Like all of us, I had questions when the world shut down this year. When will I see family? When will I see friends? How will I see comedy? Then I had one more question and it also made me sad: Will there be No Christmas for the Jews? Growing up – I’ll just say it – Christmas felt terrible. All my friends had annual invitations to the biggest birthday party in history. My invitation must have been lost in the millennia. Once when I was ten, I barricaded my bedroom door, took an empty wrapping paper tube from where I’d hidden it under my bed and did my best to decorate it like a Christmas tree. Then my door flew open. My dad. “Merry Christmas!” I announced. “That’s not funny!”, my dad glowered.
But everything changed in December 2016. That’s when Joel Chasnoff returned to Chicago like a modern-day comedy miracle. The Evanston native, who is an internationally touring headliner and bestselling author, now lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana. He created “Christmas for the Jews” in New York in 2014 and promptly sold out every show. A few years later, he brought the event home to Chicago (and sold out every show). The lineup always features top names in comedy and gives everyone, especially members of the tribe, our own epic party.
When the world shut down it occurred to me that if Joel couldn’t travel, Christmas would again be the loneliest day of the year. In a rare showing of solidarity, most of the world this year embraced the idea that we stand together in this messy life. What a contrast it would be when most of the U.S. goes their Christmas way and – without Joel – leaves us adrift in a silent night.
Well, I didn’t have to worry! I don’t know if St. Nick can Zoom, but Joel can and will! In fact, when I found out that there would be a “Christmas Eve for the Jews” in 2020, I had to hear more, but first I had to catch up to him. Joel is more in demand than ever. As he told me, communities that previously could not afford to fly in a comedian from Israel, can afford to reserve time with him on Zoom. The day I spoke with him, he had four Zoom shows. I sat in on one and when it ended, I immediately wanted to do it again.
Zoom is like buying a front row seat – in Joel’s living room! The intimacy makes “Christmas Eve for the Jews” especially warm and heimish. This year features a who’s who of comedy. Joining Joel are Jessica Kirson (The Tonight Show, Comedy Central), Mark Normand (Conan, The Tonight Show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central), Ophira Eisenberg (NPR’s Ask Me Another, The Today Show), Moody McCarthy (Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Last Comic Standing), and the Toronto sketch comedy group Comedies Never Win. Joel is also offering VIP experiences before the show where he’ll chat with small groups about the topic of your choice.
Joel kindly spoke with me by phone about life in Israel in 2020, the ups and downs of Zoom comedy, and why laughter is the best gift of all.
THE STATE OF ISRAELI COMEDY
Teme: What is the state of Israeli comedy this year? Have Israeli comedians embraced Zoom?
Joel: Israeli comedy is tough because comedians don’t get paid to do shows in clubs. All the shows in clubs here are for free with the understanding that it’ll help your career and you’ll gain audience and following. So to do a show on Zoom for a club, you’re still not getting paid.
The only comedians who get paid here are the ones who do a show for a company that wants to have a fun day or something like that. Those comedians now are doing less work, but they’re still doing some work. The club comedy has been shut down.
ZOOM GOLLY: THE GOOD, THE BAD & WHAT EVERYONE JUST HEARD!
Teme: What are the best and worst things about Zoom comedy?
Joel: The best thing is – I feel bad saying it – but how little time is required for a show. Whereas when you’re touring, it requires a flight the day before, getting a rental car and all the other logistics.
The big advantage is that I’m able to be with my family more. When I had to travel, I wouldn’t say I got sick a lot, but I would get really tired. Sometimes an upset stomach from all the traveling. That hasn’t happened now that I can do it from here.
Another advantage is reaching audiences I never would have reached. Some audiences could never afford to bring in a comedian, but the amount of money to spend half an hour with a comedian on the computer screen is not so bad. So I can reach out to the small towns in Texas and Louisiana where I never would have been able to tour before.
The downsides, I think, are obvious. Doing comedy in front of a screen, you just have no feedback. I’ve always felt like comedy develops as you go along. In the first three minutes you have an idea of how you’re going to begin, and then you start adjusting [to the audience]. You can’t really do that on a computer. You have to have faith that what you’re doing is working especially if you have the audience on mute, which I like to do. Some comedians want to have the audience not muted, but I can’t imagine doing that, just because of the distractions.
Teme: You’ve said that with Zoom comedy, you almost had to start from scratch. What do you mean?
Joel: Initially, I didn’t know how to use the format to my advantage. Now I do this thing where I open the chat box. I ask the audience questions and they can use the chat box to answer. That’s really important because it reminds them that just because they’re sitting at home on the sofa, it doesn’t mean they can just do something else like watch TV or go on their phone. They have to pay attention. They’re involved. It reminds them that I’m live. So that’s something I learned to do that I did not do before.
