Renny Grinshpan’s videos have gained quite an audience. (photo from Renny Grinshpan)
Born and raised in Toronto, Renny Grinshpan is the daughter of an Israeli-born dad and a Toronto-born mom. Her sister, Eden, works as a host on the food scene in Canada and the United States and recently hosted Top Chef Canada. For her part, Grinshpan is a bit of a celebrity herself – in Israel.
After finishing high school in Toronto, Grinshpan moved to New York City, where she studied history at New York University before heading to Columbia University to pursue her master’s in journalism. After six years in New York, she moved to Tel Aviv to be with her Israeli partner, Hadar Amar, and they still live there. This past June, the couple was married.
“Hadar and I met through a mutual friend at a bar in Tel Aviv,” she said. “We now live together in Tel Aviv. He works in strategic consulting.”
Grinshpan has been in Tel Aviv for about three years. “When I came here,” she said, “I worked as a content writer for Tross Creative House for a year. My boss there, Yaniv Tross, encouraged me to quit and start on-camera work, so I did. He cast me in my first video – a crowdfunding video for a start-up product that works against period cramps (Livia). Since then, I’ve been working as a freelance host, content creator and actor.”
Grinshpan became known in Israel’s comedy scene for her role on HaIsraeliot (the Israeli Girls), a Facebook page with female Israeli comedians, including Leah Lev and Meital Avni.
“I don’t do live shows,” said Grinshpan. “I tried stand-up comedy and realized it’s the scariest thing ever … and I am no adrenaline junkie!”
In her Facebook videos, Grinshpan delves into different aspects of Israeli culture from a Canadian perspective. As a relatively new olah (immigrant), these observations come naturally for her.
“I think my main audience is Israeli women,” she said. “It makes sense to me that Israelis are my biggest audience, because I think everyone enjoys hearing about themselves the most, especially from an outsider’s perspective.”
Grinshpan gained experience in video during her journalism studies at Columbia, where she focused on video journalism and learned how to film, edit and build a narrative visually.
“I made several short documentary-style videos that year and the year following,” she said. “When I worked at Tross, I got experience writing creatively for the first time – writing scripts for product and crowdfunding videos for start-ups.
“When I started freelancing after Tross, I worked not only as an actor and host, but also continued working as a content writer and videographer behind the scenes. I also worked as a model and voiceover actor – anything to earn a living in the creative video realm!”
Grinshpan has spent some time as a visitor in Vancouver and had much good to say about the experience. “I love Vancouver!” she said. “Thank you for giving me some of the best times!
“Being a tourist in Vancouver made me feel like I’m really athletic, which could not be farther from the truth! I found that, in touring the city, I was biking through Stanley Park (it’s a forest!), hiking up a waterfall in North Van, trying out long-boarding for the first time and canoeing again (like in my childhood). I was so active just by being there, which, again, is not reflective of my standard state.”
Looking ahead, Grinshpan said she dreams of co-hosting a food and travel talk show across Israel or Canada with her big sister one day.
In Bittergirl, Cailin Stadnyk, Katrina Reynolds and Lauren Bowler play women who have just been dumped by their boyfriends – maybe they can get back their men if they lose some weight? (photo by Emily Cooper)
Have you ever taken part in an aerobics class and wondered how many of the women in it were trying to lose weight to get a boyfriend back? The sad truth is, there are probably many, eagerly trying anything to return to the way things were, even if the way things were wasn’t all that great.
Bittergirl: The Musical takes aim at countless breakup truisms from the perspectives of three different women, reminiscent of the sharp wit in Mom’s the Word and the relationship charades of Sex in the City. Their varied responses to being dumped are hilariously insightful.
The progress of the play loosely follows the five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The stages of the breakups are denial (he made a mistake), second-guessing (I could have done something differently), manipulation (I’m going to make him love me), reflection (I should have seen the warning signs) and acceptance (I’m over him, I’ve moved on).
