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

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.

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).

Yakov Smirnoff’s elixir of love


Yakov Smirnoff has been in the comedy business for more than 30 years. He knows how to make people laugh. 

Now, he’s trying to show everyone just how important laughter is when it comes to relationships. 

Smirnoff, who spent the past two decades showcasing his act at his theater in Branson, Mo., has returned to Los Angeles. Through Sept. 21, he’ll be at the Acme Comedy Theatre in Hollywood performing his one-man show, “Happily Ever Laughter,” a mix of stand-up about his personal life and career, as well as a humorous seminar for couples. 

It may seem odd that the comedian, who is best known for his “In Soviet Russia” jokes, would be doing a show about relationships. But he explains that, as somebody who makes people laugh, he felt it was his duty to help couples laugh more together. 

“In a relationship, people experience a lot of laughter. They bond over it. It’s a sign that a relationship is good. People don’t know how to sustain the laughter later on in their relationships,” he said. “As a comedian, I create it on a regular basis. I thought, ‘Wow, I can figure this out.’ And that’s why I’m doing this.” 

Smirnoff saw the awe-inspiring power of laughter when, in the 1980s, he wrote jokes for a speech that President Ronald Reagan gave to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He said that because Gorbachev and fellow Russian politicians laughed along with Reagan, the Cold War came to an end. 

 “Laughter was a byproduct of Gorbachev and Reagan’s relationship,” Smirnoff said. “I know laughter is how we change the world.”

“Happily Ever Laughter” made its Broadway debut 10 years ago. Since then, Smirnoff has taken the show all over the country and tweaked it along the way. 

He’s got credentials that help: a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and experience teaching courses on relationships at Missouri State University and Drury University, both in Springfield, Mo.

The show begins with a video about “America’s Mural,” a 9/11 tribute mural that Smirnoff anonymously painted (and fronted $100,000 for) after the Twin Towers fell. He talks about his life in the Soviet Union, where he lived in a nine-family communal apartment and shared a room with his parents until he was 26 years old. He said that when his parents were being funny together, they were also showing how much they cared for one another. 

“When I heard their laughter, I put two and two together. I knew I was in the presence of love. Intuitively, I felt love and laughter were inseparable companions.”

Smirnoff and his parents immigrated to New York City with very little money and no knowledge of the English language. He worked in a restaurant and then started pursuing comedy, which led to roles in “Moscow on the Hudson” with Robin Williams, “The Money Pit,” starring Tom Hanks, and “Heartburn” with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Eventually, he was asked to perform at the White House for Reagan, which led to the speech-writing gig. During that time, he fell in love, got married and had two children — a son and a daughter.  

About halfway through his show, Smirnoff travels from the middle to the side of the stage and shows video clips of fighting and happy couples. He demonstrates that when couples don’t have fun, they suffer. 

This is what happened in his own relationship when, after 12 years of marriage, he and his wife divorced. Although Smirnoff is currently in a relationship, he said that he is attempting to comprehend what happened with his previous one. 

“Part of this work is to figure this out because I couldn’t sustain the laughter in my relationship,” he said. “That’s probably what pushed me to try and understand it.” 

Following the mini-seminar, Smirnoff closes out his show with more stand-up, and touches upon the love he has experienced in his life. He sensed it when his first landlady in New York City gave his family an apartment for $50 instead of $240 and covered the rest, and he observed it after 9/11. Whenever he’s with his kids, he feels the love, and he saw it when he met a couple from Thousand Oaks who have been laughing together throughout their 80-year marriage.  

Through his show, he said he can witness laughter bringing couples together right before his eyes. 

“When I do a show, I watch people walk in and they are distracted and disconnected,” he said. “They are there to get joy from a comedy show. As the show progresses I watch their body language. Twenty to 30 minutes into the show, they’re starting to lean toward one another. Then they hold hands. As the show ends they leave smiling, giggling and walking together to their cars.”

Smirnoff said that since he knows how to make people laugh, he has the obligation to make a difference in the world. 

“I felt I was given this quest to figure this out because I’m a comedian, and I have this talent. However, I also have this brain, [as well as] the desire to figure out the parts, dissect it, and say, ‘Here’s how it works. Here’s how happiness works.’ I want to contribute to the pursuit of happiness. You can pursue it. I want to help people to know now.”

The ACME Comedy Hollywood Theater is located at 135 N. La Brea Avenue.  Performances will be August 24, 28 & 31 and September 7, 14 and 21 at 8:00PM.  Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door, and can be purchased online at www.yakov.com or by phone at (877) 779-2568.

Billy Crystal to star in Larry Charles’ FX series


Looks like FX is going to be injecting some humor into their lineup. Not a bad idea, we think, after many seasons of the awesome yet dark series “Justified” or “Sons of Anarchy.”

Billy Crystal will star in the network’s new half-hour series, “The Comedians,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The veteran Jewish comedian will play a veteran (Jewish?) comedian forced to work with a younger, edgier comedian on a late-night comedy sketch show.

As if Crystal alone wasn’t enough to give us faith that it’s going to be funny, the show has some other comedic heavyweights behind it. Producing and writing the series are Larry Charles of “Seinfeld” fame and Ben Wexler from “Community” and “Arrested Development.”

“The Comedians” is scheduled to air this summer.

Seth Rogen waltzes to a dramatic beat in new movie [Q & A]


He’s better known for big studio comedies like “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express”, but Seth Rogen strays from his beaten path when he stars in the low-budget comedy-drama “Take This Waltz.”

Directed by Canadian actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley, and opening in U.S. theaters on Friday, the movie sees Rogen starring opposite Michelle Williams, who is better known for dramatic roles in films like “Blue Valentine”.

Rogen plays a cookbook author with an alcoholic sister (Sarah Silverman) who doesn’t seem to notice that his wife (Williams) has fallen for the handsome artist (Luke Kirby) that lives across the street.

Rogen, 30, talked with Reuters about working with Williams, and his upcoming directorial debut in “The End of the World”.

Reuters: “Take This Waltz” is about a woman’s marriage failing because she’s in love with someone else. Not exactly a subject matter you’re associated with. How did this project come about?

Seth Rogen: “I’m not one of those actors where filmmakers that I admire ask me to be in their movies. I meet them at parties and they’re nice to me, but they never ask me to work with them. Sarah Polley is one of the first filmmakers that I’ve really liked that asked me.”

R: There is no trace here of the man-child roles you often play in your other movies. It’s probably your most serious role to date, wouldn’t you say?

S.R.: “It’s probably closer to what I am in real life. I think I’m one of those people that when fans meet, they’re often very disappointed because I’m kind of quiet and shy. I think they expect me to have one of those hats with two beer cans strapped to my head and strippers on either side of me. So it was nice to do something where I didn’t have to be really funny all the time.”

R: How did you enjoy working with Michelle Williams?

S.R.: “She was very impressive. A lot of our scenes were emotionally demanding. The emotional turmoil that actors put themselves through at the drop of a hat is not the type of stuff I normally do.”

R: We seem to know more about Michelle Williams’ character than yours. What’s the back story you gave him?

S.R.: “I think a lot of people aggressively stay stagnant, almost like a gauntlet that’s thrown down. For Lou, the test of the relationship is ‘Can we not change.’ He thinks if it’s strong enough to not change, that means it’s strong enough to last. But that’s not realistic or how real relationships are.”

R: You’re currently making your feature directorial debut with writing partner Evan Goldberg on the comedy “The End of the World” that you also star in. How do you like directing?

S.R.: “It was a little daunting because the movie itself is technically complicated. The story is something we’ve been working on for years and years. There have been several moments where I feel like, ‘I can’t believe we pulled this off!’ But those wonderful moments have been shattered by the stress of ‘We’re not going to finish what we need to shoot in time!’”

R: In that film, everybody plays a heightened version of themselves. You’ve got a lot of your friends in there like James Franco, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel. But also people like Rihanna and Emma Watson who seem unlikely to hang with your crowd in real life.

S.R.: “It’s James Franco’s party in the movie. And the truth is, sometimes you go to a party and you can’t believe who’s there…I’ve had random famous people show up at my parties where I’m like, ‘What the heck is this person doing here?’ That’s what we wanted to tap in to.”

R: How did you nab Rihanna?

S.R.: “I read in an interview once that she was a fan of some of our movies. When we were working on this film, we thought, ‘She seems not to hate us. She could be a good person to ask.’ We got her on the phone, explained it to her and she agreed to do it. She was really funny, she improvised and did everything we asked her to do. And she seemed to have a good time.”

R: You act, write, direct, produce and are considered to be on Hollywood’s A-list. Ever feel like you’re on top of the world?

S.R.: “As a Jewish person, you generally hate yourself, but there’s moments where I feel that way.”

Reporting by Zorianna Kit, editing by Jill Serjeant and Carol Bishopric

Purim spoof: Jewish NBA player “Completely not jealous” of Jeremy Lin


Jeremy Lin’s NBA debut, in which he scored more points in his initial five games than any other new player, resulted in a fan frenzy that Charlotte Bobcats third-string small forward Elon Steinman “totally gets.” 

“I’m not envious at all,” says Steinman, “It’s just, well it’s nothing. I mean look, I can get fans excited too… ABOUT STEINMANIA!”

Steinman is referring to the commotion surrounding his “exhilarating” play as “Steinmania.” So far, all social media mentions of Steinmania amount to 8 Facebook statuses, several tweets and 223 fan groups on JDate. A recent search for #Steinmania on Twitter was outshined by a major sale the Stein company was having on pianos, further dampening Steinman’s self-described “virility.”

Steinman averages three points every game, as well as “countless half assists,” which is what he has defined as him passing the ball to a player who then passes it to a scorer. “If we’re counting half assists, then oh boy, I have at least four real assists,” Steinman gushes, “don’t even get me started on quarter assists.”

Despite Steinman’s preferred moniker, head coach Paul Silas is quick to call the rookie’s play-style “Steinmanxious,” a technique which Silas describes as “the guy puttering around the court, nervously looking for someone to pass to while minimizing his own time actually handling the ball.”

“The critics like to say we got him on board because of nepotism,” says coach Silas, glancing at a portrait of president of basketball operations Abraham Steinman, “but he’s new, and I believe that he can develop as a player and really come to play a unique and powerful role on this team. Seriously though, did you see that Lin three-pointer at the end of the Raptors game? It would’ve been Linsane if it wasn’t so Lincredible!”

Steinman is quick to dismiss any kind of a connection between his status on the team and his family. “I haven’t had anything handed to me,” says Steinman, while a masseuse hands him a drink, “I grew up just doing my time in private school, taking private basketball lessons whenever I could.”

