Comedian Jacob Samuel headlines A Night of Shticks & Giggles Feb. 21 at the Rothstein Theatre. (photo from JCCGV)
In just one week, I will be standing on stage at one of the most exciting events I have ever been a part of. On Feb. 21, some of the funniest stand-up comedians in Vancouver will join me in the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Rothstein Theatre, using laughter to raise money for JCC youth sports scholarships.
A Night of Shticks & Giggles is co-produced by the JCC and Rise of the Comics. Headlined by 2017 Yuk Off champion Jacob Samuel – It’s good to finally see a successful Jewish comedian, right!? – it will also feature a performance from Larke Miller, who I remember watching on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, as well as several other local comedic stars.
While the show will be one of those guaranteed good times for the audience, for me, it also represents a unique opportunity to combine two of my great passions.
Passion #1: As the delegation head for the JCC Maccabi Games – an athletics and arts program that provides Jewish teens the opportunity to travel and experience an Olympic-style international event – I have the responsibility and honour of raising scholarship funds to enable as many teens as possible the chance to participate in this life-changing event.
Passion #2: As a stand-up comic still in his rookie season, I get to meet, learn from and share the stage with some of the city’s top comics. Not to mention the opportunity to stand and perform my craft in front of an audience of 200+ in the Rothstein. (Gulp!)
As a producer of the show, the fact that I will be performing my own original set kind of makes me like that kid who got to start on the soccer team because my dad happened to be the head coach. Except, in this case, I also run the soccer team, picked my dad to be the coach and, oh boy, he’s putting me in!
While I might not end up being the funniest comic of the night, I can promise A Night of Shticks & Giggles will deliver the funny in spades.
Among his many local appearances, Samuel has performed on the Rothstein stage before, when the Jewish Independent team held their JI Chai Celebration in December 2017. He followed that up with his Yuk Off championship win, and his career has taken off since.
Harris Anderson, Joey Commisso and Randee Neumeyer have all inspired me with their irreverent, clever and sharp takes on life, as well.
Another one of the comics, Ed Konyha, used to run the award-winning open mic Stand-up and Deliver, the show in which I finally found the courage to perform my very first set as a stand-up comic.
Finally, Scotty Aceman, emcee for the night and producer of Rise of the Comics, has worked with me on a few shows now (this being the largest by far!) and is a huge inspiration for anyone thinking of quitting their day jobs and following their passion – no matter how little money it makes them. Aceman had a career in the cellphone business before giving it all up to bring comedy to Vancouver’s masses. Today, Rise of the Comics showcases Vancouver’s incredible comedy scene, producing and selling out regular live shows while featuring these local talents on their YouTube channel. His latest venture, Rise After Dark, offers people the chance to bring stand-up comedy right into their living room or private event.
Shticks & Giggles is a well-supported community event with a powerhouse of partnerships including the Chutzpah! Festival; Axis, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s young adult initiative; and, of course, the Jewish Independent.
Tickets for A Night of Shticks & Giggles are $20 and can be bought online at ticketpeak.com/jccgv. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 21, with the show set to begin at 8 p.m.
Kyle Bergeris coordinator, sports department, Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and co-producer of A Night of Shticks & Giggles.
Girls Gotta Eat co-hosts Rayna Greenberg, left, and Ashley Hesseltine have created careers they love. (photo from JFL NorthWest)
To say it’s a podcast about dating and relationships doesn’t begin to describe Girls Gotta Eat. Co-creators and co-hosts Rayna Greenberg and Ashley Hesseltine invite their guests to talk about pretty much anything, and pretty much as explicitly as they’d like. Recent topics include creating successful online businesses, avoiding toxic partners, managing depression, the health benefits of masturbation, and having sex with famous people – and that was on just one show.
Girls Gotta Eat celebrates its first anniversary this month, and Greenberg and Hesseltine will be in Vancouver for that milestone. The pair has two soldout performances at JFL NorthWest, which runs Feb. 14-23 (jflnorthwest.com). They were scheduled to do just one show initially, and the demand would have sold out a third, no doubt, and probably even a fourth. On Instagram, Girls Gotta Eat has garnered more than 69,900 followers in less than a year. (By the time you’re reading this article, that number will likely be more than 71,000, as the account gained 300-plus new followers in the space of two days last week.)
In addition to Girls Gotta Eat, Greenberg and Hesseltine each have other ventures on various platforms, including websites, Twitter and Facebook, but Instagram is where their celebrity status is most remarkable. At press time, Greenberg’s One Hungry Jew had more than 350,000 followers on Instagram; Hesseltine’s Bros Being Basic, more than 915,000, and her Fashion Dads, another 186,000. It is no wonder that a good chunk of time on the Girls Gotta Eat podcast is spent promoting advertisers’ products, mainly cosmetics and fashion. These women have worked hard to secure an enviable target market – their 30-something peers who have money to spend.
While Girls Gotta Eat generally focuses on one topic or guest, Greenberg and Hesseltine try to cover a range of topics and have different guests for the live version, as well as make the show an interactive experience for the audience.
“We typically try to have a guest that has already been on the podcast,” Greenberg told the Independent in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, where she and Hesseltine were performing.
“It’s rare,” she said, “that we go to a new city and invite somebody we’ve never had on the show. Just because our audience is so invested in the show and they love it, it’s so exciting for them to be able to also see another person that was on the show.”
The weekly podcast now averages well over an hour. In its first several months, it was about 45 minutes, the approximate length of a commute to work, said Greenberg.
