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No More Vodka Jokes: Russian Comics Have a New, Funny Side

It is Friday evening in Midtown Manhattan, and Oleg Boksner, aka Alec Fly, is standing on a small wooden stage in the basement of the Broadway Comedy Club. He’s wearing a Russian fur hat with a communist badge on the front, and mimicking a grumpy immigrant from the former Soviet Union.

“Kheer, khav potato,” he says, bending toward an imaginary child out for Halloween trick-or-treating in an apartment block in Brooklyn’s Coney Island. “And you,” he says, motioning impatiently to an imaginary friend, “you can khav onion.”

The audience, about 50 mainly Russian-speaking men and women, is laughing out loud, as it did moments earlier, when Vicky Kuperman, whose father is Jewish, lamented her trouble dating Jewish men.

“I was Jewish enough for Hitler,” she deadpans, “but not for David Finkelstein.”

Boksner and Kuperman are two of a slew of Russian-speaking Jewish comedians making their way through the New York comedy circuit. Later in July, they will perform in an all-Jewish lineup produced by Kuperman called R Spotlight, at the JCC in Manhattan.

Standup is not wholly alien to the former Soviet Union. With its rich language and love of wit, the monologist was as much a part of Soviet life then as it is today. But erudite men, wearing polo necks or jackets, standing in front of a large audience, usually delivered such entertainment. And ad-libbing in the land of the censor was ill-advised.

It is a far cry from comedy as it is practiced in New York, in small dimly lit basements and back rooms, with a $10 cover and a two-drink minimum. Here, the material is often bawdy. And the comic is expected to pick on nervous audience members and to riff off of hecklers.

The new material coming out of New York today is also a departure from the Russian-American humor pioneered by Yakov Smirnoff during the 1980s. Smirnoff’s jokes about freedom and learning to speak English have been replaced by one-liners about computer programming and the Russian mafia.

“Smirnoff just did vodka and toilet paper jokes,” Boksner said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “But we are trying to tell the Russian-Jewish American story from the 1980s onwards, where you had this huge immigration to this country.”

Born in Moscow, Kiev or Kishinev, the latest wave of comedians moved to America in the 1980s and ’90s, when they were very young. They watched their parents battle to fit in and find work, while they struggled to build identities as Russian-Jewish children in America.

“I didn’t grow up in Russia,” said Boksner, who moved to New York in 1980 at the age of 8. “I am a New York, Brooklyn, Jewish guy who just happened to be born in Moscow.”

Consequently, much of the new material has its roots in tension between members of the younger generation — American raised, often with a Jewish education — and their Soviet parents, who are willing to bend only so far toward their American and Jewish surroundings. It’s also about the fears and insecurities that plagued parents and, often, their children in the form of an overwhelming pressure to succeed.

“I don’t think American Jewish children understand what pressure means in a Russian-Jewish family,” said Anna Fishbeyn, a writer and comedian who will appear in R Spotlight and whose one-woman show, “Sex in Mommyville,” begins a two-week run at The Flea, in Manhattan’s Tribeca, in August.

Talking about that pressure she noted that, like her, other children of immigrants are “very much the same immigrants that your parents are and the fears they have are your fears.”

Fishbeyn, who immigrated to Chicago from Moscow when she was 9, grew up on the north side of the city in a “pretty dangerous neighborhood.” She was bused for two hours each day to a Jewish school in the intellectual enclave of Hyde Park and scored a 4.0 GPA.

“I would tell my father that I wanted to be a writer,” said Fishbeyn, who went on to take a master’s program in measurement evaluation and statistical analysis at the University of Chicago, “and he would say, ‘Finish your statistics, become an actuary and write on the side, like Kafka did.’”

At the age of 30, Fishbeyn finally plucked up the courage to become a comedy writer. Her material now leans heavily on anecdotes about living in an Upper West Side apartment two floors below her parents.

“My parents have a lot of ideas about how to raise children,” she said. “I tell my American husband, ‘When you married me, you married a little sliver of the former Soviet Union.’”

Back at the comedy club, Boksner has exhausted his taxi driver material. The laughs start to fade, and Boksner decides it’s time to exit the stage.

“My taxi driver is very irate because he’s frustrated,” Boksner explained. “He doesn’t understand so many things about life in Brooklyn, and that gets him into all sorts of tense situations.

“Some people get the surface of the jokes, and some people get what’s between the lines.”

Contact Paul Berger at [email protected]

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