The three women – played by Lauren Bowler, Katrina Reynolds and Cailin Stadnyk – are known only as A, B and C, as though these trials and tribulations are those that belong to every woman, not a specific person. Jewish community member Josh Epstein plays D, all three of the dumpers – the husband who wants to join the RCMP, the live-in partner who just “has to go” and the boyfriend who’s lost his “magic.”
Epstein delivers the stereotypical reasons why he needs to get out of each relationship: “I feel trapped,” “I can’t give you what you want” and the ridiculous “We’ve got to be birds flying higher.”
The lame rationales elicit howls of laughter at the familiarity, especially when one of the women initially thinks that the “talk” her boyfriend wants to have will lead to a proposal.
Not surprisingly, the women stand there, stunned into silence, not demanding further explanation, but meekly mumbling things like, “I understand,” even though they don’t – another conventional reaction it is sadly not surprising to see depicted.
After their men leave, the women think about what they might have done differently to save their relationships – “Maybe if I wore plum eyeshadow,” “Maybe if I didn’t talk to my mother so much” and “Maybe if I worked out more.” This last statement segues into an hysterical scene of the three women working out with various gizmos and in different types of classes in a desperate bid to get in shape and win back their men.
The women also reflect on the warnings signs they missed. He wears socks with sandals. He cries at Celine Dion songs. He growls during sex.
Especially comical is a scene where the women run into friends and they are forced to admit they were dumped. The standard, “You’re better off without him” or “If you guys couldn’t make it work, what chance do the rest of us have?” hit the mark on how insensitive people can be, much to the enjoyment of the audience. The rapid-fire delivery of the lines, the women playing off each other brilliantly, is a sight to see and hear.
As the musical progresses, classic girl-group songs of the 1960s and ’70s complement the dialogue. Thinking about their first dates leads into “And Then He Kissed Me.” The initial breakups prompt a rendition of “Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This.” When the women hope they’ll have a chance to renew the relationship, they sing “When Will I See You Again?” And who hasn’t felt the difficulty of moving on because there’s “Always Something There to Remind Me”?
The strength of the play is in how the writing spotlights those moments we all know so well and that sound so absurd when depicted one after the other. Being reminded of one’s own failed relationships, watching the play is like watching a good comedian – often funny and, despite being cringeworthy at times, you want to stay to the finale.
As with the different stages of death, the women finally accept their situations and move on with their lives, singing such lyrics as “you don’t really love me; you just keep me hanging on,” there are “too many fish in the sea” and “I will survive.”
Bittergirl is actually an autobiographical play written by three Toronto actresses who had, indeed, just gotten dumped by a husband, live-in boyfriend and short-term partner. The positive reaction to the play led to the 2005 book Bittergirl: Getting Over Getting Dumped. After that, the writers added the songs, accompanied by an all-female band onstage, and the musical was born.
Besides the sharp, insightful writing, these women (and Epstein) can all belt out a tune, making the performance a hit from the beginning to the (not so) bitter end.
Bittergirl runs at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage until July 29. For tickets and more information, visit artsclub.com.
Baila Lazarusis Vancouver-based writer and principal media strategist at phase2coaching.com.
Canadian-born, U.K.-based Tanyalee Davis will make a special appearance in Comedy on Wheels, which features many contributors. (photo from Comedy on Wheels)
Realwheels celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday with laughter. Their new show, Comedy on Wheels, will play for only three days but, hopefully, the levity will stay with audiences much longer. The show will present members of the Vancouver disability community in performances that capitalize on people’s greatest common asset: the ability to use humour to cope with life’s trials and tribulations.
“What better way to celebrate Canada’s 150th than with laughter?” said Jewish community member Rena Cohen, the director of the show, in a press release. “A shared laugh strengthens our bonds and dissolves barriers. Whether you self-identify as able-bodied or as having a disability, come giggle and be entertained. And be prepared for a challenge to any and all preconceptions.”
Cohen joined Realwheels as managing artistic director in 2009. Before her, the company, which was founded in the late 1990s, had produced one show, Skydive, in 2007. Featuring Realwheels founder James Sanders, a professionally trained actor with quadriplegia, the play was regarded as an important and innovative contribution to changing perceptions of disability.