The NBA third-stringer refers to his fans as “an army of Steinmaniacs.” A scan of the crowd at the last Charlotte Bobcats game revealed a lone “#STEINMANIA!!!!” sign, held by a Rachel Steinman, who emphatically shouted “that’s my boy!” and “not so rough, he’s just a baby!”

When their play time was threatened by the 2011 NBA lockout, Jewish NBA players Jordan Farmar and Omri Casspi both entertained the notion of playing for Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv. Despite his extremely limited time on the court, Steinman would not even consider such ideas, stating: “The climate is bad for my skin, allergies, and hypoallergenic cat Rivka.”

“It would be nice to at least get an ice cream,” says Steinman, referring to the now controversial flavor “Taste the Lin-sanity” that Ben and Jerry’s introduced, which featured fortune cookies. “It would be vanilla flavored, because let’s not go too crazy, and have little bits of hamentashen crumbled in! My mother has a recipe that is to die for!”

A spokesperson for Ben and Jerry’s could not be reached for comment.

Happy Jewish New Year! [VIDEO]


For more Gold, see Merry Erev Xmas with Elon Gold and special guest comedians at The Laugh Factory in Hollywood. Two shows from 8-10pm on Sat., Dec 24th. Call 323-656-1336 ext. 1 or go to

Yom HaAtzmaut special: California on Hebrew [VIDEO]


California on Purim [VIDEO]


It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane — Oy Gevalt, It’s a Jewish ‘Watchmen’


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Who watches the watchmensch? Yes, you read that right—the comic book “Watchmen” is getting a Yiddish makeover courtesy of a British comic writer.

And in fitting with “Watchmen’s” trademark plot twists and surprising revelations, “Watchmensch” has one of its own: Although it’s crammed with Yiddish dialogue, Jewish in-jokes and black hats, its creator isn’t Jewish.

Rich Johnston is known in the comics world as a sort of gossip columnist—he writes a news and rumors column called “Lying in the Gutters.” He also has written several comics of his own, including one about a 17th-century Italian monk combined with elements from the TV show “Smallville.”

Johnston, 36, came up with the idea for “Watchmensch” at a comic book convention.

“I was messing around with friends about titles of comics, and ‘Watchmensch’ is just one that got stuck in my head,” he said in a phone interview from his home in southwest London, where he lives with his wife and two children.

He had an idea for the comic as well: A parody about the murder of a Jewish lawyer. After he wrote about it in his column, Johnston received positive feedback, including an e-mail from Swedish comic artist Simon Rohrmuller, who ended up drawing the book based on Johnston’s script.

The original “Watchmen” follows a group of former superheroes in 1980s America as they investigate the murder of one of their own, the Comedian. The series deconstructs the superhero genre with groundbreaking narrative techniques and an intricate alternate-history plot.

Originally published in a 12-part series from 1986 to 1987, “Watchmen” was a major hit, and is still considered one of the greatest comics of all time. It was named one of Time magazine’s top 100 English-language novels in 2005, and the highly anticipated “Watchmen” movie opened March 6.

It was the No.1 film in America on its opening weekend, bringing in $55.7 million—the most successful opening in 2009.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the series has been parodied in works like “Botchmen,” made by Mad magazine, and now in “Watchmensch.”

“Watchmensch” follows a similar trajectory to its predecessor, starting with the death of the Comedian—known in “Watchmensch” as Krusty the Klown, in homage to the famous Jewish character on “The Simpsons.” Investigating the murder are Spottyman (a takeoff on “Watchmen’s” Rorschach) and Jewish lawyers Nite Nurse (Nite Owl) and Silk Taker (Silk Spectre).

Along the way are numerous insider references to the history of “Watchmen” and comics in general, with particular emphasis on the industry’s Jewish roots.

“It’s a parody of ‘Watchmen,’ the comic book and the movie, and also a satire on the comic book industry, how the artists and the industry worked together for the past 70 years,” Johnston says.

The Jewish theme worked perfectly, he adds, because the history of the comic book is filled with Jewish names—among them Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), Superman’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and Batman’s Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn).

Siegel and Shuster even make an appearance in “Watchmensch,” in a flashback to the day when they famously sold the rights to the Superman character to DC Comics for a mere $130.

Because Johnston isn’t Jewish, he wanted to be sure he was making an accurate portrayal.

“Once I got [a Jewish element], I’d go online and make sure I got it right,” he says. “I was also able to run skits past a few [Jewish] friends.”

The Jewish elements include Yiddish terms and Chasidic-style clothing, with Spottyman sporting payes and a black hat, and Silk Taker in a modest, high-necked dress. A pet named Balabusta also has a cameo, as does a can of Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda, a classic Jewish icon.

Johnston says the irony is that “I give the most Jewish lines to Spottyman, who’s not Jewish. It’s this secret identity he’s put on.”

Keeping things hidden, he says, is a common theme in comic-book history.

“Even in the early days of superhero comics, Judaism was there but it was disguised,” Johnston explains. “Even the Thing in the Fantastic Four—he was Jewish, but it was never actually said. Only within the last few years was it finally said, ‘Ben Grimm is Jewish.’ It’s long overdue.”

Rachel Freedenberg is a staff writer for the j. weekly.

VIDEO: Heeb Olympics 2008 — Gefilte Fish Wrestling




Four modern-day gladiators do battle for the gold (a lifetime supply of Gold’s mustard) in the Heeb Olympics. For more information, check out www.heebmagazine.com.

VIDEO: Woody Allen and the Jewish robots (from ‘Sleeper’)


Woody Allen is fitted for a new suit by robot Jewish tailors—from ‘Sleeper’

 

Judy Toll is one funny valentine


Groucho Marx said anyone can get old—all you have to do is live long enough. But what can you say about a comedian who lived it all in 44 years, as a breakthrough stand-up, gifted improv actor and writer for the hottest HBO comedy show?

Meet Judy Toll.

“Judy was a Jew; I don’t know if you’re aware of that,” comedian Andy Kindler deadpanned. “She came from a long line of Jews.”

Toll also went and took her mother to the Holy Land, married an Oscar-winning filmmaker from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and was loved by so many friends that she even went to therapy with them.

Now, according to the documentary made by her brother, Gary Toll, Judy was “The Funniest Woman You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s a labor of love that rushes at you through her characters, her lovers, her sketches from The Groundlings, her episodes from HBO’s “Sex and the City” and her family life in Philadelphia.

“The Funniest Woman” is wrapped in anecdotes from creative pals like Kathy Griffin, Wendy Kamenoff, Taylor Negron and Michael Patrick King who detail the more hellish dramas Toll created to jump on stage and talk about. Friends loved this frenetic personality who struggled to turn her pain into our pleasure before succumbing to cancer in 2002.

“What a thing for her to have this terrible affliction when she had such a profound influence on the comedy business,” comedian Rick Overton said. “Her bold character work, the sort of thing that stars have.”

As a child in the 1960s, Toll starred in her family’s living room—mocking in-laws with perfect mimicry and mad-libbing Hawaiian Punch ads.

“I never laughed as hard with anyone as I did with Judy,” her brother said.

Toll and her siblings would stay up until mom Sandy yelled because their father, Jay, had to get up early to get to the furniture store he ran on Market Street in Philly for 40 years. Sister Joanne (now a producer of HBO’s “In Treatment”) helped shoot Super 8 movies—not normal family nachas but scripted, elaborate spoofs.

“Judy often said she had the most fun in her life making our movies,” Gary Toll said.

Groundlings veteran Jim Doughan remembers the Tolls as “the weirdest family I’ve ever encountered.”

From Samuel Gompers Elementary School (Kevin Bacon’s mother was her teacher), Toll launched her career: Suburban theater trouper and “My Fair Lady” fundraisers for the Philadelphia chapter of ORT.

This was followed by her brilliant, disruptive Hebrew school years.

“She jumped off a sofa and broke her leg two weeks before her bat mitzvah,” Gary Toll said. “Probably an early example of her causing drama. Bat mitzvah was a big showcase for her.”

After theater at U Mass, Toll became the first female comic “in the comedy club surge of the early ‘80s,” according to Steve Young, co-founder of the Philadelphia Comedy Works.

“On stage, she did characters and jokes. Off stage, she did Judy. That’s who you fell in love with,” he said.

Kamenoff remembers meeting “this sweet little blond, Jewish angel” while doing her own act there. “Barely 5-foot-1, with this huge personality. I said, ‘Oh my God, I love you, let’s be friends!’” she said.

Toll and Kamenoff shared the kind of adventures particular to stand-ups on the road in the 1980s.

“Madonna was doing her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour,” recalled Kamenoff, now a writer and teacher. “We did our ‘No Ambition’ tour—Utah, Wyoming, Montana. Honky-tonks with screen doors slamming, the stage the size of a desk. These were cowboys who had never seen a Jewish girl in their life. Or a woman comic.”

Judy won them over.

“She didn’t have a censor,” Kamenoff said. “They loved her.”

After arriving in Los Angeles, Toll rose through the comedy ranks.

“When you were around Judy, you laughed a lot,” said actress Edie McClurg, who performed with Toll at The Groundlings Theatre. “She was a pretty and beautiful soul.”

“She was born to do characters,” Gary Toll added.

After seeing Toll creations like Naomi the B.U. feminist and neurotic Sheila Naselstein, who returns matzah when it’s broken, a critic for The New York Times called her, “a combination of Judy Holliday and Gilda Radner.”

Radner was her idol.

Buzzing around Los Angeles with a CMDYGAL vanity plate, Toll worked part time selling Chipwiches at the La Brea Tar Pits and broke through with Groundlings partner Wendy Goldman on a sketch called, “Casual Sex.”

Ivan Reitman bought and produced their play as the 1988 movie, “Casual Sex?” starring Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson. Upset she wasn’t cast to play herself, Toll instead found success writing sitcoms, appearing in other films and on shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” During the dulled-down comedy club scene of the ‘90s, Toll found a home at Un-Cabaret, an alternative comedy space for stand-ups stretching into storytellers.

“Audiences witnessed a diary of what was going on in her life,” Kamenoff recalled. “She discovered her voice there.”

“Judy always called Un-Cabaret the ‘comedy of love,’” said Beth Lapides, the venue’s co-creator. “That was one of her major themes. And she loved when there was a small audience, because it was so much more intimate.”

At the Un-Cab, wearing her favorite cherry earrings, Toll read new writings or ranted out her hypochondria—“I live in anxiety and fear!”—detailing her calamities in and out of romance, AA, OA and even Scientology. But when a boyfriend found an irregular mole on her back, she really did get sick. Melanoma.

“Judy and our mother took a trip to Israel and Judy was very affected,” Gary Toll said. “She started going back to services and studying. I don’t think Judy would have dealt with her cancer as courageously as she did if Judaism had not been a part of her life.”

