For the Waterlogged, A Dry Wit

In the comedic Jewish tradition of wresting laughter from tragedy, Ellen Steigman — who used to do stand-up in New York but now lives in Mandeville, just across from New Orleans’s Lake Pontchartrain — is making fun of Hurricane Katrina.

Asked how can she make jokes in the face of such devastation, Steigman told the Forward: “How can you not? If you don’t laugh, you’d cry.”

Steigman is making plans to embark on a Dry Humor Tour of the South, which will incorporate a slew of Katrina jokes.

The Dry Humor Tour germinated in the moldy atmosphere of New Orleans. Steigman’s home sustained only minimal damage, and so in the weeks after Katrina she and her husband, photographer and Southeastern Louisiana University art professor John Valentino, opened their home to friends who were gutting their flooded homes and needed a place to stay.

Steigman described the scene: “Take five people who have been cleaning out and packing up three post-Katrina homes. Combine with a comedian and an art professor. Add a couple of bottles of wine. Stir.”

The result is a description of today’s New Orleans, sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.”

Water is swarming with verminous speciesElegant swimming pools teeming with fecesThe rash on my haunches is starting to stingThese are things that Katrina brings.Houses are burning and levees are breachingInto my water the sewage is seepingHorrible odors awaft in the breezeHoping I don’t catch a dreadful diseaseFirst the roof leakedThen the dome reekedDamn, the fridge smells bad!New Orleans covered in green, purple and goldIt’s not Mardi Gras, it’s MOLD!

It was a shock to the system when Steigman moved to New Orleans four years ago. “Never in my life would I have imagined I would end up living in the Deep South,” she said. “It took me awhile to feel at home here, but now I am like a Southern Jewish ambassador.”

She feels very strongly that only those who have lived through Katrina have the right to make jokes about it, although she does give honorary New Orleanian status to Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” who, she said, always makes her laugh.

And she is sensitive to the mood of her audience. “For me, making comedy is all about connecting to people. Some may not be ready to make jokes about Katrina, and that’s okay. In my shows, I will throw a few hurricane jokes out there and if I get dead silence, I will know not to go down that road and will focus on other areas.”

Talking to Steigman can be a dizzying experience, as she throws out joke after joke in a machine-like fashion. In the space of a few minutes, we went from her recent experience as a high school substitute teacher (“the best birth control there is”) to her dislocated friends who are in line for a FEMA trailer and “can’t wait to be trailer trash; go figure!” to her observation that four months ago no one knew what an MRE (ready-to-eat meal) was, and now people are debating which are the most tasty.

But for Steigman, being funny stems from being serious. “Like many comedians, I see the funny side of things precisely because I see the tragic aspect. I feel things very deeply,” she said.

“It sounds clichéd, but living through Katrina has really taught me what is most important in life, what really matters, and that is my connection to others.”

Written by

Gail Chalew

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For the Waterlogged, A Dry Wit

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