June 26, 2019

Roseanne Barr, Andrew Dice Clay Join Forces on Comedy Tour

Jewish comedians Roseanne Barr and Andrew Dice Clay are hitting the road. The pair, whose mouths have gotten them into trouble—she was fired from ‘Rosanne” for racist comments about former White House advisor Valerie Jarrett and his sexist, homophobic and profane act once got him banned from MTV— are joining forces for the “Mr. and Mrs. America” stand-up tour.

Clay and Barr, who last performed together in March at the Laugh Factory in Las Vegas, have been friends for 30 years. Clay defended right to speak her mind to Fox News, saying, “She’s a comic! We gotta stop policing comedians…America really needs to lighten up and not worry about the words comedians use because it’s all we have,” Clay said. “There’s clean stuff and there’s street stuff. I’m a street guy because I tell it like it is.”

No venues or dates have been announced.

Laughter Is Serious Business

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

As a kid, I wanted to be Erma Bombeck when I grew up. With book titles such as “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?” and “A Marriage Made in Heaven … or Too Tired for an Affair,” Bombeck poked fun at herself and at life’s foibles and frustrations with comic genius.     

At the height of her success, the Great Erma was syndicated in 900 newspapers with a readership of 30 million. She was more than just a professional role model; her laughter was cathartic. I was born in 1960, so my childhood played out against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, violent protests in the streets and on college campuses, political assassinations and the drug culture. I was frightened by it all, and my world felt insecure.  

When I was 9, my 17-year-old brother, Allan, died in a car accident. Chaos and loss were no longer just on TV or in Newsweek magazine. They had hit home. As I struggled to cope amid an ocean of grief, comedy offered me a lifeline. My mom and I watched “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” “The Odd Couple” and other shows that delivered witty wackiness. It was such a relief to laugh, and the closest thing to therapy any of us had.  

After I graduated from college, I got a day job writing for health care magazines, while at night, I pecked away at my typewriter working on humor columns. When my first humor column appeared in a major daily newspaper, I was so excited to hold it that my hands shook.  

Years later, as a minivan-driving wife and mother of four children, and occasional caretaker of goldfish and a guinea pig, I mined the motherlode of material, just like Bombeck had. I sold more columns and published my first humor book, “Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy.” I’d never get anywhere near my role model’s stratosphere of professional success, but I was grateful for what I’d achieved. Besides, my husband and I were raising a Torah-observant family, and if we did it right, that would be achievement enough.      

In the midst of my excitement over my publishing milestone, things spiraled downward. My mother was diagnosed with end-stage cancer and told she had only weeks to live. Terrorism in Israel was claiming lives every week. Then terrorism hit home on the day I was scheduled for my first speaking engagement — Sept. 11, 2001.  

My goals as a humor writer suddenly seemed embarrassingly trivial, even self-absorbed. I asked my rabbi: Should I focus on serious writing because of the serious times we lived in?

 “As I struggled to cope amid an ocean of grief, comedy offered me a lifeline.”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “We need to laugh now more than ever. Your work is important.” 

Even though humor had been a balm in my own life during dark times, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that my work was superficial. Then I received an email that staggered me. It was from a woman who had read an excerpt from my book in Woman’s Day magazine while in a doctor’s waiting room. “I want you to know you saved my life today,” I read in total disbelief. “I was so depressed by my medical condition that I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep fighting. You made me laugh, and it made all the difference.”

The notion that a short column of light humor had “saved her life” seemed like an impossible overstatement but she believed it. That was all that mattered. I never again doubted that writing for laughs was in its own way, serious business. 

Sure, the money would have been better had I stayed in the field of health care journalism, but I’d also have collected fewer notes from people grateful for the lifeline of laughter on a hard day. Over the years, I have learned to appreciate that whatever small legacy I leave in words will have accrued more intangible rewards. Knowing that I could deliver small doses of laughter as medicine is something that would have made Erma Bombeck proud.


Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.” Read more of her work here.   

The Story That Moved Me to Write

Mark Schiff and his father

I didn’t think I wanted to be a weekly columnist until I read a column by comedian Mark Schiff. I’ve never told him this, but I’ll tell him now.

In August 2006, I had just moved with my kids to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood when, on a whim, I decided to write a column about our new life in this very Jewish ’hood. It was a one-off, just something to get out of my system, but the Journal asked whether I could do it weekly. I agreed to try, but I wasn’t sure my heart would be in it, week after week.

Then I read this poignant column by Mark Schiff. It was about his father who had died of cancer years earlier. Let me share some highlights.

When Mark found out his father was ill, he spent a lot of time in New York, where his parents lived.

“One of the good things about being a road comic is you can live anywhere and book yourself out of wherever you are,” he wrote. “Road comics have no office. So New York became my base.”

His father loved watching him perform.

“He thought I was the funniest person in the world,” Mark wrote. “I guess you are the funniest person in the world if someone thinks you are. My dad and mom came to see me at least a hundred times before he died in 1988. He would come and see me wherever I was doing a show. And he always got dressed up for the show.”

The column had this matter-of-fact tone. No melodrama. Just a heartfelt reflection of how a comedy career helped Mark forge a special bond with his father.

“The column had this matter-of-fact tone. No melodrama. Just a heartfelt reflection of how a comedy career helped Mark forge a special bond with his father.”

But there was a singular moment later in the column that especially moved me. Before we get to it, here is how the story unfolded:

“I remember when my dad had just gotten out of a hospice, and they sent him back home to die. The night he came home, I had a show to do. I said, ‘Dad, maybe I should stay home instead.’ He wouldn’t hear of it. ‘You go and be funny.’ I did.

“About three days later, I had this gig about two hours away in upstate New York. That afternoon, we were all sitting at the dining room table when my dad said in the weakest of voices, ‘Can I come with you tonight? I’d really like to see your show.’

“I knew what he was saying. He was saying: ‘I really want to see you one more time before I die.’ ”

This was the moment when I lost control of those little drops that sometimes come out of our eyes:

“So off we headed to my gig. It was a cold winter night, and a light snow fell for most of the drive. We didn’t talk much on the way up. As I remember, my dad slept most of the way, anyway. I kept looking at him as he slept in the car. I cried most of the way up, but that was OK; I was with my dad.”

For a while, I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. A father and a son on a long, quiet winter drive at night, the father all dressed up to see his son perform one last time.

The father seemed to know he had just enough strength to see one more show, so he slept during the drive to conserve his energy. For the comedian-son, the only way to honor the moment was to cry.

It was a final show of fatherly love; a last effort to get joy and laughter from a son. And the son was preparing to deliver. 

A few weeks after reading the column, I bumped into Mark at the local Coffee Bean. I didn’t know him well. Our kids went to the same school and I would run into him here and there.

“I wanted him to know that his story made me choke up, that I couldn’t stop thinking about that long, quiet drive with his father.”

It didn’t matter. I spoke to him like a best friend. I wanted him to know that his story made me choke up, that I couldn’t stop thinking about that long, quiet drive with his father. I was in full Sephardic, over-the-top mode.

Mark, in his signature dry tone, just replied, “Hey, thank you.”

What I didn’t tell him that day in the fall of 2006 was that his story touched me deeply as a son and as a father, and that it moved me to come up with stories and ideas of my own that would also touch others.

So, from that day on, I never stopped writing.

Happy Father’s Day.

Howie Mandel on ‘Howie Mandel Presents Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club’ Special and His Bar Mitzvah

Photo courtesy of Comedy Dynamics and Shore Fire Media

Beyond being one of the most successful stand-up comedians of the last 40 years, Howie Mandel is also an Emmy-winning producer, top-rated television host, and acclaimed actor. While many millions of people have continually watched Mandel on hit shows like “Deal or No Deal” and “America’s Got Talent,” not all of those loyal viewers realize Mandel’s long-term success as a stand-up comic. In turn, Mandel is aiming to change that with “Howie Mandel presents Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club,” his first solo stand-up special in 20 years.

“Howie Mandel presents Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club” – indeed filmed at the Atlantic City, New Jersey, comedy venue owned by Mandel – was interestingly produced with Comedy Dynamics. Founded by director Brian Volk-Weiss, Comedy Dynamics is producing the upcoming reboot of “Mad About You” beyond recent collaborations with Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan, Ali Wong and David Cross; all five albums nominated in the “Best Comedy Album” category for the 61st Annual Grammy Awards were released by Comedy Dynamics. Mandel’s new special will be released via the Comedy Dynamics network on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Dish, DirecTV and Comcast on April 23rd, while the album will be released April 26 on iTunes, Google Play and Spotify.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Howie Mandel by phone and highlights from the chat are below. The full chat with the comedy legend will be featured on a future edition of the “Paltrocast With Darren Paltrowitz” podcast via PureGrainAudio.com.

Jewish Journal: Did you know all along that the special was going to be filmed at your comedy club?

