Print | Email  

Putting on Jewish comedy

Last updated: 2003-09-25

Penelope Solomon in Tower of Bagel

Putting on Tower of Bagel

As performer Penelope Solomon prepares for her December comedy show Tower of Bagel at the Royal Festival Hall in London, she shares her experiences of trying to get Jewish comedy onto TV and radio and how it has ended up on stage.

Tower of Bagel - The Foundations

HOW IT ALL BEGAN?

‘Goys and Gals’ - Working title. 11 minute pilot for television.

Got to find a Jewish husband, got to learn Judaism fast. Feeling all Yentl, she dresses up as a Chassidic Jewess and walks along Stamford Hill with a pram. Goes into Safeways, eyes up the Rabbis, and heads straight for the pickled gherkins. A quest in search of her Jewish roots. Her Grandma suggests joining the synagogue choir, she’s bound to meet somebody there, but the youngest man is 50 and they’re singing songs in German. 

Here it was, the opening pitch. Full of excitement, she told her brother the idea. ‘Maybe it’s about YOU. Maybe that’s what YOU really want’ he said knowingly. She laughed it off. Three months later, in REAL LIFE, she met her ‘Jewish husband’. And it just so happened that he was looking for a ‘Jewish wife’. But preferably one who kept Kosher, wore high heels and knew that tefillin is not just what you do to a form. The relationship ended. The bagel was born.

It began life at Ealing Film studios amongst T.V. executives and flashy media types. The new pitch went like this: ‘We’ve got this desperate single woman who’s looking for a Jewish husband and her catch phrase is - Are You Jewish?’ No response.

‘Well how about a sketch called BBC Jewish Night? - Coming next on BBC Jewish Night it’s North WestEnders. There’s trouble in the square tonight when wayward teenager David gets a ‘B’ in one of his A’ levels’. They laughed.

‘Ooh and we’ve got a ‘Richard and Judaism’. They laughed again.

‘And how about an Essex girl called Sandra Jaffa who’s recently converted to Judaism - I’ve had a nose job, it used to be very small and upturned at the end but I’ve got a nice hook in it now and it’s a lot wider at the bottom.’ Lots more laughter.

Hooray.

Then they said ‘Hmm’ and ‘Yah’ and ‘It could be part of a multi-cultural sketch show you know? With Muslims and Catholics and Christians and…. we’ll call you ok? Cool.’

They never did, so we went to BBC Radio 4. And yup they liked it. They said it needed more writers, different voices, and not too much chopped liver or gefilte fish. They said ‘It must reflect what it’s like being a contemporary Jew in Britain today’. Hmm…A contemporary Jew in Britain today? They said ‘Keep it wide, we don’t want to alienate the non Jewish audience. Take out  the tefillin and the tsitsit.’  But we thought, that’s what makes it culturally distinct and audiences who aren’t Jewish might like something that has an ‘ethnic’ feel. ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ are allowed their ‘chuddies‘ which is Hindi for underpants. !2057‘Kiss my chuddies!’ That’s what they say, honestly. After a long wait we got the green light. And finally… a commission.

A week later, they decommissioned it. The controllers had stepped. ‘Don’t bother making it’ they said, ‘because we’re not going to buy it.’ Why….? Why….? They said, ‘It’ll open up a whole can of worms about minority sketch shows and if we do a Jewish one then we have to do an Irish or Chinese or a Greek one.’ I thought a Greek sketch show? That’s a good idea. You could have jokes about olives or tsatsiki and ‘Your brother’s called hummous?’ ‘No, Thomas.’

So we went to the Soho Theatre which coincidentally used to be a synagogue. They welcomed us with open arms, as did the New End Theatre in Hampstead. With the ‘Jewish Arts Festival’ fully behind us, we had at last found support, acceptance and most importantly an audience.

The show was a sell out! There was a buzz, a vibe, right from the word ‘go’. Why? Was it the title ‘Tower of Bagel’, ingeniously thought up by Bruce Solomon? Or the catchy photo of the Rabbi, cleverly taken by Madeline Solomon? Was it that Zeddy Lawrence, the comedy legend who had penned such greats as ‘London Bridge’ and ‘Biker Grove’ was a co-writer on the show? The ‘marvellous klezmer band’? The ‘vitality of the performances’? Or quite simply mum’s chicken soup recipe, in the programme?

Yes, probably all of that plus the genuine hunger and need from within the Jewish community, to laugh freely and openly about, at, against, with, for, on, all things… Jewish.

THE REVIEWS:

‘This Laffa Jaffa production with live accompaniment by a superb klezmer band, is the tastiest most un-kosher meal of quick-fire Jewish humour I have ever enjoyed.’
THE STAGE

‘There’s nothing like a perfect bagel. It is sweet and filling. Solomon’s production currently feels more like a half-baked work in progress.’ EVENING STANDARD

Both critics saw exactly the same show on the opening night at Soho Theatre. Neither of them was Jewish. We started to get nervous. One of the band members was having nightmares. A cast member dreamt that anti-Semites were throwing bricks threw her window. The word dare I say it… ‘stereotype’ was being uttered by many. ‘There must be more to being Jewish than over protective mothers and neurotic accountants.’ They said ‘It’s fun and surface but delve deeper, deal with the issues.’ The Metro accused us of being ‘too happy’. But The Stage said ‘Hilariously sponsored by Schmeasy Jet’. Eh?