She also got the job of her life with HBO’s “Sex and the City,” writing about what she often talked about on stage: women falling for the wrong men. Writer Liz Tuccillo remembered Toll as being “amazingly upbeat in the writers’ room while battling her illness.” One day though, “she told us that she felt like she had lost her sense of humor. She was crying a bit. Soon, however, she started talking about how her sense of humor had moved to Florida to retire. She went on to write some of the show’s funniest lines that afternoon,” Tuccillo said.

Rivers, refuseniks and traitors come together at L.A. Jewish Film Festival


The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will appropriately mark Israel’s 60th anniversary with an opening film on the country’s transition from British mandate to independent state.

“The Little Traitor,” kicking off the weeklong festival on Thursday, May 8, harkens back to 1947, when “Palestinians” referred to the Jewish inhabitants and the hated enemies were British soldiers wearing red berets.

Throughout the week, until May 15, the festival will present some 30 features, documentaries, short subjects and panel discussions at eight venues on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, announced executive director Hilary Helstein.

Theodore Bikel, who has a small role in the film, will appear live at the opening night screening, along with director-writer Lynn Roth. Israeli Consul General Yaakov Dayan will also address the audience.

In other highlights, Joan Rivers will receive the Marlene Adler Marks Woman of Inspiration Award, named in honor of the late Jewish Journal editor and columnist. The May 13 event at the Skirball Cultural Center will include the premiere of “Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women.”

“Refusenik,” the story of the international campaign to free Soviet Jews, will have its local premiere on May 14, with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, one of the movement’s pioneer activists, and director Laura Bialis in attendance.


‘Sixty-Six’ trailer

A sneak preview of the comedy, “Sixty-Six,” dealing with the conflict between a British boy’s bar mitzvah plans and the World Cup soccer series, closes the festival on May 15.

“Little Traitor,” based on the semibiographical novel, “Panther in the Basement” by Israeli author Amos Oz, combines the coming of age story of a young patriot with historical insights on the struggle for a Jewish state.

Proffy (short for “professor”) is an 11-year-old Jerusalem boy, who hates the British soldiers who occupy his land, impose strict curfews, and conduct midnight house raids.

With two like-minded playmates, he forms the “underground cell” FOD (“Freedom or Death”), which sprays “British Go Home” graffiti on walls and tries to disable a British convey by scattering nails on the road.

On most evenings, Proffy sneaks up to the rooftop to scan the roads for the British enemy through binoculars. Not infrequently, his attention strays to a lovely young woman in a neighboring apartment in various stages of undress.

One evening, Proffy, played with remarkable authenticity by Ido Port, is caught after curfew hours by British Sgt. Dunlop, played by a sympathetic, if slightly corpulent, Alfred Molina.

An unlikely but warm friendship develops between Proffy and the Bible-reading soldier during mutual language lessons, in which Dunlop explains the meaning of “snooker” and Proffy introduces his friend to the subtleties of “meshugge.”

After a short time, Proffy’s fellow young freedom fighters discover the relationship and denounce him as a traitor. Proffy is hauled before a Jewish Agency “court” and sternly examined by Bikel as an interrogator.

In one of its most emotional scenes, the film recreates the almost unbearable tension of the November 1947 vote by the United Nations, which will determine the partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews. Families huddle around the radio, keeping score of each country’s vote, and then burst into the street in wild jubilation after the final count.

Lynn Roth, who directed “Little Traitor” and wrote the screenplay, is a veteran Hollywood writer and producer who has won numerous awards, especially as showrunner (executive producer) of the long-running 1980s television series “The Paper Chase.”

She has also been a longtime teacher in The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership Program and said that she had dreamt for decades about making a film in Israel.

After extensive preparations, she began filming “Little Traitor” in the old Musrara quarter of Jerusalem in the summer of 2006, and three days into the project the Lebanon War broke out.

“It struck me as ironic that I was making a film about fighting in Palestine in 1947, and now, almost 60 years later, the bullets were flying again,” she said.

Despite such distractions, including the army call-up of some of her crewmembers, Roth “miraculously” completed shooting the film in 28 days.

Roth, a New York native, said she is bound to Israel by many ties, not least the graves of all four grandparents in the Jewish state.

For detailed listing of films, dates and locations, call the Westside Jewish Community Center, festival sponsor, at (323) 938-2531.

Funny and frum


On a recent evening at a private home in Beverlywood, a group of Orthodox Jews listened to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talk about issues liketerrorism, crime prevention, anti-Semitism, a vision for the city for the next century, fixing LAX and so on. People asked questions, debates followed, the mood was serious and intense.

Then, at a moment of high intensity, a quiet, unassuming man in his early 50s who hadn’t said a word all night got up, and with the crowd suddenly hushed, asked: “Mr. Mayor, is it illegal to park when the parking meter’s broken?”

It brought down the house.

The man himself didn’t crack a smile. He was dead serious about his question.

Of course, if you know Mark Schiff, you know he’s a master of self-control. He rarely laughs. He would much rather see you laugh — especially when he’s performing.

Schiff is a rare bird. He’s made a living as a stand-up comic for more than 30 years and is much admired in the fraternity of American comedians. For years, he’s been performing on the road with Jerry Seinfeld (one of his closest friends). Last year, his book, “I Killed,” a compilation of stories of the road from the country’s top comedians, got a glowing review on that most exclusive of book review stages, the Sunday New York Times.

But swing by my neighborhood at around midday on any Shabbat, and chances are you’ll see another Mark Schiff. This is the Orthodox Schiff, who is quietly walking back from synagogue with his wife, Nancy, and one or more of his three sons — part of the procession of observant Jews who grace the streets of our neighborhood during Shabbat.

Over a vegetarian lunch and herbal tea the other day, Schiff was recalling the very beginnings of his comedic and religious influences. As I understood it, he was influenced by “two rebbes”: Rodney Dangerfield and Rabbi Nachum Braverman.

When he was 12, his parents took him to see singer Al Martino at a nightclub in New York, and a young Dangerfield was the opening act. He saw the “physicality” of the act — the unique voice, the disarming honesty, the simplicity of one man in a black suit and red tie making hundreds of people weep with laughter — and he got hooked.

Almost 20 years later, after he had moved to Los Angeles to further his comedy career, a friend took him to a little house in Pico-Robertson to hear “this new rabbi.” Again, he saw a man in a black suit, with a unique voice and a disarming honesty, moving his audience. And again he got hooked. Only this time, instead of being moved by a self-deprecating “I tell you I get no respect” routine, he was moved by Rabbi Braverman’s “learn to discover and respect your Judaism” routine.

It was the beginning of a new life, but certainly not the end of an old one.

One thing I love about Schiff is he doesn’t pretend there’s no conflict between the two sides of his life — between the innate irreverence of comedy and the innate reverence of religion. He gets it. In comedy, you’re supposed to make fun of everything, while in religion, you are commanded to take things seriously. Religion teaches you how to count your blessings; in comedy, you kill if you know how to count (and recount) your kvetches. Comedy wants to touch you in the moment, while religion wants to move you for all moments.

The struggle of Schiff’s life has been to make these opposite worlds peacefully co-exist.

To look at him, it’s easy to see how he pulls it off. For one thing, he’s blessed with a very non-Jewish character trait: He hates drama. Just look at his face. He could be a yoga instructor. It’s the face of a craftsman, of a really good listener, someone who will not rush impulsively into anything (but who can still pounce on you at the right moment with a line like, “Humor was so clean in the old days they called it ‘Hoover Darn'”).

Schiff manages the contradictions between his two worlds by listening carefully to both.

That means he understands boundaries. He might do a slightly off-color routine at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard and then clean up his act the next night in front of 500 people at a Jewish fundraiser in St. Louis. He knows, for example, that elderly Jews will laugh at racier material if it’s kept in the context of marital relationships — and to never, God forbid, use the term “girlfriend” with that crowd.

One thing that’s always been difficult to reconcile is the fact that Friday night is a big night for comedy, but it’s also the biggest night for observant Jews to stay home with their families. For many years while he was on the road, he tried to find “kosher ways” around that, but now he’s always home for Shabbat. Schiff doesn’t deny that not working Friday nights has hurt his career, but he sees it as a worthy sacrifice to live in two worlds that he deeply loves.

Conflict aside, he’s always felt a certain kinship between his different worlds, like, for example, a reverence for the heroes of the past. You hear him talk about his comedic ancestors, people like Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar and many others, and he might as well be speaking about Torah giants like Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and their contributions to the Modern Orthodox world to which he belongs.

In the end, though, perhaps what turns him on the most about his two worlds is that they both seek the same thing — a sense of truth. He knows that rabbis and comedians are at their best when they uncover truths that people will intuitively embrace.

Like, for example, asking the mayor of Los Angeles whether you’re allowed to park your car if a parking meter’s broken.

To this day, he still wonders why, after all the laughing had died down, no one could give him a darn straight answer.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Quarterly calendar


MARCH

Fri., March 16

“Irish Writers Entertain: An Evening in the Company of Irish Writers.” One-man show starring Neil O’Shea. Part of the annual Irish Cultural Festival. Loyola Marymount University (LMU). 7:30 p.m. Free. LMU, Barnelle Black Box, Foley Building, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 338-3051.

Sat., March 17

“Cult of Childhood.” Multiple artists explore the menace and charm of childhood. Opening reception 7-10:30 p.m. Through April 15. Black Maria Gallery, 3137 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 660-9393. www.blackmariagallery.com.

Thu., March 22

Joffrey Ballet Performances. Two dance programs, one featuring live orchestra accompaniment, and the other featuring contemporary music by The Beach Boys, Prince and Motown artists. Choreography by Twyla Tharp, George Ballanchine and four others. Through March 24. $25-$115. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-0711. www.musiccenter.org/dance.

Werner Herzog Tribute and Film Retrospective. Screenings of “Heart of Glass,” “Fitzcarraldo,” “Grizzly Man,” and other films by the German director. Herzog will be discussing his work at some of the programs. American Cinematheque. Through March 25. $7-$10. Max Palevsky Theatre at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (323) 466-3456. www.aerotheatre.com.

Ventura County Jewish Film Festival. Film subjects include the fate of European art during the Third Reich, a French butcher who saves the lives of three Jewish children, the journey of musician Debbie Friedman and a romantic tale of unrequited love. Through March 25. $36 (festival pass), $10-$12 (individual screenings). Regency Theatre Buenaventura 6, 1440 Eastman Ave.; and Temple Beth Torah, 7620 Foothill Blvd., Ventura. (805) 647-4181. www.vcjff.org.