Howie Mandel: Did I know? I did. It was my idea… The Hard Rock [Hotel] was nice enough to open the Howie Mandel Comedy Club on July 4 of last year and they said, “Would you like to come to the opening?” I said, “Not only would I like to come to the opening, I’d like to be on the stage and I would like to tape it and maybe it’ll be my first time back on television doing standup in 20 years.”

JJ: Was that the first time that anyone had ever asked you to be a partner in a comedy club?

HM: Yeah… I’ve never been asked to be a partner in a comedy club. I spent my entire career going, “Can I just have a couple of minutes on-stage at your comedy club?” Now I have my own. And I still ask people to allow me, you know, five minutes on their stage, even though I tour and I’m doing over 100, 150 dates a year in theaters and casinos and arenas…

That’s how I write. I will drop in on the local comedy club at one o’clock in the morning, at midnight or anything still open and say, “Hey can I just have a couple of minutes?”… But now I have my own club, so I can.

JJ: Your stand-up is very improv-based. So how does that come into play when you’re doing a special?

HM: It’s very improvisational, which is the bigger issue… A lot of people — especially when you haven’t been on TV doing stand-up for 20 years — know me from “America’s Got Talent” and from “Deal or No Deal,” which are very family-friendly home-viewing shows. Because I’m very improvisational and hence don’t edit it for the whole family, kids shouldn’t listen. Not that I go down a dark lane of anything that is dirty, but you know my language and my subject matter can veer in that neighborhood. And the truth of the matter is with a comedy special I didn’t have to stick to any particular time or worry about that… It’s edited so I can make the show any length I want when it airs and it’s my club. There were no rules. It was my house, my rules.

JJ: You haven’t slowed down the number of gigs that you do per year in stand-up but it had been 20 years or so since you’d done a standup special. What was it that made you realize that it was time? Was it having the comedy club?

HM: No, it was a plethora of people, you know? I mean, “America’s Got Talent,” which is probably the number one show on television as far as the size of the audience and “Deal or No Deal” was relaunching and people were coming up to me and saying to me, “You know I saw an old tape, you should do stand-up again.” Or “I used to love you as a stand-up comic.”. And I realized there’s a whole generation of people that have never ever seen me and don’t even identify me as a stand-up comic. And the truth of the matter is I personally identify as a stand-up comic first and then I’m on TV doing other things, but stand-up comedy has always been the one staple in my career.

Photo courtesy of Comedy Dynamics and Shore Fire Media


JJ: One of my favorite projects that you worked on was the Adam Carolla movie “Road Hard” where you really showed a different side of yourself. That’s not the kind of side that you show when you’re doing one of your competition shows or hosting a game show. Did you have any hesitance to show in that side of yourself?

HM: I love acting and I love portraying a character, and even though I played myself, it was a version of myself that I don’t know that’s myself. But I love acting. I spent six years on “St. Elsewhere” in the ‘80s, which is a dramatic show, and I’ve spent nine years as a little voice of Bobby in a booth for Saturday mornings for “Bobby’s World.” I like doing different things. The one thing I don’t suffer from in my career is boredom and that’s because all these opportunities present themselves for me to do different things even in the course of one day.

JJ: How much of your time is actually spent on creative endeavors? Are you the kind of person that sits down to write regularly?

HM: I don’t write long form… I have ideas that I could speak into my phone and then hopefully along with a group of other talented people we can bring these ideas into fruition. I’m always producing and I’m behind the scenes on a lot of things that we sell and do. I like producing. I’m not a homework guy. I never did homework in school and I don’t do homework now.

JJ: Since this is for the Jewish Journal I was curious if you could share any memories about your bar mitzvah or that overall experience.

HM: That’s over 50 years ago, now 52 years ago. I know I must have said, “Today I am a man,” and I can truly say that I still am. I’ve spent most of my gift money, most of my bar mitzvah money has been spent. I don’t remember where I spent most of it… I was bar mitzvahed before people were doing themes. I think my theme was just, “Run around the room and get the envelopes.”

JJ: Over the years has your success led to you hosting or performing at any bar mitzvahs as private gigs?

HM: I have not done any bar mitzvahs or bar mitzvahs, but I do a lot of private gigs and fundraisers and I have been up at the pulpit many times doing my act, which I find fascinating… My act in that room, near the Torah, doesn’t seem, you know, right. But not that I care…You know, I have performed in temples and I perform fundraisers for Jewish organizations. And every time I do any of those, it feels like my bar mitzvah, because… I’m nervous in front of a crowd… I don’t know how it’s going to go or how I will be received in this room. Especially when I’m in a temple and they’re all sitting down looking at me and I have to follow a rabbi who introduces me, which has happened many times.

Sometimes the introductions by rabbis make it a little harder for me to do my comedy. I did a fundraiser for Holocaust survivors, a proponent of raising money and we must never forget. But in the introduction, the rabbi recounted very visually the atrocities of it and the losses of life in the Holocaust… He was going from 1939 to 1944, to the liberation in 1945, to 1979, me making my way to Hollywood… So that the Holocaust segues into my introduction, which made it a hard bridge to cross, to say the least

JJ: So in closing, any last words for the kids?

HM: Yeah, as Nike says, just do it. And that’s what it is. Everything I’ve ever been expelled for, punished for, getting in trouble for, is what I seem to get paid for today. I didn’t think it would amount to anything, but what was perceived as a problem as a child has become a career as an adult. So just do it.

More on Howie Mandel can be found online at www.howiemandel.com.

Purim Spiels: Going Behind the Curtain

The Shushan Channel spiel. Photos courtesy of Rob Kutner

 Several months before most Jews start to think about Purim, there are those who pay special attention to the world around them, the cultural themes and products of the moment, the politics and social proclivities. These Jews are the comedically inclined creatives who feel Purim approaching in their kishkes. They are the ones who craft sketches, song parodies and Purim-based satire to entertain their communities.

Longtime spieler and comedy writer Rob Kutner first caught the spiel bug while studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem between college and the start of his professional comedy writing career, making him perhaps “the only person in history to be studying Mishnah while simultaneously writing a spec script for ‘Frasier,’ ” he said. The Pardes spiel was “a way to join the two halves of my brain,” he said. “It was my ad d’lo yada (“until you don’t know the difference”) moment, except instead of conflating Haman and Mordechai, it was ‘sacred text’ and ‘funny sketch.’ ”

When Kutner moved to New York in the early 2000s to write for “The Daily Show,” he had to leave his L.A. spiritual home, “my beloved Shtibl Minyan,” and “hit upon the idea of staging my own spiel (The Shushan Channel) with professional actors and writers as a way to create my own community. You know the saying: ‘If you grog it, they will come,’ ” he said.

Thanks to Kutner’s “Daily Show” connections, he was able to recruit guest performers like Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry and Ed Helms to read the Purim story and deliver an unfiltered comic take on the Megillah in a segment called “The Goyish Rebuttal.” One year, he had his “Daily Show” colleague, comedian J.R. Havlan, do the rebuttal, except he forgot to tell Havlan what happens when you say “Haman.” 

Jews are people of the book. We are storytellers. Coming together for Purim to laugh and play and remember is exactly what we’ve done forever to keep our spark alive.” — David Schwartzbaum

“This is literally my office-mate from work, he’s doing me a favor and I put him in front of a crowd who’s repeatedly booing him at what seem like random times!”

A few years in, I became involved in Kutner’s production, first as a volunteer, then as a writer and “sort-of” (not very good) very occasional actor. My spiel journey has continued for the past several years at IKAR; our writers convene at Bibi’s Bakery about six weeks before the holiday, so that resident baker and funny man Dan Messinger can be part of the comedy collusion. Our table has writing and production alumni of TV shows past and present, and a few comedy civilians, either recruited or self-selected into the creative company. 

Actress Rena Strober, who directed and performed in last year’s Temple Israel of Hollywood spiel, is helping to create this year’s spiel at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where she will play “The Marvelous Mrs. Shooshan.”

“I love telling Jewish stories through song, scene and sometimes comedy and dance,” Strober said. “It makes it more enjoyable for people of all ages to connect to the people of our past.” 

Lizzie Weiss, Cantor at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (TEBH), called the spiel “one of the best tools of engagement” because it’s supported by kids and parents alike. This year TEBH’s musical theme is Bruno Mars; previous spiels have featured the music of the rock group Queen or the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”  

“In a Reform congregation, we are cognizant that people aren’t always aware of the Megillah,” Weiss said. “The music of ‘Hamilton’ was the magnet we needed to attract kids to this awesome community event and ‘sneak’ in the wonderfully tumultuous story of Esther.” 

“Jews are people of the book. We are storytellers,” said comic and actor David Schwartzbaum, who will be spieling this year at Open Temple in Venice and Temple Israel of Hollywood. “We’ve passed down our story for thousands of years. Judaism is a communal religion and we come together in times of grief and in times of joy. Coming together for Purim to laugh and play and remember is exactly what we’ve done forever to keep our spark alive.” 

Jenna Turow, a student at and spieler for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, started spieling after years of writing and acting in sketches and song parodies at camp and in United Synagogue Youth (USY). 

