London’s JW3 cultural center is presenting the first UK Jewish Comedy Festival, a weeklong tribute to all things humorous and self-deprecating from an Anglo-Jewish perspective.
The festival, which launched Saturday night, intends to capitalize upon the long-standing success of related cultural events such as the UK Jewish Film Festival and Jewish Book Week.
A vision for Jewish comedy in the UK
Raymond Simonson, curator at the JW3 center, has long admired and followed the acts of American Jewish comedians, who have so successfully dominated the American standup comedy scene that they practically define the genre. In the US, big names like Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, Jon Stewart and more are nationally familiar to secular, non-Jewish fans. This UK festival is Simonson’s attempt to bring that type of comedy to UK audiences. The British lineup includes actor Sacha Baron Cohen, comic writer David Schneider, and David Baddiel, who made a movie about a Muslim discovering his Jewish identity.
In addition to nightly standup headliners, the festival includes movies, discussions, and “wildcard events” that explore “the art of Jewish, not-so-Jewish, and not-at-all-Jewish comedy.” The first two nights of the festival included appetizers and standup by the Hava Nagiggle All Stars, and a screening of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, complete with live jazz and themed Woody cocktails.
— Time Out Comedy (@TimeOut_Comedy) November 29, 2014
Lineup for the rest of the week includes more comedy and movies, a comedy game show, and a Jewish comedian-of-the-year competition, as well as an afternoon of masterclasses on topics addressing Everything You Wanted to Know About the Comedy Industry but Were Afraid to Ask.
Mirroring American Jewish standup
Part of the challenge for Jewish humor in the UK lies in national Jewish perception. The Jewish demographic in New York exploded in the last century as refugees fled oppression from Hitler in Europe. The resulting population banded together and created its own subculture with themes of persecution and neurosis. By comparison, Jews remain a tiny minority in the UK and are generally deemed culturally insignificant compared to other groups.
What’s more, while Jews in the US have cultivated and capitalized upon their perceived position as victims since World War II, those in the UK are fighting against perceptions generated by current Israeli-Palestinian tensions that the Jews are the oppressors. This understandably complicates the intersection of Jewishness and humor, as audiences generally prefer to laugh with underdogs.
Finding a unique UK Jewish perspective
As a result, a tricky element of pulling off this Jewish Comedy Festival is that many of the UK’s Jewish comics tend to pull their humor from sources other than the self-deprecating references to being outcast, uptight about money, or overly gossipy about everything and everyone themes found in American Jewish comedy. Jewish comedians are more likely to find themselves mocked than enjoyed when they poke fun at their own culture, and as a result often attempt to avoid being “pigeonholed” into Jewish humor in their career.
But the aim of the Jewish Comedy Festival is to encourage comedians nationally to come out as Jewish, to become more comfortable with their identity. Aside from including a robust lineup of humorists who claim Jewish heritage, the point of the festival is to joke specifically about topics of Jewish interest.
So what is the unique UK Jewish perspective? According to seasoned comic Arnold Brown, Jewish heritage still includes a lot of persecution complex. Audiences want to root for an underdog, whether Jewish or anything else. Therefore, successful Jewish comedy in the UK is most likely to find the intersection of where the Jewish culture feels marginalized in a way the popular culture can relate to. Brown advises aspiring comedians to worry less about creating a fully original act, and more about finding one or two completely new bits. Then finesse a strong routine around those bits–and wait as long as possible to deliver punchlines.
If the UK Jewish Film Festival and Jewish Book Week are any indication, UK is home to enough interest in Jewish culture to support JW3’s Jewish Comedy Festival venture. As the comedians put their finger on the pulse of what Jewish comedy has in common with every Brit, perhaps they can create a surge of positive appreciation that reflects the outstanding success of American Jewish comedy.