An Orthodox Jewish Comic Reads The Room (From Right To Left)

Combining Club And Synagogue-Ready Material

By Talia Reese

May 23rd, 2017 – I’m a stand-up comedian based in New York City. I’m also an orthodox Jewish wife and mother of two, which isn’t necessarily obvious when you first meet me. I don’t wear the modest clothing you might expect from someone who’s religious, and, well, I do stand up comedy for a living. Not the most typical career path for a member of my synagogue, male or female. But I haven’t been excommunicated yet. In fact, they love it.

I used to not talk about my religion at all on stage. I built an act around other aspects of my life like dating versus marriage, raising iPad-addicted kids, social media, and some sex stuff. When I’d get an offer to work on a Friday night, I would just say I had other plans instead of explaining that I observe the Sabbath. As I started feeling closer to my comedy cohorts, I would tell the truth and it often felt like coming out of the closet. And I might as well as have said that I was gay, because the reaction was the same: “You are? You don’t seem it. Were you always?”

That’s a line I’ll say at the clubs, but I probably wouldn’t at a religious Jewish event. Comparing being religious to being gay is sure to offend at least some people—gay, Jewish or both. And as much as I love an offensive joke, I’ll try to stay away from that when I’m being paid to stay within certain boundaries.

I wasn’t planning on developing a religiously oriented act until one night after a show, I was approached by a board member of an orthodox synagogue. She asked if I would be interested in doing a twenty minute set tailored to her congregation. I knew I didn’t have much synagogue-ready material, but since the gig was six months away I accepted it. Once I sat down and began writing jokes poking fun at my observances and rituals, one thing led to another. It came so naturally that it spun into an act all its own fairly quickly. Hey, write what you know. Those twenty minutes spilled out of me and the show was a hit.

After that, I took my new act on the road and it got some traction when The New York Post did an article about me. I  perform my Jewish act all over New York City and Long Island and have started to tour the country with it. It’s been very exciting! My latest challenge is blending my two acts so that the Jewish stuff will fly at the clubs and I can ultimately have one act that runs the length of a Broadway show.

Considering that I bounce between religious rooms and comedy clubs, you would think I’d be an expert on what is “offensive” and what isn’t. Sure, there are some basics. But just like any comedian, the key is to read the room.

If you think orthodox Jewish audiences are uptight, you’re wrong (for the most part). Every time I do my orthodox act, people come up to me afterwards and say I want to see your “real” act, meaning my club act. They want to see my material that would offend the place where I just performed. But here’s the thing. They’re both my real act, and I’m at least as proud of my religious act as my secular one. Probably more so, because I can never rely on shock value alone or saying something blue for its own sake as a crutch.

In fact, what I love about my Jewish audiences is that they would never let me get away with a vibrator joke if it was just for the sake of being shocking. But a well-crafted one may be a crowd pleaser. Here’s one I did for the first time at a Jewish Federation women’s luncheon (not a religious event) that was particularly well-received: “The Torah says it’s a mitzvah to have sex on the Sabbath. Not in my house. It’s Shabbat! I’m not allowed to use anything battery operated.”

So long as the audience understands that I’m one of them, that I’m finding humor in some of the rituals but not mocking the faith itself, I can get away with a lot. When Jerry Seinfeld jokes about how annoying it can be to make a dinner reservation, the audience knows that he still loves going to restaurants. I want my audiences to feel the same way about me; to appreciate that I am joking about something I love.  That’s not always easy to do, because not every Jewish audience is the same. But that can be said about any audience.

For example, you also might think that mocking Donald Trump in a New York City comedy club is a safe bet for laughs. I had a rant ready to go the other night, but then I watched the MC open the show and work the crowd. I learned that a table of ten were tourists from Texas. Good chance there were some Trump supporters there. Another group was from Sweden, and in my experience Swedish tourists aren’t interested enough in U.S. politics to generate any meaningful laughter on the subject, so I did other material.

I once worked with a famous comedian at a private (non-Jewish) event. I watched him do a set, and he killed as usual. I know his stuff pretty well, but I didn’t recognize any of the material he did that night. It was the “hackeyest” and most predictable set I’d ever seen him do, but it brought down the house and I was like, “Am I in the Twilight Zone right now?” Afterwards, I shook his hand and said, “Hey, that was great!” and he responded, “Oh please. That shit? I just read the room.”

Which blew my mind. Because he put aside what he wanted to do and did what he felt would kill with this particular crowd. He went after the win. That was a tremendous lesson for me. From time to time, I’ll come up with a religious-themed joke that’s too religious for the clubs and too risqué for a synagogue. I’m always tempted to try those jokes because I know they could kill if I had the right crowd, but I have to resist the urge. My job is to make the audience laugh, not to entertain myself.

Often a booker or event organizer (religious or not) will have guidelines to protect against offending their audience at a particular show. I had one tell me, “You can say whatever you want, but nothing about abortion.” Another club owner came up to me a minute before I was about to open a show and gave me a list of anatomical references I could not make on her stage. And that’s fine with me. I think of it like this. If you’re a doctor and you’re paid to do a heart procedure, you don’t take an appendix out. Why should comedy be different?

Recently an orthodox Jewish booker contacted me about doing a show. He said, “We’re a very modern [orthodox Jewish] crowd. There will be no rabbis present, so we want your club stuff and your religious stuff. Mix the two. Raunchy is okay, as long as it’s funny.”

When the rabbi’s away, the mice will play! A filthy religious set. This gig could be my dream come true!

Talia Reese is a stand-up comedian based in New York City. Her act has been covered by The New York Post and The Jerusalem PostYou can find out about upcoming shows by checking her website, and you can follow her on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube!

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