“I joined Realwheels after meeting its brilliant founder, James Sanders,” Cohen told the Independent. “I transitioned into arts management six years earlier and, when James invited me to discuss the company’s next steps, I was curious to learn about the lived experience of disability. I was also well aware of the company’s enormous success with their Skydive project. I saw an opportunity to bridge Realwheels’ early success into a more stable future. The mandate of the company – to create and produce performances that deepen people’s understanding of disability – quickly internalized and became a passion of mine.”
Since Cohen became part of the company, Realwheels has been producing new shows steadily every year, sometimes more than once a year. “We produced Creeps this past winter at the Cultch and we’re currently creating Comedy on Wheels. That’s two productions this season, plus another show in development, and two side projects that are centred on increasing people with disabilities’ inclusion in the arts…. In total, we’ve mounted five professional productions and six community shows to date,” she said. (For more on Creeps and Realwheels, see jewishindependent.ca/creeps-is-a-canadian-classic.)
Realwheels’ ultimate goal is to fully integrate creative people with disabilities into the performing arts.
“A trained actor with a disability can play many roles,” said Cohen. “Absolutely, an actor with a disability can perform in classical plays. Why not?… Every actor brings their own range of experience; every actor accesses their emotional life a little differently.”
About directing, she said, “Our professional shows are typically integrated, a combination of professional actors with and without disabilities. I’m always trying to bring out the truth, looking to the script for what’s called for in the role. Working with different casts and talents is one of the joys of this work.”
In addition to professional shows, Realwheels also produces community shows. “For our community shows,” said Cohen, “we invite anyone who self-identifies as having a disability to participate. We offer training, coaching, a meaningful and considerable theatre experience.”
Comedy on Wheels falls into the community show category.
“We have great stand-up acts, and these are augmented with scenes, live music and projections, making it far more theatrical than an average nightclub or comedy club,” said Cohen. “We touch on the theme of Canada’s 150th birthday, but, more than anything, that’s an excuse to get together, talk about what we think is hilarious, learn about the structure of comedy and celebrate the amazing talents of the people who live with disabilities.”
According to Cohen, the idea for this show – like the ideas for many Realwheels shows – came out of an ongoing dialogue with the community.
“Last season, we explored sexuality from a disability perspective in a large burlesque show. That was in response to the demand to break down the stigmas surrounding sexuality and disability in playful and dazzlingly unexpected ways,” she said. “There was tremendous humour in that show and there appeared to be a growing desire to further explore comedy. One of our regular community cast members is an emerging comic star. I threw the idea over to him, and we came up with Comedy on Wheels.”
To make the show punchier, Cohen invited Canadian-born comic star Tanyalee Davis, who is now based in the United Kingdom, to appear.
“Tanyalee will be integrating her comedy with our show and emceeing it. Very exciting!” said Cohen.
As is customary for stand-up comedy, the cast members have written their own jokes. “Our only ground rule was nothing sexist, racist or homophobic,” Cohen explained. “The only filter being applied is whether it’s funny or not. Of course, comedy is subjective, but we have a pretty good idea when something works or not.”
Another person has been instrumental in bringing Comedy on Wheels to life – fellow Jewish community member David Granirer.
Granirer is a counselor, stand-up comic, writer and speaker on mental-health issues. He teaches comedy classes at Langara College and founded Stand Up for Mental Health, which, according to his website, is “a program that teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental illness or mental-health issues, as a way of building confidence and fighting public stigma.”
“The cast members have created this work with the support and guidance of David Granirer,” said Cohen. “David has an elegant system for creating comedy, the system he’s honed over the years. He breaks the process into very clear and workable steps.”
“Rena Cohen brought me in – she’d heard about me from one of the participants who had taken my Langara Stand-Up Comedy Clinic course,” said Granirer.
For him, it was a small step from his students to the actors. “All of the performers in Comedy on Wheels are disabled in some way,” he said. “Their ages range from 20 to 60. Some have theatrical training and others don’t, but my job was similar. It’s about helping everyone find their comic voices. Most, but not all, of their jokes concern disability. Some of the jokes are also about Canada, but all of the jokes stand on their own (pardon the pun) as good comedy. Everyone will appreciate them.”
