Young Jews need to have more pride


I’m a stand up comedian. The best part about my job, besides making people laugh, is the other comics. I love hanging out with other comedians because we’re all so different, but also very much the same. A few weeks ago I dropped in at a show in the basement of a bar. It was a Tuesday night and this is what’s known as a great “workout room.” It’s a place I could go to and get some stage time to work on refining my act. A lot of friends of mine were at this show. I was friends with basically every person on the line up and the show was solid. These random bar patrons probably didn’t realize how great of a show they got for free.

When the show ended one of the comedians offered to give me a ride home because I had been dropped off at the gig. I hopped in his car, which had another comedian as well riding shotgun, and we started to joke around as friends do. My buddy driving is Asian, our other friend is Black, and I’m Jewish. One of them made a comment about being minorities and I said, “I’m the biggest minority here (there are way more Asians and Black people in the world than there are Jews).” My Black friend, not joking, responded, “Yeah, but what’s your stake?” I said, “My stake? My stake in what?” Then he said something to the effect of “(paraphrasing) There may not be many Jews, but you guys own 70% of (expletive).” Not wanting to even deal with this comment on a serious level I just playfully responded with, “I think that your number is slightly inflated.” A few weeks later I was in Minneapolis talking to a Black, female comedian from Chicago and when she found out I was Jewish she made the comment, “You guys have all the money.” That’s as ignorant as me telling her, “You guys are all pro athletes.”

The point of these stories is not that these comics are horrible people, but there seems to be an overwhelming theme in my life where people want to tell me how Jews “run things” or “own everything” or, especially in my field, entertainment, it’s going to be “so easy” for me because I’m “a Jew.” Right, so let’s discount the hard work and sacrifice I put in right off the bat because of my ethnicity. People love to say that Jews “run TV.” It is very true that there are a lot of Jews working in television and movies, but these people say it as though it’s unfair. Why are there so many Jews working in television? Well, the three major television stations were started by Jews; NBC, David Sarnoff, CBS, William Paley, and ABC, Leonard Goldenson. So Jews founded television and hired people they knew who were talented, many of which were Jews and this trickles down like most businesses. Today TV has something for everyone, but I don’t hear anyone thanking the Jews.

I’ve found that the only reason people say these things about Jews are because they heard it somewhere. They heard it somewhere growing up, other people also heard it, they say it out loud, and therefore it must be true. “Jews are cheap.” Why? How many Jews do you know? Oh, one? Is he cheap? He isn’t? Then why do you say it? Oh, you heard it. What about you? Oh, you don’t know one Jew, but this is something you choose to say? Interesting. Most the Jews I know were poor growing up in America. Their parents were poor in Europe and worked hard to get to America. My family, for example, were all extremely poor immigrants who were treated like garbage once they got to America. Nothing was “given” to them. Nothing. This is why it bothers me to hear non-Jews so casually throw around the notion that Jews are given everything. My grandfather on my dad’s side passed away after working hard as a painter his entire life while living in a condo my dad helped him buy. My dad grew up on the south side of Chicago before moving to southern California after high school, working hard at non prestigious jobs, then got his real estate license and eventually started his own business which he built from the ground up. Now my dad is a millionaire. He must be a millionaire because he’s Jewish, right? I mean, he wasn’t born a millionaire, his father was poor, his mother was poor, and he worked hard, but forget all that, he’s a JEW! It must’ve been so easy for him, because you know how much everyone just loves Jews, right? We are all aware that throughout history people all over the world have made it a point to help out the Jews. My best friend’s father is Jewish. His family was murdered in the Holocaust (lucky Jews, right?), he grew up in New York City, served in the United States military, eventually started his own business and now he’s a millionaire. Wow, two millionaire Jews in a row who got all the breaks!

