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Still, the Jewish variety artists today are not your bubbe’s tummlers, starting with “Jewish” variety artist Shane Baker, a Christian-born Yiddish speaker and theater scholar. His specialty is Yiddish vaudeville, and his roster of credits include his solo piece, “The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville,” and “The Sheyn Show,” a series of videos playing on Forward.com.
Rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s are The Flying Karamazov Brothers (whose original members were predominantly Jewish and who were especially huge in the 1980’s) and the very heady Avner the Eccentric, aka Avner Eisenberg, who continues to perform as a Beckettian clown. His balancing acts with hats and ladders are a celebration of pointlessness Eisenberg admits happily.
“I spend excessive amounts of time perfecting a skill that no one needs,” Eisenberg said. “It’s a mental disorder, it’s arrogant and it’s also very democratic. Anyone can master the skill if he puts in the time and effort. You don’t need a degree in literature.”
The current crop of Jewish variety artists — who perform at Coney Island, at various clubs and festivals, and even in “The Gong Show Live,” an off-Broadway production inspired by the tacky 1970s TV show — are an eclectic lot who say their Jewish backgrounds coupled with their experiences as contemporary urban Americans define their aesthetic.
Ukulele player and songwriter Ellia Bisker (Sweet Soubrette), who performs sad but comic songs about failed relationships and unrequited love, believes using humor to explore upsetting themes is essentially Jewish. So is wordplay. “My family was always engaged verbally,” she recalled. “Intellectualism was valued, but all of it with a certain playfulness.” Bisker is every bit the feminist and New Age advocate. The visible tattooed circles on her chest just below her neck are “all positive and life affirming,” she said, adding with a sly smile. “Also, they look great with a strapless gown.”
Bob Greenberg specializes in bizarre impressions — including Ralph Kramden of “The Honeymooners” doing Shakespeare, and Lou Costello testifying at the Gotti trial — but he also sees himself as part of a Jewish tribe. An intangible “haimishness” unites Jewish vaudevillians even today, he says.