A little bit Borscht Belt, a little bit day school
Comic Joel Chasnoff riffs on the everyday foibles of Jewish life
Joel Chasnoff is happy to claim his place in the tradition of Borscht Belt comedy, making fun of the day-to-day realities of life as a Jew in America. But something pretty crucial separates him from his honored predecessors: He isn’t into complaining.
“Jews fit in so well in American now, we don’t have that sense of being outsiders, and that has to change the style of our humor,” the comedian and author told NJ Jewish News. “I talk about being Jewish — stuff that people can relate to and laugh about, but without putting down Jewishness. I think they come away from my shows feeling good about being Jewish.”
He will be doing just that on Tuesday, Oct. 19, at the Opening Event of the Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. The event, titled Live, Love, Laugh — A Night of Comedy, will be held at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains. Cochairs for the evening are Emily Grodberg and Mara Levy.
Chasnoff says his material will be very different from what he used on the USO comedy tour that he just returned from, entertaining American Marines in Japan and Korea, or the kind of material he does on hundreds of college campuses around the country. He has also been the warm-up act for big name comedians like Jon Stewart and Lewis Black of The Daily Show.
“This kind of show, for a Jewish audience, is more special to me,” he said, “because it goes much deeper than the mainstream ones. It draws off my roots.”
He grew up in Evanston, Ill., storing up observations from his years attending Jewish day school, and from “the Israeli exchange students staying in our basement.” He was never afraid of getting up and performing. He said he was the class clown in school — “not goofy, rather I was witty.” But it was in college, at the University of Pennsylvania, that he got serious about the business of being funny, working with a comedy group. “I spent more time on that than on my academics,” he admitted.
In 1997, when he was 24, he took a year out of building his career as a writer and performer, and went to Israel. “Israel was always in my heart, and I thought it’s now or never,” he said. Rather than just travel or find a job, he joined the army. “I always thought it was unfair that people in the Diaspora pray for Israel but we don’t risk our lives the way people there do,” he said.
He spent a year as a combat soldier in the Armored Corps, and wrote a book about it, The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah. For all his wry humor, his account also touches on that deep love of the country and its people. A.J. Jacobs, the author of the bestseller The Year of Living Biblically, said of Chasnoff’s book, “It didn’t make me want to join the Israeli Army, but it made me very glad Joel did, so he could bring us back such a funny, thoughtful, and poignant story.”
The book will be for sale at the event and he will be signing copies. A portion of the proceeds will go to his charitable foundation, Project Elijah. The foundation recently enabled 100 low-income New York City children to attend a circus performance.
Chasnoff, who lives with his wife and four children in Westchester, NY, does his stand-up shows, writes for stage and movies in this country and others, and also teaches stand-up comedy at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.
With this show — as with his others — he will offer family fare. His heroes are people like Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld, and like them, he mines his gold in the everyday rather than the outrageous. “I’ve never been a dirty comic,” he said. “So many people do off-color humor. What I do is take familiar, everyday things and flip them on their head, and hopefully show people a side of life they hadn’t thought about before.”