site by turning it into a production with a beginning, middle and end.  

“And by using actors — not comedians, not stand-up comics, but actors who could turn these jokes, many of which, of course, are going to be very familiar to many people, or at least some of which will be familiar to many people, turn them into little human plays — and adding music, adding songs, kind of building characters out of the material that is really sort of public-domain material,” Okrent added. “These jokes belong to all of us.”

The writers created five original monologues for the five actors in the cast, and Okrent explained how the script follows the life cycle. 

“It begins with childbirth, and it ends with shivah. Actually it ends a little bit after shivah — and [covers] the various stages of life both in terms of age and the various things we go through — school, business, marriage, religion, retirement, hitting all these other buttons as well.”

Okrent said his first exposure to Jewish humor came from his Polish-born grandfather.  

“I remember very vividly, when I was a little pisher growing up in Detroit,” he said, “my grandfather loved to tell jokes — not that they were particularly good.  The one joke that I remember most vividly isn’t good enough to be in our show, but it touches my heart.”  

In a monologue, one of the characters talks of learning about Jewish humor by watching it unfold on television.  

“In the early days of television,” Okrent said, “it was all set in New York. They needed to fill up time, and around New York we had all these Borscht Belt comics. Many of the most familiar names in American humor were at hand, and then suddenly these jokes were in dining rooms in Atlanta, Ga., and in dens in St. Louis, and they were on farms. This is how Jewish culture really entered American life, I think.”

Gethers found Jewish humor and funny Jews to be commonplace as he was growing up because his father was a sitcom writer. “As a result, even [when I was] really young, I became what I would call a ‘shticktologist.’ I was obsessed with jokes and really studied them.” 

He characterized Jewish humor as something that emanates from pain. “I think Jewish humor is all about not so much making fun of other people, but making fun of ourselves and using that humor to deal with very specific bad things that have happened.”  

And, Okrent observed, “There’s an important historical root to this. It’s not this way by accident. If you’re suffering, if you’re going through hard times, the best way to deal with it is humor. And this has been the case with Jewish humor going back — we found antecedents of some of these jokes that are 400 years old and that arise from the misfortunes of life.”

Both men describe themselves as secular Jews. Gethers said he had a bar mitzvah, and his family owned a famous dairy restaurant in New York called Ratner’s. “So, I was very influenced by Jewish food, Jewish humor, Jewish culture, and less so by actual Jewish religion,” he said.

Okrent went to Sunday school and was confirmed but did not have a bar mitzvah. He recalls having Shabbat dinners every Friday night at his grandparents’ house in Detroit.  

“I’m observant every weekend when I eat lox and cream cheese, so I’m observant in that sense,” he said. 

The two are highly respected writers and editors in areas other than the stage.  Gethers has written fiction and nonfiction books as well as comedy scripts for films and television. In addition, he has edited such luminaries as Caroline Kennedy, Barbara Walters, Jimmy Carter, Stephen Sondheim, Roman Polanski and William Goldman. Okrent is also a well-known editor and is celebrated as the first public editor of The New York Times. He is an award-winning author and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work about Rockefeller Center.

However, when they got together to write “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” they were breaking new ground professionally, as neither had ever written for the stage. Okrent has found the process thrilling. 

“I would sit in the back of the theater,” he said, “and hear 300 people roaring with laughter and leaving the theater with grins on their faces, and that was an experience I’d never, ever had before.”

And it’s important to Gethers that audiences leave the theater with a sense of how crucial humor is in life. 

“That’s what I really hope the audience takes away from the show — that they laugh hysterically and realize that there’s nothing in life that is not appropriate for a joke.”

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” runs through March 15 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Tickets are available at the box office and via Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com/old-jews-telling-jokes-thousand-oaks-california-03-05-2015/event/0B004CD4D24191B5?artistid=1828104&majorcatid=10002&minorcatid=32&bba=0

Are there limits to humor?


Scandals involving rabbis or celebrities, a massively destructive Web hack, Ebola, Middle East unrest, growing anti-Semitism in Europe, even ISIS — when it comes to brainstorming for Purim content, today’s Jews see every strange or terrifying story as comedic potential. In preparing the shpiel — a collection of songs, sketches and fake headlines, presented as parody in the spirit of Purim — even the inexperienced would-be comedian takes generous license in those very unfunny things and proposes them as comedy, discussing by committee and provoking critiques like “questionable taste,” “dirty laundry ” and is this really “good for the Jews?” Regardless of the answers, Purim is traditionally the annual excuse to turn serious things upside down, to use comedy to understand and perhaps attempt to control the things that most disturb and frighten us. 