“It makes me feel more connected because it’s a chance to get everyone to laugh, especially at themselves,” Turow said. “I love making people laugh, and encouraging people to not take themselves too seriously. Plus, I feel that I can properly toe the line between appropriate jokes and pushing the limit, [which is what] Purim is all about.”

Turow also found spieling, and Purim in general, to be really helpful while dealing with her mother’s terminal illness. “It is a blessing to be given the responsibility to cause joy for myself and others,” she said. 

Spielers are divided on their approach to incorporating politics. Weiss recalled the 2018 Purim season, which came at the height of #metoo-related conversations. TEBH Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron created a monologue by Vashti as “a pivotal teaching moment,” she said, which addressed “what it meant when Vashti said ‘no’ and when Esther used her femininity to further the cause of the Jewish people. Although Purim can be a time of blurry-eyed drunkenness and hysterical laughter,” she said, “there are always teaching moments for our kids and teens.”

Turow tries to avoid politics in the spiel, “because I’d rather focus on things that we can laugh at more recklessly, without the worries of everyday life creeping in,” she said. 

Kutner includes political references, but avoids entirely political spiels.

“Not to avoid taking a side,” he said, “but because I feel we’re already drowning in that, and Purim is supposed to be an escape.”

Fran Drescher Headlines Comedy Special, Joins NBC Pilot

Fran Drescher; Photo courtesy of Showtime

“The Nanny” star Fran Drescher is returning to TV in “Funny Women of a Certain Age,” a comedy special for Showtime premiering Mar. 23. Drescher heads a lineup of six 50-plus female comics in the one-hour special, which was filmed at the Bell House in Brooklyn, N.Y. The lineup also includes Lynne Koplitz, Carole Montgomery, Vanessa Hollingshead, Kerri Louise and Luenell.

Drescher has also joined the NBC sitcom pilot “Uninsured” as Brooklynite Linda, who is deeply in debt after mishandling of her finances and turns to her son (played by Tribe member Adam Pally) to rescue her.

Drescher, whose last series “Happily Divorced” ran from 2011-2013, also has a role in the upcoming movie “Safe Spaces,” opposite Richard Schiff and Justin Long.

Rep. Ilhan Omar Meets Mrs. Maisel

Mrs. Maisel: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me!

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.): Of course.

Maisel: I mean, I know how busy you are. First few months in a new job, adoring fans, intense scrutiny. … But since we often use the same material …

Omar: What do you mean?

Maisel: Well, I talk about the Jews, you talk about the Jews …

Omar: I’m sorry, maybe this wasn’t a good idea. I don’t talk about the Jewish people.

Maisel: Oh, right. Sorry. Wrong decade. You talk about Zionists, Israel, AIPAC …

Omar looks at her warily.

Maisel: But such great lines! “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” — I’m totally stealing that. These Upper East Siders come into B. Altman — you know, I’m at the makeup counter — and they want me to give them free samples of everything. And if I don’t have samples, they try to haggle the price down. Can you believe it? Where are we, back in the shtetl?

Omar looks confused.

Maisel: Oh, I’m sorry, you talk about us so much, sometimes I forget you’re not Jewish. Shtetl is Yiddish. You know, that language we had to speak in other countries, when no one wanted us. But we’re here now, and I mean, well, most people are OK with us. Or at least they put up with us. So we really don’t need Yiddish anymore, but it really is such a great language. I mean, what language has 25 words for someone who says stupid things all the time?

Omar: I think I should be going.

Maisel: I’m rambling, and you’re a very busy woman. What I really want to talk about is our beloved Israel. I mean, not your beloved Israel but our — the Jews’ — beloved Israel. You see, we waited patiently — OK, not so patiently, but a long time — to get our homeland back. You know, like 2,000 years. And even if many of us don’t live there right now, we’re just so happy to know it’s there, thriving — a miracle in the desert!

Omar stares at her icily.

Maisel: Oh, I’m not saying there aren’t other miracles in the desert! The pyramids — what a miracle those slaves created. And, of course, Hanukkah. See, that’s the thing. Israel has brought so much light into this world — freedoms for Muslims, for women — you could call it a mecca of freedom and diversity! 

Look, you guys really know how to get the numbers up — there are like 2 billion Muslims, right? The Jews, after the Holocaust, we just have, like, a few million — OK, maybe we’re up to 14 million, but still. You guys have lots of countries — like 50 countries — and we just have this tiny one, smaller than New Jersey. We’re just so proud of her. She’s our jewel. And we just want to be left alone. Do you understand?

Omar says nothing.

Maisel: Yes, of course, you want to be left alone, too. I get it. We Jews are a passionate, intense people. We make up for size with intensity. If you use that, can you please credit me? I’m still trying to develop my audience, like you. Oh, I didn’t mean to compare a comedian to a congresswoman! Now that would be offensive, right? You are so insanely qualified. I mean, that line about the Benjamins, you have to be pretty shrewd to come up with that! Oh, wait, is it offensive if I call you a word that people call us? This new system is so confusing.

They call us shrewd because they think we’re good with money — if they only knew how much I spend every week on hats! Look, I know it’s not your fault, you’re just reading from the script. And the script keeps changing. It’s hard to keep up. I mean, are Jews white this week? Maybe I should give you a guidebook to anti-Semitic slurs.

Omar stands up.

Maisel: I truly hope this wasn’t a waste of your time. I just wanted to show you that we’re not satanic. But we do control the weather. I’ll send you a hat.


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.

Netflix to Premiere Second Amy Schumer Comedy Special in March

Netflix has set a date for Amy Schumer’s second standup comedy special. The actress and comedian, who is expecting her first child, will debut the aptly titled “Amy Schumer Growing” on the streaming service on Mar.19.

Filmed before an packed audience in Chicago, the special features Schumer talking about pregnancy, womanhood, marriage, personal growth and sex.

Schumer’s last Netflix comedy special, “Amy Schumer: The Leather Special,” premiered in March 2017.

Netflix Show ‘Russian Doll’ as a Manual for Spiritual Growth

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll Photo courtesy of Netflix

This article contains spoilers from the Netflix series “Russian Doll.”

The new Netflix series “Russian Doll” is so splendidly Jewish.

The eight 30-minute episodes in Season 1 follow the life of the main character, Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”), who dies and wakes up at her 36th birthday party in a never-ending loop, “Groundhog Day”-style.

The series is Jewish in two distinct ways. It’s a rare combination of secular New York bagels and kosher pickles Jewish, and deep mystical and ethical principles Jewish.

On the surface, there are the trappings of the sort of Jewish history that’s threaded through the streets of the East Village: a birthday party in an old yeshiva building, now an ultra-fancy hipster loft encased in subway tile; a synagogue on 14th Street — at its center an old, bearded rabbi who was a couple of blocks away all along; and the necklace Nadia wears throughout the series, which represents not only her lost mother who left it to her, but her Holocaust survivor grandparents, who lost faith in paper money and trusted only gold currency.

As much as I love the ghost of the yeshiva, the mystical/practical rabbi and Lyonne’s representation of intergenerational trauma, I’m most compelled by the Jewish thought embedded in the plot. The idea that you can make a decision that minimizes rather than maximizes your humanity; a decision that hurts rather than helps those around you is the epitome of the Jewish concept of teshuvah. Often translated as “repentance,” teshuvah really means “returning”: returning to our best selves and the life we should be living.

Traditionally, Jews focus on teshuvah during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it is an ongoing process throughout the year. The classic interpretation of teshuvah is espoused by Maimonides, the 12th-century Spanish rabbi and philosopher. I love this description of his steps to Teshuvah by Rabbi Leora Kaye and artist/animator Hanan Harchol, not least because we see Nadia precisely as a “Jew on the street,” wandering the streets of Alphabet City over and over:

[Maimonides] wrote for the simple “Jew on the street” as much as for scholars, and his codes have remained relevant across the spectrum of Jewish belief until today. According to Maimonides, four of the most important steps of teshuvah are the following:

  1. Verbally confess your mistake and ask for forgiveness (Mishneh Torah 1:1).
  2. Express sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same mistake again (Mishneh Torah 2:2).
  3. Do everything in your power to “right the wrong,” to appease the person who has been hurt (Mishneh Torah 2:9).
  4. Act differently if the same situation happens again (Mishneh Torah 2:1).

When I first encountered this text in my early 20s, I appreciated its practical advice toward righting a wrong. So much better than guiltily agonizing for years and years. But I, like many people, had a problem with No. 4. If making a different decision in the same situation is the final step, then true teshuvah is hard to come by. To really do it right, you’d have to go back to a different multiverse, be presented with the exact same situation and then make a different decision.

This is Nadia’s story. She follows Maimonides’ steps of teshuvah, one by one, multiverse by multiverse. Being human, she sometimes slips, but in general, she moves forward. She apologies to her friend for a hurtful past comment; she reconsiders her refusal to connect with her ex-boyfriend’s young daughter; on two separate occasions she makes sure a homeless man has shoes on a cold night; and eventually, she puts her heart and soul into saving her teshuvah partner, Alan (Charlie Barnett).

