For a while, Lisa Geduldig was blamed for killing Henny Youngman.
The legendary comic caught a cold while in San Francisco in 1997 headlining Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, Geduldig’s annual Christmastime series of Jewish comedy shows at a Chinatown restaurant. That cold turned to pneumonia, and Youngman died two months later at age 91.
Take my life, please?
Since Geduldig had booked him, some people said, she was responsible for the comedian’s demise. Instead, Geduldig chose to celebrate the fact that Kung Pao served as Youngman’s swan song. And today she has another reason to celebrate, with the oh-so-Jewish institution she founded 20 years ago still going strong.
Kung Pao returns Dec. 22-25 with this year’s headliner, Judy Gold. Also on the bill at the New Asia Restaurant are Mike Capozzola and Scott Blakeman.
Expect the same big laughs, same chow mein, same blithe spirits.
With the 20th anniversary edition looming, Geduldig has been making a list and checking it twice. After all these years, she says, the restaurant knows that for four days around Christmas, the Jews are coming.
“It is like a puzzle,” she says of organizing the event. “I have to fill the restaurant, get the performers, make the posters, put them up. I have three angles: producer promoter, performer. But if you saw the messy one-bedroom apartment all this is produced out of …”
She trails off, leaving the mess to one’s imagination. But with Kung Pao, Geduldig not only created a venerable comedy classic, she also established one of the Bay Area Jewish community’s favorite gathering places.
Over the years she has booked famous names such as Youngman, David Brenner, Jeffrey Ross and Wendy Liebman, as well as up-and-coming talent, which gives her the status of local standup comedy kingmaker.
On top of that, she has given thousands of Kung Pao dollars to charity, much of it to Jewish nonprofits. This year’s beneficiaries include the Bay Area Women’s and Children’s Center drop-in services and Jewish Family and Children’s Services emergency assistance fund.
It adds up to a concept that inspired copycats all over the country: Jews, Christmas, Chinese food and standup comedy. What’s not to like?
The New York Times did a big story on Geduldig’s creation early on, and Kung Pao is featured prominently in the recent book “A Kosher Christmas,” Rabbi Joshua Plaut’s scholarly exploration of the December dilemma.
“I didn’t think it would be 20 years,” she says. “It was supposed to be a one-time thing.”
For scores of Kung Pao fans, the one-time thing has been an every-time thing. San Mateo resident Shelley Kessler came to the first show, on Dec. 24, 1993, and hasn’t missed it since.
Recalls Kessler, “A friend called and said, ‘Hey we heard this event was taking place on Christmas. Want to come?’ I said, ‘It sounds like fun to me.’ It was great to laugh, nice to be with friends and enjoy a holiday that was not Christmas.”
Laura and Howard Siegel, 20-timers from Pacifica, wouldn’t dream of skipping Kung Pao Kosher Comedy. For them, the simcha starts while standing outside the restaurant waiting to get in.
“Jews are looking for a fun place to go around Christmas, when Christians seem to be having so much fun,” says Laura Siegel. “When you get [to the event], there’s that same festive feeling. People are excited to be part of this.”
Geduldig counts on repeat customers to fill the seats. But it’s an easy sell. The seven-course meal, served on platters placed on Lazy Susans that never stop rotating, also includes fortune cookies with Yiddish proverbs, like “A goat may have a beard, but that doesn’t make him a rabbi.”
There are always raffle giveaways, and the comedy is pretty much gold standard.
“Jewish comedian: What an oxymoron,” Geduldig says. “Some of the comics do a lot of Jewish material, others don’t, but I always tell them to be heavy on the Jewish. I tell them to be relatively clean. It is a family event, and people come with parents, grandparents, kids and grandkids. That’s one of my favorite parts of the event.”
Geduldig sometimes ponders the coincidence that she was 31 when she gave birth to Kung Pao, the same age as her mother when she gave birth to little Lisa. To call the comedy event Geduldig’s baby is barely metaphor.
“I had no idea how to produce,” she recalls of her maiden effort. “I just knew I had this idea in my head and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
That idea came about when Geduldig, by then a seasoned S.F.-based standup comedian herself, wrapped up a gig, held for some reason at a Chinese restaurant.
Later that night, she reflected on the long association between Jews and Chinese food, especially on Christmas. It started in America’s urban tenements more than a century ago, when Jews discovered the cheap and tasty cuisine of their Chinese neighbors.
On Christmas, when every other establishment shut down, Chinese restaurants stayed open, and Jews flocked to them. Geduldig herself grew up in Plainview, Long Island, doing Chinese on Christmas. All she added was standup comedy.
For that first show in 1993 at the Four Seas Restaurant on Grant Avenue, Geduldig had to learn how to book, promote, produce and publicize a show, none of which she had ever done.
