Sunday, May 10, 2009

Yisrael Campbell, Orthodox Comedian

Comedian Yisrael Campbell likes to get the crowd warmed up during his stand-up routines by using a little bit of background: “I grew up vaguely Catholic. ‘How Catholic?’ people always ask me. Well, Catholic enough to know I was going to hell.” He goes on, “I’m the firstborn son of a manic depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman. This makes me wildly emotional… in a very quiet way.”

As his set unfolds, he revisits the salient points of his life story: that he was born in Philadelphia; that his mom used to be a nun; that by the age of 16, he had suffered from, and kicked, a drug and alcohol addiction; that he once was married to an Egyptian woman, and that he has undergone three circumcisions in order to be Jewish. “When the rabbi told me I’d have to do it all again, I said, okay, I’ll do a third circumcision. But I want you to know, three circumcisions is not a religious covenant, it’s a fetish.”

Onstage, Campbell tells his stories at a driving pace, continually dropping jokes as he goes. These poke fun of his religious “look,” which includes the long black coat, hat and beard, and his peyes (“These are not payot, just the beginning of a comb-over”). Offstage, Campbell is calm, thoughtful and sincere — but not that funny. Where other comedians I’ve known use humor to make light of tough situations, Campbell addresses these instances straight on.

One afternoon, as we were drinking coffee on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Campbell was explaining how he became interested in Judaism. Following the path to sobriety after high school, he moved to Florida to work as a drug and alcohol counselor. While living in Florida, the then-Chris Campbell befriended a Jewish woman who gave him a book and also the concept of a relationship with God. She said: “If you are mad at God, yell at God. If you are happy with God, laugh with God. And if you are sad with Him, cry.” The book was “Exodus” by Leon Uris. In his set, he notes: “I read Uris’s book and was ready to move to Israel. I imagined myself digging avocados out of the earth… How did I know they grow on trees? I’m from Philly!”

During this conversation, Campbell’s phone rings and it is his wife, former substitute Talmud teacher (from the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem) Avital, calling to discuss the mess of cereal bowls left after breakfast from him and their three children. He listens to her complaints and apologizes tenderly, without joking his way out. Where other comedians use humor to get out of responsibility, Campbell uses humor to get deeper into it.

After Florida, he had a brief stint in acting school in New York. In 1990, he moved to Los Angeles and performed in what’s known as the “un-comedy” improv scene with such now-famous comedians as Janeane Garofalo and Kathy Griffin. I asked what Griffin was like at that time, and Campbell said her act was basically about anal sex, getting slapped and then telling her mother about it all.

Back then, Campbell’s jokes were edgy, too. He had one that compared the irony of Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s tell-all book on avoiding AIDS to a hypothetical Amelia Earhart book about flying planes. But now, almost 20 years later, he is an observant Jew, a dutiful husband and a religious comedian, so edgy jokes like that are no longer part of Campbell’s repertoire.

At a recent Sabbath dinner at the Campbells’ apartment, I again experienced the comedian’s offstage presence. During a lively parsha discussion, the couple’s three toddlers decide to put on a costume fashion show. In the middle of the show, the eldest child, Tuviah, dressed as a firefighter, began to strip down, revealing a little naked body beneath the firefighter’s hat, heavy coat and overalls. While the inner comedian in me saw a cue for a joke, Campbell just smiled and gently ushered his son back into his gear.

Back onstage, Campbell offers the following comedic take on a potentially serious topic:

In conversion class, we learned that on the second night of Hanukkah, you light the second-night candle first. You know why? ’Cause it’s new. It might be nervous. The first-night candle burned last night; the second-night candle is new and might feel a little… mmmmnnhh [makes a nervous noise]. So out of consideration for the feelings of a candle, we light it first. Now I’m not insane; I know that the first-night candle is just as new as the second-night candle: They are both brand new! Last night’s candle’s gone. It’s not coming back. It suddenly occurred to me: If this is a people, if this is a culture, if this is a religion that cares so much about the feelings of a candle, how must they treat people? [He pauses.] Not so well, I find out; not all the time. I’ve had my days — I’m sure you have, too — when I thought, ‘I wish I was a candle.’

This clip is posted on YouTube, and while many of the comments are favorable — “Lol,” “Love it,” “Hilarious” — some are hesitant. One viewer writes: “This seems like the kind of humor you have to be Jewish to get. And I am an observant Jew, and I only understand half of what he’s talking about. Maybe it’s cause I’m a little distracted by his weird schtick and mannerisms and I can’t focus on what he’s actually saying.” If I were to post a comment on the video, it probably wouldn’t mention any schtick, but instead would read something like this: “LMAO (Laughing my a— off)! But I agree that you might have to be Jewish to laugh yours off.”

Skeptics aren’t new to Campbell, who has been a performer long enough to have had his share of criticism. He notes that before he gets onstage, Reform Jews are often afraid he is going to make them feel guilty for not being Jewish enough, and Orthodox Jews are afraid he’s going to curse. But ultimately, he says pluralistically, Judaism offers “the groundwork for argument. Very often, disagreement is acceptable and argument is not only acceptable, but also encouraged. So that leads to me being able to say one thing, you being able to say something different and them both being Jewish, which is the path upon which funny will happen.”

Margaret Teich writes about ethical eco-fashion and contemporary Jewish awesomeness — rarely at the same time. She blogs at

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