Today it’s not considered “cool” to be Jewish. Personally, I don’t think any race or religion should be considered cooler than another, but that’s just how it is. Some races are, for whatever reason, envied while others are not. Young Jews need to be more proud of their heritage and stand up for themselves as Jews. I noticed growing up how a lot of the other Jewish kids allowed the kids around them to make anti-Semitic comments without speaking up. Anti-Semitic comments just aren’t challenged the way other racist comments are and are thrown around too casually. If you’re in a group and someone says something ignorant about black people, usually at least one person in the group (if I’m there, it’s me) will speak up and check the person’s asinine comment. The same generally goes for Latinos, Gays, Muslims, etc. Most people don’t have a built in tolerance for public displays of racism against any group except for Jews. I’m not trying to say that people don’t make comments about other races and religions, they most certainly do, but those are contained to private conversations with friends who are like-minded and it is therefore “safe” to speak freely. My assumption is that this is a result of the types of Jews I grew up around who did not want to speak up in fear of being alienated so people think what they’re saying isn’t offensive.

When I was a freshman in college I did not like what my professor was teaching the class in regards to Israel, or Palestine as he saw it. I was eighteen years old and this particular professor was best friends with my basketball coach, but that didn’t stop me from asking him to meet in his office and discuss what he was “teaching.” We spoke for over an hour during which he made comments like, “I didn’t know that,” “I have never thought of it that way,” and “that’s a good point.” This man had a Master’s degree in Middle East Studies! During our conversation he made it a point to randomly tell me the statistics of how many Jewish students went to the university (a very small number) and followed that up with the question, “Do you know how many are open about it?” He was clearly trying to intimidate me into silence by telling me only about 25% were. I responded with, “That’s very sad that this school doesn’t make it a point to have a climate where Jews can feel comfortable like everyone else” and then got us back on topic. It irked me that he seemed to take pride in the fact Jews weren’t open about their heritage on his campus. The result was that he continued to teach exactly the same way (assigning Yasser Arafat’s books as historical fact, equivocating horrible civil wars i.e. Rwanda with the systematic annihilation of groups of people for years that was the Holocaust, etc) and he gave me a B+ on everything I did, never once an A, which I took as an obvious message he didn’t appreciate me challenging him. This man, like so many others I’ve met, like their Jews one way, silent. My basketball coach never gave me a chance to play even though all the assistant coaches thought I should be in the rotation.

 

At the time basketball was the most important thing in the world to me, but I would have done everything the exact same way. I think some younger Jews take for granted what our ancestors went through to give us a great life. My people did not get persecuted throughout time so I can let some idiot say, “Jews are cheap” or “Jews run everything” just because they heard it somewhere. Jews do run a lot of stuff and that’s not an accident, it’s a direct result of the work ethic and stress on education and family that has been passed down through generations. I was very fortunate to grow up never having to want for anything. I was able to follow my dream of being a professional comedian because of everything my grandparents and parents sacrificed. My life would have been much harder and it would have been a much harder decision to make to “go for it” had they not. I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit back and listen to people tell me my people were handed anything.  

Geoff Keith is a stand up comedian from Los Angeles, California. Keith is currently one of the stars of MTV’s “Jerks With Cameras” and recurs as various characters on ABC Family’s “Freak Out!” 

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

Generations of comics salute Mort Sahl on his 80th


“Mort Sahl changed the face of comedy. Before his, that face was Marty Allen’s.”
— Jack Riley

And if you get that reference, you would have loved the Mort Sahl 80th birthday celebration at the Wadsworth Theatre on June 28. What’s not to like? Shelley Berman in a seersucker suit and saddle shoes doing his famous rotary phone call bit. Jonathan Winters playing slugger Leland Buckhorn: “Had four wives … one liked hockey, another liked tennis, one woman just strayed in bars….”

“We are lucky to live in a time when Jonathan Winters was around,” emcee Jack Riley says.

No kidding. That goes for the rest of this cockeyed caravan, too: George Carlin, Woody Allen, Drew Carey, Norm Crosby, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and other standout stand-ups offering “Sahl-utationals” to the pioneer in political satire. Sahl was the first with an LP, first on the cover of Time, and first to understand the Hollywood-D.C. axis as a comedy act.

Once called “the fourth branch of government,” “Sahl was the revolution,” wrote Gerald Nachman in his book, “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.” “The mere idea of a stand-up talking about the real world was in itself revolutionary.”