“Russian Doll” not only depicts the behavior of teshuvah, as laid out by Maimonides, but also moves us by showing the characters’ inner growth. Before they can complete their teshuvah and live their fullest lives, both Nadia and Alan must face the demons that led them to fail others. This is teshuvah as a therapeutic practice. When she first sees the ghost of her neglected child-self, Nadia immediately dies, but little by little she grows stronger, able to face her own trauma and let go of her guilt.

“‘Russian Doll’ not only depicts the behavior of teshuvah, as laid out by Maimonides, but also moves us by showing the characters’ inner growth.”

 

Sitting down to write this story, I Googled “Maimonides Russian Doll” and discovered a post on ReformJudaism.org, discussing why Maimonides called his great work of commentary “Mishne Torah,” the “second Torah.”

[Maimonides] must have seen himself as upholding the commandment [of] repeating and retelling God’s law. Maimonides’ addition to the previous replications of God’s word finally results in the textual equivalent of a Matryoshka (Russian nesting) doll, one retelling nested inside another, each one a successively larger copy of the predecessor concealed within it.

In this analysis, Torah itself — including Maimonides’ commentary — is a Russian doll; a series of self-enclosing multiverses considering the same story from a different angle.

Like Torah, the video games Nadia designs for a living are both directional (moving forward in time) and cyclical (starting over and over). So it is with life. We may not wake up over and over at the same aging hipster birthday party, but we do repeat our patterns, and we do have the ability to change our lives by shifting our attitudes, behavior and ultimately our reality.

Teshuvah is the central Jewish expression of this concept; another way of saying that perhaps there are multiverses, different possible versions of each of us. It is up to us to decide which world we will live in and who we will be.   


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher. Her most recent book of poetry is “Fruit Geode” (Augury Books).

Judd Apatow Responds to Louis CK’s ‘Comeback’ Show

Photo by Mark Seliger.

On the last day of 2018, director/comedian Judd Apatow, along with thousands of others, went to Twitter to slam Louis CK’s leaked “comeback” stand-up show. CK, who was accused of and later admitted to doing sexual misconduct a year ago, has been shunned from the stand up community ever since. His new routine includes calling Parkland students boring, Auschwitz and the LGBTQ community.

CK kicked off his set mentioning that following his #MeToo scandal, he would “rather be in Auschwitz” than in New York City. “I mean Auschwitz now, not Auschwitz back then. There’s a gift shop, Starbucks. People buy tickets to go there.”

CK later takes a swing at gender pronouns and the Parkland shooting survivors.

“Why does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot,” CK said. “You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I gotta listen to you talk?”

Apatow called the bit “hacky, unfunny and shallow” while saying it “is just a symptom of how people are afraid to feel empathy.”

It’s much easier to laugh at our most vulnerable than to look at their pain directly & show them love and concern,” Apatow wrote. “Louis CK is all fear and bitterness now. He can’t look inward.”

The “Knocked Up” and “40 Year Old Virgin” director is no stranger to raunchy comedy and has experience writing taboo jokes for TV and film. He further explained to Twitter users and fans the difference between jokes and what CK presented.

“I am not a sensitive comedy watcher,” Apatow wrote. “I just think it is weak material.  Compare it to the work of our greats. Would Richard Pryor have done a routine about how shooting victims were boring?  People will want to make it political but it is more about his fear of self discovery.”

Howie Mandel Returns to Standup, Takes ‘A.G.T.’ Global

Howie Mandel, Host/Executive Producer (Photo by: Jeff Daly/CNBC)

Comedian, actor, “Deal or No Deal” host and “America’s Got Talent” judge Howie Mandel returns to his standup roots next month with “Howie Mandel Presents Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club.” This is his first solo standup special in 20 years. Taped at Mandel’s eponymous comedy club in Atlantic City, N.J., it will premiere Jan. 18 on Showtime.

Mandel also will join “A.G.T.” co-stars Mel B., Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum and new host Terry Crews for the spinoff competition “America’s Got Talent: The Champions,” which premieres Jan.7 on NBC. Memorable fan-favorite acts from past seasons of “A.G.T.” will compete against winners and finalists from international editions of the “Got Talent” franchise for the chance to be crowned the winner.

Comedian Elayne Boosler on ‘Timeless’ Boxed Set, Tails Of Joy, and What’s Next

Elayne Boosler

The first female to have her own one-hour comedy special on television, Elayne Boosler has always been an innovator. Beyond being a prolific stand-up comic and actress, Boosler has also been an active philanthropist, author and political activist. Simply put, she has remained busy for decades doing great projects that are meaningful to her.

The latest release from Elayne Boosler is “Timeless,” a boxed set that features her latest album, “The 50/50 Club.” I had the pleasure of speaking with her about “Timeless” and plenty more.

Jewish Journal: How long did you spend writing “The 50/50 Club?” Were you testing it on the road before filming the special?

Elayne Boosler: I don’t actually sit down and “write” my stage shows. I just read a lot all day, go onstage, talk about what stuck, what made an impression, and pieces of material kind of grow out of all that. You go on each night and they get honed. It’s very organic. I figure if something made an impression on me it probably resonated with the audience too, as I’m pretty average. 

JJ: Your boxed set, “Timeless” —  which includes “The 50/50 Club” —  spans decades of your career. Did you always own the rights to some of your older specials? Or is that a more recent development?

EB: I’ve always owned my own shows because no one would hire me in the early days. When I finally found a way to pay for my first special myself —  let’s just say nudity, drugs, modern art, oysters and a piano were involved —  I licensed it instead of selling it. I didn’t know anything, it was a lucky happenstance. So when I continued to do specials, I made sure I always owned them myself. They’re mine! All mine!

JJ: “Timeless” promotion aside, what is coming up for you?

EB: I’m taking a break after 46 years of nonstop stand-up comedy on the road. “But I always wanted to see you live!” “You had 46 years to buy a ticket, b**ch, not my problem anymore.” I’m working on several books I have been writing for many years, and now I will be able to finish them. And of course I run Tails Of Joy (www.tailsofjoy.net), the nationwide, non-profit, all species of animal rescue I founded 20 years ago. That alone is a full-time job. And we’re all volunteer, nobody gets paid. A labor of love, heartbreak and poverty. 

JJ: I have heard mixed reviews from comics that actually lived through that era. How do you feel about the show “I’m Dying Up Here?”

EB: The book the show is based on captured the overall “Miseen-scène,” but the details were so strikingly inaccurate throughout, that for me and most of my comedian friends, it was a work of fiction. As for the TV show, I’m just happy when my friends get work.

JJ: Your husband Bill has managed some of the biggest names in rock history. Did you open for a lot of musicians way back when?

EB: Back in the day all comedians started out opening for music acts. It could be a blessing or a curse. Believe me, I wouldn’t want to have to sit through me if I was waiting for Lady Gaga to come out. But the good part was I got to see the greatest acts in the country for free every night. 

 

JJ: So when not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?

EB: I love writing, always considered that my job definition, so writing articles and continuing to work on the books is a joy for me. Animal rescue through the email rescue tree continues all day long; I spend half my day calling veterinarians all across the country, paying for dogs or cats that tiny rescue groups are bringing in, but can’t afford to pay for. That’s part of what Tails Of Joy does, keep the littlest guys from falling through the cracks.

My husband Bill has driven motorcycles his entire life—  not Harleys, “Get a muffler!” —  so we’ll take off on long weekend roundtrips. Sometimes all the way up to Monterey and back from Friday to Sunday, a bit rough on the body and the marriage. We just love taking off in the car and going, anywhere, without reservations, and seeing how it shakes out.

Even more challenging when you have two big dogs with you, but it’s accounted for some of the funniest stories ever. Or we’ll take the dogs to Malibu and I’ll watch Bill surf, the dogs will swim out and he’ll ride them back on the board. We are the oldest hipsters out there. I wanna be me when I grow up. 

JJ: Is there something you wish more people knew about Elayne Boosler?

EB: I think you all know enough. 


JJ: How did you first get involved with the world of animal rescue?

EB: Everyone loves animals. I always knew one day I would find the best way to help within my abilities. It’s really deepened my bond with the audience, taking it from having comedy fans to having a deep connection based on our love of saving strays and animals’ lives.

People can ask for and get help when they need it, animals have no chance if not for us. And every time we save an animal we’re helping a person, or a family, too. Animals bring out the compassion in a society, without that we are doomed to savagery, so it’s an important thing to nurture. 


JJ: Finally, Elayne, any last words for the kids?

EB: Everyone says to me, “When I get time and/or money I want to help save animals, too.” Listen, you do not have to wait. Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. Amazon has a charity program. If you shop at Amazon, start at smile.amazon.com. Choose “Tails Of Joy, Studio City” as your chosen charity, bookmark it, start there every time, and Amazon will donate a portion of your shopping to us every time you shop. You don’t have to do anything else and it costs you nothing.