Jewish humor in ‘Tent: Comedy’


Actor and comedian Jon Lovitz once offered this reason why so many Jews are funny: “To be funny, you have to suffer, suffer, suffer,” he said. “Jews, blacks, we’ve suffered a lot in the past. That makes us funny, I guess.”

Maybe this talent is also a survival mechanism; as Milton Berle famously quipped: “I live to laugh, and I laugh to live.”

The origins of Jewish humor also have become a serious topic of study, in academe and elsewhere.

“I think it mainly has to do with historical conditions around Jewish immigration to the United States, and the ways in which Jews adapted to life in America,” said Tony Michels, a professor of American Jewish history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who teaches classes about Jews in comedy. 

Michels will lead a group of 20 aspiring humorists from around the country chosen to participate in “Tent: Comedy,” Oct. 18-25, at the Silverlake Independent JCC, now in its second year.

“Jews in their 20s want to connect with Jewishness in ways that are a little different from the ways their parents did,” said Josh Lambert, director of the national Tent program and academic director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. “A lot of young Jews care about being Jewish, but haven’t found natural homes in Jewish institutions that are religious or political in focus, or which were built on old models. With “Tent,” we’re creating new kinds of Jewish communities around the issues and cultural areas that are most relevant to this generation.”

Mornings are spent discussing readings by the likes of Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Phyllis Diller, as well as watching vintage performances and listening to classic LPs. Participants also read academic papers, such as Sigmund Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.” In that essay, Freud offers several examples of Jewish jokes, pointing out that jokes made by Jews are usually funnier than those made about them. “Jewish witticisms,” he wrote, “are made exclusively by Jews themselves, whereas Jewish stories of different origin rarely rise above the level of the comical strain or of brutal mockery.”

Guest speakers will also address the group, including Jill Soloway, creator/writer/director of the critically acclaimed new Amazon Prime show “Transparent,” which New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum called, “the most Jewish show I’ve seen on TV.” Soloway also met with the group last year, at which time her feature film “Afternoon Delight” was coming out.

Among last year’s speakers were screenwriter and New Yorker contributor Yoni Brenner, and actress Michaela Watkins, a former Saturday Night Live cast member. This year, Jason and Randy Sklar, hosts of the sports and pop-culture podcast, “Sklarbro Country,” will offer their own lessons on finding success in show business.

The nights include soaking in L.A.’s stand-up scene. Last year, Sarah Silverman entertained the group with a typically risqué set at the Largo, along with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin and comedian Tig Notaro.

Among the students this year will be Matthew Epstein, who has been writing comedy since moving to Los Angeles seven years ago to attend college, and has honed his stand-up and sketch comedy chops at Improv Olympics, along with some television writing.

“My characters tend to be Jewish, because I base a lot of what I write on my own life,” Epstein said in an interview. A script he wrote for a show called “Missionaries” helped him break into the comedy scene, and got him an agent. 

“It was a mockumentary about evangelical Christian missionaries in South Central Los Angeles, except the main character was actually a Jewish kid who was going on a mission [in order] to win over his Jewish girlfriend,” Epstein said. “I actually went to Catholic school, so I’m very familiar with Christian theology. I dated a Catholic girl, and I definitely had a hard time being the one Jewish kid,” he said, laughing.

Being able to tell jokes, Epstein said, helped him get through high school and land him a career.

“Comedy has definitely helped me my whole life, by giving me an honest way to relate to people,” he said. “If you can make people laugh, you can get them on your side, and that’s how it’s always been for me.”

Epstein said that because writing can be a solitary process, he finds that networking is one way to create a much-needed support system. The fact that everyone is Jewish in the “Tent” workshop, he said, can add to that bond.

Among last year’s participants was Jessie Kahnweiler, creator of the web series “Dude, Where’s my Chutzpah?” and other comedy shorts that confront taboo subjects, like rape and eating disorders, from a Jewish perspective. One of the classmates she met at the workshop is acting in her current project.

“I’m a film director, so it’s really nice to be in groups of people, because I’m used to being on my own,” Kahnweiler said. “So it was cool. I like that shared learning.”

“Tent participants take away a community,” Lambert said. “They form a group of peers, across the country but connected online, from vastly different backgrounds, but who are all interested in the same questions and are fighting some of the same battles personally and professionally.” 

In addition, Michel said, participants leave with “some knowledge of this history, and they’ll continue to think about it, and hopefully if some of them go into comedy, that Jewishness will, in some way, be a meaningful part of the material.”