“As we had more and more guests, the show just became really fun. We want guests to feel like they can cover a range of topics and we don’t want to truncate the show, something that’s great,” she explained. “We don’t want to hold ourselves to 45 minutes if it’s great content, so it’s just gotten a little longer. There was no day where we woke up and said, let’s do an hour-and-a-half. So, it just depends on the guests; some episodes are going to be 45, some are going to be an hour-and-a-half, we’ll see when the guests come in.”
For Greenberg, the podcast was a huge departure from what she had been doing before.
“I’ve worked in restaurants, I went to culinary school and then I really worked in tech startups for a long time,” she said.
The Girls Gotta Eat podcast was Hesseltine’s idea initially.
“She is a comedian herself and she really wanted to do a show about dating and relationships, and wanted to find somebody that would be open and honest about their own lives and also could be funny,” said Greenberg. “She and I met on a press trip because we both have very large Instagram influencer accounts, and we just really hit it off. We had a great time with each other, we became friends over the course of a few months, and then she asked me if I’d be interested in doing this.”
As soon as the idea came up, said Greenberg, “I decided, and she decided with me, that it wasn’t going to be a hobby or a side project, this could be what we do. So, we focused on it as a business: we built a website, we had professional photos taken, we devised a way to market this. From Day 1, there was definitely a strategy of let’s make this a business, let’s expand it.”
Greenberg had already monetized her food blog, One Hungry Jew, by doing ads for brands. “For example, a company like American Express will come to me if they’re looking to attract a younger audience that has money and they’ll say, OK, we want to create a campaign that is designed to encourage people to use our AmEx Travel and they’ll give me an idea of what they’re looking for and, obviously, a budget, a price, and it can be something like, hey, we want to encourage people to sign locally, so go to a restaurant, take a photo of yourself at the restaurant, write a caption, and they pay me for something like that. It’s clearly an ad, it says ad. That’s how, personally, I make money through social media.”
One Hungry Jew started “as a silly hobby,” said Greenberg. “I would never purposely have named a business One Hungry Jew…. I’ve always enjoyed food, I’d always worked in food, and I was in the tech startup world and I didn’t have much of a creative outlet, so I started taking photos of food with my cellphone. It’s something I always spent money on anyways, it’s what I enjoyed, and I just put them on Instagram because I wanted somewhere to put the photos. It’s just as simple as that.
“There weren’t a lot of food blogs back then…. I was one of the earlier people that started posting continuously. I had really good content, and it was really ‘right place, right time.’ It was certainly a time in the world where marketing and PR were shifting heavily to social media…. And I started getting invited to all these places for free, for a free meal in exchange for a photo.”
Working at Amazon at the time, Greenberg said she was splitting her focus between her job and the social media account. “I was obviously doing a bad job of both of them and I had to make a decision, so I chose. I left my job two-and-a-half years ago to pursue this full time and I worked really hard. I reached out to every single PR and advertising agency in the United States. I introduced myself, I said this is what I do, this is what makes me unique, I’d love to find time to meet. So, just like the podcast, I tried to make it into a business as opposed to a silly hobby.”
While not religious, Greenberg said, “I am exactly who I am because I was brought up in a Jewish family, I was brought up in a big Jewish community. A lot of my social activities as a child revolved around that, so I had a really nice upbringing because I was brought up in this Jewish community.”
Though her parents divorced when she was 4 years old, she said, “I have an incredibly supportive family from both sides.”
She could always talk about sex with her parents, and said her mom is a psychologist, so “we’ve always explored my feelings.”
“My mom bought me a book about puberty when I was like 11,” said Greenberg. “She wanted me to understand my body and what was happening.”
Nonetheless, she admitted to being a little nervous when she and Hesseltine started the podcast, as the pair does talk openly about their sex lives.
“It was a real struggle and a real choice that I wrestled with, how much do I talk about myself and how open am I going to be? And we both, Ashley and I, made the decision that, if we’re going to put ourselves in a public light, then we have to be honest and open about things in our life, and we both really are. And I think that’s what makes our show really good, is that people really feel like they know us, they really feel like they understand our pitfalls and our successes.”
Over the course of the year, Greenberg and Hesseltine have interviewed a wide variety of people. “We’ve had the founder of Hinge, which is a dating app, on the show; we’ve had a sex therapist; we’ve had a psychotherapist; we’ve had matchmakers; we’ve had comedians, actors and artists and all these different people. And everybody brings such a different, unique view of their own life and other people’s lives, and I feel so lucky to have amassed this huge knowledge of dating and what other people go through,” said Greenberg.
The podcast, she said, has “helped me be more calm and not so emotional, not take everything personally all the time. It’s helped me to realize that people are people and they make mistakes…. And I think that lots of people are looking for love and, just because you’re not the person they fall in love with, it’s not insulting, it’s not personal.
“It’s helped me to relax a little bit and be happy with my own life and realize that I should do other things besides focus on dating, which is funny because I do a show about dating. But, the advice I always give girls is focus on your job, focus on hobbies and friends and family and all these other things that bring so much joy your life, and that can be really fulfilling. And love will come and dating will come. And, if you’re a more whole person, it allows you to let in love in a really beautiful way.”
Actor, writer and comedian Andy Kindler is one
of several Jewish community members on the Just for Laughs NorthWest roster for
Vancouver. He’ll host The Alternative Show at Yuk Yuk’s Feb. 21-23.
Kindler spoke with the Independent from Montreal, while on a shoot for the dark comedy
feature film The Fiddling Horse, in which he co-stars as Barry
“I’m a bitter ex-jockey and it’s perfect for
me,” said Kindler. “I’m five, five-and-a-half, so I almost look like an
ex-jockey, I’m not too tall, and it’s just fun.”