So we started to think and to discuss what our issues actually were. Holocaust…? Yup that’s pretty deep, but it didn’t happen to us, well not directly. Exile? Immigration? sure, but again not directly our experience. Um we’ve got good jobs ish, reasonable incomes, we’re pretty independent but we did get called the odd ‘Oi ya Jew’ at school when we were younger. Not really the stuff of radical new comedy. We realised we were too assimilated, unlike the Asians who came over much later and are currently coping with the issues that we dealt with sixty years ago.

So, how do you reach a wide audience whilst remaining distinctly cultural, remove all stereotypes, deal with issues, have an opinion, reflect a uniquely British experience and…. be funny?

SOME FACTS

In America, Jewish comedians have achieved unprecedented acceptance. Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Lenny Bruce, Jackie Mason to name but a few, stand at the very centre of American humour. ‘Eastern European Jewish culture and the Yiddish language were instrumental in framing the comedic spirit of Jewish comedians, who were able to provide much-needed humour at crucial times in American struggles during the twentieth century.  They provided not just humour but a special body of experience from their Jewish heritage that met the needs of America at various points in its history.’1.

Meanwhile British Jewish comedians have on the whole steered well clear of referring to their Jewish identity and culture as a source of comedy. Ben Elton is well known for his political material. Alexei Sayle rarely speaks about being Jewish. Joe Brand is explicitly feminist but stays away from any Jewish material and Sacha Baron Cohen, he’s kind of well blackish isn’t he? um
 
It is only recently that a newer generation of British Jewish comics such as Ivor Dembina, Dave Schneider, and Mark Maier have emerged to speak openly about their heritage and explore Jewish material. None of them have yet achieved a worldwide comedy audience or gained the fame of their American counterparts. Why? Does British society quite simply not need or want it? Does the fact that Britain is so much closer to Eastern Europe mean that anti-Semitism is much more prevalent here than it ever was in America? Or are we just not funny enough? What made ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ so successful? Is it just a question of assimilation or quite simply the fact that Asians are by very nature of the colour of their skin, more visible. We all know what it’s like to eat in an Indian restaurant, but how many non Jews would frequent ‘Blooms’ or a kosher deli? But if British society is now much more open to diversity and !multiculturalism, then surely it can be open to us too, provided we come out of the closet.

HARMLESS  SELF-MOCKERY OR DAMAGINGLY CONTROVERSIAL?
 
The majority of the ‘Tower of Bagel’ audience were people from our parents’ generation. Those who had lived through the devastating emergence of truth about the holocaust and in some cases who had experienced direct loss as a result. In one particular sketch a secular Jewish sloane is interviewed about her past. ‘Did you lose any family in Europe?’ She gravely answers ‘Yup sadly… we were wine tasting in the Dordogne, my brother Leo got so drunk one night, couldn’t find his way back to the hotel, had to sleep outside all night, tragic.’ This unfailingly got a huge laugh every night. Why?

Laughter can be an incongruous reaction to having survived horror. Here the laughter is a release of tension. The Jewish immigrants in America at the turn of the twentieth century had not only lived through pogroms in Eastern Europe but by moving to America had in fact escaped from the grasp of the anti-Semites and the impending doom of the holocaust. Harpo Marx states in his autobiography ’You could laugh about the past because you’d been lucky enough to survive it.’2. Attached to this are inherent feelings of guilt. The laughter is a way to release that tension, relieve the guilt and soothe the feelings of despair about the past. It acts as a bridge to optimism and hope for the future. Freud saw humour as a release of nervous energy that had been kept within.

In another sketch Sandra Jaffa says ‘One of the difficulties I have with being Jewish is I’m naturally quite reticent as a person. I don’t really argue or offer an opinion’ Art is subjective. There will always be a variety of opinions, a multitude of reactions, to any type of controversial work. As comedians it is we who create the laughter. Through gentle self mockery we are not surrendering our identity, but acknowledging and celebrating our differences. Laughter is universal we can use it to relieve pain, diffuse tension and unite Jews and non Jews alike.

‘With their newfound voice, it remains to be seen how the British Jewish comedians will continue to create a Jewish comedic tradition that is uniquely British, in the sense that it creates different forms than the comedy created in America. That is the crucial challenge for these new comedians.’3.

And can we still be a bit silly as well please? Thanks.


1. ‘The Haunted Smile’- Lawrence J.Epstein (Published by Public Affairs Ltd) p.x
2. ‘The Haunted Smile’- p.328
3. ‘The Haunted Smile’- Lawrence J.Epstein p.299

Sandra Jaffa is currently in development with an independent television producer.


Tower of Bagel is at the Royal Festival Hall 22 December 2003 at 7.30pm
Tel: 020 7960 4242