Sun., March 25

“Projectile Poetry.” Hosted by Theresa Antonia, Eric Howard and Carmen Vega, the program features readings by published poets as well as an open mic for newcomers. 3 p.m. Dutton’s Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-6263. www.duttonsbrentwood.com.

“Requiem.” World premiere of Christopher Rouse’s musical piece, performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and baritone Sanford Sylvan. Conducted by Grant Gershon. 7 p.m. $19-$109. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (800) 787-5262. www.lamc.org.

“Distracted.” Lisa Loomer’s comedy about an 8-year-old boy diagnosed with ADD and the fast paced, overly wired environment that may have caused it. Directed by Leonard Foglia and starring Rita Wilson and Bronson Pinchot. Center Theatre Group. Through April 29. $20-$55. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.

Tue., March 27

“Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life.” Tony Award-winning dancer stars in a musical production celebrating her 50-year career. Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele. Through April 1. $25-$75. Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 655-4900. www.wilshiretheatrebeverlyhills.com.

Fri., March 30

Roy Zimmerman’s “Faulty Intelligence.” Singing political satirist takes aim at Saddam, Dick Cheney, creation science and more. 8 p.m. $25. Steinway Hall at Fields Pianos, 12121 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 471-3979.

“California Style: Art and Fashion From the California Historical Society.” Exhibit includes Victorian-era paintings, ball gowns and a re-created private parlor from the 1880s. Through May 27. $3-$9. Autry National Center, Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. (323) 667-2000. www.autrynationalcenter.org.

APRIL

Thu., April 5

“The Art of Vintage Israeli Travel Posters.” Commemorating Israeli Independence Day, the exhibit displays posters produced by Israeli government tourism agencies as well as national and private transportation companies during the 1950s and 1960s. Through July 8. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, Ruby and Hurd Galleries, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Fri., April 6

John Legend Concert. Special guest Corinne Bailey Rae. 8:15 p.m. $30-$75. Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City. (818) 622-4440.

Sat., April 7

“Sleeping Beauty Wakes.” Musical adaptation incorporating deaf and hearing actors signing and singing to the book by Rachel Sheinkin. Also features GrooveLily .Center Theatre Group/Deaf West Theatre. Through May 13. $20-$40. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.

Wed., April 11

“The Elixir of Love.” Gaetano Donizetti’s light-hearted romantic opera is set in a West Texas diner in the 1950s. Opera Pacific. Through April 22. $27-$200. Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (800) 346-7372. www.operapacific.org.

Thu., April 12

“KCLU Presents Terry Gross.” The host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” will speak about her experiences interviewing renowned writers, actors, musicians and political figures. Book signing will follow discussion. California Lutheran University. 8 p.m. $15-$50. Fred Kavli Theatre, Countrywide Performing Arts Center, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. (805) 449-2787.

Malibu International Film Festival. Competition festival premiering films from around the world. Opening night party at The Penthouse and awards night at Geoffrey’s Malibu. Through April 16. $10-$100. Aero Theater, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 452-6688. www.malibufilmfestival.com.

Jane Austen Book Club. Series of six book club luncheons discussing Jane Austen novels with UCLA Professor of English Charles Lynn Batten. Novels included. Literary Affairs. 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. May 10, June 14, July 12, Sept. 27, Oct. 25. $375. Beverly Hills Country Club, 3084 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 553-4265. www.literaryaffairs.net.

Fri., April 13

“The Diary of Anne Frank.” Selections from the book performed as an opera and staged in specially prepared areas of parking garages. Featuring Laura Hillman, Schindler’s List survivor. Composed by Grigori Frid. Long Beach Opera. Through April 19. $15-$70. Lincoln Park parking garage, Ocean Boulevard and Pacific Avenue, Long Beach; Sinai Temple parking garage, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (562) 432-5934. www.longbeachopera.org.

Sat., April 14

“Preschool Poetry Jam.” David Prather hosts interactive children’s program with jump rope jingles, Shel Silverstein’s poetry, tumbling boxes, scooters and more. Part of Pillow Theatre Series for 3-6 year olds. Music Center. 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. Free. BP Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3379. www.musiccenter.org.

Tue., April 17

Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad; ‘West Bank Story’ screening


Saturday the 3rd

Naughty Jewish girls need love, too. Show it to ’em this weekend. “Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad” returns to Los Angeles for three nights at Tangiers. The variety show features comedy, music, spoken word and burlesque, with a healthy helping of kitsch. Klezmer Juice also performs.

March 2-4, 8 p.m. $15. Tangiers Restaurant, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 666-8666.

Sunday the 4th

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Wondering where to see those short films you’d never heard of before your Oscar pool? The Very Short Movies Festival presents a perfect opportunity. March 8-11, the festival takes over the Egyptian Theater, where it will screen comedy, drama, documentary, animated and experimental shorts, including “The Tribe,” and Oscar-winner “West Bank Story.”

$8-$10 (tickets), $12-$15 (festival packages). 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (866) 376-9047. Oscar 2007: A good year for the Jews!

Your handy guide to performing at Jewish functions


ORT Ovation; Law and Laughter; Stand and Deliver


ORT Ovation

Education and life were celebrated at the Beverly Hilton’s Rodeo Gallery on Dec. 3 for the L.A. Chapter of American ORT’s 26th annual Chanukah Brunch honoring JDate and Sparks Networks founder Joe Shapira. A 1972 graduate of ORT Singalovski Institute of Technology in Tel Aviv, Shapira used his success to benefit ORT by sponsoring fundraising events as a part of ORT’s elite international donor group, 1880 Society. Emceed by KNX 1070 reporter Laura Ornest, the event honored supporters’ efforts over the past year and raised funds for the local technical school and elementary-, high school- and college-level institutions in 60 countries. Regional director Paul T. Owens applauded the L.A. chapter as the only one in 50 years to singlehandedly raise more than $650,000.

— Sara Bakhshian, Contributing Writer

Stand and Deliver

If anything points up the need for StandWithUs’ (SWU) efforts to spread the truth about Israel, it was a short comedy skit presented at its annual Festival of Lights dinner Dec. 3. In the skit, random people on Hollywood Boulevard were asked questions about Israel like, “What is Ramallah?” Most people answered it was cocktail food. Although presented in the “Jewish Way” through humor, it drives home the point like a sledgehammer. Committed to fighting ignorance and hatred through the dissemination of knowledge, the event honored Consul General of Israel Ehud Danoch, and Eshet Chayil Educational Award recipients Wendy Lewis, Roberta Seid and Shannon Shibata.

The dinner was chaired by Siona and Elie Alyeshmerni and Lonnie and Jimmy Delshad.
Roz Rothstein, SWU national director, said “it takes a village to create an organization that is able to accomplish the work of StandWithUs. We are thrilled at the outpouring of support we’ve received and the worldwide growth we’ve experienced in just five years. This is a clear indication that StandWithUs fills a need within the community.”

“We treasure our sponsors, activists and volunteers,” said Esther Renzer, SWU national president. “We were honored to be able to acknowledge Consul General Ehud Danoch and our three women of valor and pay tribute to their invaluable contributions to Israel advocacy.”

Kids Win by a KO

It was a knockout punch at the Beverly Hilton when the Oscar de La Hoya Foundation honored entrepreneur producer Sam Nazarian, actor Antonio Banderas and California Controller Steve Westly at the ninth annual “Evening of Champions” Dec. 6. The evening’s emcee, funnyman George Lopez brought the laughs and Macy Gray delivered a one-two punch with a crowd-pleasing performance.

As a surprise for Banderas, uber-producer Jeffrey Katzenberg presented the Spanish hunk with his award. A spirited live auction raised $80,000 to bring the evening’s total to more than $750,000 raised. The money provides athletic and educational opportunities to the children of East Los Angeles.

Law and Laughter

The Beverly Hills Bar As
sociation celebrated it 75th diamond anniversary in grand style with a black-tie gala Dec. 6, raising the bar with awards and laughter. Comedian Garry Shandling, who served as master of ceremonies, had the crowd roaring with his hysterical quips. The evening featured an elegant four-course gourmet dinner and dancing to the music of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, Patti Austin and Motown legend singer/songwriter Lamont Dozier, whose numerous hits include “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)” and “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,” entertained the appreciative crowd.

Special tributes — both humorous and moving — saluted all 32 of the association’s living past presidents, 25 of whom attended and were honored and presented with medallions. The event raised $175,000 to benefit the organization’s community outreach, pro bono and educational programs.

Books: Shmegegis of old, shmegegis of gold


“Old Jewish Comedians,” illustrated by Drew Friedman, edited by Monte Beauchamp. (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95) www.fantagraphics.com .

“Weep before God. Laugh before people.”
— Jewish Folk-Saying.

Who doesn’t love old Jewish comedians? Those mamzers of mirth and halutzim of humor who paved the road from the Catskills to Vegas as first-generation entertainers. Now comes “Old Jewish Comedians,” a book to honor these slapsticklers and ticklemen of the 20th century. Thirty-two pages of funny faces (all guys), the book is “An Illustrated Gallery of Jewish American Comedians, Comics, Comic Actors, Clowns, and Tummlers Depicted in the Sunset of Their Years.” Artist Drew Friedman’s portraits cover the greats and the greatly forgotten, from George Burns and Buddy Hackett, to Benny Rubin and Joe Smith.

Friedman, whom I first enjoyed for his funny illustrations in SPY Magazine, and whose work currently is seen in MAD, the New York Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, said that none of the comedians posed for him.

“I have a fairly extensive photo file which was very helpful,” he said.

He’s collected pictures of comedians since he was a child. (Bruce Jay Friedman, the author’s father, appears in “Old Jewish Comedians” in a photo from 1940 in the Catskills with comedian Jackie Miles.)

“Rich reality” is how Leonard Maltin describes Friedman’s style in his foreword. Included in the book are the real names for these “show-business survivors” as Maltin calls them: Shecky Green/Sheldon Greenfield, Freddie Roman/Fred Martin Kirschenbaum, Rodney Dangerfield/Jacob Cohen, Henny/Henry Youngman, et al.

Unfortunately, the only writing in “Old Jewish Comedians” is Maltin’s foreword.

“I didn’t want it to be ‘history’ book,” Friedman explained. “There are already those out there. I wanted their styles to be illustrated in their faces and the context of the drawing. Maltin’s intro puts everything into historical context.”

So where to go if you want to learn more about these Jewish jesters? The ones who didn’t make it because comedy was less marketable back then, 50 years before HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and clubs expanded stand-up venues are described in detail by Betsy Borns in her 1987 treatise, “Comic Lives.” Most never even flashed the free- wheeling coffeehouse style that Gerald Nachman recounts in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 60s.” (Shelley/Sheldon Leonard Berman being the exception, appearing in that 2003 book and this one.)

