Let me tell you a (funny) story
Jewish families the punch line for N.J. comedian
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
When, at the age of 40, Joey Novick applied to law school and received a scholarship to Seton Hall University, a Catholic-affiliated school in South Orange, he told his parents it came with a caveat: He would have to sign a document “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal savior.” His mother, he recalled, was horrified, but his father went silent. “And then he said, ‘Well, you know you’re Jewish, we know you’re Jewish. Take the money!’”
Not that either of his parents’ distinctly different responses truly mattered. In fact, Seton Hall required no loyalty pledge to non-Jewish deities or messianic figures; Novick had fabricated the document in order to get a rise out of his parents. He did, however, receive the scholarship and attended law school.
Now 64, Novick, of Flemington, has made a career out of the degree he earned and his ability to spin a yarn and get a laugh. Today he has a practice in entertainment law and is a comedian, character actor, and storyteller, and he once hosted a radio show called “New Jersey What Exit?” about N.J. politics, and served on the Flemington town council. He has opened for renowned comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Lewis Black, and Paul Reiser, and once appeared at the Comic Strip in New York City with Robin Williams.
He will bring his latest show, “Jewish…ish: An Oy Story,” featuring classic Jewish jokes and stories about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn in the 1960s, to the Broadway Comedy in Manhattan on Oct. 21.
Novick offers a kind of loving embrace for the unique dynamics (and dysfunctions) recognizable in Jewish families and the paradoxes in Jewish family values, using his own life as fodder, as many comedians do. He’s quick with a one-liner and can turn on a New York Jewish accent on request, complete with explanation. “This is my uncle Charlie,” he says, raising his voice, and adding some gruffness to his inner Jackie Mason. “I say, ‘Hi Uncle Charlie, how are you?’ and Uncle Charlie says, ‘How am I? Today you can ask, but yesterday you couldn’t?’ He turns everything into an argument.”
On a recent afternoon, Novick shared some of his stories, his thoughts on comedy and the law, and why he loves storytelling. He grew up in Brooklyn — Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay — and his family were members of the Shellbank Jewish Center in Sheepshead Bay. He spent summers at Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, N.Y., the oldest continuously operating Jewish summer camp. (He still goes back to camp for Rosh HaShanah services and other events throughout the year.)
He got his first taste of the stage when he was young and enrolled in a small theater school; through the school’s connections, he landed a few roles as an extra on a couple of television shows in the early 1960s. But by the age of 15, he moved on from the world of entertainment — at least until college. It was in the student union building at Brooklyn College where he rediscovered the stage and stumbled over stand-up. From then on, he was hooked. He served as emcee for shows at college and afterwards, eventually moving on to clubs. After graduating with a degree in political science, Novick put off law school to pursue comedy. When he told his parents, his mother asked, “What am I going to tell Aunt Lila?”
He trained with, among others, Del Close, a master of improv and prominent comedy coach who was director of Second City, an esteemed comedy troupe.
One of Novick’s favorite Rosh HaShanah rituals is asking people to share punchlines of Jewish jokes — just the punchlines — on Facebook. “Most of the time, I know the joke,” he said. “It’s a quick way to share Jewish humor.” And just in case you aren’t sure what qualifies as a Jewish joke, here is Novick’s definition, taken from Mel Brooks: “It’s a joke every Jew has heard before and one no goyim will ever understand.”
He views Jewish jokes as stemming from the Jewish experiences of assimilation in America. “It’s fraught with all sorts of contradictions,” Novick said. He pointed to the ways Jewish parents often disagree with each other — the gulf between the expectation that Jews remain close to tradition and observance while becoming more secular, and the “shtetl-like” closeness of extended Jewish families.
His stories are not merely intended to make people laugh. Rather, he said, “We all have stories that bind us together as family.”
Novick views much of the practice of law as stemming from storytelling: “The plaintiff tells their story, the defense tells theirs, and in the mix is the truth and the moral becomes black letter law,” he said. “They are stories about real people and changes in the law reflect a new moral or standard.”
Jury trials offer a stark example of good storytelling at play, he said. Jurors “are regular people who want stories with heroes and villains. If you set it up and connect them with your client, they’ll have empathy. That’s really good storytelling.” And from his perspective, it’s also good lawyering.
He grew serious, ironically, when asked if he finds the law funny. “I try to be more empathetic and human with my clients,” people he described as artists and actors, creative types “who don’t really know how to protect their work.”
Novick credits his father with developing his sense of humor. “We all have people we can remember learning to laugh with,” he said. So, for his father’s 70th birthday, Novick wrote down all the stories he remembered his father telling in a black and white composition notebook, and presented it to him. When his father complained that his son had left so many pages blank, Novick suggested he add his own stories. After his father died, Novick retrieved the book, now filled with his own memories of his father’s stories as well as the ones his dad had added.
Of course, storytelling is an inexact science: His mother would hear the stories, or read them, and then Novick recalled, she “would always say, ‘That’s not the way it happened.’”