Do you know how important that one thing is to us? If everyone reading this does that, I guarantee you we can save a thousand more homeless and desperate dogs, cats, bunnies, chimps, injured wildlife and sea life, etc. etc. this year, and you can read all about our wonderful work on our website, www.tailsofjoy.net. Just do that and you’ll truly be a rescuer.


More on Elayne Boosler, including tour dates and information on her books, can be found online at www.elayneboosler.com.

Mark Schiff: Thoughts From a Stand-Up Guy

Standup comedian Mark Schiff has been a headliner at all the major casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. He has appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman,” and has had HBO and Showtime specials. The 60-something comedian has been the featured act at the Montreal Comedy Festival and appeared in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” with Adam Sandler. He has also written for and guest starred on the sitcom “Mad About You,” and was a writer on “Roseanne.” His first play, “The Comic,” ran in Los Angeles for 10 months and played at The Aspen Comedy Festival, after which HBO optioned it for a movie. Schiff talked with the Journal about the influences on his career, his interests and pursuits.

Jewish Journal: When did you become interested in doing stand-up comedy?

Mark Schiff: When I was 12, my parents took me to see Rodney Dangerfield and I knew what I wanted to do for a living. I had no idea how to do it or anyone that had ever done it. But the door to becoming a stand-up is wide open to everyone. It’s the most diverse and inclusive business in the world. If you’re funny, they will come.

JJ: Who were the comedians in your “freshman class” when you were learning the ropes at New York City comedy clubs?

MS: Gilbert Gottfried, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Miller, Paul Reiser, Marc Weiner, Larry David and Steve Mittleman.

JJ: Which comedians have been your greatest influences?

MS: Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Robert Klein, George Carlin and Alan King.

“I love reading books about rabbis. After reading those books, I wanted to grow a beard.”

JJ: What are you reading these days?

MS: All very serious biographies. I love reading books about rabbis. “A Tzadik in Our Time” and “All for the Boss” are two great rabbi books. After reading them, I wanted to grow a beard.

JJ: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of show business?

MS: I collect old movies I never watch. My other hobby is trying to decipher things my wife says to me. Many times, she will say something, and I’ll go into another room and try to figure out exactly what she means. I know I’m wrong about something, but not always sure what.

JJ: You’ve lost a lot of weight. How have you managed to keep it off?

MS: I lost 50 pounds seven years ago. Almost anyone can lose weight, but few can keep it off. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s a constant fight and it doesn’t get easier. I have a fat man inside of me constantly wanting to come out. I’m a vegan, and I exercise seven days a week. And I’m strict. No pizza, pasta, bread, frozen yogurt, chips, dips, desserts, fried food, licorice, sugar or sugar substitutes, coffee or tea. And very little to no oil. I believe with every fiber of my being it’s life or death. As the rabbis say, “Choose life!”

JJ: What accounts for the longevity of your 28-year marriage?

MS: I stopped dating other women. Also, I took acting lessons, so I know how to pretend to enjoy doing the things my wife asks. I also stopped trying to turn her into my mother. And I try to make her laugh. All I have to do is ask for sex and she’ll laugh for hours.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

MS: My wife, Nancy, and I like The Salvation Army, Feed the Children and The Leprosy Mission. I also like doing hands-on work, like visiting sick people. Loneliness is a problem for most people, but when you’re sick, magnify it 20 times. I was with my friend Jack the other day. Jack is 90 and in a nursing home. When I went to see him last week, he told me he wanted to die. Fifteen minutes later, we were telling each other jokes. Go visit sick people. It’s good for them and it’s good for you.


Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and various sitcoms. His first book, a collection of his humor essays on dating and romance, is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”

Judd Apatow on His New Documentary and the Mystery of Shandling

Photo by Mark Seliger.

When he was 16, aspiring stand-up comedian Judd Apatow interviewed comedian Garry Shandling for a high school radio show and asked him for advice. Shandling provided it and much more, hiring Apatow to write jokes for the Grammy Awards and write and direct “The Larry Sanders Show” a decade later. The mentorship-turned-friendship continued until Shandling’s death in 2016.

Now 50, with iconic film and TV comedies including “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Trainwreck,” “Bridesmaids,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “Girls” to his credit, Apatow pays tribute to his friend in the two-part HBO documentary “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.” He spent two years poring through footage, photographs and diaries, and conducting interviews with Shandling’s family and friends to get insights into the man behind the laughter.

Jewish Journal: In the film, you say of Shandling, “In many ways, he was a mystery.” Why?

Judd Apatow: People didn’t understand what he was going through and how he was feeling. He often seemed neurotic and people didn’t know what was troubling him. The film was an opportunity to talk about his inner life because he left behind 30 years of journals, and an enormous amount of writing and interviews to go through. It was fun to have a reason to watch it all. I miss him. I thought he’d want me to learn whatever lessons there are from his life.

JJ: What did you learn from him?

JA: The most important thing he taught me is there’s nothing more important than kindness. As he got older, most of his focus was [on] being a mentor and giving back. In his journal, he writes, “Give to other people. That’s the win.” He was focused on connecting with other people, and being more loving and more kind. He’d chased glory, he’d chased creativity and where he landed was: “Nothing matters but love and being there for other people.” That’s so important, especially now.

JJ: Are there parallels in your careers?

JA: We both spent a lot of time alone in our rooms as kids. When he was young, he wrote jokes for George Carlin, and George’s encouragement really helped him. Garry’s encouragement of me made me want to encourage people like Seth Rogen.

“When I was a kid, my family never talked about religion. For reasons I never quite understood, it wasn’t part of their lives. It probably had to do with the many people lost in the Holocaust on my mother’s father’s side.”

JJ: How did being Jewish influence Shandling?

JA: Clearly, he was one of our great Jewish comedians. A lot of his material was about the experience of being Jewish. A Japanese foreign exchange student lived with his family when he was a kid and he was exposed to Buddhism and Eastern thought. I know that was very important to him. He certainly was a seeker.

JJ: How would you describe your connection to Judaism growing up and now?

JA: When I was a kid, my family never talked about religion. For reasons I never quite understood, it wasn’t part of their lives. It probably had to do with the many people lost in the Holocaust on my mother’s father’s side. My brother became very religious after college and is now Orthodox and lives in Israel. I’ll go to a seder every once in a while at somebody else’s house. I’m open to everything. I’m not sure what I believe. I’m still on my journey, with many evolutions to come. I’m about, “How can I put more kindness into the world?”

JJ: What were you like as a kid? Were you the class clown type, always trying to be funny?

JA: I caused a lot of trouble. I did some damage. I don’t know if I was trying to be funny, but I wanted to be funny around [age] 10. I was into the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello, and that turned into Steve Martin and George Carlin and “Saturday Night Live.” When I was a kid, it really was the golden era for comedy, with “Monty Python” and “Saturday Night Live” and “Second City.” The comedy club scene was booming in the ’70s. I was enamored by all of it.

JJ: Who or what makes you laugh today?

JA: Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler. I’m a big fan of John Mulaney, Dave Chappelle, Hannibal Buress, the TV show “Atlanta.”

JJ: Do your wife [actress Leslie Mann] and daughters [Maude, 20, and Iris, 15] think you’re funny?

JA: Sometimes. It changes by the day. But most of the time, they’re funnier than me.

JJ: What are your proudest accomplishments so far?

JA: I’m very proud of being part of “Freaks and Geeks.” It had a big effect on a lot of kids’ lives. I hear all the time how it helped people get through high school and made them feel better about themselves. I’m proud of the work I did with my wife, Leslie, on “Knocked Up” and “This Is 40.” And I’m proud of this documentary.

JJ: What’s next for you?

JA: I’m working on the third season of “Crashing” on HBO. It’s a show about comedy but also a religious person trying to find his place in the world and where his religion fits into that. It uses comedy to make you think about deeper ideas. I’ll be at Largo doing a benefit for the ACLU on April 21.

JJ: Do you have longer-range plans?

JA: I don’t. I’d love to write a play but I haven’t had a good idea yet. After two years of hard work on this [documentary], I need a nap about now. I need to slow down and appreciate the work I’ve done and recharge my batteries. I’m trying to convince myself to do that.

“The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” is available now on HBO and HBO On Demand.

Land of Milk and Funny

Avi Liberman

American Jews’ relationship to Israel can be complex and emotional, but in Avi Liberman’s case, it’s also humorous. Since 2001, Liberman has successfully arranged widely acclaimed stand-up comedy tours in Israel to help boost morale, while donating all of the proceeds to a charity. The successful “Comedy for Koby” tour is now a biannual event, benefiting the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs therapeutic healing programs for the families of terror victims, in honor of teenage victim Koby Mandell, who was murdered in 2001.

A loving and hilarious portrait of one of these tours takes the form of Liberman’s upcoming new documentary, “Land of Milk and Funny.” It was screened for the first time “in 90 percent finished format” on Feb. 15 at the Writers Guild Theatre, presented by StandWithUs, a 16-year-old, international, nonprofit Israel education organization.