Comedy on Wheels is at Performance Works May 18-20. Audio description is provided by VocalEye and all performances are also accessible through American Sign Language. For more information, visit realwheels.ca. For tickets, go to comedy-on-wheels.bpt.me.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Director Ferne Pearlstein with Mel Brooks. (photo from Tangerine Entertainment)
Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours marked the first time that many people heard the philosophical proposition, expressed by Alan Alda’s character, that “comedy is tragedy plus time.”
I’ve always cited “the Woodman” as the source of the insight, probably because it’s consistent with a Jewish worldview. In fact, another Allen, the late, great comedian, composer and TV host Steve Allen, described the phenomenon in a 1957 magazine interview. Maybe he picked it up from somebody else; in any event, this is what he had to say: “When I explained to a friend recently that the subject matter of most comedy is tragic (drunkenness, overweight, financial problems, accidents, etc.), he said, ‘Do you mean to tell me that the dreadful events of the day are a fit subject for humorous comment?’ The answer is ‘No, but they will be pretty soon.’”
Ferne Pearlstein’s wonderfully entertaining and provocative documentary The Last Laugh asks a gaggle of comedians, as well as the viewer, if there might be one subject that defies Allen’s thesis. Seventy years on, is the Holocaust still off limits for purveyors of punchlines? Are there subjects that cannot and should not be the subject of jokes? Or are some of the functions of humour – healing, confronting uncomfortable truths from oblique angles, challenging stereotypes – applicable even in the case of targeted genocide? Finally, as the great wit Hillel famously asked his students at a late-night yeshivah improv set, “If not now, when?”
Pearlstein puts the question to a group of sharp Jewish humourists, interspersing their incisive comments with a parade of clips from films and TV shows that comprise a kind of Rorschach test for the viewer. The expert witnesses include Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried and Larry Charles, who grapple with the topic with both hilarious and discomfiting results. As you’d imagine, given their ethnic backgrounds and line of work, they’ve given the matter considerable thought over the years.
Mel Brooks, who displayed unimaginable chutzpah and courage in conceiving and producing The Producers 50 years ago, cites Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant The Great Dictator to illustrate the power of mockery and ridicule to cut the Nazis down to size. Another interviewee provides a reminder that humour played an important role in the camps, providing a brief escape from bleak reality and a way of maintaining one’s humanity and dignity.
But it’s another matter altogether to mine the camps or victims for laughs. (Here’s where the late Joan Rivers makes an appearance with a jaw-dropping one-liner from some archived late-night show.)
Of course, one of the jobs of comedians is to step over the line, in order to impel us to consider where the line is. (Come on down, Sarah Silverman.) And, given the prominence of the Holocaust in shaping the identity of at least two generations of American Jews, it is a taboo that needs to be examined.
Too soon (to use the catchphrase du jour)? About time, I’d say.
Pearlstein implicitly acknowledges two important caveats, however. The reality of the Holocaust can’t be ignored or subsumed in a theoretical discussion of contemporary attitudes, and those who endured the camps should be allowed to comment on what’s funny.
Stalwart survivor Renee Firestone acts as a thread and guidepost throughout The Last Laugh, reminding us of the deadly toll of the Holocaust as well as the determination and, yes, good humour required to create a satisfying life after the darkness of Europe.
Firestone inspires us to consider the highest and best use of memory and, in the context of the film, to see humour as a constructive way of remembering and revisiting tragedy that instils strength. Over and over, The Last Laugh eschews glib analysis in pursuit of deeper truths. And those are always the best punchlines.
The Last Laugh airs on PBS April 24 (check local listings).
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
David Broza, left, and Ali Paris will perform in concert. (photo from Chutzpah! Festival)
Tickets are now on sale for the 17th annual Chutzpah! Lisa Nemetz International Jewish Performing Arts Festival, which will run from Feb. 16 to March 13, at venues including Rothstein Theatre, York Theatre, Scotiabank Dance Centre and the Biltmore Cabaret.
