Just call her a Ki-brew — Deb Filler, New Zealand’s one and only Jewish comic. Comedy in the shadow of tragedy is her calling card.
Though Jews are few in New Zealand, the ones who ended up there — many after the Holocaust — have incredible stories to share. Most aren’t funny. But Filler, 63, daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, elicits laughter amid tears.
“I came from this unbelievable storytelling family and their stories were so compelling,” Filler says in a telephone interview. “The stories came down like meteorites; they were so bright and so powerful and they were rich and full and vibrant.”
And they inspired Filler’s performing career, as a comic storyteller who riffs on her own experiences in her one-woman shows. Filler has been here before, most recently with her one-woman shows “Punch Me in the Stomach” and “Filler Up!”
Now based in Toronto, she’ll be at Alexandria’s MetroStage April 13 through 29 with her newest show, “I Did It My Way in Yiddish (in English).”
Filler mines her family history, sharing vivid episodes from a childhood featuring her loving and overbearing stage mum; her demanding and uber-German grandmother and her reserved, Yiddish-loving father, the Jewish community’s baker, who believed every song he heard on the radio would sound better in Yiddish. Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan, The Beatles, the Stones — no matter — singing it in Yiddish would have made it a bigger hit, said her dad.
Just imagine Paul McCartney singing “Hey Jude” in mamaloshen:
Macht es nisht slecht
Nempt a fahsthinkeneh leid
Und macht es besser …”
Filler has. In “I Did It My Way,” she sings Sinatra, the Stones and others in Yiddish, while strumming her guitar and sharing stories about her serendipitous search for Jewish musicians named Lenny. There happen to be a few.
It all started with her tale of meeting Leonard Bernstein when she was a teenager. Filler shares the details of how she came to bring the great maestro a fresh challah straight from her father’s bakery during a symphony rehearsal at Auckland’s town hall. This memorable and life-changing moment inspired a 12-minute film, written by Filler and directed by Francine Zuckerman. It becomes a centerpiece of the 90-minute live monologue, which Filler fills out with her witty and spot-on impersonations that spare no one.
A master of mimicry, she claims accuracy with specialty accents like a Kiwi Yiddish accent — twangy and guttural at the same time. Her gravelly voiced Vippi Feldman character is every Jewish New Yorker’s widowed great aunt — dropping her r’s, elongating vowels, over talking and interrupting. Filler also does a good Motti the Israeli mechanic, homing in on ungraceful pauses filled with eh’s, rolled r’s and an elided th sound.
She calls herself a situational comedian, insisting that she tells stories, not jokes. But when one of the mystery musical Lennys climbed into her front seat — she drove for a car service for a few years while living in New York — and learned she was a comic, he demanded a joke.
She came up with one or two on the spot. Neither can be printed in a family newspaper.
The stories she recalls for “I Did It My Way …,” which features more than a smattering but less than a schmear of Yiddish learned from her father, center on her family’s love of music. Growing up in the Filler household in Auckland, “the music captured me as a child … and the stories, they relayed information about another place and another time,” she says. “It was rich and full and vibrant.”
“I Did It My Way in Yiddish (in English),” by Deb Filler, April 13-29, MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria. Tickets $45, or 3 or more $40. Call 703-548-9044 or visit metrostage.org.
One (clean) joke from Deb Filler
Five senior citizens are playing poker. All of a sudden Arnie clutches his chest, falls over and he dies.
“What should we do?” the rest ask. Max says, “Let’s finish the hand and then we’ll decide.”
They finish the hand and one guy says, “How can we tell his wife that Arnie died? She’s a horrible person.”
So one guy says, “Let’s make something up. He lost his last hand, so we’ll inflate it.”
They draw straws and the short straw goes to Glick. Glick walks over to Arnie’s house and the wife opens the door and says, “Whaddaya want?” Glick replies, “Your husband just lost $500 at the card table.”
She looks at him and says, “Tell him to drop dead.”
“I’ll tell him.”