The idea for “Land of Milk and Funny” came to Liberman during a visit Israel in 2002, “when things were really bad there. I realized friends were not going out much, so the idea of a safe, fun night out came from that.”

That’s when StandWithUs, entered the picture. “I think co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein is one of the great people on Earth and when the idea of the tour first started, I would trade shows for airline tickets. I’d put up a show at the Improv, for example, and whoever would sponsor it could keep all the ticket sales. In exchange, I’d want a ticket to Israel for one of the comics. Roz was the first person to ever take the risk of trying that. Her husband, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Jerry Rothstein, and President Esther Renzer are also unbelievable people. Honestly, without StandWithUs being there from the beginning I’m not sure the tour would have ever continued.”

“I honestly never really had a frightening moment in Israel other than before shows hoping my material goes over.” — Avi Liberman

What does Liberman get out of all of this? “A way to combine what I do for a living with something positive for Israel. It’s fulfilling and, while it may not make me any more famous or advance my career in entertainment, the rewards outweigh any of that.”

Liberman’s bucket list includes getting “Land of Milk and Funny” out there and seen; having some of the screenplays he’s written produced; and obtaining an endowment that goes toward the comedy tour and the Koby Mandell Foundation that would ensure the tour’s future. He’d also love to do the comedy tours in countries that have an English-speaking audience.

When people ask about the danger in Israel, Liberman tells them to talk to the comics who’ve been there.  “I even tell them to talk to anyone who’s been to Israel, period. If they find just one person who said they didn’t feel safe while there, by all means don’t go, but I’m convinced they won’t.” At the same time, the film includes a segment during the tour, in Sderot, when a rocket attack occurred. Still, says Liberman, “I honestly never really had a frightening moment in Israel other than before shows hoping my material goes over.”

As to favorite moments, Liberman recalls an incident during the first tour when a girl came over after the show and thanked him, admitting it was the first time she was able to laugh in over a year. “But watching the comics go through being there is always interesting to me. Each group reacts to things differently and it’s always fascinating to watch what a particular comic will enjoy on the trip. Some love the history, some the religion, but all seem to really enjoy the crowds at the shows. They’re great audiences.”


Mark Miller is a humorist and journalist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for a number of sitcoms.

Remembering Shelley Berman

Danny Lobell and Shelley Berman

The music blared as friends and family gathered around to welcome my bride and me. As we walked from the yichud room to the social hall, someone joined my side: an old man. He was not my grandfather, as most of the guests thought. He was the legendary comedian Shelley Berman.

Although he was 90 years old, Berman was keeping up with everyone, dancing to the loud Israeli music with his cane up in the air, and smiling from ear to ear. He was the life of the party on the dance floor.

I first met Berman in 2014, when I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview him on my podcast. After the interview, Berman and his wife, Sarah,  invited my wife and me to look at Berman’s impressive knife collection and have some tea. We talked about how Sarah converted to Judaism, and how my wife, Kylie Ora Lobell, was in the process of doing the same. It turned out, in fact, that we all had a lot in common, and an instant friendship was born.

As a new couple in Los Angeles looking for another couple to hang out with, we had finally found our match. It just so happened that they were a few years older than we were.

They told us to stay in touch and we did. We drove up to Shelley and Sarah Berman’s house a few more times for lunch and became a fixture at their holiday party every Hanukkah. When Kylie and I got married in the summer of 2015, Sarah and Shelley Berman were there with their daughter, Rachel, celebrating with us.

The following Rosh Hashanah, Shelley Berman came to our festive meal along with his daughter and two grandsons. He had us all laughing throughout the holiday. He showed us how he ate pomegranates by first rolling them against the table to loosen the skin and then just biting into them. He said that nothing made him happier than a good pomegranate on Rosh Hashanah.

In fact, Rosh Hashanah was one of Shelley’s favorite days of the year, so much so that he had written a poem about the sounding of the shofar is his book “To Laughter With Questions: Poetry by Shelley Berman.”

The next time I was to hear this poem was sadly at Berman’s funeral; he died in Southern California on Sept. 1, 2017, at 92. The Chabad rabbi presiding over the funeral read it aloud, because it had been a gift to him from Berman, and Rosh Hashanah was only a few weeks away.

On Jan. 30, 2018, droves of people, including Kylie and me, went to the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach to celebrate Berman’s life and career with a memorial service. We heard from his contemporaries, friends and family, such as the host of the event, comedian Lewis Black, comedian George Carlin’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, producer and writer Alan Zweibel, and comedians Laraine Newman and Fred Willard, who brought down the house with a story about the two of them grand marshaling a Hollywood parade. In attendance were many of Berman’s co-stars, including actors Larry David and Cheryl Hines, and comedians who wanted to pay their respects. Sarah Berman closed the afternoon by talking about their loving 70-year relationship.

Most people will remember Shelley Berman for his work on the comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” on which he portrayed Larry David’s father, Nat David. Or perhaps the older generation will remember his many television performances and famous telephone routine. Maybe he will be remembered for being the first comedian to win a Grammy for a comedy album, his 1959 work “Inside Shelley Berman,” and for changing the face of stand-up comedy.

I will remember him for being a mensch and a great friend.


Danny Lobell is a stand-up comedian.

Jewish Background Helps Comedian Rise to Roastmaster General

Jeff Ross is a comedian, writer and producer also known as the Roastmaster General. His comedy roast “victims” have included Rob Lowe, Justin Bieber, James Franco, Charlie Sheen, James Carville and Donald Trump. Jeff’s most recent comedy special is “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border: Live From Brownsville, Texas,” which is available on Comedy Central and iTunes.

His latest TV series is “Jeff Ross Presents Roast Battle,” a comedy competition show about to start its third season on Comedy Central. He will be appearing live at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City, February 8-11.

Jewish Journal: What motivated you to become a comedian?

Jeff Ross: I was struggling, living in New Jersey with my grandfather, trying to start a video production business. A buddy said, “Why don’t you try taking this stand-up comedy class? I think you’d be good at it.” He said it would be a good way to meet a girlfriend, have a social life and a creative outlet. The class was near the bus station where I was going home every night, anyway. So, I tried it on a whim, really enjoyed it right away and was the best one in the class, so I stuck with it.

JJ: How has your Jewish upbringing and heritage influenced your work and your life?

JR: Being Jewish makes you funny. It’s almost in our DNA. Although my Judaism isn’t the main focus of my act, it’s a big part of my personality. I love families, food, fun, parties and busting chops. Love of life. L’chaim.

“Being Jewish makes you funny. It’s almost in our DNA.”

JJ: What qualities make a perfect roast joke?

JR: The best roast jokes are backhanded compliments, where the recipient not only laughs along with the audience but goes home and tells their family about it; jokes that they’re proud of. That’s the heart of the artichoke for me, that’s what makes me feel good, when the joke lives longer than the show.

JJ: Your process for creating roast material?

JR: I do research. I’m all in. I go to battle to prepare. I get in shape. I go to the gym. I hang up pictures all over the house of the target I’m roasting. I buy their books, watch their movies, listen to their music. It’s war — take no prisoners.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

JR: The USO and what they do for our troops stationed overseas. You can’t play that up enough because it’s so important. And Meals on Wheels. When I was a beginning comedian and my grandfather was dying of cancer, Meals on Wheels delivered kosher meals to him, checked on him to make sure he was OK and helped him and me get through the day.

JJ: Tell us about your new special, “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border: Live From Brownsville Texas.”

JR: I went down to the Mexican border and did a show in front of the border fence for the immigrant community down there. I worked a year on it. It’s a very complicated subject and the jokes as well as my emotions are deep and sometimes confusing. I learned a lot, including how lucky I am that I was born in America. One point I make in the show is that Jewish people tried to come to America at the beginning of World War II and we sent them away. Now, we’re saying the same thing to these other refugees from other countries. Maybe we should take a look at all that.

JJ: Have you retained your dancing skills from your appearances on “Dancing With the Stars”?

JR: Oh, I had those skills way before “Dancing With the Stars.” I won a dance class in summer camp when I was about 8 and never looked back since. Don’t even tell me I’m not great. [Laughs] My family was in the kosher catering business; I know every dance you can think of from the “Hustle” to the horah.

JJ: What kinds of hobbies and interests do you have outside of comedy?

JR: Dancing, eating and looking for a wife.


Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy in nightclubs and on TV, and has written on numerous sitcom staffs.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One…

Sam Hoffman is perhaps best known for his popular video web series, “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” which spotlights, well, old Jews telling jokes — often corny but nevertheless hilarious.

Now his new film, “Humor Me,” features some of those jokes, as told by actor Elliott Gould and his elderly co-stars. Gould portrays Bob, the father of a failed playwright, Nate, who is forced to move in with his father after his wife leaves him for a French billionaire. The Jewish Bob is a consummate jokester, which irks Nate and adds tension as the father and son try to work out their fraught relationship.

