January 15, 2019

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 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.

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

Photo by Koury Angelo

NAME: Jackie Tohn

AGE: 36

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

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

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

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

Jewish Journal: How would you characterize your comedy style?

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

JJ: How would you describe your connection to Judaism?

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

JJ: What lessons have you learned from comedy?

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

JJ: Why is comedy important, especially today?

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

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

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

JJ: What was it like to play Gilda Radner?

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

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

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

JJ: What would call your autobiography?

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

BAYWATCH *Movie Review*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Gary Shapiro, cantor and comic, 52

Gary Shapiro. Photo from Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind you again, they’re women.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Documentary chronicles comedy of Robert Klein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the material showcases his favorite Jewish jokes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comedy series is all relative for sisters-in-law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoever has cried enough, laughs.” 

              — German novelist Heinrich Mann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anger becomes comedian Lewis Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion used to have a place in his routines.

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

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

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

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