Before toilet paper shortages, mask etiquette, hand sanitizer and bleach wipes became a fixation for Washingtonians, Elizabeth Leff was elucidating a much older neurosis: Does this person like me?
The setting was Dojo Comedy’s intimate storefront stage in D.C.’s Park View neighborhood. Leff was playing the sad and lonely host of a game show with the contestants vying to make her feel better.
One game involved the host reading text messages and the players, which included the host’s therapist, telling her whether or not the sender was asking her on a date.
To wit: “Hey this is Avi from Birthright. Do you have a moment to talk about visiting Israel this summer?”
It was a good line and got reliable giggles during the show’s week-long run.
“But there was one night where one person in the audience laughed so hard and that moment was: ‘I feel really seen as a Jewish woman right now,’” Leff said. “It’s a specific feeling for the people who have actually received that text message.”
(For what it’s worth, the therapist told Leff’s character that, “Again, it seems like you’re over analyzing.”)
Leff’s sketch was part of Dojo’s Valentine’s Day show, the last installment of the studio’s holiday-based series before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down comedy shops across the region.
For the Jewish comics inside D.C.’s improv and sketch comedy world, the shutdown has caused a disruption similar to those faced by all performance artists in the age of COVID. While it’s been a struggle to convert shows that often depend on audience interaction and feedback to a virtual format, the move online has also erased the geographic boundaries that have long segmented comedy scenes across the country.
But while the shutdown has wreaked havoc on the ability of professional stand-up comedians to earn a living, sketch and improv comics have been largely immune from that concern.
“Improvisers pretty much never make money,” said Max Makovetsky, a member of the indie comedy group Trust Issues. “So no, the shutdown is not a detriment to my financial standing.”
Missing the laughs
With lean margins in the improv industry, ticket sales typically go to the nonprofit or low-profit theaters and performance spaces that put on the shows. But with comics performing for love of the genre, another form of currency becomes all the more valuable: audible laughter.
And that has been in short supply during the pandemic.
This is less of an issue for the comedy consumers, who are still laughing at the online performances, having spent decades listening to comedy albums, watching Comedy Central specials and tuning in to ABC’s famous improv show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” But it’s wearing on the comics, who are used to a live audience laughing along during recorded or broadcast performances.
“Even when you have people watching your Twitch stream and typing ‘haha’ in the comments, there’s nothing that beats getting a laugh,” Makovetsky said, referring to the online video streaming platform.
Though comics will tell you there’s a danger to simply chasing laughs and that the best shows require performers to trust their gut, a crucial intimacy is lost without a live audience.
Jordana Mishory, operations manager of the Washington Improv Theater (WIT), has helped shepherd the region’s comedy online during the last six months. She said that it’s not just laughs, but a whole range of audience reaction that is lost as shows move to Zoom and Facebook Live. Gone are the endearing “awws,” the horrified “oh no!” and the squeals of delight.
“There’s something about improv that’s so in the moment — and that moment isn’t just between the performers,” Mishory said. “It’s about everyone who is in the room and you don’t have that immediate feedback online.
“When I’m in a scene I’m not also reading the Facebook Live chat.”
A boon for teaching
Since modern improv’s advent in the mid-20th century, Chicago has been the genre’s epicenter. As its popularity has grown in recent decades, improv theaters and schools have expanded to other major cities — and the pandemic is further breaking down the remnants of a rigid comedic geography.
“You used to have to live in a specific place if you really cared about improv,”Makovetsky said. “In the late ‘90s, you had to go to Chicago, and then it became New York or Chicago. Then it became New York, Chicago, L.A. or D.C.”
Before the pandemic shut down comedy theaters around the country, making a pilgrimage to learn from master teachers in these meccas was not uncommon. Mishory signed up for a June class at iO Chicago as a Chanukah present to herself last year, only to see the course canceled and then the institution itself close permanently over the summer.