“We are all excited for another year of presenting an electrifying array of internationally acclaimed dancers, musicians, comedians and theatrical artists to our audiences in Canadian, Western Canadian and world premières. We’re headed for an energizing and thrilling journey from stand-up comedy to theatrical drama to rich global music to explosive and elegant dance!” said Mary-Louise Albert, Chutzpah!’s artistic and managing director.
As it does every year, the 2017 Chutzpah! Festival dance series presents some of the most sought-after contemporary choreographers in the world. This year’s performances include the return of Italy’s Spellbound Contemporary Ballet with their full-length Carmina Burana; Israel’s Yossi Berg and Oded Graf Dance Theatre with their acclaimed 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer; and Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion (United States) brings a mixed repertoire of some of Kyle Abraham’s most popular works in their Western Canadian première. Vancouver’s Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art première their completed and full-length version of Telemetry, while local choreographer and performer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg and Italy’s award-winning Silvia Gribaudi navigate the role of comedy as a catalyst to questions of gender, culture and language and understanding – this is world première presented with the Dance Centre. As well, in Chutzpah! Plus (May 13-14), there is Birds Sing a Pretty Song (Canada/United States/Israel/Argentina), an exploration through dance, film, interactive media and live music created by Rebecca Margolick and Maxx Berkowitz during a yearlong fellowship in New York City with LABA: A Laboratory for New Jewish Culture.
Among the Chutzpah! Festival 2017 musical highlights is Grammy-winners the Klezmatics 30th Anniversary Tour (United States). In concert together will be David Broza, whose music reflects the three different countries in which he was raised (Israel, Spain and England), and Ali Paris, who fuses Middle Eastern and Western music styles, and plays the qanun, a rare 76-string zither that dates back to the 14th century. Also in concert together will be Shalom Hanoch – touted as “the King of Israeli Rock” and compared to musicians such as Neil Young and Mick Jagger – who will be joined on stage by his longtime music producer, partner and keyboard player Moshe Levi.
Now based out of Chicago, Marbin, founded by Israeli guitarist Dani Rabin and Israeli saxophonist Danny Markovitch, is a progressive jazz-rock band, and MNGWA [ming-wah] opens their performance, mixing elements of psychedelic rock, dub, African rhythms, and vocals in four languages. Israeli singer Maya Avraham, who is known by Chutzpah! audiences from her performances with the Idan Raichel Project, comes to Vancouver with her band of Israeli and American musicians, and Lyla Canté (United States/Israel/Japan/Argentina) also joins the festival – exploring the intersection of Sephardi, flamenco and Ashkenazi music. For Chutzpah! Plus (April 2), composer Landon Braverman and Friends put on an evening of musical theatre – while currently based in New York, Braverman is originally from Vancouver.
With respect to theatre, one of this year’s Chutzpah! highlights is Wrestling Jerusalem, created and performed by Aaron Davidman. Set in America, Israel and Palestine, the play follows one man’s journey to help understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Davidman’s solo performance is a personal story that grapples with the complexities of identity, history and social justice.
Another theatre draw is Folk Lordz, high-speed and multicultural improv featuring two members of Edmonton-based Rapid Fire Theatre, which was co-created by Todd Houseman and Ben Gorodetsky and brings together the unlikely combination of Cree storytelling, Chekhovian character drama and spontaneous comedy.
Comedy highlights include Mark Schiff (United States), who has headlined major casinos and clubs and has appeared many times on both The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with David Letterman. He has had HBO and Showtime specials, was a featured act at the Montreal Comedy Festival and regularly opens for Jerry Seinfeld.
Also on the comedy front, there is a double bill: Ali Hassan and Judy Gold. Canada’s Hassan appears in his one-man show Muslim Interrupted; Hassan is a stand-up comedian, actor, chef and radio and television celebrity, and is the host of Laugh Out Loud on CBC Radio and SIRIUSXM. Gold’s (United States) most recent TV appearances include guest-starring roles on Louie, Broad City, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Inside Amy Schumer, and she has a recurring role on the upcoming series on TBS Search Party. Gold has had stand-up specials on HBO (Cable Ace Award), Comedy Central and LOGO and was twice nominated for the American Comedy Award for funniest female comedian.