To really evaluate the book, I went to 92-year-old Irving Brecher. After all, Brecher is old, Jewish and he has not only done stand-up, he wrote for some of Friedman’s alter kackers, like Milton Berlinger (Berle, on the cover), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns, inside cover), and the Marx Brothers (Julius, Adolph and Leonard, middle two pages of book.)

Book open, over split pea soup and half a pastrami on rye at Label’s Table on Pico Boulevard, I quizzed Brecher about “OJC” who never found the fame of a Moses — Harry Horwitz/Moe Howard or Jerome Levitch/Jerry Lewis, a Jack Chakrin/Jack Carter or Archibald Donald Rickles/ Don Rickles, et al.

— Irv, here’s Harry Joachim.

“That’s Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers. Harry was the only one who was talented. Al and Jimmy were nothing.”

— Menasha Skulnik?

“That’s his real name. Great Yiddish comedian. The Yiddish theater was a remarkable place. I wish you’d seen it.”

— Joseph Seltzer?

“Joe Smith of Smith & Dale, the famous vaudeville team. They made a movie called “The Heart of New York,” which is a museum piece. For collectors.”

— Abraham Kalish?

“Al Kelly. Al did double talk. That was his style. He spoke gibberish in vaudeville sketches and all the people would try to be polite.

— While he mocked them?

“No, not mocking them. The audience would laugh. But people in the real world he dealt with would be taken in.”

— Sounds like what Borat does!

“Haven’t seen it. But most comedians couldn’t do it like Al Kelly could. He was unique.”

— Here’s a fellow named Ben Rubin…

“Benny Rubin used to work for me! When he was up in vaudeville. I’d give him a part in “The Life of Riley” radio show. In Hollywood, when they wanted a Jew with a long nose, they’d hire him. The lousy Hollywood producers. He’d make $150. I’d never use a character with a Jewish accent. Like Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] did with ‘Mr. Schlepperman.'”

— He used a thick Jewish accent?

“I hated it, that very stereotypical annoying character.

— Who played him?

“Artie Auerbach. Listen, do they have Jan Murray in this book?”

— No.

“I’m surprised.”

Friedman said not to worry; Jan Murray/Murray Janofsky will appear in the sequel, “More Old Jewish Comedians,” due in 2008.

Brecher said he hopes the sequel has a bit, or routine, a catchphrase, something from each comedian to go with the pictures.

Michael Richards: Still not a Jew


There’s a civil war brewing in Lebanon, missiles sizzle on their launch pads in Gaza; death and doom stalk Iraq; the earth’s climate speeds toward collapse; andIran is five days closer to going nuclear than it was before my Thanksgiving holiday began.

And when I return to work, what does the whole world seem to be wondering?Hey, is Michael Richards Jewish?

Richards is the former “Seinfeld” star who was videotaped at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood lashing out at hecklers using the N-word.

He’s been making the usual Stations of the Media Cross, apologizing ever since.And from the beginning, somehow Richards’ Jewishness, or lack of it, became an issue.

Comedian Paul Rodriguez held a press conference at the Laugh Factory, saying that Richards should know better, because the Hollywood community defended Jews against actor Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirades.

The implication was that Richards, a Jew, should not be launching racist attacks.

Black leaders, self-proclaimed and otherwise, told journalists that they’d be watching to see whether Hollywood reacted as strongly to Richards’ racist outburst as they did to Gibson.

How proud Mel must be that the intensity of Hollywood hate speech is now measured in Gibsons.

But if Gibson himself set the standard at 10 Gibsons, Richards is probably closer to a 5. He never made a full-length feature film shot through with vicious stereotypes. He never stood by a kooky Holocaust denier. And when he vented, he vented onstage in the course of an act.

I happened to catch Richards’ act at the Improv back in September. Richards showed up unbilled and stole the evening. He didn’t have punch lines — he had riffs, rants and characters — and he wasn’t close to offensive. At one point, he channeled the conversation of two dogs barking to each other across a suburban neighborhood. You needed to be there, and maybe you needed a drink in you, but it was hysterical. But channeling a racist without sounding like one is a much taller order, and best left to someone not as untethered as Richards.

That said, there’s also just a touch of hypocrisy in roasting a guy for using a word that a great many black comedians from Chris Rock on down use like … a noun. He may have gone too far, in character or not, but he certainly went where other comedians, not to mention hip hop artists, have gone before. How ethnic groups speak among themselves is one thing. But to maintain that the N-word is okay only when black comedians say it in public is a perverse kind of racism of lower expectations, as if they can’t help it but we should know better.

A lot of people in this affair should know better. How goofy is it that Richards must genuflect in apology to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, for all his good works, is hardly pure in these matters? Evidently, people who live in glass houses can throw stones, so long as the houses are outside “Hymietown.”

And how obscene that attorney Gloria Allred immediately tried to shake Richards down for money on behalf of her clients, the hecklers. How inspiring to see the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement looting the headlines for ratings and cash.

But what interests me about Richardsgate is not black hypocrisy, but Jewish pathology. What tribal chain of ours is yanked the moment someone of indeterminate ethnicity hits the headlines?

The second the brouhaha erupted, there was an atavistic rush to get to the bottom of Richards’ identity. On Nov. 20, The Journal posted a story at reporting that Richards, contrary to the intimations of Rodriguez and others, is not Jewish.

By Tuesday night we had tens of thousands of hits from around the world.

By the following Monday, after a period of Thanksgiving reflection led people to realize what really matters most in life, our Web site had hundreds of thousands of hits, and the piece had been picked up and echoed and blogged on ad infinitum.

Monday morning I had several phones messages and two dozen e-mails demanding confirmation that Richard is not, in fact, Jewish.

What happened is that over the holiday, two more aggrieved audience members came forward and accused Richards of launching into an anti-Semitic rant on the Laugh Factory stage April 22.

Richards’ New York publicist Howard Rubenstein tried setting the record straight. It was preposterous to accuse Richards of anti-Semitism because, Rubenstein told Yahoo News last week, “He’s Jewish. He’s not anti-Semitic at all. He was role-playing, he was playing a part. He did use inappropriate language, but he doesn’t have any anti-Semitic feelings whatsoever.”

That quote was good for another tens of thousands of Web hits. Thanks to Rubenstein’s one man beit din, our original story was under attack.

But our sources were entertainment industry people who’d known the actor his entire professional life.

“Not a Jew. Never was. Take him off the list for a minyan,” e-mailed one comedy writer by way of reassurance. “Rubenstein should be wasting his time on real Jews, like David Beckham.”

(For many in Hollywood, what matters is that Richards’ outburst doesn’t cripple the “Seinfeld” franchise. There are tens of millions of dollars to be lost if fans can’t separate Michael Richards from Cosmo Kramer.)

Hollywood Jews may not know much Mishna or give to Hadassah, but at the tribal level they are sharper than Abe Foxman at knowing who’s in and who’s out.

Rubenstein knows, too, of course. The man Inc. magazine called “PR’s top dog” started his career servicing the Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged and Infirm in Brooklyn and got his first Manhattan real estate tycoon publicity by arranging for him to sing to little Jewish orphans on Jewish holidays. So I called him and asked how, suddenly, Michael Richards is a Jew.

“Well, he wasn’t born with Jewish blood,” Rubenstein tells me in a voice that is silky, deep and confidential — with just a shmear of Flatbush. “It wasn’t an inherited religion. But after studying some of the other religions, he believes in Judaism, and that’s what he’s adopted for himself.”

Will kill for laughs


“Comics, that gifted, exclusive society of professional fools.” — Larry Gelbart in his book, “Laughing Matters”

 
Stand-up comic Mark Schiff is sitting in his tiny office on Pico, near the Museum of Tolerance, talking about the time he played the Knesset.

 
“I pointed to the Chagalls and did the old line: ‘What a dump.'”

 
He kids the Knesset. But Schiff knows from dumps. In 25 years of doing comedy, he’s performed in some real ones. Now he and standup guy/pal Ritch Shydner have collected stories from their fellow pro fools in a book called, “I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics.”

 
“I Killed” features headliners like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jonathan Winters and Shelley Berman for the first time telling tales away from the “comedy caravans” and “yuk-yuks” and even yuckier joints they endured while perfecting their craft.

 
“People don’t know much about this life,” says Schiff, wearing a long-sleeved shirt with pictures of Fat Albert and the Cosby kids all over it, as he stuffed books into mailing pouches with co-compiler Shydner. “A lot of my heroes were road guys like Kerouac and Woody Guthrie. These guys would go out for years and never look back. I always came back.”

 
In the book’s foreword, Seinfeld says there are just “four Great Jobs in the world: baseball player, race-car driver, professional surfer or standup comedian.”

 
What? Not rock musician?

 
“He doesn’t like jobs where you have to drag a lot of equipment,” explains Schiff, who tours with Seinfeld. “It’s not a big Jewish job. We don’t like to drag a lot of things. We carry a diamond, we carry a microphone….”

 
And some, like Schiff, after gigging for giggles throughout this great entertainment nation, make it onto “The Tonight Show,” the Promised Land for stand-ups (the book is dedicated to hosts Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson.) Other “road monkeys” never make it out of the bare-wall bars of Moline (“Death of a Joke Salesman,” anybody?), but from Ashville to Anchorage, comedic troubadours are truly brave.

 
“I Killed” reveals the road to laughs sure ain’t paved with pretty. Flop sweating in front of eight people, bunking in trashed out “comedy condos” because brutal club owners skim on accommodations — comedians learn on the job, dancing that fine line between failure (“I died”) and a laugh (“I killed”) all because of the way they emphasize a single syllable sometimes. The camaraderie and competition, self-loathing and loneliness, the disgusting incidents with jazzman Kenny G. It’s all in here. Paul Reiser, Bob Saget, Steven Wright, Lewis Black and Rick Overton, all also featured in the hilarious documentary, “The Aristocrats,” share outrageous adventures. Here is Rita Rudner standing outdoors on a crate doing her act in somebody’s car headlights. Mike Myers chased by wolves. Richard Belzer sucking the gas out of whipped cream bottles before going onstage. All this nonstop “bombing” and “killing.” And all for the greatest of involuntary causes: laughter.

 
Like many successful comedians (Jan Murray, et. al.) Schiff began in the Bronx. He knew he wanted to do comedy at the age of 12 when his parents took him to see Rodney Dangerfield. (“I Killed” is full of funny tales about Dangerfield; he was beloved by fellow performers.) When Schiff started there were only a dozen clubs, but by the mid-’80s, with franchises like The Funny Bone and The Punch Line, the scene exploded, spreading stand up from strip joints to strip malls.