Also, I learned to slow down. Initially, I went too fast. I watched a few comedians perform on film, and I noticed how long they would pause after their punchline and just sort of stare at the camera. It feels awkward to do it, but when I see other comedians to do it, I realize that it adds humor, and gives the audience time to process what you just said. So you have to be willing to be silent and let that laugh happen in your head which is a weird thing to do, but you’ve got to do it.
Teme: What is the most memorable Zoom thing that’s happened so far?
Joel: The funniest part of any Zoom show is the fifteen minutes beforehand when everyone is logging on. Older people especially tend to forget that everyone else can hear everything that they’re saying. I hear conversations like,
“Have you heard of this comedian?”
“I don’t know. Has he been on TV?”
“I don’t know. What are we paying?”
“He’s free. If it’s bad, we’ll leave.”
You hear all this chatter about you. It diminishes your confidence a little bit and makes you wonder, how badly do they actually want to be here? It’s really, really funny. Then you also have people talking to each other, again, usually older people. “How was your doctor’s appointment?” “It was fine.” “Did they find anything in the MRI?” Completely unaware that everyone is hearing. So for me, those are the memories.
There have been a couple of times when I’ve been talking for forty-five minutes straight. For some reason, if you’re onstage and you take a drink of water, it doesn’t feel awkward. But there’s something that’s very awkward about drinking water in the middle of a Zoom show. Everyone is just staring at you drinking. So I try to avoid it, but there have been a few times when I lost my voice completely and had to put the mute button on to cough really loud. There’s a lack of privacy. There’s nowhere to hide when you do a Zoom show.
LIFE IN ISRAEL IN 2020
Teme: How is living in Israel during COVID different than living in the U.S. or other countries?
Joel: It’s smaller. It’s easier to manage. It’s easier to shut down certain parts of the country and have it be effective. In America, you can shut down all of Los Angeles, but you still have 300 million other people.
We don’t tend to be as politicized about the whole mask thing or think that the government has an ulterior motive. Certainly businesses are suffering from having to shut down. But I don’t think there’s that whole political angle that there is in the U.S. There’s a religious angle. A lot of the people who don’t want to participate are the ultra, ultra Orthodox Jews. But they mostly keep to themselves. I personally would rather be here. It just seems like a more sane place to be.
Teme: Do people stand in lines or social distance? When I lived in Israel, nobody ever stood in lines or stayed distant.
Joel: No. I went to Tel Aviv yesterday and people had masks on, but there were parts that were very crowded. There’s no lockdown right now, so you’re allowed to be out. The parks are full with families and kids and picnics. Aside from the masks, you would not think that something is going on.
Teme: In the U.S., there’s new vocabulary like “social distancing” and “super spreader.” Is there a similar new vocabulary in Hebrew?
Joel: I don’t think there are any new words. We just use certain words more often like the word for “infected.”
Teme: Maybe because biblical plagues were already a thing, Hebrew already had it covered.
Joel: Right. This isn’t the first time that Jews have been under fire and under duress, and had to figure out how to survive. For Israel, this is just one more thing. If it’s not bombings and terrorism and wars, it’s a pandemic. I will say, the Israelis really are resilient people. I think a lot of Americans were shocked having to make changes in their lives. Whereas in Israel a couple summers ago, people were in bomb shelters. It’s not out of the question that your life is going to be interrupted by military service or by bombs falling, or something else that was completely unexpected.
Teme: Were there fights over items in short supply like the fights here for toilet paper at Costco?
Joel: I do know people stocked up, but there weren’t fights. There was definitely the stocking up on milk that you can keep in your cabinet and toilet paper and things like that. Certainly I remember going into stores and asking, “When would you have it back in?” whether “it” was gloves or masks. We didn’t have the fist-fighting going on here. That’s an American thing too, right? That happens at the end of Thanksgiving where people line up at Walmart and trample each other for DVRs. It didn’t take a pandemic for Americans to fight over products. If there’s a sale at Walmart, we’ll do the same thing.
MAKING THE MOST OF A DIFFICULT YEAR
Teme: Do you have a most memorable story that will stand out when you look back at this difficult year?
Joel: I think the whole year will be a story. I think that for the rest of our lives we’re going to remember this year and use it as reference point. Anything that happens is going to be three years before the pandemic or five years after. This year has allowed us to realize that things you thought were set in stone, actually are not. Some of the things we thought were non-negotiable could actually be changed. Even doing “Christmas for the Jews,” I’m working with a sketch comedy group in Toronto to write a couple of sketches. They’re such good people and so funny and we never would have met had this not come up.