Kindler has a ton of acting credits, including Bob’s
Burgers, I’m Dying Up Here and Portlandia, as well as Everybody
Loves Raymond, Maron and But I’m Chris Jericho! But standup
came first, he said, “although I did acting in college and in summer camp – I
played Elwood P. Dowd, the lead in Harvey, when I was 12. But, any
acting that was filmed to be seen by others, that happened after standup.
Standup, if you’re doing it right, is a good rehearsal for acting; it is just
Before standup, Kindler was a musician. It was
his pursuit of a music career that took him to Los Angeles “many, many, many
years ago,” but he “couldn’t make a living.”
“I was in my 20s,” he said. “I was very
insecure, I kind of hated myself, like many kids that age, unless you have a
tremendous amount of confidence. So, I just happened to stumble into standup
comedy. A friend of mine – we were working at the same stereo store together –
he said, you’re funny, let’s try it, so I actually was in a duo for a couple
years and that was really a good way to start.”
Kindler played guitar. “I played classical
violin when I was a kid, but I didn’t play very well … and I still took it for
another 12 years, even hating it, because I had issues…. I started playing
guitar in high school, which was the greatest. When I grew up, people wanted to
be the Beatles. We didn’t want to be necessarily [comedian] Shecky Greene. Now
I want to be Shecky Greene but, back then, all my heroes were musicians, except
for Richard Pryor. But, I didn’t know much about comedy.”
While he learned to do comedy in Los Angeles,
he said he wouldn’t recommend that people follow his example, “because it’s
kind of a frightening thing. But I lived in L.A., so the only way I wouldn’t
have been able to not start in L.A., I would have had to have moved out of
“I put my name in the hat, did all the open mic
things, and that’s how I started and it just, I don’t want to say, took off,
but I’ve been making a living since ’87.”
Despite his long career, Kindler has spoken in
interviews about only recently becoming comfortable with doing standup.
“A lot of people, they see comedians and they
say, how can you do it? Well, when you start comedy – unless you’re a person
who really has no fear – you’re scared for a long time because you can be funny
off-stage, but you still can’t do it under pressure or it’s not necessarily
that you can produce it at anytime. That’s where the technique comes in,” he
explained. “The technique basically for standup comes from doing it over and
over and over again, until you either hate it or it becomes something you love.
So, I felt like, after 10 years, oh, I’m really good at this but I wasn’t….
There are still nights I don’t feel comfortable, but it gets better.”
Kindler faces challenges that most comedians
don’t: he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive
disorder. When he was younger and just starting out, he said, “At that time,
you didn’t hear a lot about OCD and so I thought I was losing my mind, because
I never got help until a couple of years ago for it…. And when I was first
starting comedy, it was like a whole year where I would say to myself onstage,
I am holding the mic in my right hand, I am gesturing to the crowd with my left
hand, I am walking two steps – I couldn’t get out of my head and I didn’t even
know I was officially OCD.”
While knowing that he has OCD and ADHD hasn’t
changed his act, which he describes as “so stream of consciousness,” it has
helped him in other ways. “I feel better about myself now,” he said. “I’m more
calm.” And he has learned ways of coping, he said, recommending the book Delivered
from Distraction. “I don’t make any money on the sales of the book,” he
said, “but they give you tools for dealing with OCD.”
Kindler has been to Vancouver often, including
with JFL’s The Alternative Show.
Alternative Show started in Montreal at that festival,” explained Kindler,
“and it started in the late ’90s when you actually needed to have a show called
The Alternative Show. A lot of people
probably don’t remember there was a big comedy boom, comedy got very generic
and everybody was like, what’s the deal with this thing? It started to be very
homogenized and so there was kind of a movement in L.A. and New York in the mid
to late ’90s, or even earlier, for the core of alternative comedy. And now, the
good news is, that comedy is better than it ever was, everybody is doing
interesting things. So, I don’t really need to have a show because almost the
whole festival you could call alternative, but one thing I do like to do is
have people working on new stuff and hopefully taking chances, so it’s not like
them doing their honed five minutes.”
Generally, Kindler brings five or six comedians
onstage during the night. “It’s usually a combination of two things: other
people in the festival and local people,” he said.
Kindler has been coming up to Canada in one
form or another since the late 1980s. He worked Yuk Yuk’s in the west, he said.
“So, I know a lot of the comedians and the comedians in Canada are hilarious. I
think Canada has the best comedians per capita in the world. What I’m doing in
my act, which is commenting culture, all Canadians do that naturally because
you’re next to American culture, but you can comment on it and feel separate
Being Jewish is a large part of Kindler’s
routine. While he sometimes thinks that, in his act, he’ll just do a few Jewish
jokes and move on to other material, he said, “I just can’t stop it because I
feel so Jewish. It’s so much a part of me. I used to make a joke about how
Jewish people are funny even when they’re not trying to be funny. Like, when
the Whitney Houston song ‘How Will I Know?’ came out, I was with this Jewish
friend of mine, and she’s singing, ‘How will I know?’ and my friend yells at
the radio, ‘You’ll know, Whitney, you’ll know. Believe me, you’ll know.’
“And this is just how all Jews are, even when
they’re not trying to be funny. So, I feel very, very Jewish, but it also could
be a member of any oppressed group that responds to being oppressed with humour
and self-deprecation. I love to make fun of the fact that I’m Jewish.”
While he doesn’t have any topics that he won’t
talk about in his act, Kindler does shy away from certain words and thinks
about whether his material is unnecessarily offensive.
“I get very angry when comics say they never
apologize, because everybody makes mistakes,” he said, giving the example of
having used, early in his career, a joke that referenced the Holocaust. Two
audience members approached him afterward, upset because they felt he was
“gratuitously making fun of the Holocaust, and I decided that I wasn’t in that
particular case, but also decided it’s important for comics to think about what
they’re saying because, when you’re onstage, you can say something in the
moment and then you have the right to not want to say it later. There’s no
specific red lines, but I do think about why I’m doing the joke and whether
it’s worth doing it and who’s the subject of the joke.”
