Jewish Ha Ha

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From the new issue of Jewish Quarterly: Wars, fights, bust-ups – and that’s just the comedians. 

Last December, as Ruby Wax, David Baddiel, and comedy legend Arnold Brown were playing to packed houses as part of the celebratory JW3 Jewish Comedy festival, an argument was brewing between Hampstead Comedy Club promoter Ivor Dembina and a number of Jewish comics. Dembina has always been vocally pro-Palestinian, but recently stopped booking stand-ups who have performed at pro-Israel shows. 

It was a minor drama, played out across a small corner of London NW3, but typical of what’s been happening everywhere across the diaspora since last summer: in comedy, like the rest of our culture, the political got personal.

Jews have always been massively over-represented in comedy. In America, the nation of immigrants immediately understood the Jewish character of the outsider. And in Britain, since the explosion of live comedy in the late 1970s, there has been a hugely disproportionate number of Jewish performers and writers. 

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In Britain, this can be explained partly by our underdog status, plus the fact that we’re mostly the same skin colour as our fellow countrymen. Like all immigrant communities, we’re outsiders—but like our fellow comic travellers, the Irish, we blend in relatively unnoticed. Also, the liberal and left-leaning consensus of Jewish youth movements of the 1960s and ‘70s was the perfect training ground not just for comedians but also the kind of audience who come to see live comedy.

Our most successful acts have always been good at reflecting English and British types back at themselves. Matt Lucas, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Simon Brodkin create characters that in other hands might come across as cruel caricatures, but as outsiders themselves they bring a sympathy and warmth to Ali G, Vicky Pollard and the rest.

One subject we haven’t always dealt with so successfully is the politics of the Middle East. Around ten years ago, Dembina created a show called “This Is Not A Subject For Comedy,” about a week he spent performing in Israel and the West Bank. The title came from something he’d said to an Israeli soldier, who’d kidded with Dembina that the family home of a suicide bomber recently destroyed by the Israeli army, “wasn’t their home anymore.” 

The show was well-crafted and even-handed, and was well received at the time. But as the years have passed and the situation has deteriorated, the growing lack of tolerance towards other people’s opinions on Israel has soured the normally cordial relationships between Jews on the comedy circuit. 

The current ill-feeling between comics is notable only in that it reflects a growing trend in a community polarised by the conflicts in Gaza. Last summer, that polarisation in the arts became national news, when at the height of the war, the Tricycle Theatre announced it would be withdrawing its support for the Jewish Film Festival. After a few messy weeks a compromise was reached, but at the time, it felt like a fundamental shift in the perception of Jews in popular live culture. 

The JW3 building reflects this dichotomy: it’s bold and bright, while huge glass windows dominate the front, inviting you to come and take part. But, like an increasing number of Jewish buildings around the country, there’s a tall perimeter fence surrounding the building and a security guard at the gate. 

Despite all this, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the health of Jewish comedy. One of the highlights of the JW3 week was the competition to find Jewish Comedian of the year. The passion of Raymond Simonson, who runs JW3, shines through every event in the centre’s packed programme – and he also happens to be a massive comedy fan. Joshua Ross, worthy winner of the title, is a comedy star in the making.

Meanwhile, others are approaching the Muslim-Jewish battleground head-on, determined to use our famed comedy skills to create a dialogue between the warring factions. The Infidel, written first as a film, then turned into a musical by David Baddiel, is the story of an adopted Muslim who finds out he was born Jewish. The extension of its recent sold-out run at Stratford Theatre Royal suggests there’s still plenty of life in the show.

And the Tricycle Theatre, seen this summer as problematic, may also be part of the solution. It has long been the home of Muju, the Muslim-Jewish comedy group that has been creating shows for many years, exploring the conflicts and common ground between the two faiths. This summer, they will be hosting a brand new show from Muju (“Come In Sit Down!”) that promises boldly to bring laughs to the grim events of the last year.

It’s not going to be easy. But even in the aftermath of the shocking attacks on the French cartoonists in January, there’s never been a better time to disprove Ivor Dembina’s comment: It is, most definitely, a subject for comedy.

‘Come In Sit Down!’ runs from 27 July – 2 August 2015 at the Tricycle Theatre

Dave Cohen is a Perrier-nominated comedian who co-founded The Comedy Store Players, and is currently best known for writing the songs for CBBC’s hit TV show Horrible Histories. His book How To Be Averagely Successful At Comedy is published by Acorn Press.

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