After the success of Chutzpah’s first literary event in 2016, this year’s Chutzpah! features author Christopher Noxon in Hollywood Stories, a special pre-festival event. Noxon is an author, journalist and illustrator and his humorous and unflinching Plus One is a novel about an interfaith family set in contemporary Los Angeles. Noxon is married to television writer and producer Jenji Kohan, creator of Orange is the New Black. This event is presented with the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival and will take place on Feb. 5.
Single tickets for Chutzpah! range from $23 to $50 and are on sale now from chutzpahfestival.com, the festival box office, 604-257-5145, or Tickets Tonight, 604-684-2787. Chutzi Packs are also available – see four different shows for $94 – and new this year is a special five-show dance pack for $115.
Tickets will be available in-person starting Jan. 30 at the on-site festival box office at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. For hours and other information, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
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!”
Rabbi Bob Alper will perform as part of Congregation Beth Israel’s Purim festivities on March 23. (photo by Sultan Khan)
It’s too good not to lead with – Pope Frances’ honorary comedic advisor, Rabbi Bob Alper, will be bringing his comic stylings to Congregation Beth Israel on erev Purim March 23.
A professional comedian for some 30 years now, Alper said his life hasn’t changed that much since he became the papal advisor last fall. “I now drive my very own popemobile in my hometown in Vermont,” he said. “It gets 150 miles to the gallon, but is not great in blizzards. Otherwise, nothing has changed, though I do ‘use’ the title whenever I can. It’s a great story.”
No doubt, Alper will be flying to Vancouver. He was invited by the congregation, “people who obviously know how to make Purim rock,” he said.
He’s been here twice before, “once for a show at Temple Sholom and, earlier, for a Federation event. One of the most difficult of my career, since it fell just two weeks after 9/11.
“I’ll only be in Vancouver for a day or two,” he added about this month’s trip, “but I hope to do the highlights. The best part of every trip, for me, is performing!”
Alper won the title of honorary comedic advisor to the Pope in a contest held by the Pontifical Mission Societies in honor of the Pope’s September 2015 visit to the United States and to raise awareness and money for three pontifical missions. He beat out more than 4,000 people from 47 countries, including fellow American funnymen like Bill Murray and Conan O’Brien. You can watch his video, as well as those of the other contestants, at jokewiththepope.org, but the joke is: “My wife and I have been married for over 46 years, and our lives are totally in sync. For example, at the same time I got a hearing aid, she stopped mumbling.”
“I grew up in a religious Reform family for whom our synagogue was central, and my uncle was a Reform rabbi,” said Alper of his background. “My father loved humor, and told long ‘shaggy dog’ stories, which, naturally, prompted me to take the opposite route into the quick-hit world of stand-up. Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman and Mel Brooks records were my childhood companions and, in Jewish youth group, in high school, I would memorize and perform their routines at regional convention talent nights, thereby attracting the hottest girls. Comedy is good.”
Nonetheless, Alper was ordained as a rabbi in 1972 and then worked in congregations for 14 years. It was another contest that led him to become a comedian.
“In 1986, living in a Philadelphia suburb and armed with a doctoral degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, Bob was charting a different path, trading congregational life for a counseling practice,” writes editor David Crumm in the introduction to Alper’s book Thanks. I Needed That. And Other Stories of the Spirit (Read the Spirit Books, 2013). “But, at that same time, comedy reared its ugly head in the form of a ‘Jewish Comic of the Year Contest.’ Bob entered, came in third behind a chiropractor and a lawyer, and went on to make stand-up a full-time career.”
Alper’s wife, Sherri, is a psychotherapist. On his website, it notes, “Professionally, he makes people laugh, while she helps people cry.”
With literally thousands of shows under his belt, Alper has made a lot of people laugh. “It gets easier and easier,” he said about performing. “That’s how comedy works. I agonized before I did my first five minutes in 1986. Now performing is a delight and, since stand-up is cumulative, I have tons of material from which to choose.”
