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Thursday, December 12, 2013 | return to: cover story


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Ha-ha-ha! Comedy at Christmas — a Jewish tradition

by dan pine, j. staff

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“They can crank Barbra Streisand on the streets that they cruise/It’s Christmastime for the Jews.” — Lyrics from “Saturday Night Live” Motown parody

coverdec132013It’s Christmastime for the Jews. And that means Chinese food, of course — served with a side of comedy.

That holiday tradition got its Bay Area start 21 years ago with Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, comedian Lisa Geduldig’s brainchild that is still going strong. This year Kung Pao runs Dec. 24 to 26, with two shows nightly at the New Asia Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Despite the name of the event, the food is decidedly not kosher. But the humor sure is.

Over the years, Geduldig has booked legends such as Henny Youngman and David Brenner, as well as edgy up-and-comers. While diners chow down on chow mein, the comics keep ’em laughing.

This year’s lineup features Jewish comedians Adrianne Tolsch, Samson Koletkar, Geduldig and headliner Gary Gulman, a two-time finalist on the NBC competition show “Last Comic Standing.”

Lisa Geduldig
Lisa Geduldig

“He’s smart and funny, which is always the package I’m looking for,” Geduldig says of Gulman. “And he’s cute. No matter who looks at his photo — gay, straight, age 20 or 80, you’ll think he’s got a shayne punim. His style of thinking humor and our audience is a shiduch [match].”

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy has become a much-imitated model around the country and an institution in the local Jewish community. “There is something about the familiarity,” Geduldig says. “I love that people spend Christmas with us.”

However, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy is not the only option for laugh-hungry Jews at this time of year.

In her new one-woman show “The Oy of Sex,” playing through Jan. 18 at the Marsh in San Francisco, Alicia Dattner takes on multiple roles. One of them is God, whom Dattner portrays as a kind of Jewish alter kocker, complete with Yiddish accent.

Spirituality weaves in and out of the 90-minute show, even though it’s all about the San Francisco resident’s former struggle with love addiction, sex addiction and hooking up with the wrong guys.

It’s a comedy — and it’s uncomfortably personal, just the way Dattner likes it. “There’s a natural tendency in my life towards TMI,” she says, using the abbreviation for “too much information.”

“There’s some part of me that wants to express the thing that everyone else is afraid to, things people feel, even if vulnerable and embarrassing,” she says. “Not just because it’s necessarily funny but because it needs to be said.”

Though she plays it for laughs, love addiction is a serious matter. As revealed in the show, the addiction caused Dattner to make increasingly bad decisions: From serial make-out artist to cheating girlfriend to polyamorous Burning Man maven, Dattner tried it all.

Alicia Dattner
Alicia Dattner

Then one day she fully grasped how empty she felt.

“You could use the word ‘love’ in quotes,” she says of love addiction. “I’m telling this story because I feel my story is relatively extreme. But this culture is pretty heavily love addicted as a whole. We have this idea that someone is going to save us.”

Though Dattner never spares herself in revealing her foibles, she has fun teasing her younger, unwiser self. That includes re-enacting early spin-the-bottle adventures and the funniest fake orgasm since Harry met Sally. “I could hear the creak of my own standards lowering,” she jokes.

By the end of the narrative, Dattner chooses celibacy for a while (she calls it a “ménage à moi”) which leads her to realize that sex is holy, something any Chabad rabbi could have told her to begin with.

“This whole sexuality thing is not something you play with,” Dattner says. “It’s a doorway into higher consciousness. We get flooded with oxytocin and other chemicals. When you find a partner aligned with your spiritual intentions, it opens a sense of connection and trust, not just with partners, but also with the entire world. It’s a very holy thing to go about doing.”

Gary Gulman
Gary Gulman

So is laughter, she says.

Dattner, 36, had been doing standup in the Bay Area for 10 years before she shifted to one-woman shows. That paid off with her “Eat, Pray, Laugh!” which earned multiple theater festival awards and propelled her to a “Best Comedian 2013” nod from the SF Weekly Readers’ Poll.

In addition to her stage work, Dattner is a certified life coach, trained in Laughter Yoga (yes, it’s for real). She leads workshops to help people use laughter and humor as a pathway to transformation.

