Comedians Cook and Chefs Do Stand Up in ‘Comedy Kitchen’

September 25, 2019
Tony Luke, Jr, left, and Craig Shoemaker;

Like an ingenious mash-up of “Top Chef” and “Bring the Funny,” Jewish Life TV’s (JLTV) “Comedy Kitchen” serves up a recipe of cooking and comedy, with a role reversal twist: In each of the four episodes, comedians make the food and chefs get the laughs.

It’s the brainchild of comedian Craig Shoemaker, who found the inspiration for the show in real life after he taught his friend, chef and restaurateur Tony Luke Jr., how to be a stand-up comic. “He killed it. It was the best comedy debut I’ve ever seen,” Shoemaker said. “He’s now touring with me as my opening act.”

Shoemaker brought the idea to JLTV, which snapped it up for four episodes (so far). “Food and funny are two things associated with Jews,” he said. “We’re combining both in one show.”

Shoemaker assembled friends from the comedy world including Bill Bellamy, Bobby Slayton, Heather McDonald, John Henson and chefs Luke, Todd Stein, Gina Neely, Keith Breedlove and Joseph Ciolli at Davis Wine Estates vineyard in Napa Valley for the competition. “We have a winner each week and each show has different judges, who judge both the cooking and the comedy,” he told the Journal. “They have a scale they go by — quality, originality, taking risks, meeting the challenge.”

A self-described foodie, Shoemaker participated in the cooking challenge, which required incorporating wine into the recipe, in keeping with the vineyard setting. (He made a wine reduction for his steak.) The recipes weren’t easy, but the chefs had the more difficult task, he said. “Speaking in front of people is hard enough, and making them laugh is really scary. But every single chef nailed it.” The winners receive a check for the charity of their choice and a watch for themselves.

Although Shoemaker is half-Jewish on his father’s side, he identifies more closely with the Tribe. “The Jewish part of me made me a foodie and a comedian,” he said, mentioning Jewish stand-up influences Rodney Dangerfield and Woody Allen. He grew up on bagels and brisket and was the class clown in school. “I got my first laughs in fourth grade. I told stories and the teacher was red-faced trying not to laugh,” he recalled. 

Doing stand-up put him through college, where he was pre-law, and he’d do routines in the cafeteria of the law firm where he clerked. When a colleague asked him to open the show for his band, “I got one laugh and I was hooked. I haven’t turned back,” he said. “It’s led to every television thing, every business I do. Everything is related to these roots in comedy.”

“Food and funny are two things associated with Jews. We’re combining both in one show” 

— Craig Shoemaker

But his childhood wasn’t exactly hilarious. His father left when Shoemaker was a baby, and his mother, who married twice more — each time to Jewish men —moved often. “We got evicted and would live with an uncle or aunt. There was a lot of disarray and chaos and lack of love, but comedy was always the great comfort,” he said. 

Shoemaker, whose paternal forebears were from Switzerland and changed their surname from Schumacher, grew up celebrating Christian and Jewish holidays. “It was a confusing childhood, but it was a good training ground for being a comic and being creative,” he said. He didn’t have a bar mitzvah. “I got all the neuroses and angst but none of the bar mitzvah money,” he joked.

Shoemaker has several SoCal shows booked in October, but he aims to produce and create more and tour less in the future because of the constraints imposed by the need not to offend. “I can’t stand the ridiculous political correctness that’s going on,” he said. “Comics, who are the truth tellers, are vilified for doing so. There’s no trial, no due process. Politicians say things that are far worse and much more divisive than comedians who are just trying to entertain you and show you a side that you’re not seeing. Our goal is to unite people through laughter. But people are pouncing on comedians while giving everyone else free rein to say anything racist or bigoted.”

This unfortunate climate change has impacted his act. He has stopped making ethnic — including Jewish — jokes. “You can feel the audience tense up every time you mention race or culture, it’s this fear mode,” Shoemaker said. “I’m bothered by that, and it has made me shift to behind the scenes.”

He has a production company and is working on several projects, a stand-up special and feature and documentary films among them. He also has small roles in the upcoming indie films “Motorvation” and “Ticket to Nashville.” He hopes “Comedy Kitchen” will be picked up for more episodes, either by JLTV or another cable or streaming entity, and already is thinking about recipe themes and cuisines from different countries and cultures.

But it’s family that brings Shoemaker the greatest pleasure. “I give them everything that I longed for in my childhood,” said the married father of four. “Everything I didn’t have, I give to them — openly, freely and easily.”

“Comedy Kitchen” premieres Sept. 30 on JLTV. Visit jltv.tv for additional dates. Craig Shoemaker performs Oct. 3-5 at the Brea Improv; Oct. 12 at the Ice House in Pasadena; and Oct. 24-26 at Levity Live in Oxnard.

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