I remember my father putting on Sahl’s “1960, or Look Forward in Anger” LP and how I didn’t understand a single thing. References to Bobby Baker and Estes Kefauver? I was too young to get how great this guy was.

But now I’m here among all kinds of comedic all-stars who appreciate him. The Wadsworth event is a benefit for Sahl’s Heartland Foundation, and what Harry Shearer calls, with his finest satirical twang: “Aside from Jay and Drew and Jonathan … a tribute to a time when Jews did run comedy.”

It’s like a comedy theme park, with Tommy Chong on the red carpet with Kevin Nealon, Hugh Hefner, Dick Van Patten and Rob Reiner, and Paula Poundstone stands schmoozing the founder of the first Mort Sahl Fan Club (1956). Septuagenarian Jack Riley, who played Mr. Carlin, the depressed hypochondriac on “The Bob Newhart Show” says he’s here “because I need a credit from this century.”

Waiting for a urinal in the packed men’s room, you can tell which comics have prostate problems.

Richard Lewis turns 60 today and George Carlin made 70 a day before Mort’s birthday. Lewis kvetches brilliantly about the billing tonight: “I thought it would be Jay, then Christ, then me.”

In his black Nehru shirt, Lewis says he looks “like Capt. Kirk’s cantor.”

His tribute?

“If not for Mort and Lenny [Bruce], I wouldn’t have had 25 years of drug abuse and whoring.”

Carlin tells us Sahl saw him in 1960 doing a Mort Sahl impression in a Hollywood coffeehouse between Cosmo Street and Ivar Avenue. Sahl recommended him to the “hungry i” (for “intellectual”) in San Francisco, and “onward!”(a Sahl catchword) climbed Carlin.

“I was 21 when I first saw him,” says Allen in a taped greeting. “And the minute I saw him, I just thought that there was nothing else that could be done in comedy, and he was just the best thing that I had ever seen.”

But one comedian, Albert Brooks, takes the stage somberly. “I’m embarrassed tonight,” he says. “And angry. I was told that Mort Sahl passed away.”

So Brooks reads a eulogy.

“I remember the last time I saw Mort alive,” he says, the laughter building now like something on a classic comedy LP: helpless, extended, tear-filled. “It was at a Starbucks near where I live. And now I wish I’d said the things that I really felt — how much he influenced all of us here, while he was here. But I didn’t. All that I think I said that day was: ‘Are you gonna finish that latte?’ This should be a lesson to all of us…. And I say, rest in peace my funny man. Rest in peace.”

All around the Jerry’s Deli spread afterward, are wonderful comedians who can’t get smiles off their faces: Fred Willard, Mark Schiff, Rick Overton, Darryl Henriques, Wendy Kamenoff, Paul Krassner, Edie McClurg, Larry Hankin and Barry Diamond.

It was Bart Simpson, quoting the Talmud, who asked: “Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?” I think of Jan Murray’s and Morey Amsterdam’s funerals and how fine it is that friends did this while Sahl — who once said, “You haven’t lived until you’ve died in California” — is still alive.

“I’ve been very moved by everybody tonight,” Mort told us finally. “I want you to know it really did knock me out. I also want you to know that I’ll do it as long as they let me…. When I started this act, although I was just lonesome and looking for a family, in a larger sense I saw it as a rescue mission for America…. But I believe it more than ever, in spite of the odds, that the good guys’ll win.”

Onward!

Mort Sahl will teach a course in critical thinking at Claremont McKenna College in September.

Hank Rosenfeld assistant teaches at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica and has written a book with Irving Brecher — who wrote for Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and the Marx Brothers — coming from Ben Yehuda Press in 2008.

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Mort Sahl fan tribute

Make ‘Em Laugh


It’s a funny thing trying to arrange a stand-up comedy show in Israel. I had gotten the idea last summer when I was visiting Israel and a social worker friend of mine half jokingly suggested I put on a show for the runaway teenagers she works with. As enticing as it sounded to do stand-up comedy for a a bunch of angry kids, I was on vacation; it was only when I returned to the United States that I realized it wasn’t such a bad idea. Not to perform for the rebellious teenagers, but for the general English-speaking community. That way, even the angry teens could come. I got in touch with a promoter in Israel and he thought it was a great idea.