Now Mishory, Makovetsky and other local comics are taking a series of online courses with Los Angeles-based comedian Will Hines, a renowned improv teacher who did not offer a virtual curriculum until social distancing began.
The experience was enough for Makovetsky to bite the bullet and ready a permanent move to Los Angeles.
The Washington Improv Theater has also moved many of its classes online and Mishory, who has taught at the school for several years, said virtual courses have made it easier to teach theoretical material.
“It allows us to really focus on things that are a little headier and require a lot of sitting around and talking,” Mishory said. “That’s harder to teach in person because everyone wants to get up and do things.”
The comic has been going deep on improv concepts like “premises,” which involves quickly framing a scene for your co-performers, and “second beats,” in which one scene builds on the first.
But if the shift online has made some parts of teaching easier, it has effectively eliminated the ability to do others.
James Jelin was workshopping a class for WIT on macroscenes, a physical form of improv where characters use their bodies to change the setting and represent movement through space.
“That’s something I fundamentally can’t teach in this environment,” he said.
Elijah stole my wine.
In addition to spending time in online comedy school and networking with far-flung comics, all the time alone has allowed many area comics to spend more time writing and workshopping material — including bits of explicitly Jewish humor.
Improv performer and stand-up comic Stacey Axler bases her act on the kinds of mundane activities and interactions at the grocery store or dentist’s office that have become rare during quarantine. So she’s been writing down more of her thoughts at home. Around Passover, she recalled her childhood feud with the prophet Elijah.
“I’m an only child and don’t like sharing things,” Axler said. “So when I found out Elijah drank from my cup I got very offended about it.”
Axler told the joke during a virtual performance last spring with a handful of other comedians.
“The non-Jewish comics had some quizzical looks,” Axler said. “But the Jewish comics, they got it.”
Despite many Jewish performers, the world of D.C. sketch and improv is no Borscht Belt. It’s important to keep the material relatable to a broad audience, save for the stray Passover or Birthright joke, and the occasional archetypal Jewish scene popping up on the improv stage.
“I love making my non-Jewish friends do bar mitzvahs,” Makovetsky said. “They’re always so confused.”
But if you won’t hear many jokes explicitly about Judaism, comics will tell you that their Jewish identity is often tightly bound with comedic work.
“You get to bring everything of who you are onto an improv stage,” said Mishory, the WIT teacher and performer. “Your entire life comes with you when you start a scene.”
Jelin, who grew up as one of the few Jews in his Maine town, has been struggling with how his Jewish identity fits in with his desire to be a white guy who tells jokes that punch up rather than down. Despite hearing slurs as a child, Jelin didn’t believe that truly dangerous anti-Semitism existed in the United States until its visible rise in recent years.
“It was like, ‘Wait, people might hate this about me? Maybe I should get more involved,’” he said. “I joke that I’m a bad weather Jew.”
He wrote one sketch in which a bunch of people are talking about their experience of discrimination and a Jewish character is excited that the spike in anti-Semitism has let him participate in the discussion: “I couldn’t help but hear you sharing experiences of microaggressions and since Trump and stuff I get to be part of the club again,” Jelin’s character says.
Jelin acknowledges that jokes like this walk a fine line and he seeks to work out his own identity without diminishing the existence of actual anti-Semitism.
“But I also just think it’s a funny scene,” Jelin said. “And comedy is about excavating your own insecurities.”
Where to watch DC’s Jewish comics during COVID-19
- Jordana Mishory and James Jelin are performing in Washington Improv Theater’s (org) virtual show series POTUS Among Us, which can be followed using the hashtag #WITPOTUS2020.
- Dojo Comedy (com/DojoComedy) is continuing to produce virtual shows featuring comics from the article.
- Stacey Axler promotes her work on com/StaceyAxlerComedy and hosts a virtual comedy show for Capitol Cider House several times a month.
- Max Makovetsky will be hosting a virtual improv show on October 4 at tv/fridayimprov/videos.
- Elizabeth Leff recently finished production on a “feminist witch rap” music video, which should debut online before Halloween.