As a Jewish-North American aspiring comedienne in London, who had performed gigs in Edwardian paddle steamers, basement air-raid shelters and on rainy street corners, I was used to unusual settings. So I was trying hard not to be intimidated when I arrived one Sunday to a particularly important show, to find that the venue was in the heart of the sex district, had a gilded 19th-century ceiling adorned with a s’chach of disco balls and a backstage with cabaretists smoking roll-ups while fixing their nipple-tassels and gossiping about their recent sexploits with Russell Brand.
Considering I hadn’t even brought a hairbrush (necessary for the primping of my hirsute Jewish head), I didn’t exactly fit in, but spent pre-show time cleaning my glasses, reminding myself that I had been invited to perform for this largely gay audience – a crowd who usually responded well to my shtick.
A driven, short, librarian-looking, early-30s, hyper-ambitious Jew-nerd, who took comedy seriously, gigging religiously and seeking my break, I was kvelling the week before when I had gotten a call from a West End producer offering me this spot. I would be the newcomer at this cabaret, alongside famous acts, and would even be paid £60. Agents, producers and established comedians would see me, opening the possibility for regular professional work. I had to be great.
BACKSTAGE AT the theater, I paced back and forth, trying to reduce my medium-grade panic-attack and create that necessary paradoxical performer state-of-mind, that fine-line between being utterly confident and completely needy of the audience. Then the emcee
announced my name. I went on strong, nonchalantly mocking the audience’s wild cheers, which they found hilarious. “I’m Canadian,” I explained, “I came to the UK seeking asylum. I found quite a good one.” They were laughing. I had grabbed them. I was acing the West
End! Until my third joke.
“I’m a Jew,” I said, about to parody an identity gag. Only I couldn’t continue. As soon as I said the J-word, I was confronted with an enormous, thundering, simultaneous: boo. I thought I misheard.
“What?” I actually asked into the mike.
The booing got louder. I stopped dead in my tracks. The sound of 200 people heckling echoed across the crystal table decorations and through my ears. They were jeering me – not even for my half-told mediocre pun – but for my religion. Acid ran from my esophagus through me; I felt burning and hollow. Under the silvery balls, the enormous drapes, in the spotlight, what was I supposed to do?
It wasn’t the first time my tribal identity had been an issue with stand-up in Britain.
I had been told by industry-folk to “go back to New York,” “change your style” and even “marry a non-Jew so your kids will be better looking,” which had come as shock to my comfortable-in-their-own-skin North American ears, and which I optimistically put down to “testing me.”
In fact, it was producers who had suggested I add this joke acknowledging my race, because that’s what audiences would be wondering about when they saw me. But never before had I been responded to in public by a visceral, unabashed syllable. This was a place where it was all right to boo a Jew.
Standing under those Victorian proscenium arches I felt like I had in sixth grade, when my Yiddish teacher at my Holocaust-obsessed school pulled me to the front of the class, made me turn to profile and said: “Look at the eyes, look at the nose, if this was Warsaw ’41, Judy
would be first to go!”
I FINISHED the joke. The taunts got louder. I tried my next bit. The jeers continued, until the audience stopped listening and talked among themselves, as if I wasn’t there and nothing had just happened. I gave up, and put the mike back in its stand seven minutes too early – to no
I ran backstage, scurrying through a warren of antique architecture, up and down spiral staircases, thinking that the only reason I was alive now was because my bubby hadn’t looked like a Yid at all; she had had blue eyes, high cheekbones and long long legs which she used to jump, hop and skip right out of the Warsaw-Lublin corridor in 1940.
Finally, panting, I landed at the back of the venue, by the lighting technician. “You really died out there,” he said. “This is a tough crowd. You have to fight back if you want to kill.”
From the tech-box, I watched an established gay-black-British comic also bomb. The audience, however, didn’t boo his gayness, or his blackness. In a country obsessed with identity politics, I had the wrong one. Unlike in Allen/Rivers/Seinfeld America, here there was
something at stake in being a Semite in public. The UK comedy circuit was a different kettle of gefilte fish. My race worked against me in the English comic rat race. My drive, ambition, talent, would be insufficient.
Watching the comic’s techniques for winning back the audience – sitting, silence, screaming – it dawned on me. “Idiots – if you get rid of the Jews, they’ll come after you,” “Hitler didn’t spare you either” or just “Shut up poofters.” These were the things I should have said. I should have killed.
Walking home through deserted and seedy Soho, feeling vulnerable, I
couldn’t resist calling my father, despite knowing how overprotective
he was and that he would probably get on a flight to Heathrow
immediately. But to my amazement, when I tearfully relayed my story,
burst into laughter. “Write that down,” he said, “one day, you’ll use
that,” reminding me of where our people’s humor came from in the first
place.The author is a Canadian writer and performer currently based in New York City. She can be reached at www.judybatalion.com
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