 
“You never know quite what you’re gonna meet on the road,” Schiff says.

 
“Everything from a woman with an axe to a woman who will marry you.”

 
Get the book to read about D.L. Hughley’s hatchet job, but Schiff actually did meet his wife at a comedy club. In San Antonio. (“I Killed” has a Richard Jeni story of playing San Antonio, and a big cowboy comes up and says: “We never seen a New York Jew,” and Jeni says, “I’m not a Jew.” “Close enough,” says the cowboy.)

 
Schiff was in San Antonio for “a one-nighter.” His wife, Nancy? “She was in charge of raising money for the federation there. We exchanged phone numbers and we’re married now 17 years.”

 
The Schiffs have two kids and pray at Young Israel of Century City. Their children go to the Maimonides School. While away on the road, Schiff has searched for minyans in strange towns and said Kaddish for his parents, but says he hasn’t faced overt anti-Semitism.

 
“I’ve run into people that have never met a Jew,” he says. “And they’re interested. I met a woman in Georgia who actually asked me, ‘Is it true about the horns?'”

 
Schiff loves gigging for Jewish audiences. And when he plays an Orthodox venue — as he will in Montreal next month — he includes in the contract, three Shottenstein Talmuds. “The collection is 73 volumes. I’m on my second collection now.”

 
“That’s interesting,” says co-editor Shydner. “I always require that the clubs give me two Dr. Pepper bottle caps and an auto repair manual.”

 
“I Killed, True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics” compiled by Mark Schiff and Ritch Shydner was released this week. Jerry Seinfeld is scheduled to appear on “Late Show With David Letterman” with the book on Nov. 20.

 

Hank Rosenfeld is writing a book with Irving Brecher, who wrote for Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.

Comedy director David Zucker goes to GOP? You can’t be serious!


David Zucker, the producer and director of “Airplane,” “The Naked Gun” and “Scary Movie 4,” embraced the Republican Party in 2004 and voted for President Bush, largely because of security concerns. Once a liberal activist and campaign adviser to President Bill Clinton, he made a low-budget anti-Kerry ad that ran mostly in Ohio and kept his political change-of-heart largely under Hollywood’s radar.
 
Not now.
 
Zucker sees threats to America and Israel mounting, and he believes the Democrats are unable or unwilling to confront those challenges, so he has decided to go public with his belief that the Democrats have lost their way. Starting Oct. 9, the first of two ads Zucker directed and co-wrote will begin running on the Internet in hopes of helping the Republicans retain control of the House in the November elections. Like his movies, Zucker’s edgy spots employ his trademark fast-paced, gag-a-second-slapstick humor that has made him the undisputed king of spoof.
 
But Zucker believes his Republican boosterism carries some professional risk, as well. Hollywood happily forgives druggy actors and boozy directors, Zucker said, “but I don’t think a Republican can be rehabbed.” Still, at 58, he has decided to take a high-profile stand.
 
Zucker’s first Internet ad spoofs the Democrats’ reputation as the party of tax-and-spend liberals. It opens with a shot of a couple peacefully sleeping in bed. A narrator’s voice interrupts the calm: “What if you woke up a year from today, the Democrats had taken over and you were able to see their new taxes?”
Suddenly, a man in a dark suit, the Democratic tax man, appears in the bedroom and holds out his hand for a payoff. He shows up again and again. He hits up a woman who has just given birth and even demands payment from her newborn. The 90-second spot ends with an army of ominous-looking Democratic tax men, briefcases in hand, marching down the street like some spooky army.
 
A second spot charging Democrats with being soft on foreign policy is expected to be posted soon.
 
Funded by pro-Republican, tax-exempt 527 groups, the ads will appear on YouTube, the Drudge Report and America Weakly, a new parody site run by the Republican National Committee (RNC) that purports to show what the country would look like under Democratic control. The RNC asked Zucker to make the spoof ads because of his “stellar reputation and high-quality production,” said Tara Wall, director of outreach communications.
 
Political strategist Arnold Steinberg thinks such ads “can be very effective” in making an impact. Although Steinberg had not seen Zucker’s Internet ads when he spoke to a reporter, he said humorous spots might generate lots of media coverage, thereby broadcasting Zucker’s message to a larger audience extending beyond the Internet.
 
Zucker’s foray into political advertising comes at a time when he is taking stock of himself. Having spent nearly 30 years spoofing police dramas, disaster flicks and horror films, beginning with the 1977 cult classic, “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” he now wants to turn his withering satirical eye to politics.
 
Without divulging too many details, Zucker said he plans to make a film lampooning politics, sandwiched between a superheroes spoof and “Scary Movie 5.”
 
“You have people like Michael Moore going into foreign countries saying Americans are the stupidest people in the world,” Zucker said. “I want to tell the real America story, that America is a force for good.”
 
Politics became deadly serious for Zucker on Sept. 11; he was disturbed by liberals who, he said, blamed America or spoke of root causes. Zucker said he found himself supporting Bush’s robust response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As time passed, he tired of listening to calls for “talk, talk, talk” and the United Nations to solve the world’s most tangled problems, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
 
Despite his continued pro-choice, anti-nuclear power, pro-environmental beliefs, he found himself drawn to Republican national security policies. In 2004, he re-registered, made the anti-Kerry ad, appeared on a few talk shows to discuss his political conversion and “fell in with the dark side,” quipped his brother Jerry Zucker, director of “Ghost” and “Rat Race,” among other films.
 
“I still can’t believe I’m a Republican,” Zucker said. “There are just certain things ingrained in our Jewish roots. Our fathers voted for Roosevelt, and we voted for JFK, [Hubert] Humphrey and Clinton. But the Democratic Party has changed.”
 
He is not the only Jew to have defected to the Republican Party in the post-Sept. 11 world. Concerns about American national security and Israel have helped the Republican Jewish Coalition attract thousands of new members in recent years, RJC California director Larry Greenfield said.
 
Jews still vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and the party is fighting back against the Republican strategy of portraying them as weak on terrorism or anti-Israel (see story, p. 17).
 
But in 2004, this state’s RJC had 2,000 members and three chapters. Today, it has 7,000 members and 10 chapters. Zucker will speak at a national RJC gathering in December.
 
Sitting in his Santa Monica office, Zucker exudes the calm and confidence that comes with age and success. He looks much younger than his years but not in that unnatural skin-stretched-tight-as-a-drum sort of way. Perhaps having a 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son keeps him youthful.
 
Alternately energetic and thoughtful, it quickly becomes clear that his actions are considered. Which is why he called his business manager before agreeing to make these new attack ads: He wanted to know whether he could afford a Hollywood shunning. The answer: “I’m OK as long as I don’t buy an $8-million mansion,” he said.
 
Surrounded by Davy Crockett memorabilia, including comic books, a framed first-edition autobiography and a rifle owned by the legendary 19th century American folk hero, Zucker said he admires Crockett’s willingness to speak out for his beliefs. In the early 1990s, Zucker spent two years working on a Crockett screenplay with University of New Mexico historian Paul Hutton. The historical drama never got made, much to Zucker’s chagrin.

Jill Soloway says comedy and tragedy go together


In Jill Soloway’s collection of essays, “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” the Emmy-nominated writer and co-executive producer of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” recalls the time she lost her virginity at 17 to a 36-year-old with a golden chai dangling from his neck.

“I was running from the bathroom back to his bed,” she writes, “leaving slivers of myself everywhere: The girl who wanted to be here; the girl who didn’t want to be here; the girl who thought the whole thing was exciting; that he was an idiot; that his apartment was tacky, yet sexy; that I was turned on; that I wasn’t; that this was fun; that it wasn’t.”

However traumatizing the experience was then, she jokes about it now.
“If you can laugh with your friends over something, you own it,” said Soloway, lounging in jeans and a T-shirt in her Silver Lake home. “I don’t think it’s a contradiction to find painfulness funny.”

On Sunday, Sept. 17, Soloway will explore the ways comedy and tragedy fit together by moderating a discussion, “Laughter in the Rain: Mining Humor from Pain,” at the West Hollywood Book Fair. She will lead a conversation with Tania Katan, author of “My One-Night Stand With Cancer: A Memoir”; Brett Paesel, author of “Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom,” and Tom Reynolds, who wrote “I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard.”

Soloway said she would ask questions that plague her as a writer. “Has anyone [else] found themselves doing things they otherwise wouldn’t do because they’re writing a book?” Soloway wants to know.

“Years of my life were lived knowing that I’d get a book out of them one day,” Soloway confessed.

And what do these authors do when family and friends get upset at the way the book portrays them? Soloway used pseudonyms in her collection, and when people called her, irate or humiliated, she apologized.

Also, how do other writers deal with having spilled their innermost thoughts and secrets onto the page, for all to see? Soloway comforts herself in this regard by considering that readers may be shocked by some revelation — but only for a moment. Some other newsworthy item in this information age will surely distract them, she reasons.

Plus, the point of writing is to make oneself known, Soloway said. “All writing is propaganda for the self.”

One aspect of herself that Soloway reveals in her book, due out in paperback next month (published by Free Press), is that she, a self-described “Jewess,” feels a sisterly solidarity with Monica Lewinsky, as well as Chandra Levy, the murdered intern rumored to have had an affair with former California Rep. Gary Condit.

When Soloway wrote this chapter of the book – the book that critics and readers have called “hilarious,” “funny” and “fun-filled,” the chapter in which she contemplates why Jewish women are “so sexy” — she was crying. In fact, she cries whenever she reads the chapter.

“It’s this idea that Jewish women are sacrificed; that they can’t win,” she said, trying to explain what was so upsetting.

There it is: comedy and tragedy rolled into one. A story, perhaps, the way one should be told.

“If it’s just funny, who cares; if it’s just sad, who cares,” Soloway said. “But if it’s both,” she added, “then it’s about being human.”

Jill Soloway will moderate “Laughter in the Rain: Mining Humor from Pain” from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. at The Mixed Bag Pavilion at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 19th

Now extended through Sept. 30 is the Marvin Chernoff play, “Chaim’s Love Song.” In it, a 74-year-old Jewish man tells his life stories, tall tales and musings to a young blonde Iowan girl, whom he meets on a Brooklyn park bench.

Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 700-4878. ” TARGET=”_blank”>www.historychannel.com.

Monday the 21st

We can’t resist a clever promotion, nor free matzah balls for that matter. Head to Canter’s Deli today to partake in both. In honor of the DVD release of the Passover comedy, “When Do We Eat?” they’ll be setting the Guinness Book record for making the largest matzah ball ever. Moreover, those wishing to view the gargantuan ball may also partake of their own. There will be free matzah ball soup for all, between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon, and the band Chutzpah will also perform.

