Comic Brings Down the House on Synagogue Circuit

By Lisa Keys

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
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We’ll start with the most obvious: Comedian Joel Chasnoff is cute.

At a performance at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan last week, this reporter’s date — er, sister — whispered this observation when Chasnoff emerged from the area serving as the backstage. A JCC volunteer concurred, kicking it up a notch: In introducing Chasnoff to the audience she declared the comedian to be “really, really cute.”

With an ultra-lanky body and longish, floppy hair that’s slightly graying, Chasnoff is indeed easy on the eyes. Strap a guitar on him and you could almost mistake him for the kid brother of Billy Corgan, the former frontman for the rock band Smashing Pumpkins.

But he’s not just another pretty face. Chasnoff, in his “late 20s” — “it’s best in showbiz not to pinpoint yourself,” he said — is increasingly in demand for his unique brand of stand-up comedy: Jewish humor based upon positive experiences in American Jewish life — summer camp, Israel tours, commemorations of Jewish holidays — and not stereotypes.

So he’s Jewish! your inner yenta thinks.

Indeed. During the last three-and-a-half years, Chasnoff has been making a living doing stand-up at comedy clubs as well as synagogues, Jewish conferences, summer camps and Hillel houses across the country.

If you weren’t aware there was a market for comedians on the synagogue circuit, “I wasn’t either,” Chasnoff said. “In a way, I created it.”

Over breakfast at a midtown diner, Chasnoff tells the Forward how it all began. His first show, performed while he was an undergraduate studying math and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, was at the campus Hillel house. The following week he went to visit a friend at the University of Michigan and asked if he could perform at the Hillel house there, and — Jewish geography being what it is — his career launched from there.

Following his graduation in 1996, Chasnoff served in the Israeli army. Two years later he returned to his native Chicago and picked up his act where he left off.

Doing Jewish humor “was not an attempt to get more business,” he said. “I write about what I know, what I know the most about. At Penn I was in a very Jewish environment, I lived in a Jewish dorm. What I would write about was what I was experiencing.

“Jewish humor, for me, means humor that comes out of living a Jewish life,” Chasnoff said. “To a lot of people it means big noses and nagging mothers-in-law. I’ll make one joke about Jewish guilt — but I won’t make it the brunt of my act.”

Take Jackie Mason, an icon of Jewish humor who is most famous for being overtly, stereotypically — and some say embarrassingly — Jewish. “He was new in America, he had a different upbringing,” Chasnoff said. “For us, Judaism doesn’t mean being an outcast, but for Jackie Mason it did. For us, it’s very little about being a victim — except being victims of our own synagogue politics.”

Chasnoff had always wanted to be a comedian. Growing up in Evanston, Ill., “I was always the one making jokes,” he said. “A lot of it was for attention — not professional aspiration. I didn’t make the basketball team at my Jewish day school; that requires a combination of being really short and really bad. Humor was the thing that came naturally to me when jump shots did not.”

And he’s funny!

Right. At a recent Birthright Israel opening ceremony, Chasnoff, according to Hillel’s director of communications, Jeff Rubin, “brought down the house.”

During the JCC performance last week, Chasnoff yukked it up with the audience of 30-somethings, taking on everything from the Jewish tendency toward acronyms, the constipating effect of matzo — giving new meaning to “let my people go!” — to the incongruity of armed soldiers wearing camouflage in the airport.

Of using the fitness center at the “J,” as he calls it, Chasnoff recounted watching beefcakes bench press 300 pounds. “Damn! These aren’t Jews!” he remarked. As for politics, “How about Lieberman?” he later asked. “A Jew in the White House. If another country pissed us off, we’ll make them feel guilty.”

A big hit with the JCC crowd was Chasnoff’s remarkable ability to imitate foreign accents. “Anytime I start seeing reactions, I start cutting and pasting,” he said. “If there’s a topic that works, I riff on it, improvise. It takes a good memory to see what patterns keep coming up, what to bring back.”

Still, “being funny, that’s not the only thing,” he said. “You have to find your own unique viewpoint and have the persistence to see it out. I think I have it. I’m doing it — so I certainly have the persistence part.”

Chasnoff is quick to point out that the world of stand-up can be a rough one. “It’s naked,” he said. “There’s no script, no director. It’s all you. You’re putting your ideas out there for immediate feedback — you know immediately if you’re liked.”

He’s sensitive, too! He’s perfect for my friend…

Now comes the bad news: While he doesn’t wear a wedding band, doesn’t mention it in his biography or make a peep about it in his act, Chasnoff has been married to his Israeli-born wife, Dorit, for four years. In fact, the couple have twin 21-month-old girls, Stav and Noam, and recently moved to the almost suburban Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale.

“My family life is very personal to me,” he said.

But suggestions from meddling yentas keep pouring in. “I’ve had quite a few offers of set-ups,” said Chasnoff after a sigh and a blush. “A polite declination always works.”

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