Viewers would groan at the jokes were they not told by elderly Jews. (Sample: A doctor tells a man to stop masturbating. “Why?” the patient asks. “So I can examine you,” the physician replies.)

“A lot of these jokes are old,” said the filmmaker, who lives in Manhattan. “Some of them are funny, some are borderline offensive and some are, in a way, stale. But when they’re delivered by someone who is old or older than the joke, somehow it doesn’t feel that way. It’s sort of appropriate.”

“The same joke told by an 80-year-old is much funnier than a joke told by a 30-year-old.” — Sam Hoffman

Hoffman — who is also the executive producer of CBS’ “Madam Secretary” — grew up with plenty of older Jews telling jokes. His father, Barnett, a retired judge, had dozens of cousins “and they were all competitive about being funny,” he said. “And our family would always try to be funny around the dinner table. My wife would be like, ‘You know, it’s more important to chew and swallow than to get the timing right on a joke.’ ”

Hoffman, 51, previously worked as a producer and an assistant director for filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Wes Anderson.

He got the idea for “Old Jews Telling Jokes” when some friends asked him if he had any ideas for internet content back in 2008.

“I suggested it would be great to tape my dad, his cousins and friends telling jokes,” he said. “But it wouldn’t just be about the joke; it would include a portrait of the person who was telling the joke.

“My dad did all the casting,” he added.

The first shoot took place in a storefront in Hoffman’s hometown of Highland Park, N.J.; more tapings followed in New York, Los Angeles and Boca Raton, Fla. The series made a splash on the internet when it premiered in 2009.

Featuring about 500 jokes told by several hundred Jews older than 60, the series garnered millions of hits and was subsequently adapted into a book and a successful off-Broadway show.

Of both “Old Jews” and “Humor Me,” Hoffman said, “The same joke told by an 80-year-old is much funnier than a joke told by a 30-year-old. It’s the idea that these people are of a certain generation where they probably had a parent or a grandparent who spoke fluent Yiddish. They have a sense of inflection that younger people don’t necessarily have.

“There are themes in these jokes that are indicative of certain Jewish cultural phenomena,” he added. “It’s that sense of being the ‘chosen underdog’ — the idea that we’re the chosen people, but with a bit of self-deprecation.”

“Humor Me” began with “one of the character types I got from the ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’ experience,” Hoffman recalled. “It was the character of a man of a certain age who tells jokes to both communicate and also to avoid communication. It’s like, ‘I’m not going to tell you how I really feel, but I’ll tell you a parable about it in the form of a joke.’ ”

Hoffman also liked the idea of having the jokes serve as a kind of Greek chorus — a counternarrative to the story of the movie.

As many of the real joke tellers are dying off, Hoffman said he regards himself as something of a folklorist. “What I’ve collected is a specific ethnological portrait of a generation,” he said.

“Humor Me” opens Jan. 19 in Los Angeles theaters.

Wendy Liebman: Clinical Psychology’s Loss Is Stand-Up Comedy’s Gain

Stand-up comedian Wendy Liebman has performed on late-night TV talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson; also on Hollywood Squares and at comedy clubs and events throughout the United States. She has starred in specials for HBO, Comedy Central and Showtime, and was a semifinalist on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

She is known for her distinctive style, which includes quick follow-up jokes to her original one-liners. In many cases, her punchlines seem to fall after the joke is over, delivered with unexpected timing. Her video, “Wendy Liebman: Taller on TV,” is available on Amazon.

Jewish Journal: You were a college psychology major. What happened?

Wendy Liebman: I was planning on becoming a therapist. So before applying to get a degree in clinical psychology, I got a job at Harvard Medical School, doing psych research at Massachusetts Mental Health Center. And it was utterly depressing. And I was clinically depressed myself. Luckily, I took the mail in for the wrong apartment one day and read the course catalog from the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I took an acting class, but the teacher quit after the first lesson. So they told me to pick something else, and when I saw “How to Be a Stand-Up Comedian,” I had a eureka moment.

JJ: Who are your favorite comedians?

WL: I grew up watching Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Cher, Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball. When I was starting to do stand-up, I watched Steven Wright, Howie Mandel, David Letterman, Garry Shandling, Roseanne [Barr] and Joan Rivers. Some of my favorites working now are Nikki Glaser, Brian Regan, Sarah Silverman and Brian Kiley.

JJ: How do you feel your Jewish upbringing/heritage has influenced your work and/or your life?

WL: The people I grew up around were very clever and open-minded, and humor was almost a way of life, a commodity, a sixth sense. Perhaps our collective fear/anxiety/grief as Jews is relieved by the hope that is communicated through laughter.

JJ: What kinds of hobbies and interests do you have outside of comedy?

WL: I’m in love with my dog, JJ. I watch a lot of shows on the Food Network (even though I don’t know how to cook — even JJ’s like, “That’s OK — I’ll eat out tonight!”). I play the piano and sing like no one can hear me.

JJ: Any advice to budding comedians?

WL: Go to a million comedy shows. Become a student of stand-up. And perform as much as humanly possible. There is no shortcut. You just have to get onstage all the time.

JJ: Any movies, TV shows, books, plays, radio programs, blogs, podcasts or apps you’d like to recommend that have been especially impactful (and/or entertaining) for you?

WL: My husband, Jeffrey Sherman, is the funniest person I know, but quite shy and not a performer. He is a writer/producer/composer and the son of Robert Sherman, one of The Sherman Brothers who wrote a lot of music for Disney [“Mary Poppins,” “It’s A Small World,” “The Jungle Book,” etc.]. Jeffrey and his cousin Gregg did a documentary about their fathers called “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story.” I recommend that! Also, the Amazon show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and the Netflix series “Somebody Feed Phil.”

JJ: What’s coming up for you? Any charities close to your heart?

WL: For three years, I’ve produced and hosted “Locally Grown Comedy,” a monthly showcase of great stand-up comedy at Upstairs at Vitello’s Supper Club in Studio City. Charities I regularly perform for include weSPARK Cancer Center (wespark.org), the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance (www.tsalliance.org), and facioscapulohumeral dystrophy (fshsociety.org).

JJ: What remains on your bucket list?

WL: I’m writing a one-woman play (“What to Wear to Therapy”), a musical about three stand-up comedians in Las Vegas over Valentine’s Day weekend (“Home on Tuesday”), a children’s book about losing a pet (“Keeping Miko”) and a novel (“As Isabel”). And now I’ve told you about them so I have to finish them. And I’d love to play a therapist in a sitcom!


Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy in nightclubs and on TV, written on numerous sitcom staffs, been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and is a current Great Gigs interviewer and humor blogger for The Huffington Post.

Jews and Muslims Seek Relief in Laughter

Left to right, Sami Sutker, Ahamed Weinberg, Danielle Soto​, Alex Powers

At a recent stand-up comedy show at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, headliner Ahamed Weinberg welcomed the crowd with “Salaam aleikum.” About half of the audience responded “Aleikum salaam,” prompting Weinberg to remark: “Everyone who didn’t answer, get out. This is a Muslim temple now.”

The crowd laughed. Weinberg then explained that his mother, born Irish Catholic, and his father, born Jewish, both became Muslim. They met as “the only white people in the mosque,” he said. “They locked eyes and said, ‘Let’s make the weirdest kid possible, whose only career option is stand-up comedy.’ ”

The Jan. 4 show, titled “Night of Too Many Stars and Crescents,” featured Jewish and Muslim comics. It was organized by YoPro, the young professionals group at Temple Emanuel. Two of the comics were Jewish and female, two were Muslim and male. All were aware that they were performing in the chapel, in front of an ark holding Torah scrolls.

“Historically, Muslims and Jews have not always been BFFs [best friends forever],” said YoPro member Danielle Soto, who produced the event that attracted an audience of Muslims and Jews of varying ages. “I wanted a comedy event that lets our community know that if you’re down to laugh, eat, drink, make friends and be open to other cultures, YoPro’s door is wide open to you.”

Refreshments included wine and nonalcoholic drinks for the comfort of Muslims and other teetotalers.

“I feel like Muslims are the new Jews in comedy,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Temple Emanuel’s associate rabbi. “They are drawing on the experience of being minorities to hold up a mirror to our culture at large. There’s something really meaningful about being able to share that perspective with another religious group that gets it.”

Comedian Atif Myers talked about being “a s—-y Muslim” for loving pepperoni pizza. He confessed that he’s on a Jewish dating app, JSwipe, as a Muslim. “How else are we supposed to get Mideast peace, guys?” he asked.

During her set, comedian Alex Powers — whose biological father was a Sephardic Jew but whose adoptive parents were Catholic — displayed her tattoos: a Star of David and a crescent moon on her fingers and a hermit crab on her hand. After a raunchy bit, she explained, unapologetically, “I’ve got a tattoo of a bottom feeder. This never was going to be kosher.”

When he took the stage, Weinberg — who proclaimed himself “the only Muslim who went on Birthright” — turned around and touched the ark. Recoiling, he made a sizzle noise and said “Ouch!”