10 a.m.-noon. 419 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles.

Tuesday the 22nd

Enjoy live acoustic music by David Shepherd Grossman at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Muddy Moose Bar Tuesday nights. The guitarist plays Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, as well as his own Grossman tunes. Then go for a stroll among the swans.

Tuesdays, 7-10 p.m. 12825 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 755-5000.

Wednesday the 23rd

Judging the album by its cover is encouraged at Tobey C. Moss Gallery. “We’ve Got You Covered” is their new exhibition (curated by RockPoP Gallery) of iconic album cover art. More than 40 works by prominent graphic artists and photographers in the music business are on view, including covers created for Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and Greenday.

Opening reception is Aug. 19. Through Sept. 7. 7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 933-5523.netflixroadshow@bwr-la.com. 8 p.m. 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach. “>www.soundNet.org.

‘Steins’ Skewers Simcha Rivalry


“Keeping Up With the Steins” proves that you don’t have to be Jewish to make a funny, insider Jewish film, or that if you grow up in the Bronx or went to school in North Hollywood, you become a Jew by osmosis.

Case in point is the son-father team of Scott and Garry Marshall, with the younger one directing the movie and the older one just about stealing the show as a hippie Jewish grandfather, who teaches his yuppie descendants that there’s more to a bar mitzvah than throwing the most lavish party in Brentwood.

The film opens with an aerial shot of a Queen Mary-sized cruise ship, whose bow displays a giant banner “Mazal Tov, Zachary.” The theme of the modest celebration is the last voyage of the Titanic, complete with a huge iceberg mockup, from which emerge a bevy of scantily clad mermaids — and that’s just for the appetizer.

Hosting the simcha is Arnie Stein (Larry Miller), “agent for the stars” and his trophy wife, who met at a Texas wet T-shirt contest.

Among the guests, and gnashing his teeth, is Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven, also slick agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage”), Stein’s business competitor, accompanied by his wife Joanne (Jami Gertz) and nerdy-looking son Benjamin (Daryl Sabara), whose own bar mitzvah is coming up in a few months.

Driving home from the Titanic bash, Adam Fiedler starts obsessing about his own heir’s bar mitzvah party. It’s not enough to keep up with the Steins — he has to put on a bash that will crush and humiliate his rival.

Safaris are so 1990, but renting Dodger Stadium is a possibility. At night, Adam dreams about a line of yarmulke-wearing Laker Girls as a bar mitzvah highlight.

As Adam’s fevered mind nears the breaking point, up pops his father, Irwin (Garry Marshall), pony-tailed and hippie-clad, along with his spaced-out blonde girlfriend Sandy (Daryl Hannah), whom he met on an Indian reservation, where her name is Sacred Flower.

Irwin deserted his wife, Rose (Doris Roberts), and young family 26 years ago, and Adam, who hasn’t seen or talked to his father since, has never forgiven him.

Father-son relations go from bad to worse when Irwin and Sandy go skinny-dipping in the family pool (in public view but backsides only), although the old hippie has better luck bonding with his grandson Benjamin.

Gradually it dawns on the boy, his parents and his up-to-date rabbi (who is busy preparing for his “Bill O’Reilly Show” appearance to discuss “The Passion of the Jews” and is portrayed by Richard Benjamin) that maybe, just maybe, the religious and spiritual aspects of the rite of passage are more important than the prize for the most ostentatious party.

Garry Marshall, born 72 years ago under the good Italian family name of Marscharelli, said that his son, the director, picked him for the grandfather role as “his 10th choice.”

In truth, agreed Scott Marshall, 37, he had first tried to cast Carl Reiner or Mel Brooks, but both balked at the skinny-dipping part. When he finally approached his father, the latter asked who would be his pool partner. Told it would be Hannah, Garry Marshall quickly agreed.

During a joint interview at the Marshall family-built and run Falcon Theatre in Burbank, father and son noted their qualifications as honorary Jews.

Garry, whose credits as comedy writer, producer, actor and director (film, television and now opera) stretch from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” of the 1960s, through TV’s “Mork and Mindy” to such films as “Pretty Woman” and the recent “The Princess Diaries 2,” pointed to his Bronx boyhood and accent.

However, his real education came as decades-long comedy writer, when he was thoroughly indoctrinated with Jewish and Yiddish humor by his fellow scribes.

Scott, directing his first full-length feature film, passed the ethnic test when he had to convince “Steins” producer A.D. Oppenheim that he could do justice to the script by Mark Zakarin, even if he wasn’t Jewish.

“I told the producer that I married a Jewish woman, and therefore, in a way, I have a Jewish mother,” Scott Marshall said. “Luckily, that was close enough.”

He further strengthened his case during the interview by referring to “bubbe’s latkes” and his education at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood.

“When I was in seventh grade, I went to over-the-top bar mitzvahs all the time,” Scott Marshall recalled. “At that age, it was about the only place you could meet girls and socialize.”

He met his future wife at the school and even tried his hand at writing a youthful bar mitzvah party script.

“Steins” was shot in 25 days in Brentwood and other parts of Los Angeles, with the synagogue scenes filmed at Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

After shooting three separate bar mitzvah ceremonies or parties for the movie, Scott Marshall noted “Through this experience, I feel I have finally become a man.”

“Keeping Up With The Steins,” a Miramax film, opens May 12 at selected theaters.

 

Humor in ‘Eat’ an Acquired Taste


When Rabbi Mordecai Finley, leader of the nondenominational congregation Ohr HaTorah, saw the new Passover comedy “When Do We Eat?” — he loved it.

“I laughed and laughed and laughed,” he said. He saw the movie three more times, and each time he liked it better.

Hap Erstein, the film reviewer for Florida’s Palm Beach Post, had a different reaction.

Since seeing the movie about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through a Passover seder, “a bad taste has been left in my mouth,” Erstein said.

Where Finley saw a story about the “redemptive power of a seder,” Erstein saw “mean-spirited and low-targeted humor.”

By now, the creators of the film, which has played in film festivals around the country and opens in theaters today, have come to expect such polarized reactions to their movie. Viewers either love it or hate it.

“When Do We Eat?” centers on the Stuckman family, which includes grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman); father Ira (Michael Lerner), who tries to lead “the world’s fastest seder”; his neglected wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren); and their children.

Daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a sex-surrogate. Son Ethan (Max Greenfield) recently became Chasidic, but has a hard time resisting the wiles of his sexy cousin, Vanessa (Mili Avital). Youngest son Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is an autistic obsessed with the number seven. Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ira’s daughter from a previous marriage, is a lesbian and brings her African American girlfriend, Grace (Cynda Williams), to the seder. Zeke (Ben Feldman), a teenage stoner, slips his father some ecstasy halfway through the meal.

Salvador Litvak, the film’s 40-year-old director and producer, co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Nina Davidovich, 38. The way they see it, “When Do We Eat?” fits into a current trend of “in-your-face, proud-to-be Jewish” cultural statements, from Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae singer whose latest album topped the charts last month; to “Go for Zuker,” the recent German Jewish comedy about a dysfunctional family; to the irreverent, New York-based Heeb magazine.

“Some people get it, some people don’t,” said Litvak, an observant Jew who wears tzitzit and wakes up at 6 a.m. everyday to study Talmud. While “When Do We Eat?” opened the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, it did not make it into the Boston or New York Jewish film festivals.

“The people who get it,” he said, “are the people who can laugh at themselves.”

Erstein, in his review in The Palm Beach Post, labeled the movie “lowbrow sitcom” and charged Litvak with “trafficking in broad caricatures and ethnic stereotypes.” In an interview, Erstein said the movie reminded him of “Meet the Fockers” and “There’s Something About Mary,” comedies that use crude jokes to target the lowest-common-denominator viewer.

What bothered him about this movie, Erstein, 56, said, was the way it portrayed Judaism.

“It’s taking cheap shots at it,” he said.

Here lies the central contention, the age-old question: Is this movie, ultimately, good for the Jews?

“Some people seem to have a reaction that it isn’t good for the Jews,” said Davidovich, who co-wrote the film. “I think that’s a short-sighted reaction, because the cause of anti-Semitism through the years — well, a large part of it — has been people’s perception that we think we’re better than them. In this movie, we’re portraying Jews as no better than anybody else.”

But no worse than anyone else, either, Litvak added, explaining that the family was made to be outrageously dysfunctional for comedy’s sake.

Davidovich stressed that she went out of her way to contradict stereotypes.

“What drives me nuts,” she said, banging a fist on her skirt, “is in popular culture, Jewish women are always portrayed as unattractive, big-mouthed, annoying, bossy women” and “Jewish men are always portrayed as dorky, nerdy, nebishy, insecure, self-effacing.”

So, she chose an all-Jewish, good-looking cast.

Davidovich and Litvak insisted that in the end, their film comes down on the side of Judaism. The movie shows that the Jewish religion, and the Passover seder in particular, can provide a framework for personal redemption, Litvak said.

Rabbi Mark Blazer, the 38-year-old leader of Reform Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, agreed: “This [movie] can really show people what the Passover seder can do, that it can be a really transformative experience.”

Blazer also sees the movie as part of a trend toward Jews’ opening up about Judaism in popular culture. For years, Jews who produced TV shows and movies shied away from discussing their Jewishness on screen, he said. But today, Jews are finally willing to explore the essence of their religion in their art.

Blazer attributed the opposing reactions to the movie to “a generational gap.” Younger Jews do not feel as anxious about seeing Jews portrayed in a negative light as those born closer to the time of the Holocaust, he said.

“Some see this movie, and they worry about the message that it sends,” he said. “They’re worried that it’s going to contribute to anti-Semitism.”

But “for us,” he added, “we don’t have that same level of discomfort.”

For more information on showtimes, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=15595

 

Forget March — Try Midseason Madness


The Olympics drama is over. The Oscar drama is over. The TV ratings drama is just beginning. Now that the networks have a handle on what worked in the fall (ABC’s “Commander-in-Chief”) and what didn’t (CBS’s “Head Cases”), it’s time to make room for some midseason replacements that — if they do well — will return to the schedule this fall.

ABC

With shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” ABC is now the place to be for dramas and dramedies. But how will a new family comedy fare on a network that was once home to uber-sitcoms “Full House” and “Growing Pains” — and is now the place to find “Freddie” and “Rodney” (yeah, we haven’t seen them either)?

“Sons & Daughters” (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.), created by Fred Goss (who also stars) and Nick Holly, is ABC’s answer to critically acclaimed but ratings-deprived “Arrested Development.” The modern-day family comedy about the Walker/Halbert siblings and their parents and children is a mix of improvisational and scripted humor, although it is hard to tell which is which.

