A Nice Shmear of Comedy

Since the ’70’s, the face of comedy has had a long nose. Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce were the vanguards of a distinct brand of comedy; alternately neurotic and outrageous, lewd or sarcastic, the Jewish style of comedy was rooted in observations of everyday life and eventually took over the mainstream comedy world. With this in mind, the “Three Jews and a Palestinian Comedy Tour” doesn’t seem that interesting; why listen to the comedy of three Jews (and a Palestinian) if mainstream comedy has had a Jewish flavor for more than thirty years?

The first Jew is black, for one. Aaron Freeman, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago before converting to Judaism, served as the group’s warm-up act and emcee. Speaking with a low guttural growl that underlined everything he said, he punctuated some jokes with a Sam Kinison-esque bark (the most effective of which was when he screamed “FARRAKHAAAAN!”). Jew jokes and racial jokes dominated his set, the most effective of which was when he combined the two into jokes about his own African-Jewish-American self (his Farrakhan reference occurred when he was describing people’s reactions to his mixture of social identities.) The overall tone of his set resembled that of someone funny yelling to be heard over the screech of the El; decently funny, maybe funnier in another context.

If Freeman was someone from the West Side holding forth on a street corner, Charlie Warady embodied everything about comedians from the early nineties: the tan corduroy blazer, garish tie, jeans, even a curly Seinfeld mullet. His mannerisms on stage also eerily preserved those from a bygone era: his hands were constantly being tucked and untucked from his pockets; he held his head at a forty-five degree angle as if incredulous at some architectural detail at the back of the theater; his gait around the stage could only be described as a “shuffle.” The prospect of Warady having stepped through a time portal from 1991 grew plausible when his joke constructions became apparent. Clauses like “are you familiar with…” were sandwiched with “have you ever noticed…” and “what’s the deal with…” Then, impossibly, magically, Warady dropped the most cliché line in the history of stand-up comedy: “Who are the marketing geniuses that came up with that one?” He was referring, of course, to the prospect of attaining seventy-two virgins in heaven after attaining Islamic martyrdom.

Ray Hanania (the Palestinian) rocketed the show into the present tense. Dressed in a Lewis Black leather-coat-dark-shirt ensemble, Hanania used tricks of the trade more associated with stand-up comedians today: outlandish gestures (an intense finger wagging; “I just ordered three falafels”) and sound effects (a loud and soft buzzing for being inspected with metal-detecting wands and French dildos, respectively). The content of Hanania’s jokes, while still revolving around Middle-East mores, also reflected more contemporary (i.e., risque) trends. “You sir, are these your wives? Would you like to sell them to me? I’ll give you three goats. I’ll give you three sheep, it shouldn’t matter. They all feel the same.”

Having gone through the past and present of comedy, the last comic didn’t offer a glimpse of the future, but something almost as transcendent. Yisrael Campbell, a converted haresi, spoke in full sentences and hushed tones while sporting a long black coat, hat and beard. In between jokes about Israeli and Jewish customs, he made jokes about his conversion process, and the community that helped turn him from Chris (his name at birth) to Yisrael. He was sarcastic without being bitter, warm without being schmaltzy. His comedy had heart. It had soul. It ended on a poop joke. It was Jewish comedy.