Wherever he performs these days, stand-up comic Steve Budd gets plenty of laughs. But he’s the first to admit most of the laughs aren’t his.
In Budd’s “No, But Seriously Folks: A Look at Jewish Humor and the Great Jewish Comics of the Past 75 Years,” the comedian brings Jackie Mason, Paul Reiser and Jerry Seinfeld with him on stage.
Part performance, part lecture, the show is the stand-up equivalent of theater’s “Word for Word,” replicating routines of great Jewish comedians from Woody Allen and Mort Sahl all the way back to Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers.
Budd will perform “No, But Seriously Folks” at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay on Sunday, May 20.
“In the lecture section, I address the history of Jewish comedians in America and consider the reasons for their popularity,” he says. “I provide some answers to the question, ‘What makes Jewish humor Jewish?'”
So what does make Jewish humor Jewish? To answer that, Budd went back to the sources. Not Henny Youngman or Lenny Bruce, but to the original Big Book of Jewish Humor: the Talmud.
“The Talmud is a training ground for the comic mind,” says Budd, who grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in Boston. “It trains you to see things from all angles, and makes you ask, ‘How can I approach this in a way that no one has seen before?'”
Budd theorizes that living on the margins of society over many centuries played a role in the development of Jewish humor. “It deals with suffering and a response to that,” he notes. “Humor gives Jews a feeling of power and control. If you can make a joke about [suffering], it can’t be that bad.”
Growing up as one of the only Jewish kids in his Boston high school taught Budd that same lesson. “I was the little guy,” he remembers. “The jocks ruled the school culture. My humor came from the position of being outside looking in.”
Budd went on to a career as a Boston actor and stand-up comedian. Seeking a change, he relocated to the Bay Area in 2004, and has since become a staple in the local theater and independent film scene. But stand-up comedy remained a prime interest.
“I had the comic flair,” he says. “I loved going to comedy clubs. It seemed like the most daring thing to go on stage with your own material and make it work.”
The idea for the new show arose after he headlined a Jewish community fundraiser three years ago. Budd realized Jewish audiences got certain jokes and inflections of his, so he decided to probe further.
“I realized this was my audience,” he says. “I thought it would be so cool to do these routines and learn more about Jewish humor. I got my hands on some books, watched a lot of videos, transcribed the routines I liked best and put it all together for a show.”
He tested “No, But Seriously Folks” in January, and has since performed it at local Jewish venues such as the Rhoda Goldman Plaza and the Jewish Community High School in San Francisco.
With each show, Budd understands more about the important role Jewish comics have played in American popular culture.
“A lot of these guys are not overtly Jewish,” he says. “They’re about assimilation and the search for an American Jewish identity. Some draw no attention to the fact that they’re Jewish, whereas Jackie Mason hits you over the head.”
So is there any connective tissue spanning Jewish time and space? If anything, Budd says it might be the caustic quality of Jewish humor. “Self-deprecation is a thing that runs through the years, the mockery of ourselves and of the powerful,” he notes. “There are so many words for ‘loser’ in Yiddish. It’s like the Eskimos and snow.”
Steve Budd’s “No, But Seriously Folks: A Look at Jewish Humor and the Great Jewish Comics of the Past 75 Years” takes place 1 p.m. Sunday, May 20, at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Tickets: $5. Information: (510) 848-0237.