When I first heard about Joel Chasnoff’s show “Christmas for the Jews,” I had a big question. Where has he been all my life? Well, he was growing up in Evanston and attending Solomon Schechter Day School. He spent summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and traveled to Israel with Ramah during high school. That trip changed his life, inspiring a commitment to one day make aliyah (move to Israel-literally, “go up”).
Back in the U.S., he graduated from college and then headed back to Israel, enlisting in the Israeli army as a “lone soldier” (a soldier without immediate family in Israel). His experience as a tank gunner inspired one of the best, most moving, absorbing, hilarious, and honest memoirs I’ve ever read: The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah.
Joel later moved back to the States with his wife, settling in New York and embarking on a comedy career. He performed on the most famous stages in improv, including iO in Chicago, and UCB and The PIT in New York. He is now known for his stand-up and is an internationally touring headliner. With “Christmas for the Jews,” he’s changing the dynamic that can leave members of the tribe feeling left out in the cold this time of year.
I admit, I look forward to some of Christmas. The music! The holiday spirit! The CTA’s Christmas train! What I don’t look forward to is actual Christmas day. It’s odd to feel part of every national holiday except one, maybe even the biggest one. Certainly the one with the most excitement and the biggest build-up, to say nothing of commercial buzz. Truthfully, the entire month of December has always been a bit uncomfortable. Part of me loves the joy. Part of me winces at holiday concerts where there are sixteen Christmas songs and one Hanukkah “medley.”
That all changed last year when Joel brought “Christmas for the Jews” to Chicago. When he created the show in New York five years ago, it was an instant hit. Chicago was the same. The only thing Christmas-y about “Christmas for the Jews” is that it is on Christmas. The show is a comedic celebration of being Jewish in America and of the reasons we laugh and the stories we tell. It is about belonging to a community, belonging at City Winery on December 25 at 8:00 p.m., and belonging to the fabric of this country, even if Christmas day always felt a bit iffy until now.
Joel kindly spoke to me by phone about comedy and writing, his recent aliyah, some surprising differences between American and Israeli comedy, and why “Christmas for the Jews” is striking a chord and selling out every ticket.
Teme: How was it starting out at iO?
Joel: I took improv at iO before improv was the cool thing to do. I went through the whole program. My teacher was Charna Halpern, the head of iO and one of the gurus of improv. Back then, it was easy to sign up for a class with her. Now thousands and thousands of people move to Chicago to take improv.
Teme: What is your favorite iO memory?
Joel: Seeing the great improvisers who made it look so easy. It was so inspiring to see what they could create on stage with nothing but a suggestion. I remember seeing Jack McBrayer on a Monday night show at iO and talking with him afterwards. He would later be on 30 Rock. He stood out. He was so good and there were many others like that.
Teme: How did you decide to do stand-up?
Joel: I was doing both improv and stand-up. Ultimately, I had to choose one or the other. One of the challenges of improv is that you’re on a team and you’ve got to coordinate schedules with six other people. With stand-up, you can write your material, practice, and go to open mics as much as you want. I liked having that autonomy as opposed to depending on all these other people to show up at a rehearsal and to care as much as I did.
Teme: Which comedians make you laugh?
Joel: The first comedian I really liked was Steve Martin just because he was on The Muppet Show. He was the first to really make me laugh.
Now it’s really good writing that makes me laugh, whether it’s stand-up, improv, or print. The style I like is intelligent, clever, and economical. Minimum words leading to maximum laughter. That’s really what I admire these days and many, many comedians do that.
Teme: You very much do that in your comedy and writing. What is the key to writing like that and to making a story funny, especially when the humor is unexpected like in your Israeli army stories?
Joel: Thank you. I read a lot of comedic books before I wrote mine. Being funny on stage is different than being funny in print. In print, you never want to signal that you’re being funny. On stage, you can make a goofy face or you can gesture to help it along. But in print if you’re indicating that you want to be funny, the reader revolts. As a reader, I get turned off when I see a writer trying to be funny.
What I like instead is telling the truth in as blunt and straightforward a way as possible. Part of what’s funny is that this absurd truth is being told with no indicators that it’s supposed to be funny. It’s the opposite of being on stage. It’s being very honest and blunt about an absurd situation. Part of the humor comes from the author’s willingness to be honest about the absurdity.
Teme: Which authors did you read as you were getting ready to write your book?
Joel: Everything from David Sedaris to David Foster Wallace who’s a different type of style. Ultimately, the one I liked most is Dave Eggers. He wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. A lot of it is about the death of his parents. He was able to make it funny not by trying to be funny, but by being honest. I read many different kinds of comedy works to figure out the style I wanted to go with and then my own truth developed out of that.
Teme: Do you think you’ll write another book? I’m looking forward to it already.
Joel: That’s nice to hear! When you write a book, you’re committing full-time to it and it really takes over your life for a couple of years. It’s kind of like having a baby. You’ve got to take paternity leave and really focus on that baby. I’m not quite there right now, but eventually I would like to.
Teme: When and how did you know that “Christmas for the Jews” is a great idea?
Joel: City Winery in New York does the “Downtown Seder” where they bring in comedians, poets and singers. I’d done it a few times so I knew the owner, Michael Dorf, and I approached him with the idea.
There are a few comedy clubs in New York with Christmas Eve shows for Jews and I thought I could do it better. Usually it was Jewish comics talking about how they didn’t like being Jewish. I thought I could lift it and bring it to a different level. We curated a really good show and I think now people look forward to it.
But as for the reason I did it, well, growing up, what did you do on Christmas Eve if you’re Jewish? You had Chinese food. They were the only restaurants open. And you went to a movie, if anything at all. I wanted to give Jews something to do on Christmas Eve.