Among Alper’s shows are duos with Muslim comedians.
“My Muslim colleagues include Ahmed Ahmed, of Egyptian background, Azhar Usman, of Indian background, and Mo Amer, a Palestinian born in Kuwait,” writes Alper in Thanks. I Needed That. “We do Muslim-Jewish shows, frequently enhanced by the addition of a Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks. And we have so much fun at each performance, it’s almost criminal.
“We call our shows Laugh in Peace.
“Back in late 2001, Ahmed and I were brought together as a gimmick by a savvy publicist,” he continues. “Our relationship quickly developed into a friendship based on the camaraderie of fellow artists and the breezy banter of guys who really enjoy one another’s company. We laugh together a lot.”
Alper began working with Usman when Ahmed became more focused on acting, and he also works with Amer quite often.
He admits, “No question, Laugh in Peace was conceived initially as a way to further our comedy careers, to book more gigs, to raise our visibility. It would be disingenuous to suggest anything else. But as the act and our personal relationships evolved, we quickly understood how Laugh in Peace brought a sense of hope and relief and healing that shared laughter, especially shared laughter between communities in frequent tension, can provide.”
Alper is also the author of Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This, a collection of stories, and the cartoon book A Rabbi Confesses, and he has produced two CDs and a DVD. For more information and a five-minute demo of Alper’s comedy, visit bobalper.com. Readers can also watch the video “Rabbi Bob Alper’s dog respects religions” and many others on YouTube.com.
Beth Israel’s Purim celebration starts at 6:15 p.m. on March 23 with a kid-friendly Megillah reading and costume parade, followed by carnival activities. The full Megillah reading and comedy by Rabbi Bob Alper starts about 8:15 p.m. Food will be for sale during the evening. Visit bethisrael.ca for more information and to register for the kids events.
Jessica Kirson and Jon Steinberg (below) launch this year’s Chutzpah! Festival on Feb. 18. (photo from Chutzpah!)
Everyone who likes to laugh should attend the opening night of this year’s Chutzpah! Festival on Thursday, Feb. 18, at Rothstein Theatre. Watch a few of Jessica Kirson’s or Jon Steinberg’s routines and you’ll see the wisdom in Steinberg’s comment to the Independent: “Jessica and I, we have very different styles of comedy but we’re both very funny, so there’s something for everyone. If you come to the show and you don’t enjoy yourself, you may be the problem.”
Both seasoned and acclaimed performers, Kirson and Steinberg have long been funny.
“I was always the class clown,” Kirson told the Independent. “I had no idea that I wanted to do stand-up comedy. I had no idea I was capable. I never thought I could get on stage in front of people. I ended up taking a class and that’s what gave me the strength to actually perform. I was petrified. Once I did it, I fell in love with it.”
Whereas Kirson initially considered becoming a therapist, following her mother’s example, and went as far as graduate studies in social work, Steinberg’s path to stand-up was more direct.
“As a kid, I always enjoyed making people laugh,” he said. “In high school, all my friends were into skateboarding but I was really bad at it. So, when my friend Toby made a skateboard video, I did some comedy sketches to go in between the clips of kids skateboarding. It was my way of being included.
“One night, I was out with a friend, walking in the rain with a paper bag full of doughnuts when the bag tore open and all the doughnuts rolled out into the street. I started telling people about it and they found it funny, and then I figured out how to tell it in a way that was funnier and eventually this would come to be known as ‘The Doughnut Story.’ The humor came from the disproportionate level of build-up to pay-off, and also how sad I was about losing all my doughnuts.”
The success of that story led to other stories that Steinberg and a buddy would write for Steinberg’s repertoire. Later, this buddy convinced him to run for high school president, “as a joke.”
“I had to deliver a speech in front of roughly 800 students,” said Steinberg. “That made my first open mic night in front of 35 people seem way less intimidating.”
His first time seeing live comedy was in Toronto at Yuk-Yuk’s.
“It was one of those nights with 10 comics on the bill, Russell Peters, Shaun Majumder, and many other great comics. Awhile after that, I did my first open mic at the Yuk-Yuk’s in Ottawa.”
