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A Tribute To Comedic Trailblazers

‘It’s not prudish, but it’s clean and smart. It’s definitely something that people who like to go to theater will appreciate — it’s not low rent. And it’s hilarious.”

That is what comedian Cathy Ladman said about the new off-Broadway production “The J.A.P Show, Jewish American Princesses of Comedy,” in which she stars with a host of Jewish women comedians, alive and dead. The piece features creator Cory Kahaney, Jackie Hoffman, Jessica Kirson and Ladman performing alongside video footage of such comedic pioneers as Belle Barth, Jean Carroll, Totie Fields and Betty Walker.

In January 2006, “The J.A.P Show” landed in Florida, at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse, for a five-day run. Based on the rapturous audience reaction, those involved knew that New York was the inevitable next step. “The reception was great,” Ladman said. “We played to terrific houses. And it wasn’t like the audience was completely filled with walkers or anything.” It took more than a year for the production to make it to Manhattan, where it recently opened at The Actors’ Temple theater.

The dearly departed comedians whose acts are spotlighted in “The J.A.P. Show” will be familiar to many. Fields, who frequently poked fun at her weight, made more than 100 appearances on “The Mike Douglas Show” and guest-starred on “The Ed Sullivan Show” more than three dozen times. She worked consistently until her death in 1978. Among other achievements, Carroll had her own sitcom for a season in the 1950s. These are just some examples of what these women accomplished.

During the 90-minute show, each cast member does about 15 minutes of her own stand-up and introduces a woman of the past. Ladman presents footage of Walker. “I didn’t know her name,” Ladman admitted. “But that voice of hers is so identifiable. I remembered it clearly. Now I love standing onstage watching her video. She makes me laugh.”

That is really the key to this show — the reverential treatment of those who blazed the trail. One can see all the modern-day stand-ups in clubs, but those gigs offer a much different experience. “A theater smells better and tastes better than a club,” Ladman said. “Also, watching these old black-and-white videos is so interesting and entertaining. Certain things you wouldn’t say today if you were writing an act, but it still works.”

As for her living counterparts, Ladman, known for her angst-ridden routines (her most recent tour was called the “Midlife Crisis Comedy Tour”), thinks they are quite amusing. “Jessica plays to the youngest audience of all of us. Her comedy is the broadest — she makes a lot of noises. Jackie is very smart and sometimes bawdy. She uses a lot of music — her stand-up is like banter between songs. And Cory is just a terrifically funny monologist. She has great material and delivery.”

But while Ladman believes that everyone involved is talented and should be treated royally, don’t tell her you think that she or her co-stars are Jewish American princesses, despite the show’s title. “I really don’t think we’re a JAP-py bunch,” she said. “JAP connotes someone who is spoiled and self-centered, and that’s not what you see in these women.”

Cara Joy David is a freelance writer whose mother has always embraced the term JAP.

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