After performing comedy shows alongside Jews with roots in Vietnam and India, and an African-American woman, Mike Capozzola had an idea: “You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish” — a show featuring comics who looked nothing like the stereotypical American Jew.
Over the last three years, the show has taken off, growing steadily in popularity. “We’re very funny,” said Capozzola. “And word of mouth has helped.” At this point “You’re Funny” has toured across the United States and had stops in Canada.
But Capozzola has a show of a different flavor on Wednesday, June 28 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Called “The Aleph-Men” — a take-off on the X-Men — the gig will feature six Jewish comics, a Jewish theme, and will be hosted by Emanu-El Rabbi Sydney Mintz.
“I love doing Jewish shows,” Capozzola said. “It’s a set of material that I have … that won’t necessarily work in the comedy clubs because it’s very specific. But it will destroy at a synagogue, or, you know, at a Hillel gig. I created this show [at Emanu-El] because I wanted to bring other Jewish comedians into the spotlight.”
The idea for this particular themed show came from Capozzola’s seventh-grade imagination. “I was a colossal fan of the X-Men,” said the San Francisco-based comic, actor and host. He is also an artist: “The ‘x’ and the aleph share a lot of similarities, and it was a lot of fun to draw … Really I just wanted to get that cool logo out there.”
It wasn’t hard to find other Bay Area Jewish comedians to put on the bill.
“I’m a Jewish person, and that was the main requirement from Mike,” said Aviva Siegel, whom Capozzola recruited for the show.
Also on the bill are Heather Gold, Julie Ash, Ben Feldman and David Roth.
Gold said Jewish crowds are different than those at most clubs.
“Just having Jews in the audience, anywhere, is a good and predictable challenge,” she said. “Someone is going to come up and tell you this thing you did was wrong. Even if the audience is 50,000 people and two Jews, they will find you.”
“With Jewish audiences, there is a familiarity that there just isn’t with a regular crowd,” Siegel agreed. “There is just a nice familiarity, a sense of family.”
Capozzola grew up in a Reform household, attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah. Nowadays he doesn’t go to shul very often; it conflicts with his weekend gigs. “Comedy is as much of a religion as my art is,” he said, referring to the cartoons, comics and other illustrations he creates, in addition to stand-up work.
Those drawings can often be the starting point for a joke that eventually might make it into one of his comedy routines. Most of the time, though, jokes come to Capozzola seemingly at random. “Honestly it just hits me like a sneeze,” he said.
Jewish comedy and Jewish jokes are fairly easy to identify. Like this joke that Gold recounted: Stumbling across a Jew stranded on a desert island, one finds that he’s constructed two shuls. Why? “This is my shul,” says the stranded person. “This other one, I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”
What’s tougher to pin down, however, is what, specifically, constitutes Jewish humor. That’s one of the topics explored in the 2013 documentary “When Jews Were Funny;” and it should come as no surprise that there was little consensus among comedians.
“Jewish comedy is so core to Jewishness that I’m going to say it’s one of the things that stays with people the longest, even if they don’t want to call themselves Jewish anymore,” Gold said. “Even if people converted to another religion, I bet the Jewish sense of humor holds on for a good while. It’s a gift. Who wants to let it go?”
And there are common themes, said Siegel. “There was a lot of making fun of yourself before other people can,” she said. “There are stereotypes around Jews — that there are anxieties and neuroses. … I see a big theme of self-reflection, and I see that in Jewish comedy.”