Kindler said being a comic is a “kind of a
miracle, or a magic thing” and “like a dream come true because I really,
really, really love standup and a lot of people get sick of it after awhile. I
just haven’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t get sick of it temporarily, but it’s
still the thing I most love doing, it’s the thing I feel most natural about
doing and it’s just I feel it is a dream come true.”
The Alternative Show is at Yuk Yuk’s Feb. 21, 10 p.m.; and Feb. 22 and 23, 11 p.m. For tickets and the full JFL NorthWest lineup, visit jflnorthwest.com.
Tzahi Grad, left, and Ala Dakka are great together in The Cousin. (photo from Shaxaf Haber/Venice Film Festival)
The 30th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-Dec. 2, has an impressive lineup. Not only is there a wide range of quality films from which to choose, but the reach of the festival has widened, with screenings this year also taking place in West Vancouver and Port Moody. Here are just some of the great films you’ll be able to see.
After Naftali, a successful Israeli actor-director, proudly shows his newly hired Palestinian worker, Fahed, the trailer for his latest creation – an internet series called One by One, which will bring Israelis and Palestinians together to talk and, eventually, Naftali believes, help bring about peace – Fahed’s response is, “Yes, it’s nice. It’s a little, um, a little naïve, isn’t it?” Begrudgingly, Naftali admits, “Totally, but not impossible.”
Maybe not impossible, but certainly beyond the scope of a web series, as Naftali soon finds out in The Cousin. When a ninth-grade girl is attacked in the neighbourhood, suspicion immediately falls on Fahed, who is arrested, then let out on bail – bail paid for by Naftali, who is pretty sure that Fahed is innocent. As the film progresses, Naftali’s beliefs are seriously challenged, both by his neighbours, who are champing at the bit to mete out their own justice on the not-proven-guilty Fahed, and by his wife, who wasn’t comfortable having a Palestinian worker in the first place. The pressure forces Naftali to confront his own latent racism, which arises rather quickly.
The acting in this film is excellent. Writer, director and star Tzahi Grad is convincing as the somewhat pompous but well-meaning Naftali and Ala Dakka is wonderful as Fahed, a compassionate, laidback, not-so-handy handyman who shows some promise as a rap musician. The supporting characters fulfil their roles believably. The oddball neighbours, who at first just seem to have been added for comic relief, become truly menacing, and Osnat Fishman as Naftali’s wife aptly portrays her transformation from merely nervous and annoyed to scared and angry.
The writing in the film is mainly good. The serious dialogue and action are compelling and there are humourous interjections that work to both lighten the material and shed light on it. However, there are other attempts at humour that are inconsistent with the overall mood and message. And the last three minutes of the film are completely bizarre, and really should have ended up on the cutting-room floor. But this should not stop you from seeing what otherwise is an entertaining, gripping and thought-provoking movie because, if nothing else, it’s such a bad ending that it’s almost good; at the least, it’s memorable, in a shake-your-head-in-wonder way.
The Cousin has three screenings: Nov. 10, 6:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas; Nov. 25, 2 p.m., at Kay Meek Studio Theatre (West Vancouver); and Nov. 26, 6:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre (Port Moody).
A tragic thriller
Bram Fischer is one of the great Jewish heroes of the 20th century, yet he is not widely remembered outside his native South Africa. The crackling moral thriller An Act of Defiance, which recreates the attorney’s gutsy exploits during the Rivonia Trial in the early 1960s, brilliantly revives his legacy.
From the outset, the film defines Fischer (played with verve and intelligence by Peter Paul Muller) less by his considerable legal skills and reputation than by the company he keeps: he is a strategist and ally of Nelson Mandela and the other leaders (several of them Jewish) covertly plotting against the apartheid regime. In fact, Fischer is supposed to be at the meeting where the police bust in and arrest the activists.
Free and available to represent the accused against charges of sabotage, Fischer is more than their defender and advocate: he’s an active member of the resistance whose actions – epitomized by a tense, protracted sequence in which he smuggles key documents out of a government building, inadvertently placing his family in danger – express his commitment and courage even more than his legal challenges and parries.
Fischer’s extracurricular activities have the effect of pushing An Act of Defiance out of the realm of courtroom drama and into a full-bore thriller. That said, the film never loses sight of the plight of the Rivonia defendants, who face death sentences if convicted.
Dutch director Jean van de Velde fills the cast with South African actors such as Antoinette Louw, who imbues Molly Fischer with backbone, wit and warmth to match her husband. Along with its other attributes, An Act of Defiance is a moving love story.
An Act of Defiance screens Nov. 11, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue.
Faith and family
Redemption, which is called Geula in Hebrew, after the main character’s daughter, is a powerful film, the emotional impact of which builds up imperceptibly, such that you may only find yourself teary-eyed awhile after it has ended, when all the feelings it evokes finally reach the surface.
Co-directors and co-writers Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov grab viewers’ attention right away, with a lyrically and musically edgy song accompanying us as we follow Menachem through the streets to the drugstore, where he gets his photo taken – even though his attempts at smiling fail – then pausing to have a smoke before returning to his apartment to relieve the babysitter. Within the first five minutes, we know he is an awkward, sad, kind and generous Orthodox Jew, as well as an attentive, caring and loving father.
Other aspects of his life come into focus as he reconnects with his former friends and band mates, including his reason for reuniting them. Menachem’s 6-year-old daughter, Geula, needs expensive cancer treatments if there’s a chance for her to survive the cancer that killed her mother. Menachem, who works at a supermarket, needs the money that the band could make from playing at weddings.