Standup comedy is a very solo career. It can get lonely. You can get overtaken by ego because it’s all you and you’re comparing yourself to other comedians. This show has forced me to work with others from a videographer to a film editor to the sketch group, other comedians, and a marketing team because I have to market it differently. I’m working with all these other people and I really love it. I love being part of the team. I obviously am very sorry that people have gotten sick and died this year, but in terms of handling it, I value how it’s been a year of growth and group thinking.
COMEDY LESSONS FOR LIFE
Teme: Are there any comedy skills or lessons that have helped you deal with this year?
Joel: One of my big theories in comedy is to slow down. Like if ever I feel the show isn’t going well, or like I’m losing the audience, the instinct is to rush, go faster, get another joke out there. But I actually find it’s better to pull back, pause, slow down. I think when there’s been anxiety about the pandemic, it’s the same thing. Your instinct is to start making plans and try to think your way out of it. But what’s actually more helpful is to just step back a little bit, let it play out and then make more of an educated decision instead of doing something rash.
At one point we were thinking of moving to a different part of Ra’anana to a smaller place now that we have two kids in the army – because somewhere the rent is cheaper and who knows how long this pandemic is going to go on? And I think that was a panic moment. Instead, we pulled back and said, “Do we really have to do that?” It turns out it wouldn’t have made that much of a difference anyway.
The instinct is to start looking to “What can I change? What can I manipulate?” A lot of times you have to not do anything. Either it’ll take care of itself or the answer will come to you. So that may be a skill set that’s carried over.
Teme: I see you have a new book about tennis coming out called There is No Ball. I’d love to hear about that!
Joel: I got very serious about my tennis playing, and I thought, “How can I actually capitalize and turn my hobby into something that I get paid for?” So I’m teaming up with a tennis coach to write a book about tennis, technique and strategy.
Teme: Is tennis a sport you can play now since your opponent stays far away?
Joel: It was one of the first to open up again because you have the distance and you’re not actually making contact with your opponent or partner. So that’s lucky.
Teme: How is tennis different in Israel than in the U.S.?
Joel: The rules are the same. What’s different is you’re playing with Israelis who are much more willing to call the ball out. I don’t think Israel will ever, not in the near future, have a number one player because there’s not enough money in the country to support the sports programs that other countries have. It’s an expensive sport. Soccer is cheap. You need one ball. A lot of Israelis don’t have the money to play, so it’s not a popular thing.
Teme: In addition to writing one of my favorite books The 188th Crybaby Brigade, you co-authored the famous cookbook Balaboosta. What is your favorite recipe from the book?
Joel: There was a steak recipe … I’ve been a vegetarian for five years, so I haven’t had it since. But back before I was, man, was that good.
Teme: I’m going in that direction, too.
Joel: There are a lot of good reasons you should, I must say!
CHRISTMAS EVE FOR THE JEWS 2020
Teme: Of course, I want to hear about this year’s “Christmas Eve for the Jews”! I love Mark Normand, Jessica Kirson, Ophira Eisenberg and Moody McCarthy. I can’t believe you all are going to be on the same show! How did you decide on the lineup?
Joel: Having a lineup like this is another benefit of Zoom. I’ve worked with Ophira, Jessica and Moody before. Mark was suggested to me. I watched his clips which are everywhere. He has been on every show. It was really important to me that I had men and women. I wanted everyone to be clean. I want this to be a show that teenagers can watch with their parents. I had a certain standard I want to stick to.
Teme: What would you like people to know about the show?
Joel: The show is not just standup comedy. It’s more of a variety show. I don’t want to give away too much, but we’re taking advantage of the medium and offering different types of comedy that I could never do in a large show.
We also have VIP tickets. It’s a chance to be in an intimate setting with the host and other people who care about the same topic and an opportunity for questions and answers. That’s another advantage of Zoom, the chance to be together with a community of people that you might not ordinarily get to hang out with.
DOES JUDAISM PERMIT LAUGHTER IN THE TIME OF COVID?
Teme: Anything else that we should add?
Joel: This summer I had a couple of cancellations and postponements of shows because people felt comedy wasn’t appropriate. They said, “You know, we shouldn’t be laughing now. Now’s not the time.” My feeling as a comedian, but also in Judaism, is that we really value laughter. Judaism teaches that laughter is important. It doesn’t mean we forget the problems of the world, but it’s a necessary ingredient to survive and cope.
“Christmas Eve for the Jews” streams Thursday, December 24, 7pm CST/8pm EST. Tickets: $20 / screen. (Each ticket gives access to the stream for 48 hours). Tickets and details about the VIP experience are HERE.
A portion of proceeds from the show will be donated to Jewish nonprofits, including Leket Israel Food Bank and American Jewish World Service.
Joel is also the author of the bestselling memoir The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah. More about Joel at joelchasnoff.com
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