Teme: Christmas always felt terrible to me when I was growing up. It felt like you were not invited to the biggest birthday party ever.
Joel: I love that quote. Exactly what it feels like. I think it gets to the heart of being Jewish in America, which is no matter how assimilated we are, we sometimes feel like outsiders. I wanted to throw the big party, so we could have a party, too.
Teme: When I went to your show last year, that’s exactly what it was like. I finally had a great party to go to! Growing up, I remember doing little sneaky Christmas rituals in my room because I wanted to be part of it and then my dad would get so angry at me when he found out.
Joel: Yeah, I know what you mean!
Joel: I’ve never been aggressively heckled at a Jewish show. I’ve had people raise their hand and very politely want to insert a comment like, “I have a relative in that town you just mentioned.” There’s more of a community feel to the heckling, as opposed to the “get off the stage, you bum” kind of heckling. So yes, there is a difference.
Teme: Do you have a favorite Jewish holiday tradition?
Joel: I’m not a big fan of Hanukkah gifts. That’s one tradition I try not to put forward with my own kids. I didn’t want them to get into the consumerism of the holiday. I have twins who are sixteen and two younger ones, and for me it’s just having everyone there. On Friday night, no matter who wants to go out with friends and who wants to go somewhere else, that is our night and we’ve got to be together for that Sabbath dinner. It might not sound like a really exciting tradition, but I think the older your kids get the more you realize just having everybody in the same room is really, really perfect.
Teme: I totally agree! Since you live in Israel and I love Israeli turns-of-phrase, I was wondering if you have a favorite Israeli expression? I love ma pitom. [From a word for “explosion” it means “what all of a sudden?”]
Joel: I like achi which is “my brother” and achoti, “my sister.” My daughters call each other achoti. I love the expressions that reinforce the bonds that we have with each other. There are so many great ones. There’s chai b’seret, an expression that means “he lives in a movie,” as in “What does he think?! He’s dreaming! He’s living in a movie!”
Teme: What differences do you see between American and Israeli comedy?
Joel: It used to be that Israeli comedy was a lot more aggressive than American comedy. Very much the comedian half-shouting at the audience and the audience shouting back. There was also talking about stereotypes of Iranian Jews and Yemenite Jews and all that.
I think because of the internet and how much easier it is to see American comedy, more Israeli comedians are taking a more Seinfeldian approach, more observational humor, a little bit slower, a little bit calmer. So it is changing. But the big difference for me was always how aggressive Israeli comedy was compared to American comedy.
Teme: Do you find Israeli and American audiences different?
Joel: Yes. At an American comedy show the audience tries to avoid sitting in the front row. They don’t want to be picked on. People are generally willing to sit back, be entertained and let the performer do his thing. In Israel, they want to be in the front row. They want to be part of the show and they are much more willing to see the performance as a dialogue between audience and performer.
Teme: Would you attribute that to Israelis’ sense of community?
Joel: Part of it is. Everyone in Israel behaves like they know everybody else. They’ll get involved in your business. They will ask you how much money you earn. But they will also pull over at the side of the road and help you, whereas in America you’d be afraid of being carjacked. In Israel, there is a sense of family. Israelis also don’t revere celebrities the way we do here, so they have no boundaries. They have no wall. They are much more willing to talk to the performer and insert themselves in the show because everyone feels like they know everybody else.
Teme: It sounds like heckling isn’t considered rude the way it would be here.
Joel: Heckling is par for the course. It’s expected and the comedian might even bring it on herself on purpose because it’s just part of the mentality.
Teme: What is a typical day like for you?
Joel: It depends where I am. If I’m in the U.S., which I am pretty much half the time, I’m usually traveling to the next city, checking into the hotel, getting ready for that night’s show, and after the show, getting ready for the next night. I’m rarely in a city for more than a day. When I’m back in Israel, there’s an adjustment period after each trip and before I leave for the next one. When I’m there, I’m also working on the more mundane aspects of a comedy career. Marketing the show, working on new material, touching base with the people I’m performing for next.
The main thing is getting a lot of time with the family, because I’ve been away for ten days or two weeks, so I really try and soak up that family time.
Teme: What have you learned about Jews from doing your shows?
Joel: That’s a great question. One of the main things I’ve learned is that Jews are very attached to the idea of stories. When I started out, my comedy was more about assembling jokes to entertain. Now I hope an audience leaves my show feeling like I’ve told a story. Yes, they laughed a lot along the way, but I’ve presented a story of who we are.
My show is about how being Jewish influences your world view, how we raise kids based on that Jewish world view, and the arc of the Jewish story. Story is very much a part of who we are.
Teme: How would you describe that world view?
Joel: There is still a bit of a view that we’re not the number one group here. We’re not the dominant group, no matter how much we’ve assimilated or how well we fit in. Even people who say “I’m absolutely not religious” still seek out Jewish events, Jewish communities and Jewish friends. There’s a certain point of view that we share. Even if you’re not going to synagogue and eating kosher food, we like to know that we have each other. Our desire for the community is very strong.
“Christmas for the Jews” is on December 25 at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph, Chicago at 8:00 p.m. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Tickets and more details here.
Joining Joel this year are stand-up comedian Jon Fisch (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Late Night with David Letterman), Rabbi Barry Schechter (“the funniest rabbi in Chicago”), and guitarist Ed Shulman.
The show is a clean show and recommended for teens and adults.
Information about “Christmas for the Jews” in New York is here.
More about Joel at http://joelchasnoff.com/
You can stay up to date with Comedians Defying Gravity by typing your email address in the box and clicking the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam, spam, spam, spam free, and you can opt out at any time.