The renewal of the friendships involves the reopening of some old wounds, and the men’s paths to healing are stories well told, though the film is mainly about Menachem, who, we find out, broke with the group when he became religious 15 years earlier. Moshe Folkenflik plays the widower with nuance, humility and depth, and Emily Granin as his daughter, Geula, captures the strong will, intelligence, bravery and fear of this young girl, playing with subtlety what could have been a maudlin role.
Redemption will be screened twice: Nov. 12, 8:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue and Nov. 29, 8:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre. [It will also screen as part of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival on nov. 4, 1:30 p.m., at the Vic Theatre. For tickets and information to the Victoria festival, visit vijff.ca.]
Smiles and belly laughs
Sam Hoffman’s resoundingly funny debut feature, Humor Me, imagines a well-appointed New Jersey retirement community as the setting for mid-life rejuvenation and resurrection. Neatly avoiding or flipping every cliché about seniors (cute, crotchety or flirtatious), the adult son-aging father dynamic and the theatre, Humor Me is a warm-hearted, flawlessly executed fable.
When his wife takes their young son and leaves him for a billionaire, talented-but-blocked playwright Nate Kroll (New Zealand actor Jemaine Clement) has to move out of their Manhattan brownstone and into the guest bedroom at his dad’s town house at Cranberry Bog. Bob (a note-perfect turn by Elliot Gould) is an inveterate joke teller, but his repertoire doesn’t work on a 40-year-old failed artist.
“Life’s going to happen, son, whether you smile or not,” he declares, a philosophy that the audience can embrace more easily than Nate can. If it contains a bit of Jewish fatalism, well, that’s Gould’s voice. So Bob’s jokes, which are consistently risqué and constructed with an ironic twist, have a faint air of the Borscht Belt about them. (It’s not a coincidence that Hoffman produced and directed the web series Old Jews Telling Jokes.)
There’s not a single stupid character in Humor Me, including Nate’s bland, successful brother (Erich Bergen), and this generosity of spirit means we’re always laughing with Nate’s foils, not at them. It helps immeasurably that Hoffman (best known for producing the TV show Madame Secretary) assembled a veteran cast – Annie Potts as Bob’s girlfriend, Le Clanché du Rand as a flirtatious senior and Bebe Neuwirth as a theatre heavyweight – that nails every last punch line and reaction shot.
Humor Me plays out the way we hope and expect it will, which is to say it delivers on its implicit promises. En route, it provides lots of smiles and several belly laughs. Even Nate, who’s well aware that he’s earned every joke that he’s the butt of, gets his share of one-liners. There’s plenty to go around, you see.
Humor Me is at Fifth Avenue on Nov. 14, 1 p.m.
For the full Vancouver Jewish Film Festival schedule and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Pamela Schuller will share her story at FEDtalks Sept. 16. (photo from JFGV)
On Sept .16 at Vancouver Playhouse, as part of FEDtalks, Pamela Schuller, an internationally known disability and mental health advocate and professional stand-up comedian, will share her story. Her aim? To inspire attendees to remember and cherish what makes them unique.
Schuller divides her time between being running a Jewish teen mental health initiative in New York City and traveling the world, using her own experiences to discuss inclusion and the importance of embracing differences and disabilities.
“I tell my story of growing up with a severe case of Tourette syndrome (TS) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) … and how, over time, I learned how to be more than OK with those things,” said Schuller. “I learned to love them and embrace them, and found that they add positive, incredible things to my life when I allow them to.”
According to the website tourette.ca, TS is “a neurodevelopmental or brain-based condition that causes people who have it to make involuntary sounds and movements called tics.” And, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (cmha.ca), OCD is “a mental illness … made up of two parts – obsessions and compulsions. People may experience obsessions, compulsions or both, and they cause a lot of distress.”
Growing up in America’s Midwest, Schuller felt she stood out as the oddball kid with TS. Her mom had a hard time raising her. And, as her mom struggled, so did Schuller – dealing with having TS, as well as with numerous trips to the hospital for broken bones and depression. It took a boarding school environment for Schuller to be able to come out of her shell.
“I’d always felt like I was something my community had to work through, that I was a nuisance,” Schuller told the Independent. “But, at this boarding school … well, I’m not going to tell the whole story … I’ll save that for when I’m in Vancouver. But, I can tell you that the school knew that, if I was going to pull myself out of this space of feeling worthless, I’d need to have something about myself that I loved. So, their goal was to help me find one thing about myself that I loved. And we used that to catapult me into realizing that the one thing I love about myself translates into other areas of my life. And that, maybe, I don’t love this thing despite TS, but maybe, in actuality, TS adds to this thing that I love.”
Schuller speaks openly about being depressed before experiencing this mental shift, and of not having wanted to be a part of this world.
“To be honest, I think it’s a journey that doesn’t stop,” she said. “I still have days where it feels like having TS is bad, embarrassing or painful. And I have to remind myself that it’s OK and that there are still things I love about myself … and that, a lot of them, I learned because of TS.
“The first thing I learned that I love about myself was my sense of humour. But, it took some time to channel that sense of humour from snarky and sarcastic … to a more channeled sense of humour.
“Then, over time, I started talking seriously, not using humour, about what it means to love differences, to love the most challenging thing about yourself, the thing you struggle with the most.
“A few years ago, I realized that stand-up and talking about disabilities don’t have to be separate. So, I combined them into a talk, with humour and storytelling.”
A few years ago, Schuller earned a master’s degree in child advocacy and policy, with an emphasis on creating inclusive communities.