Goss plays Cameron Walker, whose second wife, Liz, is Jewish. As a result, in the first episode, evil Aunt Rae tells their young daughter, Marni, that the family is going to hell. While Aunt Rae is napping, the kids use a marker to draw a Hitler mustache on her face, and Henry, Cameron’s resentful teenage son from his first marriage, gets it all on camera.

Cameron is based largely on creator Goss’ own life — he is married to a Jewish woman and is raising his kids Jewish — and facing prejudice from some of his family members.

The show airs in the “Commander-in-Chief” spot through mid-April, and while it isn’t a typical comedy (no laugh track), you might find yourself laughing at the similarity between its family and yours.

ABC also ventures into the CBS stronghold of crime solving with “The Evidence” (Wednesdays at 10 p.m., starting March 22). In every episode, the audience plays detective with inspector Sean Cole (Rob Estes) and Cayman Bishop (Orlando Jones), who get help from Dr. Sol Gold (Martin Landau).

The whodunit takes place in San Francisco (one of the few places “C.S.I.” hasn’t been) and kicks off each episode with Gold presenting clues from a videotaped evidence log. The show then goes to the day the crime was committed, and viewers can play along with the detectives as they find each clue, determine its meaning, put the pieces together and solve the crime.

Landau, who won an Oscar for portraying Bela Lugosi in 1994’s “Ed Wood” and picked up a 2005 Jewish Image Award for his work in “The Aryan Couple,” told The Journal that he’s happy to play a Jewish character again.

“They always cast me as Italian,” said Landau, who has recently been Anthony LaPaglia’s father, Frank Malone, on the CBS drama, “Without a Trace.”

If the show can draw viewers from NBC’s staple, “Law & Order,” expect it to hang around until the fall.

The WB

Switching channels, the WB (soon to be CW) adds a new guys-who-can’t-figure-out-women-but-aren’t-sure-why comedy to its lineup with “Modern Men” (Fridays, 9:30 p.m., starting March 17), from executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Twentysomething childhood friends Tim (Josh Braaten), Kyle (Max Greenfield) and Doug (Eric Lively) each have problems with the women — or lack thereof — in their lives and seek the advice of life coach Dr. Victoria Stangel (Jane Seymour).

Adding to the mix is Tim’s dad, Tug (George Wendt), a former NFL player, and law school student and sister, Molly (Marla Sokoloff), the catalyst for the men seeking professional help, who tells them: If women don’t need men any more, it’s up to men to make women want them.

Sokoloff has been seen on the small screen as Lynette’s cutie-pie nanny on “Desperate Housewives” and as the firm’s receptionist on the late ABC drama, “The Practice.” The actress-singer-songwriter told The Journal that she enjoyed playing a young Jewish woman in “The Tollbooth” (for which she won a Jewish Image Award). She is so much fun to watch that maybe it’s time for her to get her own show.

The male-dominated sitcom concept can either work (CBS’s “Two and a Half Men”) or tank (NBC’s “Four Kings”). If “Modern Men” can keep the numbers of its lead-in — “Reba” — on a evening lineup filled with female-geared shows, it might end up in the former category.

NBC

The Donald is back for another round of hirings and firings — well, mostly firings, on the latest round of “The Apprentice” (Mondays at 9 p.m.). This year’s crop of candidates includes Orthodox Jews Lee Bienstock, 22, and Daniel Brody, 31.

Bienstock, a business analyst and Cornell University graduate who counts Israel among his top travel destinations, has already made one trip to the boardroom after his team, Gold Rush, lost the first challenge of the season. Bienstock escaped unharmed but was told beforehand by project manager Tarek Saab not to throw blame Saab’s way for the loss or Bienstock would become a “target.”

In the second episode, Bienstock became project manager, and his team won — but some early mismanagement on his part could have easily lost the task for Gold Rush. Past seasons have shown that the “young guy” always gets fired before the final two — usually for not having enough experience or being too cocky.

Brody, an alum of Yeshiva University and founder of Brody Sport, a designer brand of activewear, was also on the Gold Rush team but escaped a visit to the boardroom. In the second episode, he showed he can be relied upon to do what is asked of him. The New Jersey native and father of two could break the “entrepreneurs don’t get picked” reputation the show has exhibited so far.

Bienstock and Brody both went to shul for Rosh Hashanah during the week three task — much to the chagrin of fellow teammates, specifially 37-year-old Lenny Val, a Russian-born New Jerseyite who, when Brody said they would be gone, said, “This is f—— stupid,” and then pointed out several times in the episode that even though he is Jewish, he wasn’t taking off.

Val told Bienstock and Brody that if Gold Rush loses, he would blame them — and continued to do so after their team indeed lost their task. Though neither Bienstock nor Brody was taken to the boardroom, Val was and told Trump that he is Jewish and could have taken off, but he felt the team was more important. Trump told Val, who was not fired, that he could have chosen to take off — but “that’s life.”

It will be intersting to see how Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah play into the next few episodes.

Goodbye

The Journal gives a warm send-off to syndication heaven to a trio of longtime shows: NBC’s Sunday night political drama, “The West Wing” (also on Bravo), which ends its term with an election that could go either way); The WB’s Monday night family drama, “7th Heaven,” which spent 10 years offering a wholesome look at a reverend, his wife, their Jewish in-laws and seven kids who got into more trouble than the Bradford children on “Eight Is Enough”; and NBC’s Thursday night sitcom, “Will & Grace” (on Lifetime and the WB), which brought gaydar and tons of guest stars to the small screen, along with Grace’s (Debra Messing) humorous nods to the holidays: “I mean, the holidays are all about … misery and … obligation … and the Maccabees riding an elephant, or whatever the hell Chanukah is about.”

Wandering Jew – A Relief to Laugh


As master of ceremonies of “Middle East Comic Relief 2,” Peter the Persian, a stout Iranian American comic who moonlights as a labor attorney, says of the comedians performing on a recent evening, “We’ve screened all these Middle Easterners. We’ve cleared them out. They’re all Jewish friendly.”

That gets a roar from the mixed crowd.

“Most of them are Jewish friendly.”

Another roar.

“Some of them are Jewish friendly.”

Peter the Persian is certainly one of the friendly ones at the Levantine Cultural Center in Culver City, an organization dedicated to fostering cultural awareness among all Middle Easterners. And this is a friendly house, even if it’s located on a dead-end street amidst desolate warehouses and almost no street lighting. It’s the kind of street Bugsy Siegel might have once used for silencing a rival hood.

Inside this cavernous barn with Persian rugs draped like curtains over the back walls of the elevated stage, there are no mobsters or secret cells from what we can tell. There are just ordinary citizens, but that doesn’t stop the host, Jordan Elgrably, a svelte man in a black shirt, from saying, “All those who are working here for Homeland Security, please raise your hand.”

No one here is from Homeland Security, but there are “all kinds of creatures” at this event, as Peter the Persian says.

A few rows in front there is a middle-aged man with a 5 o’clock shadow, who wears an unusual furry cap. It looks a little like the Siberian beaver caps once fancied by Mikhail Gorbachev, except it’s not quite as furry and mixes black and white hues.

“What do you call that cap?”

“It’s a Karakul,” says the man with the stubble. “From Kashmir.”

His female companion wears another exotic hat.

“It’s a Manali,” the man says.

“Is that in Indonesia?”

“Manali, India,” she says. “In the Himalayas.”

Elsewhere, a man holds a glossy Iranian American magazine called Namak; he has opened it to a two-page spread with the headline, “God & Allah Need to Talk.”

“Any Muslims here tonight?” Elgrably asks.

Only one person, a grinning young man, raises his hand.

“You can drink,” he’s told.

The rest of the crowd, several hundred from a glance, settles in as Peter the Persian introduces the first comedian, a 30-something woman of Syrian descent named Helen Maalik, who has come from New York to appear tonight.

Though Maalik is Syrian American, and this evening’s entertainment is billed as a post-Sept. 11 satire, she focuses initially not on the Middle East or national security concerns but rather on dating.

Wearing jeans and a faded yellow and green striped shirt, the attractive, petite Maalik says that she doesn’t have much sympathy for women who complain about not getting dates.

“Put out,” she says in a voice that suggests a whine and a smidgen of urban anomie. “Do it, especially on a first date.”

Continuing her riff on dating, she relates the tale of a young woman who complains about a homeless man asking her out–“Those guys come with a lot of baggage.”

Maalik says in that whiny voice, “Stop it. We all have it. His is just plastic.”

Then she switches to ethnic concerns. “I’m 100 percent Arab, not 50 percent Arab and 50 percent normal,” she says, but people often tell the light-skinned Maalik that she looks Jewish. “I don’t mind looking Jewish. I have no problems at airports.”

The crowd breaks up at that joke, as it does when she says, “My husband is Indian Muslim, I’m an Arab. So we’re on the FBI list twice.”

She leaves to much applause, after which Peter the Persian introduces Sanjay Shah, an Indian comic from Los Angeles, and then Nasry Malak, an Egyptian American who, like Maalik, hails from New York.

“I’ve never done stand-up comedy in an airplane hangar before,” says Malak, who resembles Johnny Mathis not only in his smooth good looks but also in his velvety voice.

A political comedian, Malak jokes about how his family has decided to “turn his father in” to the authorities. Not that his father has done anything wrong, but it would be a patriotic act.

Then he says that “the homeless of America should not be smarter than the president of America. Bush might be the dumbest man in the world.”

Upon reflection, he adds, “Sometimes I think Bush might be the smartest man in the world. He’s messed up this country so badly that immigrants don’t want to come here anymore.”

As Malak leaves the stage and intermission arrives, Peter the Persian ascends the platform and then asks us all to say “Bush.” He extends the U like it’s two or three O’s. Everyone says, “Booosh.”

At the break, a woman tells Peter the Persian that he looks Jewish. Putting down his Pilsner Urquell beer, Peter, for once at a loss for words, says, “I am … I am … nothing.” Then he adds, “I am a populist.”

I tell Peter that I must leave. It’s 10 p.m.

“I’m not offended,” he says in a slight deadpan and hands me his business card.

“He’s really brilliant,” says another woman, who tells me that the best acts are coming after intermission.

“What about the premise of Albert Brooks’ new movie? Obviously, there’s comedy in the Muslim world,” I say.

Laughing but with a bit of regret in his voice, Peter says, “This is not that world. They’re not laughing over there.”

On Saturday, Feb. 25, at 8 p.m., the Levantine Cultural Center will host “An Evening of Palestinian Literature and Music”; Elias Khoury will present his novel, “Gate of the Sun,” along with a concert of Palestinian music and song with the Naser Musa Ensemble. 5920 Blackwelder St., Culver City, (310) 559-5544.