Saying what he wants
Ari Shaffir was in Vancouver Feb. 18-20 as part of Just for Laughs NorthWest. (photo from Ari Shaffir)
Ari Shaffir is a long, long way from his yeshivah. The 42-year-old stand-up comedian and actor who lives in New York and Los Angeles appeared in Vancouver Feb. 18-20 as part of Just for Laughs NorthWest and entertained packed audiences with his deep baritone and casual conversation, drawing plenty of laughter.
Shaffir grew up Orthodox and shomer Shabbat in Kemp Mill, Md., attending Hebrew academy and the Jewish day school before spending two years at Beth Midrash HaTorah, a now defunct yeshivah in Jerusalem. When he returned, he enrolled at Yeshiva University in New York. That was the year he lost his religion.
“Mostly it was inward reflection that caused me to turn away,” he said. “I was doing these religious things because I was expected to, and I was succeeding, but I’d never stopped to think why I was doing them. When I really thought about it, I didn’t see a belief inside me. It just wasn’t there.”
At 20, he left Yeshiva University for the University of Maryland, taking arts courses like English and screenwriting. His parents and friends were dismayed by his change in lifestyle. “My friends tried to talk me out of it,” he said. “They would be happier if I were dating a Jewish girl who was a completely worthless human being as opposed to Mother Teresa. When I thought about it, I started feeling mad and decided this is not the way I should live my life.”
When a friend moved to California, Shaffir decided to join him. “I’d done stand-up once in college and had always thought about it, because I was one of the funnier guys at school, but it didn’t seem like a legitimate career,” he said. “Initially, I tried to find a fun regular job, but couldn’t, so I did an open mic one time in California and that was it. I was totally focused.”
Shaffir’s career has been on an upward swing in recent years. His stand-up album Revenge for the Holocaust was released in 2012 and went to No. 1 on iTunes and amazon.com the week of its première. His show Passive Aggressive premièred on chill.com in 2013 and on Comedy Central in 2015, while his weekly storytelling series This is Not Happening premièred on Comedy Central in 2015. Season 2 of This is Not Happening will air this year, and it was recently picked up for a third season on Comedy Central. He hosts the podcast The Skeptic Tank, a weekly interview show that averages more than 100,000 downloads per week, and he just shot a feature film, Keeping Up with the Joneses, slated for release this spring.
He didn’t completely lose his cultural identity, if his performance on Feb. 18 was anything to go by. In one part of his show, he joked about visiting Germany and urinating outdoors anywhere he could, hoping to pee on Hitler’s grave. “If anyone tried to stop me, I’d play the Jew card,” he said. (The part about urinating outdoors was no joke, he admitted in a telephone interview. “I did that.”)
Shaffir says the Bible is now his least favorite book: “There’s a lot of holes in the story.”
He enjoys using material he learned in his religious life in a completely opposite way than how it was intended. “I get joy out of that,” he said. “For example, the Torah says if someone is coming to kill or rob you, you’re allowed to defend yourself up to the point of killing them. A child cost $500,000 to raise and they’re going to take that from you, so the Torah would tell you to kill them to protect your income.”
Defying his parents’ expectations and leaving the community of Kemp Mill wasn’t easy, and there are still things Shaffir misses from that life. “It took my parents years to get over it. My mother was more concerned with me losing the culture of Judaism, the songs on Pesach, the camaraderie. My dad was angry. He had swayed from religion for a little while, but I swayed way further. Years later, he realized he didn’t want to lose me as a son and we were able to move on.”
Shaffir’s casual, unassuming storytelling style accounts for his popularity. His stand-up routine is peppered with sex and toilet jokes, rants on why he hates kids and anecdotes from his travels. Throughout his routine, he appeared relaxed and at ease, and his hour-long performance went by quickly.
If he has any remaining link to his Jewish life, it’s cultural, Shaffir said. “When I hear a news story come on about Israel, my ears perk up a little more than they would about another country. Otherwise, I have nothing left to do with the religion. But I miss the community I had in Kemp Mill, where everyone knew me. You had this gigantic family that you’d see in synagogue every weekend. To lose all that – now I’m on my own and I’m just floating. You lose those friends. You can’t go to restaurants with them because we’re into different things. They’re into family and religion, I’m not into either.”
A page on his website is called Shroomfest and, on it, Shaffir has taken time to write everything he feels others should know about mushrooms. “That’s not a joke, it’s real, and I do it a few times a year,” he said. “I took a lot of time to write that and it helps a lot of people take mushrooms the right way.”
Shaffir described feeling free on stage to say what he wants, but when it catches up with him in a private setting, he feels some guilt and embarrassment. “I feel guilty about all sorts of stuff, not committing to women, not being monogamous. If I’m at a dinner party and it comes up that I had a threesome last week, then, yes, I’m embarrassed.
“I’m proud that I’m a free comedian,” he reflected. “I say and do what I want, what I feel is correct creatively, and both criticism and praise are irrelevant to me. I’m living as a stand-up comedian! It’s one of the coolest jobs in the world and I have an apartment I pay for, just by doing that!”
For a link to his podcast visit arishaffir.com/category/podcast.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.