Jewish comedian Sami Sutker said in her performance that she was uncomfortable being at a temple. “I can feel my bat mitzvah coming back all over again,” she said, mentioning the mustachioed and mulleted cantor who helped her prepare. “Maybe this explains how my Judaism fell apart.”

“I feel like Muslims are the new Jews in comedy.” — Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Bassin said the goal of YoPro and Temple Emanuel “is to build community that reflects our values of inclusion and openness. We’re particularly excited for this comedy event to do some good as we make people laugh.”

Part of that “good” is Temple Emanuel’s participation in “The Big Fill,” a campaign involving several Los Angeles synagogues in collecting clothing, medical supplies and other essential items for the Save the Syrian Children organization’s relief efforts. A table in the back of the room at the comedy show was designated for donations of new and used clothing.

Soto added that she and her friends at YoPro “genuinely care about bettering our community and beyond.”

“I consider having the ability to make people laugh a gift,” Soto said. “Giving back to the community through organizing shows is my way of showing gratitude for this gift.”

Rudner’s Armed With Zingers for SoCal Shows

Rita Rudner. Photo courtesy of Jeff Abraham

Comedian Rita Rudner wears glittering gowns onstage and bears a delicate demeanor. But by the time she gets to her biting punchlines, audiences realize she’s edgier than the breathy, shy persona she projects.

“My husband says he won’t allow me to go topless,” Rudner, 64, said in one of her recent shows. “He says he’s afraid I might poke someone’s knee out.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Vegas is becoming classier,” she said in another bit. “Can I tell you something that might just change your minds? We have a ballet company now. It’s topless, but it’s a ballet company.”

Rudner burst onto the comedy scene in the 1980s with a style different from more outspoken female comedians such as Joan Rivers and Elayne Boosler. When onstage, Rudner seems to be full of wonderment and innocence as she opens her blue eyes wide and begins her jokes. Then, out of nowhere, come those unexpected punchlines.

Rudner, who had the longest-running solo comedy show in Las Vegas history, is bringing her act to Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theatre on Dec. 7 and to the Laguna Playhouse on New Year’s Eve.

Her show “will be about being a wife and mother, and not knowing what’s going on in the electronic universe,” Rudner said in a telephone interview. “I don’t understand my phone, Siri or when I’m using Wi-Fi and when I’m using data. I can’t remember all my passwords. The usual.”

Rudner has been married to her husband and collaborator Martin Bergman for 30 years. Although they have a solid and loving relationship, she isn’t afraid to riff about him onstage. “I love being married,” she says in one of her most famous jokes. “It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.”

In an older set, Rudner quipped, “You know what my big downfall is? It’s clothes. I love clothes. But that old cliché is true. Men like cars, women like clothes. I only like cars ’cause they take me to clothes.”

Together, Rudner and Bergman have one daughter, Molly Bergman, who is 15. “I have a phone and it’s much smarter than I am,” Rudner said. “I get upset about it. I say, ‘Molly, please fix my phone’ when she gets home from school. She just says, ‘Mommy, tap your phone twice.’ ”

When Rudner was just starting out, her primary influences were Woody Allen and Jack Benny.

Eventually, she became a regular on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman” and sold almost 2 million tickets during her run in Las Vegas, from 2000 to 2015.

“I have a phone and it’s much smarter than I am.” — Rita Rudner

In her comedy special “Live in Las Vegas,” she pokes fun at helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon: “I wasn’t afraid of the helicopter, it’s just that before you get in one, you have to tell your weight. I looked around and I thought, ‘Well, if everyone is lying like I’m lying, we’re going down.’ ”

Rudner, who comes off just as even-keeled and calm on the phone as she does onstage, said she is ready to spend more time with her family, walk her “beautiful, hairy dog,” Twinkle, and tour nationally and internationally. She’s also workshopping a new play, writing her autobiography and just shot a comedy special in Los Angeles.

Rudner grew up in a Reform household. When she was 13, her mother died of breast cancer. After that, she said, her “father was too lazy to go to temple.” Two years after her mother’s death, Rudner moved to New York City to become a Broadway dancer but transitioned into comedy when she noticed a dearth of women in the field.

Although she is not religious, she still performs for Jewish audiences. One of her jokes is about her upbringing in Miami: “I used to go to a very fancy temple. They read the Torah in French.”

On Hanukkah, Rudner displays a menorah a fan made for her. “I identify myself as a Jewish person,” she said. “I’m just not somebody who likes organized religion.”

When Rudner performs her upcoming Southland shows, Molly, a budding singer-songwriter, will open for her. “I’m going to retire in the next five or six years,” Rudner said. “Molly has to be making money by then.”

For more information about Rita Rudner’s two upcoming shows, visit arts.pepperdine.edu/events and lagunaplayhouse.com.

Q&A with Richard Lewis On His Favorite Subject: Richard Lewis

Photo by Sonya Sones

Nowadays, comedian Richard Lewis isn’t the self-loathing comedian he always was. He’s married, sober, owns a rescue dog and he’s in his ninth season starring alongside his friend Larry David on the hit HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

But when the 70-year-old performs his first local stand-up show in five years on Dec. 9, audiences can expect nothing less than the self-centered comedy he is known for. Lewis recently discussed his upcoming performance at the Roxy Theatre, being Jewish and David’s controversial “Saturday Night Live” monologue.

Jewish Journal: What can people expect from your upcoming show?

Richard Lewis: This is not about the news, the 24-7 news cycle. This is all about Richard Lewis and my issues and my dysfunctions. Forget about your problems, the world. This is all about Richard. It will be all about me so they can get out of their heads. I know it sounds grandiose, but that’s what I do, and that’s what they should expect. They should check their problems at the door. No televisions, no news. It’s all about my life, and they can just take a break and say, “Whoa, this poor bastard.”

JJ: How has comedy changed over the years?

RL: The only thing I can say emphatically is that back in the early ’70s, when I started, there were so few of us. Most of us were hell-bent on working on our craft, just for stand-up. We were just so focused. We lived and breathed it 24-7. I know many comedians have done that since then, but back then we weren’t thinking of any careers other than doing this. We wanted to be killer onstage. I think with all the platforms and venues today, people have gone onstage not totally immersed in stand-up, but hoping to be seen for other things — in particular, acting jobs.

JJ: What advice would you give to younger comedians?

RL: I always tell young artists, no matter what they are doing, there is no looking back if you want to make a living in the arts. Just keeping working on your craft and hope for a lucky break. I have a feeling that, now, younger comedians are too anxious to get a big break when they haven’t focused entirely on their craft.

“I’m so Jewish. I’m Jewish from my toes to the remaining hairs on the back of my head.”

JJ: What did you make of the criticism of Larry David’s “Saturday Night Live” monologue when he joked about finding dates in a concentration camp?

RL: I was in a funny mood until you brought up the Holocaust. I’m observing both sides. I know both sides of the issue. He’s a courageous comedian. He can’t be judged over a 20-second riff about dating, using a Holocaust reference. I can’t imagine he didn’t think for a second it might offend people. He’s a provocative, edgy comic — he has been that way since Day One onstage. He will not change his stripes for his freedom to express himself. [But] I’m not giving him the pass. He’s an ethical guy and wonderful man and he’s done so much for so many people, and he’s a Jew and I love him. But I understand what people are saying. People get offended by much less provocative statements.

JJ: What was your reaction to the allegations against Louis CK and other people in show business accused of sexual assault?

RL: I’m heartbroken for the victims, not just because it is a thing to say. I was really disturbed. I had no idea about this. And the people who have recently come out, I was never friends with them, I never hung out with them. I’m tremendously disappointed. That said, it’s the teeny weeniest tip of the iceberg … on TV it’s about high-profile people, but it’s going on in factories, offices. I’m more focused on how those people can be heard.

JJ: What role does Judaism play in your life?

RL: I’m so Jewish. I’m Jewish from my toes to the remaining hairs on the back of my head. I’m not a deeply religious person, but I am spiritual. I feel Jewish when I wake up. I feel Jewish when I go to bed. I’m not an atheist. I love the story. I’m proud to be a Jew. I don’t feel I do enough as a practicing Jew, but as Mel  Brooks once said, and this is his line, “I don’t practice, I’m very good at it.” I reek of Judaism. And I feel blessed about it.

For more about Lewis’ performance at the Roxy visit theroxy.com.  

The Family Man Behind the Cranky Voice

Gilbert Gottfried. Photo from gilbertgottfried.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Jews the Only Ones Who Need a Thick Skin?

Screenshot from YouTube.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the key word — eavesdrop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reaction was immediate.

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

See the video here:

 

Larry David Goes One Cringe Too Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for Never Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow are raising money for Vegas victims

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

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

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

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

‘New York Water’ Promises a Fresh Flow of Laughs

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

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

But there are times that call for a good laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

BRAD’S STATUS *Movie Review*

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

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

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

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

 

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

All film photos are courtesy of Amazon Studios.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD *Movie Review*

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

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

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

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

All photos and video are courtesy of Lionsgate.