What she did have was the gift of shmooze, and somehow lightning struck. “I didn’t know how many people would come that night,” she recalls. “I told [the restaurant] 200 people, but there were 400. I just said ‘Keep cooking!’ ”
That one-night performance turned into two shows the next year. By 1997, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy was a four-night/eight-show affair, with an early dinner show, followed by a cocktail show.
Geduldig has plenty of favorite memories. At the end of the premiere show, she took the mic and said to the crowd, “Let’s sing the Jewish national anthem — ‘Sunrise, Sunset.’ ”
After a show in 2003, a 14-year-old named Nathan Habib approached Geduldig, telling her he hoped to become a standup comedian and play Kung Pao one day. Seven years later, he did.
For the 13th annual event, Geduldig had 2,000 yarmulkes made, emblazoned with the words “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy’s bar/bat mitzvah.” “I had to ask the religious guy from Zion Judaica if that was sacrilege,” she says.
Things haven’t always gone perfectly. In the mid-1990s a performer (whom Geduldig prefers not to name) made a comment that some in the audience perceived as racist.
Kessler was there. She remembers the offending line having to do with a Latino waiter at the Last Supper, a joke she considered an edgy commentary on how people from other cultures can be treated.
That’s not how the angry mini-mob saw it.
Geduldig recalls an audience member shouting, “ ‘Lisa, this is racist. How can you allow this to go on?’ Then 10 other people got on the bandwagon. It was a mass exodus Berkeley thing.”
Adds Kessler, “It was a moment where it just changed the whole feel of the evening. It was sad, because we were having a good time. [This is] an audience that is not reticent to engage in snappy repartee with a performer. That has been part of the history.”
As for l’affaire Henny, it started when Geduldig met Youngman at New York’s famed Friar’s Club soon after booking him.
“I got there a few minutes before,” she says. “He was pushing a walker, his hair unkempt, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’ But he looked up at me very sagely,” she recalls, and he said Kung Pao “was a great idea. I knew then everything was going to be OK.”
At opening night, Geduldig says emotion got the better of her. “He was 91, I was 35. He had been performing twice as long as I had been alive. I had never been choked up and teary-eyed introducing a comic, but I was when I introduced him.”
Though the gig proved to be Youngman’s last, his son later told Geduldig that it was a fine way for the legend to go out, saying “He died doing what he loved.”
In that first year, Geduldig announced from the Kung Pao stage that a friend of hers, Jewish Bulletin writer Tamar Kaufman, was suffering from brain cancer and needed financial assistance.
That night she raised $500 for Kaufman (who died the following year), thus launching the other key aspect of Kung Pao: tzedakah. Geduldig calls it the Ben & Jerry’s aspect of doing business.
“I like to [raise] awareness and make financial donations to organizations that are doing good work in the community and whose politics are aligned with mine,” says Geduldig. “My mother said, ‘You could have had a down payment on a house.’ That’s how much I’ve given away.”
Among the beneficiaries over the years: the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, Shalom Bayit, the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish Home’s Esther Weintraub Comedy Clinic (a comedy improv class for seniors, which she started).
Mark Friedlander, the Jewish Home’s assistant administrator, is a Kung Pao fan of long standing, both because he loves the event and because his institution has benefited from Geduldig’s generosity.
He says the Jewish Home perpetually deals with deficits and state budget cuts, and the donations help keep the comedy clinic alive. “Knowing [the clinic] is something that really resonates with the residents made this a program to sustain even in harsh times.”
The Jewish Home buys a table every year, with both staffers and residents attending. “Some people buy a tree; we buy our Kung Pao tickets,” Friedlander adds. “I think it’s the best deal in town.”
This year marks the seventh time a JFCS program has been named a Kung Pao beneficiary. The money will support the agency’s emergency assistance fund, which is helping San Francisco’s iconic Brown twins, Marian and Vivian, now somewhat frail and in need of senior assistance.
“I think it’s fantastic that Lisa stepped up to do this,” says Barbara Farber, JFCS’ director of development. “It takes a lot of individuals to make a difference, and she has been very generous over the years helping different causes. JFCS has been a [Kung Pao] recipient several times, and we’re extremely grateful.”
As are the audiences that come back year after year.
“You put up with the fact that parking is a drag or you’re standing in the rain,” says Kessler. “It is one of the few places where you have a bunch of people standing in line talking to each other without pretense. For the community that attends Kung Pao, there is a camaraderie that doesn’t exist at many other events.”
As for Geduldig, she’s sprucing up her material and getting ready for her annual close-up for the 20th time.
“Here I am in my tux again,” she says. “Doing this show every year is new and the same all at the same time — people who have come for years, others who are newcomers. It’s a big family gathering.”
“Kung Pao Kosher Comedy,” Dec. 22-25 at New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific St., S.F. $44-$64. www.koshercomedy.com
cover — photo illustration/ cathleen maclearie
Lisa Geduldig celebrates 20 years of Kung Pao.