She calls them “playshops.” 

“I love helping serious spiritual seekers to lighten up,” she says. “I see the evolution of my work in the last five years as helping the world of comedy be more sacred, spiritual and holy, and not take itself so seriously. That’s what I do in my own life.”

If “The Oy of Sex” proves too revealing for some audiences, Dattner doesn’t mind. “I’m an exhibitionist,” she says. “I just don’t show it.”   

Standup veteran Mark Schiff’s comedy, on the other hand, “is only about entertaining. I have no interest in politics on stage,” he says.

Schiff headlines Chopshticks on Dec. 24 at Palo Alto’s Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.

Mark Schiff
Mark Schiff

Schiff, 60, was among the vanguard of top comics from the Jerry Seinfeld generation, which includes greats such as Paul Reiser and Ray Romano. And he is every bit as funny. Routines such as his classic about veggies left in the refrigerator crisper (“They should call it the rotter”) have stood the test of time.

He’s looking forward to the Chopshticks gig — an annual Christmas Eve show at the JCC — but it certainly won’t be the first time he’s played a Jewish crowd. He’s as likely to book a gig at a Chabad event or Jewish day school fundraiser as he is a comedy club.

“I have certain routines I’ll do for all-Jewish audiences,” he says. “When they know you’re Jewish, Jewish audiences are very giving, very grateful. It’s almost unfair to the comedian. They let me get away with stuff. It’s like a bull ride with a doped-up bull.”

The former yeshiva bocher from the Bronx sends his kids to an Orthodox day school, and all three celebrated their bar mitzvahs at the Kotel in Jerusalem.

“I had a rabbi say to me that one reason to send my kids to an Orthodox day school is [that] God is first,” says Schiff, who lives in Los Angeles. “In the others [God] is on a scale, and just not as important.”

In addition to standup, Schiff has written a play (called — what else? — ”The Comic”) and made memorable YouTube clips interviewing young Orthodox day school students about God and Judaism (not unlike Art Linkletter’s funny “Kids Say the Darndest Things” interviews).

Samson Koletkar
Samson Koletkar

Schiff made waves a few years ago with his viral video “Israel IQ.” These shnook-on-the-street interviews on the UCLA campus revealed an appalling ignorance when it came to the Jewish state.

But the video was funny.

Schiff also wrote a book, “I Killed,” about his early days on the comedy circuit, when he counted people like Seinfeld and Larry David among his friends.

His book is more of a memoir. But many others have been written analyzing the Jewish knack for humor and trying to explain why the standup profession draws a disproportionate number of Jews.

Schiff subscribes to a theory developed by Jewish scholar and author Lawrence J. Epstein. “During the silent-film era none of the top comedians were Jewish,” Schiff explains. “Why? Because Jews need to be verbal to be funny.”

He cites Epstein’s book “The Haunted Smile,” which noted that many “Seinfeld” scripts were 20 pages longer than most other sitcoms. “The excess language betrays nervousness — a distinctly urban and Jewish approach to dealing with anxiety,” Schiff says.

Maybe that’s why Schiff estimates up to 80 percent of the comics he has worked with over the years have been Jewish.

“I personally knew a therapist who was treating 10 Jewish comics at the same time,” he says. “One time, when a comic was leaving therapy and another was waiting to go in, the therapist said, ‘You’re on next.’”

It’s showtime

Comedy shows in the Bay Area around Christmas and New Year’s Eve that feature Jewish comedians include:

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, Dec. 24-26, New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific Ave., S.F. http://www.koshercomedy.com

Chopshticks with Mark Schiff, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 24, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. http://www.paloaltojcc.org

“The Oy of Sex,” Thursday-Saturday, through Jan. 18, the Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F. wwwthemarsh.org

The Other Café’s Comedy Showcase, with Mark Cordes and Cathy Ladman, 9 p.m. Dec. 31, Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. http://www.theothercafe.com

 

on the cover

photo illustration/cathleen maclearie

Comedians (clockwise, from top right) Gary Gulman, Alicia Dattner, Mark Schiff, Samson Koletkar, Lisa Geduldig


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