She believes that much of celebrating differences is about believing it is possible – that, whatever you bring to a community, you can be a part of that community.
Stand-up comedy serves as a sort of therapy for Schuller. “When I’m on stage, it’s not that my TS calms down … but, even on a tough day, I’m reminded that I love my brain,” she said. “And my brain allows me to do stand-up and have TS.
“That reminder allows me to see other things about me that I love. I think I’ve always seen the world from a different point of view, in part, because of TS. Comedy allows me to point those things out and, in a way, speak without being judged.”
Schuller encourages people to find the one thing that makes them incredible and unique.
As far as what people can expect to get out of her talk, Schuller said, “It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not, the message is pretty universal. So, you can expect to laugh, to think about things and, maybe, sometimes, to cry, because feelings come up.
“Some of these conversations are tough. We’re all afraid of what we don’t know or maybe we don’t feel so great about ourselves or what we bring into this world. I think, by pairing humour with some of these messages and storytelling, it makes people think – about themselves and how they treat others, how they treat people in their community and what their community is doing.
“I walk into teen communities and I have everyone laughing and thinking,” she said. “And, when I finish, the teens line up to talk to me, share with me or ask questions. So, I think that my goal is to not be preachy, but to be a conversation starter.
“Typically, when communities bring me, they’ll have me perform for everyone. Then, I’ll do workshops, classes and programs. I’ve been working with communities around being inclusive for years, professionally, sharing ideas and talking about the tension points in your community around inclusion and how can we come up with some ideas that might help that.”
Schuller and her family have realized that, sometimes, the things they struggle with the most can also be their greatest strengths.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t still end up in the hospital from broken bones, from TS, but, even in those tough moments, as a family, we’re able to find humour … and to find those moments where, we’re like, ‘OK, this is so amazing … how cool that we’re learning this, doing this or experiencing this.’”
Yuk Yuk’s co-founder Mark Breslin is excited to be entertaining Jewish Vancouverites at Temple Sholom’s annual spring fundraiser May 6.
“I can’t get enough Jews in my life,” he told the Independent. “I’m married to a Catholic woman but I’m a Jew through and through. Any time I can talk about Jews and Jewishness, and my unique views on that, I jump at the opportunity because comedy is the jazz of our people. That’s how I express my Jewishness in the biggest way, not by keeping kosher or going to Israel each year, but through comedy.”
Breslin opened his first Yuk Yuk’s location in 1976. Today, he has 15 Yuk Yuk’s franchises across the country, has published four books, produced programs for television and radio, and appeared in theatrical productions. He’s a sought-after public speaker and, in December 2017, he was awarded the Order of Canada.
“Comedy is not usually something people respect, so it’s gratifying that some bureaucrats in Ottawa see what I’ve done with my life and think it has value,” he said. “But all the people I’d like to lord this over are dead now.”
Those people include a high school principal who informed Breslin he was a menace to society, as well as his aunts and uncles, who refused to attend his shows “because they thought I was wasting my life.”
Back when he started Yuk Yuk’s, Breslin said he received no support or encouragement from the people closest to him. “My mother was a child actress in the Yiddish stage in 1920, so you’d think she would be thrilled about what I was trying to build in comedy, but instead she was appalled by it right to the grave. My father was more ambivalent. He respected Yuk Yuk’s as a business and was proud of me, though he didn’t find the comedy funny. Even my friends thought I was nuts.”
When he began the first Yuk Yuk’s location, in Toronto, Breslin said his main goal was to avoid law school. “I thought I’d do comedy for a couple of years and find something else to do when it ran out of steam,” he admitted. “I never thought it would become my life!”
Initially, the Toronto Yuk Yuk’s was known as “that Jewish club,” because the names of the performing comedians were all Jewish. “When standup started, it was a very Jewish thing to do,” explained Breslin. “A lot of the comedians at that time were my friends from high school or university, and they gravitated to Yuk Yuk’s because they knew me.”
Today, standup is a mainstream phenomenon and Yuk Yuk’s is no longer known as a Jewish club. One thing that’s remained unchanged from the get-go, however, is Breslin’s insistence that his clubs be uncensored. “I’ve never censored an act in the 42 years I’ve been in business,” he said. “Being uncensored is important because the clubs are small enough that no one can control them. We have an obligation to be the official opposition and, these days, it’s more important than ever.” While he conceded that most comics exercise their right of free speech to talk about sex, not politics, he said, “Still, the opportunity is there.”
Yuk Yuk’s has two locations in British Columbia: Abbotsford and Vancouver. The Vancouver club opened in 1988 and is located on Cambie Street, near City Hall. It’s always been a success, said Breslin. “I measure success by some level of profitability, but also by how impactful our product is on the wider community and on comedy in general,” he said.
Among the comedians who got their start at Yuk Yuk’s are Russell Peters, Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Mike Bullard and Gerry Dee.
Breslin said that, on May 6, at the Temple Sholom event, he plans to talk about how each Jew has their own unique form of Jewishness and how we treat our culture as a Chinese buffet, picking what we want from it.
“I’m going to talk about the golden age of Judaism, 1950 to 1975, when it was cool and sexy to be a Jew,” he said. “I’ll try to figure out what happened between then and now, and why we’re a people in need of a good PR person. I’ll also reveal a lot of fun stuff about my life, my family and things I’ve done, relating that to comedy in general and what it means as a Jewish art form.”
For event details, visit templesholom.ca/inspired. The evening at Performance Works on Granville Island is titled Inspired to Act and includes comedy, music by Adrienne Robles and Liel Amdour, and the 2018 Tikkun Olam Youth Awards.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Magician Stephen Kaplan entertains at last month’s Empowerment session. (photo from Jewish Seniors Alliance)
On March 21, the Jewish Seniors Alliance, in partnership with Temple Sholom Seniors, once again brought the community a magical program of laughter.
