Haredi comedian Ashley Blaker.
(photo credit: MERON PERSEY)
He doesn’t look much like a typical comedian. And he doesn’t act much like a typical ultra-Orthodox Jew. But Ashley Blaker isn’t concerned about labels.
He’s too busy making people laugh.
Blaker has recently finished his second UK-wide tour, “Meshuga Frum,” with 18 shows around the country. But now he’s gearing up to reach a much wider audience, with a BBC radio show set to launch in 2018 called Ashley Blaker’s Goyish Guide to Judaism.
“I’ve spent a lot of time performing for Jewish audiences,” Blaker told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. “The next challenge is to adapt that comedy for a wider audience, so that everyone can appreciate it.”
Of course, if you’ve seen Blaker perform, you know that his act has a distinctly parochial flavor. Clad in a black suit and white shirt, with tzitzit swinging, the comedian has audiences rolling on the floor with riffs on how to avoid shaking hands with women, and why every Jewish eatery and event now offers sushi.
“I am remarkably ill-informed about the business I work in,” he jokes, noting that he doesn’t even own a television. “Somebody asked me if I’d seen The Wire, and I thought he was talking about the eruv.”
But Blaker is hard at work adapting his material for new audiences – and not just for the BBC. He’s also set his sights on an upcoming tour in the US, where his jokes will have to undergo a different kind of change.
“I’m kind of working on two different adaptations,” he says. “One is adapting for a British audience, who are not Jewish, but the other is for a Jewish audience, who aren’t British.”
He’ll get to test out some of the latter material on August 7 when he performs “Strictly Unorthodox” in Johannesburg. And to prepare for his radio show, he’s been doing jobs in the West End of London.
If you pay attention to news reports out of the UK, you might wonder if audiences would be receptive to such a Jewish-themed show, considering rising incidents of antisemitism. But Blaker has no such concerns.
“I think when you wear it so openly, and it’s such a part of your persona, I think people respect it in a different way,” he said. “I think it’s very different when you wear it as a kind of badge.”
Blaker, a father of six, didn’t grow up ultra-Orthodox, but become more religious once he got married.
He started working in comedy before he became observant, and has been producing TV and radio shows for the BBC for years.
While he doesn’t expect too much pushback from the outside world, he does often feel it from within the more insular Orthodox community. Not everybody is thrilled with how he pokes fun at some of the customs and stringencies in observant life.
“You’ll always have a few people who don’t have a sense of humor,” he says. “But when five people get in touch with me to complain about something, there are thousands of people who love something who don’t get in touch.”
And there are no sacred cows for Blaker: while his act is as clean as can be, it leaves no aspect of religious life off the table.
“Nothing will mark you out as a ba’al teshuva [someone who became religious later in life] more than being a decent driver,” he jokes. Blaker also makes fun of newspapers that ban images of women, or how haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men put plastic bags on their black hats in the rain.
“Sometimes I’ll get comments that ‘I didn’t celebrate enough how amazing it is to be frum. It wasn’t celebratory enough,’” he says. “That’s not my job. That’s not what I do. That’s missing the point.”
But he doesn’t alter his act to placate anyone, including a joke about remaking the TV show Lost (where a plane crashed on a remote island) to be about an El Al flight.
“Just because I really wanted to have a character who spends the entire series going up and down the beach going: ‘You daven mincha yet? You daven mincha?” Blaker said some of the jokes he posts on Facebook are what garner the most “hate mail and abusive calls,” but he’s learned to shrug it off over time. He also recognizes that some of the criticism stems from the fact that many of his audience members simply aren’t exposed to all that much stand-up comedy.
“They’re not going to see comedy on a regular basis,” he says. “I’m doing something that’s so unusual, and they’re just not used to it.”