By Steve Hofstetter
I’ve been a stand-up comedian for almost 19 years. And every single time I’ve been on stage, whether the crowd likes it or not, I’ve also been a Jewish stand-up comedian.
Humor and Judaism go together like latkes and sour cream. And like latkes and apple sauce. Humor, like a latke, is subjective. But a good joke, like a good latke, is part of being Jewish. Some of my early memories of synagogue revolve around Purim, where part of the ridiculous celebration is getting drunk enough to mistake the hero of the story for the villain.
As kids, we didn’t drink. But we’d howl to see gags like our rabbi taking the bimah in several pairs of pants, always pretending that each one he removed was the last one.
One of my favorite stories is about the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Chasidic Judaism. While some people might assume the founder of Chasidic Judaism would be a person who took himself seriously, laughter was extremely important to the rabbi. The story I love (and relate to) is the one where the Baal Shem Tov said he felt the most spiritual when he saw people laugh.
My theory is that humor is intertwined with Judaism because a sense of humor is born from oppression, as it is a defense mechanism. Jewish people have turned to humor over the years to cope. And, like comedians, Jewish people identify with the underdog.
Jewish culture also makes it easy to go into stand-up comedy. When my parents told their friends I was a comedian, the common response was “like Henny Youngman!” and then they’d wax poetic about seeing shows in the Catskills. But many of my non-Jewish friends didn’t even tell their parents about their career choice. And when they finally did, their parents certainly didn’t tell their friends.
There are many Jewish comedians who play today’s non-Catskills circuit: synagogue fundraisers, on-campus events for Hillel and Chabad and parents’ weekends at summer camps. Most of these comics have entire acts based on their Jewish identity. Their jokes are about subjects like cleaning the house for Passover, feeling different from your non-Jewish friends on Chanukah and separate seating on Shabbat (if the show is at an Orthodox shul). However, most of my act is not about being Jewish. I’ve done jokes about it over the years, sure. One of my first bits talked about stereotypes we deal with, and one of my favorite stories was explaining to a crowd that my grandfather used to take off from school for “Erev Yom Revii” (i.e., “Tuesday”).
I’ve done entire albums where I don’t mention being Jewish at all. But whether or not my heritage is in my material, being Jewish has always informed my perspective.
The early joke I did about stereotypes relied on Jewish people being told they are cheap. After a show, a woman approached me with a thick drawl, and asked me why that’s true.
I wanted to explain to her that the joke was mocking stereotypes, and stereotypes are a form of prejudice. I wanted to blame the woman for her reaction. Her reaction was my fault; I wrote and said the words she was reacting to. An artist is never responsible for how someone reacts to their art. But an artist is always responsible for how they react to that reaction.
It was a tough realization, and I never told that joke again.
I still address stereotypes; I’m 6’4” with red hair so I don’t look like an extra from “Fiddler.” In my current hour, I talk about some non-Jewish people’s surprise when they find out I’m Jewish, and also some Jewish people’s surprise when they find out I’m Jewish. The joke still discusses stereotypes, but it’s clear where I stand on the matter. I learned from my mistake, and I am more careful with my words now than I was when I started.
My Jewish upbringing informs my perspective of being an underdog and provides me with a propensity toward gallows humor. But it also taught me to be a respectable part of the community. From the mistake I made early on, I learned that the most important thing I can do with my comedy is not teach non-Jews what we traditionally eat each Chanukah (though I do have a joke about it). The most important thing I can do with my comedy is set a good example.
I have received hundreds of messages over the years from people who had simply never interacted with a Jewish person before. Whether they grew up in towns without Jewish people or they were purposely raised to avoid us, I was the first Jewish person they ever listened to. They let me know that by listening to me, they learned that stereotypes are a form of prejudice. Not because I told them that, but because I showed them their preconceived notions of who and what a Jewish person should be were false.
I am prouder of those messages than any joke I’ve written and any career goal I’ve accomplished. Those messages demonstrate that my approach to using Judaism in my comedy doesn’t just work for a show at a Hillel. It works to reach people who would never
I’ve been a stand-up comedian for almost 19 years. And every single time I’m on stage, whether the crowd likes it or not, I am mindful that I am a Jewish stand-up comedian.
Steve Hofstetter lives in Pittsburgh, where he operates the Steel City Arts Foundation.