Steinberg’s comic style is nerdy and calm, his hair being the most out-of-control aspect of his act. Kirson, on the other hand, exudes energy and her facial expressions are a sight to behold.
“I am very intense like my comic persona,” Kirson said. “I am definitely not as loud. I am not ‘on’ all of the time. A lot of people assume that of comedians and it is so not true. I am very silly and love to laugh at myself and ridiculous situations around me.”
She is edgy and pushes boundaries in her performances but is, ultimately, kind-hearted. “I never want to be mean-spirited to anyone,” she said. “If I feel like I am hurting someone’s feelings, I back off. I do, like most comics, love to get people thinking.”
Steinberg, too, steers clear of nastiness. “If I write something and I believe that it’s funny, and not mean-spirited, I’ll try it,” he said. “But if it consistently gets a poor reaction from audiences, I’ll drop it from my act. Some audiences are more sensitive than others, but my goal is to make people laugh, not to make them sad, so I won’t try to cram something down people’s throats and blame them for not liking it. So, if you’re at my show and I do a joke that you don’t like, just know that I may be in the process of figuring out I shouldn’t do that joke. You might only need to hear it once to realize that I shouldn’t have said it, but I may need to say it three or four times before I come to the same conclusion, so don’t spoil it for me by coming up to me after the show and telling me which jokes I shouldn’t do.”
Despite his extensive touring, the comedy festivals and television specials, Steinberg admits to still being a little nervous when doing stand-up. However, he said, “I find that helps keep me alert and in the moment. It’s like crossing the street – you need to be a little afraid of being hit by a car, just enough that you remember to look both ways, but not so afraid that you can’t cross the street.”
Kirson, too. “I get nervous at times,” she said. “I have done so many kinds of shows for so many years that I know what to expect from certain audiences. If I get fearful, I try to remember that I am seasoned, and most likely it will be fine. I get the most nervous doing television.”
And she has done a lot of television – on Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, VH1, Oxygen, Bravo, the Women’s Television Network, NBC, Fox, ABC, Showtime … the list goes on. The Jessy K Show YouTube channel has more than 100 videos with more than 2.5 million views in total.
“I started making silly videos with a friend of mine and posting them online. People loved them and it just grew from there,” said Kirson of the show’s genesis.
Many Canadians will recognize Steinberg from CBC Radio’s The Debaters.
“My first debate was in 2010,” he said. “That was when they were doing the TV version, which was taping in Vancouver. I came back to do another one of those shortly after. They stopped doing the TV version shortly after that, but the director of that was a guy named Brian Roberts, and after that he cast me in a kids’ TV show he was doing, which allowed me to quit my day job at an electronics recycling facility. So, The Debaters has been good for me in a lot of ways. I do around three to five of the tapings a year, it helps fill out my schedule, and it exposes me to a whole different audience. I have one coming up in March in Victoria.”
While their comedy isn’t Jewish per se, Judaism or Jewish culture are a part of who they are.
“I’m very proud to be Jewish,” said Kirson. “I love the traditions, the culture. It means, family, home, it is my rooting in life.”
For Steinberg, “the things that are most Jewish are those that secular and Orthodox Jews have in common, like bagels or potato kugel. I know a lot of people think that stuff is trivial, but it’s what we have in common.”
As to what else he’d like to do career-wise, Steinberg – who has appeared on the sitcom Spun Out and the drama Remedy – said, “I’d love to do more acting. I’ve done a bit, and it’s a lot of fun, but I’m happy just doing stand-up too. My goal isn’t to be famous, it’s just to make a living doing things I enjoy, so that can include stand-up, acting, writing, or things like The Debaters, which combines all three of those things.” In 2014, he released the album Between Me and the Wall.
Kirson also enjoys a breadth of activities. In addition to performing around the world, her TV appearances and her YouTube channel, the award-winning comedian has appeared in film and she recently launched her own podcast. While she would love to have her own television show so she can draw an even bigger audience, she said, “I make a good living at doing something I love. I’m very grateful.”