To learn more about “Tent: Comedy,” visit tentsite.org.

The Raging Jews of Comedy


Memo to the building maintenance staff at Beverly Hills High School: Pay the air conditioning bill. Please do this well in advance of filling the K.L. Peters Auditorium with a crowd, particularly when you plan to shoot footage of both performers and audience that may be used for an unspecified TV pilot. 

“The air conditioning is on,” announced a gentleman who had been instructed to get the audience laughing and applauding for cut-away footage before the headliners of the Raging Jews of Comedy took the stage on a recent evening. The line got a laugh, but it should have had the crowd in stitches, those of whom had not already sweltered their way into a coma, that is. 

This announcer was not the warm-up act for the Raging Jews of Comedy, a touring group of five comedians from around the country who took the stage at the Peters on Sept. 13. Some members of the quintet were more “raging” and comedic than others, but a nice-sized crowd appreciated the comics’ collective efforts. 

The group didn’t really need an opening act, since host/opener Sunda Croonquist filled that role. A half African-American, half Swede who married a Jew and converted, Croonquist riffed liberally on her multiple ethnic ties, but took her greatest pride in being from … wait for it … New Jersey. Croonquist has published a cookbook and, at show’s end, handed out tickets to the Laugh Factory where she has a regular gig. The woman was once sued by her own mother-in-law. Her success is not surprising given that she’s an outstanding mimic with an olio of spoofable ethnic quirks and stereotypes at her disposal.

Style-wise, the three men and one woman who followed Croonquist — each of whom performed a set of about 20 minutes — could not have been more different, both from the opener and from each other. They were New Yorkers, Floridians, award-winning veterans of radio, clubs and cruise ships. Several took aim at the stereotypical foibles of Jews (wealth jokes abounded), while others stuck with offbeat material regardless of how much blue hair happened to be in the crowd. With a few choice exceptions, the material was PG-13, with an occasional slide into raunch. Heckling also was minimal, probably in respect for some of the front-row patrons who seemed positively terrified of speaking up and becoming part of the act. 

Immediately following Croonquist was Bruce Smirnoff, a veteran of cruise ship engagements who happily gnawed the hand that writes his paychecks with a series of cracks at the populations who have jumped off Carnival Cruise ships. No relation to comedian Yakov Smirnoff, Bruce Smirnoff is a tall, gangly man in his mid-50s who employs visual aids in his comedy, including a photograph from his youth that shows him mustached and sporting an enormous afro. That photo paved the way for a line of hair-loss jokes and dating horror stories, often at his own expense. (“Chaz Bono as a man is sexier than I am.”) 

Channeling a little bit of Lenny Bruce, Jessica Kirson offered the evening’s edgiest and most rapid-fire set. Frizzy-haired and angry-looking, she interrupted her routines with ironic “I just love you guys” and quirky non-sequiturs, which probably had the front row very nervous. “I’ll get you,” she cautioned, matter-of-factly, “It just depends how hard I want to work.”

It might have been a slight miscalculation in scheduling wisdom to have the slower-paced and more cerebral Tommy Savitt later in the evening. Savitt, also quite talented, presents himself as a life coach or self-help guru in the Tony Robbins mode whose wisdom and advice are cracked, nonsensical or both. Sporting a fringed Western vest over a pink satin shirt, Savitt dispenses motivational bromides along the lines of “Dr. Phil says don’t drink while you’re pregnant. How are you supposed to get pregnant in the first place?” and “ The best way to fail is to try.”

By the time he took the stage, the evening’s closing act, “Savage” Steve Marshall, may have felt he needed to force the issue on his already pushy comedy to keep everyone focused. Marshall hit the stage as the evening was pushing 10 p.m., and the venue’s thermostat discomfort was ramped up. The comedian spent an undue amount of time tossing out ethnic jokes that he felt obligated either to justify or excuse (“Thank you for allowing yourself to laugh at that!”). 

A few patrons wandered in and out, but nobody seemed to depart in a rage. Except, perhaps, the performers themselves who are off to “rage” wherever the spirit takes them. 

Somber state of comedy in the mideast


Humor is a great vehicle, and political humor is actually one of the greatest tools of political critique. In some Western societies, political humor is more popular than straight politics and certainly more popular than the evening news. Many more Americans watch Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” than watch the evening news.