“We could use some laughs over here.”

No kidding. We tentatively agreed on dates and venues in Israel, and that only left one thing to do: find comics who were willing to go. I personally had no problem going; as an Israeli raised in the United States, I believe it’s an obligation to visit Israel when times get tough. But finding other people to go now is another story.

I began to float the idea around town to gauge reaction. Almost all the comics thought I was nuts.

“I can’t do it, Liberman. I’m doing two weeks in Baghdad during that time.”

OK. I get it. You’re not interested. I promised myself that if it took me months, I’d find some people who were. Yet I wasn’t looking for just anyone, but top-quality comedians; comics who had done “The Tonight Show,” Letterman, etc., to ensure a good show.

Months is what it took, but I finally found two friends in Los Angeles — Wayne Federman and Gary Gulman — and Dan Naturman in New York. All three had done a lot of television, so the quality of the show wasn’t going to be a problem.

Now it was just a matter of logistics: When could everyone come in? How many shows would we perform? Who would our audiences be? After months of aggravation, when I used so many calling cards for Israel that I could have just flown there myself, we finally settled it. (As much as it sickens me to say, the whole process gave me a newfound respect for what agents have to deal with. I only hope mine doesn’t read this: It will go straight to his head.)

When we finally arrived in Israel last June, we learned that one of our shows was canceled, and a few had been moved around. Fine with us — that gave us extra time to kick around in Tel Aviv. Wayne and Gary had never been to Israel before, and Dan had last visited Israel when he was 10. They all fell in love with the country (as most people do). Gary is even convinced he wants to retire there. We were all having such a good time that we nearly forgot why we were there in the first place: Showtime!

Our first show was in Ra’anana,which has a large English-speaking community. There were about 225 tickets sold and suddenly, I got nervous. Not because of the crowd, and not because I didn’t think we could pull it off. I just really wanted the audience to have a good time. I felt a greater responsibility to provide some joy for these people who have suffered through so much terror. If didn’t, I would have felt like I let everyone down.

Before I knew it the show was on and so was I:

“I don’t know if you go to shul normally in your life,” I told the audience, “but when you’re on El Al, you’re going. ‘There’s a plane full of Jews, but we specifically need you.’ The amazing thing is, I was still late…”

The other comics chimed in with their own local jokes:

Dan discussed his frustration at being in Israel: “I was surprised at the number of good-looking girls everywhere…but I can get rejected by hot girls back in the States! What do I need this headache for?”

Wayne summed up the religious conflict perfectly: “When I got to Israel I saw that there are all these different levels of Judaic observance, but one thing I realized is that anyone right above where you are is crazy, and anyone right below you is not really Jewish.”

The show went well, and for a minute it seemed like any other great gig, not a special tour in Israel.

Then one woman came up to me and said something which erased all the stress, worry and aggravation of putting it all together. “I just wanted to thank you. I haven’t had anything to laugh about in over a year,” she said.

Every now and then you’ll walk into a comedy club and hear the other comics say, “So-and-so Big Shot is here. If I can just make him laugh ….”

Well, after years of trying to impress “So-and-so,” it was in Israel that I had my big break. Everything I had ever done in entertainment, and maybe ever will do, were completely dwarfed by her words. Maybe they won’t get me a sitcom, a deal or anything else that we’re supposed to strive for in stand-up, but I didn’t care. I had achieved what I wanted.

So now I’m planning another stand-up tour in Israel, to ensure that this woman — and others like her — don’t have to go another year without an opportunity to laugh.

I know there will be lots of stress and aggravation again in planning this tour, but I also know I’m guaranteed a great payoff.

The comics will reprise their Israel tour at The Pacific Design Center on Dec. 6 at “A Night of Comedy and Soul,” a benefit for The Young Israel of Century City. For more information contact (310) 273-6954, or to find out about the “Israel Comedy Art Fund” email leebo99@aol.com.

Avi Liberman can also be seen on Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend” on Dec. 26th.

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