In the program, which was the second in the 2017/18 JSA Snider Foundation Empowerment
Series with the theme Laughter and Music: Feeding the Soul, magician Stephen Kaplan delighted the audience of more than 100 people with his energy, sense of humour and enthusiasm.
Kaplan introduced himself as “the Maestro of Magic” and, as such, he said he conducts the magic that is within us all. Combining interactive entertainment with jokes and surprises is what he loves to do – and he does it so well.
The audience was shrieking with laughter and wonder. How did he guess that Heather’s first boyfriend’s name was Peter? How did he guess that Lila was thinking of the city Winnipeg? And how did he guess that the card that Bonny picked was a seven of diamonds? Did he really guess all that? It doesn’t matter. As a finale, he took a section of the Vancouver Sun, tore it into pieces and, within seconds, put it back together.
Gyda Chud, his preschool teacher, introduced him beautifully. Was she the one who instilled the charm and magic in him? Kaplan made sure that every one of the attendees left the program with a big smile.
The afternoon began with greetings from Bill Gruenthal, Arthur Gutman told some jokes and led the audience in Passover songs, and Ken Levitt, JSA president, encouraged people to join the JSA, if they hadn’t already.
Two more Empowerment sessions on the theme Laughter and Music are coming up: Perla’s Music Workshop on April 17 with Congregation Beth Israel, in conjunction with the Jewish Family Services’ Seniors Lunch program; and Music for Our Hearts and Songs We Love on June 25, with the Kehila Society in Richmond. For more information, visit jsalliance.org or call 604-732-1555.
Tamara Frankel is a board member of Jewish Seniors Alliance.
Temple Sholom is hosting Inspired to Act. The event will feature the comedy of Yuk Yuk’s co-founder Mark Breslin, plus the music of young local artists Liel Amdour and Adrienne Robles, and will honour the winners of the 2018 Tikkun Olam Youth Awards.
This annual spring fundraising event will take place the evening of May 6 at Performance Works on Granville Island. It will be an uplifting night of entertainment and inspiration, and the recognition of Vancouver’s Jewish youth’s efforts to repair the world, or tikkun olam.
Yuk Yuk’s is the largest chain of comedy clubs in Canada, and Breslin will keep the audience in stitches. He will also share his view that comedy is a way of life. “You don’t just perform comedy; you live it,” he said. “It’s something you do onstage and off; whether you’re in the business or not.”
After Breslin’s performance, the 2018 Tikkun Olam Youth Awards will be presented to two teenage members of the Metro Vancouver Jewish community. These young community leaders will be honoured for their vision to heal and their passion to make the world a better place. The winner of the Dreamer category will have envisioned an action plan to address an issue in need of repair, while the winner of the Builder category will have volunteered at the grassroots level to cause change.
Community members have until April 9 to nominate a candidate, who is a member of the Jewish community between 13 and 19 years of age. The Dreamers Award is $1,800, while the Builders Award is $270, and the awards are funded by the generosity of the Neil and Michelle Pollock Family Foundation. For more information and the online application, visit templesholom.ca/youth-award.
The entire community is invited to Inspired to Act. For more information, tickets or to make a donation, visit templesholom.ca/inspired.
Deb Filler performs at the Chutzpah! Festival on March 4. (photo from Chutzpah!)
“I’ve performed all over the world, baked challah bread onstage, done shows everywhere, and this is the first time in all these years I am performing in Vancouver live. Delighted to be coming back to do a show! I hope there’ll be more,” Deb Filler told the Independent.
Filler, who will perform at the Chutzpah! Festival on March 4, lived in Vancouver for six months, starting in late 1979.
“I was tempted to stay but never did,” said the comedian, actor, musician, teacher and writer originally from New Zealand. “My career in North America started there. I had an agent and things were going well but New York called, Stella Adler and Uta Hagen, the great acting teachers I studied with. So, I drove across country and the rest as they say….”
While Filler left Vancouver for New York, she has lived in Toronto since 1995.
“I came for a film that was being made of my work, Punch Me in the Stomach, and I stayed and I fell in love,” she said. “Toronto is a terrific city for fun, culture. And it’s close to Europe and New York. I was in New York before that for 15 years, so I guess I’m a bit of a rightie not a leftie – coastie. Not politically, that’s for sure!”
Filler will be bringing her show I Did It My Way in Yiddish (in English) to the Rothstein Theatre for one performance only – March 4, 1 p.m. Described as a journey around the world, “jam-packed” with music (Filler on her guitar) “and a raft of loveable characters she creates,” the initial work was commissioned by the Jewish Community Centre London, called the JW3, as it is located on Finchley Road, NW3. The centre’s tagline is “The postal code for Jewish life.”
“It’s a fantastic modern facility in North London with cafés, art studios, a theatre, meeting places, gallery, classrooms, a school, a film space, a real cultural hub,” said Filler, who had worked with them before the commission. “I’d gotten a great response several times in the past and they were keen for me to come back for their U.K. Jewish Comedy Festival so asked me to perform a new show. I knew – because the stories I tell about meeting and befriending Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Cohen and another Jewish musician called Lenny – that London audiences would respond like audiences have all over the world. So, when they asked, I was delighted to agree, and now the show has been in New York, L.A., Sydney, Toronto, and is coming to Vancouver and D.C.”
Since the commission, the show has changed a bit.
“We made a short dramatic film of one of the stories, which is sometimes screened during the show as a multimedia segment, which Chutzpah! requested. Also, the name has changed to describe the show better than The Three Lennys.”