Political humor can only emerge in a free society, so, as you can imagine, because most of the Middle East is not free, most of the region is devoid of political humor. The little political humor that does exist is most often the comedy of parody and skits, of mockery, making fun of leaders and play acting exaggerated situations. But there is still a glimmer of hope for true political comedy in, of and about the Middle East.

During the last year, one of the funniest and at the same time one of the boldest political moves in the Middle East was made by LBC, the Lebanese Broadcasting Co., a private network that broadcasts from Beirut.

Every Friday night, LBC airs a comedy show that pokes fun at the situation in Lebanon and the whole Middle East. Most of their comedy is, true to form, simple imitation and role playing. The name of the Friday night show is in itself a play on words. It is called “Bas Mat Watan, which means “The Homeland’s Laughter”; the comedy lies in the fact that Bas Mat Watan sounds very similar to “Bas Met Waten,” which means “The Homeland Is Dying.” It’s an inside joke, but a good one.

One episode last November depicted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Nothing of this kind had been performed on air since 2006, and undertaking the parody took a great deal of courage even in free-thinking Lebanon. People have been assassinated for much less.

The show caused riots and a huge tidal wave of activity on Twitter. 

Nasrallah’s supporters complained that it was inappropriate to mock a cleric. Supporters of the show said that was fair game because he was a political figure and no different from any other politician the program lampoons. Besides, supporters said, this program impersonates religious leaders all the time.

Until November, LBC was too afraid of the repercussions to touch Nasrallah. The reason they finally felt empowered enough to rake him over the proverbial coals of television comedy is that as the Syria conflict spilled into Lebanon and more Lebanese lives were lost, they felt comfortable challenging Hezbollah, which is a major player in the unpopular war.

Egypt, too, has been host to a new breed of political humor. Bassem Youssef, a leading, controversial, and very popular satirist and comic, hosted a well-watched television show that targeted politicians and politics. Under the government of Muhammad Morsi, Youssef was arrested and, for obvious reasons, the show was canceled. But after an international outcry especially from U.S. political comedy super star Stewart — Egypt released Youssef from prison. When Morsi was ousted, Youssef was given a show called “Al Barnameg,” or “The Show,” on a private Egyptian station. 

Youssef is often called the Egyptian Jon Stewart. In June 2013, Stewart actually visited Egypt and made an appearance on Youssef’s show. It was very funny, especially in light of Youssef’s reciprocal appearance on Comedy Central, Stewart’s network.

The popularity of Youssef was not limited to Egypt. His was one of the most-watched shows in the entire Arabic world. Egyptians waited to see if Youssef would be as forthright and critical of the new military regime as he had been of Morsi. He was. And so, on the eve of his second show, the network pulled the plug, damaging the new form of Arabic political humor.

Tolerance for political humor was very low under Morsi. During his tenure as president, the Egyptian court also prosecuted a famous humorist film actor; this time, however, the humorist was prosecuted in absentia. Adel Imam, the humorist, is arguably the most popular actor in the egion, an Arabic version of Charlie Chaplin. Imagine prosecuting him when he was in his 70s and was found guilty of making fun of Islam and the prophet Muhammad. Now that’s funny.

In spite of the setbacks, Egypt is still working hard to develop a sense of political humor. But there have been unfunny repercussions. After Stewart’s appearance on Egyptian TV, some Egyptian pundits speculated that the American-Jewish comedian was announcing a plan that the Jews were preparing to invade and capture Egypt. 

Jordan saw its first hint of political humor about 20 years ago. A duo named Nabil and Hisham emerged and toured the country with their political skits. They were so popular at home that someone thought it would be a good idea to bring them over to Israel so that they could perform in Tel Aviv. Their comedy consisted of crude, almost high school-style, play-acting parody. They poked fun at the entire Middle East and, of course, the leaders. In Jordan, it was acceptable humor. In Israel, although not very professional, it was accepted, as well. Much of the regional political humor has been filled with bile and acerbic hatred of Jews and Israel. Nabil and Hisham were the exception.

Today, several Arab expatriates who live in the West offer hope. The best example of this political humor is a recent YouTube video by an expat from Saudi Arabia named Hisham. Dressed in a kafiyah, Hisham sings the words “No Woman, No Drive” to the tune of Bob Marley’s 1979 hit, “No Woman, No Cry.” Hisham Fageeh, a graduate student at Columbia University, was making fun of the fact that women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. The YouTube video went viral with over 12 million views.

Despite government’s attempt to silence comedians, humor in the Arabic world is going to improve, thanks to technology, and will provide the perfect barometer by which we will be able to measure and judge freedom and democracy in the Middle East.


Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

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