A March 2017 article on broadwayworld.com describes a bit of the show: “As Deb drives for a car service in New York City, she takes us on a truly incredible ride with Leonard Cohen, reducing the venerable Canadian folksinger to tears of laughter. Her story of meeting Leonard Bernstein as a teen, bringing him fresh challah bread from her father, a survivor of the Holocaust who heard Bernstein play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in a displaced persons camp after the war, is extraordinary. What happens next is truly unbelievable.”
One of the things that will happen next for Filler is a trip to Europe. “I’m being invited to Landsberg in Germany as guest of the reunion there of my father’s displaced persons camp, where Leonard Bernstein played and my dad saw him in 1948…. I’m also working on My German Roots Are Showing, which I read in London with actor Miriam Margolyes as my mother. She is fantastic!”
In a conversation a few years ago on Auckland’s Newsbeat (newsbeat.kiwi) with journalist Keren Cook, Filler spoke about Jewish humour and how her family provided a rich environment and offered many resources for her creative expression.
When the Independent asked her about how she takes into account her relatives’ feelings, Filler said, “There are red lines, nothing too personal, but my family are wonderful and amongst my biggest fans, so it’s been a pleasure to perform for them. One relative loved my show Punch Me in the Stomach, but somebody put a worm in her ear and she got defensive so I’ve taken her out of future shows to safeguard any feelings she may have about being exposed. It’s all done with love and admiration, and a bit of comedy of course. So, sometimes one must exaggerate for the laugh. But it’s all good.”
Filler taught at Brown University for 14 years in Providence, R.I., and she teaches at Humber College in Toronto and at Toi Whakaari (New Zealand Drama School), in addition to having private students. “I’ve recently started directing,” she said, “and just had a wonderful show open in Auckland for Pride Festival, called Random Shagger. It’s doing really well.”
She advises aspiring comics about to pick up the mic for the first time, “Be strong! Be brave! Have confidence in your persona. And do it for yourself, not for drunken college students who tend to populate comedy club audiences.”
For tickets to I Did It My Way in Yiddish (in English) and the full Chutzpah! Festival lineup, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
Matthew Gindin takes a pause in his talk, The History of Jewish Humour. (photo from Jewish Seniors Alliance)
On Nov. 24, the first session of the 2017-18 Empowerment Series started with a bang. Almost 80 people came out to launch the series’ season, which has the theme of Laughter and Music: Feeding the Soul. This first meeting was co-sponsored by Jewish Seniors Alliance and Sholem Aleichem Seniors of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, and it took place at the centre.
Featured speaker Matthew Gindin spoke on the topic The History of Jewish Humour. Gindin is a journalist, lecturer and teacher, and a regular writer for the Jewish Independent.
Gyda Chud, coordinator of Sholem Aleichem Seniors and vice-president of JSA, began the session by introducing JSA president Ken Levitt, who spoke briefly about JSA, and urged those who hadn’t yet joined, to become supporters and members.
Gindin began his talk by posing the questions, Why speak of Jewish humour; why do these words go so well together? He then proceeded to answer the question.
Jews have been over-represented in the comedy scene. At one time, they comprised 75% of the comics in America, while they were less than three percent of the population, he said.
Humour has a long tradition in Judaism dating back to biblical times. The name Yitzchak, Isaac, means “he will laugh,” explained Gindin. The prophet Elijah said that two jesters in the marketplace already had a place in the World to Come because they made people laugh. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, the founder of the Chassidic movement, preached about the importance of happiness. Sigmund Freud also spoke of happiness and humour in his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.
Jews are known for making fun of themselves, said Gindin. They have used humour as a means of preparing for things that could go wrong. It was a method of coping with the many negative experiences in their lives. He pointed out that this type of humour was mainly a product of Ashkenazi culture.
Gindin described several different types of humour. For example, jokes about assimilated Jews trying to fit into non-Jewish society, Chassidim telling jokes about themselves, Jewish folk humour, jokes told under Nazism and communism in order to relieve tension, and jokes about Israeli life. An example of folk humour can be found in Sholem Aleichem’s glossary of his stepmother’s curses. For example: “May you grow so rich that your wife’s second husband never has to work for a living.”
In the United States, Jewish humour became popular in theatres and comedy routines starting in the Borsht Belt, said Gindin. Much of this humour was self-deprecating. The comedians focused on such themes as Jewish-gentile differences, Jewish family dynamics, the stereotype of the Jewish mother, Jewish professions, the diminished role of the rabbi. An example is a joke about waiting for Moshiach (Messiah) – “at least it’s steady work.”
Gindin told many stories and had the audience in stitches. He then asked if there were questions or comments and if anyone had any good stories. The audience responded with many amusing jokes of their own.
Chud thanked Gindin and commented on how well he wove the theme of humour into its time and places and how well he explained how the words Jewish and humour went together. She then invited everyone for coffee and dessert.
The second session in this season’s Empowerment Series will take place on Jan. 24, in cooperation with Jewish Community Centre Seniors and will feature the film Broadway Musicals, A Jewish Legacy. This documentary, by Michael Kantor, narrated by Joel Grey, explores the unique role of Jewish composers and lyricists in the creation of the modern American musical.
There will be three more sessions on the Laughter and Music theme: March 21, with Temple Sholom seniors; April 17 with Beth Israel seniors, in conjunction with Jewish Family Services’ lunch program; and June 25, with Kehila Society in Richmond. For more information, visit jsalliance.org.
Shanie Levin, MSW, worked for many years in the field of child welfare. During that time, she was active in the union. As well, she participated in amateur dramatics. She has served on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and is presently on the executive of Jewish Seniors Alliance and a member of the editorial committee.