NEW YORK – If laughter is the best medicine then New York City’s Jewish comedians are providing a pharmacopoeia during the pandemic.
“Comedy buys you time. For a bit, you don’t have to think about things that aren’t happy. You’re not thinking about the amount of people dying,” Israeli-born stand-up comedian Modi Rosenfeld told The Jerusalem Post.
When comedy venues closed in mid-March 2020, Rosenfeld, 50, was hunkered down in his Manhattan apartment with months of live performances canceled and little social media presence.
He started posting jokes on Instagram, as a fictional ultra-Orthodox Jewish character named Yoely.
“Hassidic Jews had been getting a bad rap during the pandemic because they were not quarantining like they should be, but they also couldn’t quarantine like they should be. I love hassidic Jews so I began doing these videos as Yoely. I tell jokes, I review popular Netflix shows – the videos have gone super viral all over the Internet,” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld, who now has an Instagram following of more than 28,000, said social media has unexpectedly given him the opportunity to become an international star.
“Yoely has fans in South Africa, Zurich, Belgium… There’s a Jewish community in Sweden that are huge fans. I don’t think I had fans in any of those countries before the pandemic,” he said.
TALIA REESE also said business has grown for her during the pandemic. But like Rosenfeld, she had to adapt.
“Before the pandemic, I was in comedy clubs in the city pretty much every night of the week other than Shabbos,” she told the Post.
“I got a call in March from a rabbi at a local synagogue. He asked, ‘Talia, do you think you can lift the spirits of the community?’” Reese recalled. “I didn’t even know what Zoom was yet at the time. But I agreed to do it. There’s a lot of funny stuff you can say about the pandemic. Obviously not about sickness and death, but there’s humor in the way we’re living our lives right now.”
To Reese’s pleasant surprise, her first pandemic show had 600 log-ins.
“My Zoom shows have turned out to be my biggest ones ever,” Reese said. “There’s this horrible thing happening, but I had just headlined my biggest show ever – and boy did I undercharge.”
As many started to feel Zoom fatigue by summer, desire grew for in-person shows. Reese purchased a wireless microphone, allowing her to do outdoor shows standing more than six feet away from audiences.
“With nice weather, there was really high demand for contactless events. I would count two weeks after each show to make sure I was healthy to go to the next event,” she said.
Reese said she receives thank you messages from fans, including some suffering from COVID-19.
“It’s so important to do mitzvot every day. I had been asking myself how I could do good during the pandemic if I don’t come into contact with people. Then someone who watched my show online reached out. She told me she was so depressed, but that watching my show made her happy.”
Some of Reese’s fans even call her an essential worker.
“I hear all the time people saying comedians should be the first ones vaccinated. I love that,” she said.
COMEDIAN ERIC Neumann found success on TikTok, a video-sharing social network he never considered using pre-pandemic.
“I’ve been a comedian in New York for the past 12 years. I got into a routine where I performed in clubs pretty much every night. I had finally made it to the Comedy Cellar, notably the best comedy club in the world.”
He recalled feeling depressed the first day of lockdown.
“But by the next morning, I was ready to make sure this was the most productive time of my career,” Neumann, 33, said.
“I consider myself a traditional stand-up comic. I never wanted to go viral or be a social media guy. I was all about old-school comedy clubs and then you make your way to the late night talk shows. But it just doesn’t work that way now,” he said. “To push myself, I joined TikTok. It’s an app that I never took seriously. Being in my 30’s, I’m the grandfather generation on TikTok.”
But it worked. Just months after joining, Neumann gained 50,000 followers on the app. As of October 2020, TikTok surpassed over two billion mobile downloads worldwide, with 32% of users between the ages 10 and 19.
“Now my eyes are opened that 15-year-olds being your fans is the best thing. They’re smart, they take in art faster than any other age group and have curiosity about the world.”
Neumann noted that telling jokes about COVID can be “uncomfortable,” but that the greatest growth of development in his career has happened over the past 10 months. “That’s something I never thought I would say. In general though, being a comedian is about pushing boundaries a bit.”
He said it became easier to write about the virus after becoming sick himself.
“At first, when I was writing about the pandemic it was something I was just experiencing from afar,” he recalled. “After having COVID, one of my new jokes is: ‘I’m happy to report that my COVID tiredness is gone and my regular, every day tiredness has resumed.’ Some gigs, people ask me to stay off the topic, they’re tired of hearing about it. But a lot of people ask me to talk about it; it’s what we’re all going through.
“The pieces I’m doing now are very reminiscent of the times. That’s what comedy has been historically, but trying to make light of COVID makes it ten times more awkward. Plus, now comedy is in places that it’s not meant to be. You’re not supposed to see comedy in Central Park when there are dogs barking. You’re not supposed to do it on Zoom when someone’s microphone is unmuted and their kid is in the background crying,” Neumann continued. “I take pride in the fact that I stayed active through all of this. I’m just riding the wave of what’s going on and trying to create something funny from it.”
Neumann noted the importance of Jewish comedy in challenging times. One of his favorite routines is about his “overprotective, anxious Jewish mom.”
“Jewish audiences are a different type of crowd than a typical Saturday night comedy club crowd. We’re naturally funny people and have a deep appreciation for humor. But on the flip side, we’re very tough to please. I took the most pride in comedy when I figured out how to effectively perform for Jewish audiences because they won’t fake it,” he said.
JESSICA CHAFFIN, a Jewish comedian and actress who has appeared in hit television shows including Curb Your Enthusiasm, Big Mouth and Veep, found pandemic success in launching a podcast.
The podcast, called Ask Ronna, features Chaffin, 39, playing Ronna Glickman – the Jewish maven character she created. Audience members call in asking Ronna for advice, with topics ranging from “What do you do if your AirBnb host died?” to generalized pandemic anxiety.
“I think because people are lacking human connection right now, this feels like an intimate virtual universe where you’re hearing about other human lives and hopefully having a few raunchy laughs along the way. Although it’s a comedy podcast, we give very genuine advice,” Chaffin, who co-hosts the program with actor Bryan Safi, said. “I always say, we’re not lawyers, we’re not psychologists, we’re just two people who have opinions and happen to be right most of the time.”
Chaffin echoed the significance of Jewish humor.
“I think there’s an amazing Jewish tradition and sensibility of being able to laugh at yourself. We’ve been through so much as a people. It’s pretty great we’ve come out of it with such great senses of humor,” she said.
“But I mean, what else are you going to do? You can’t stop and look back at the tragedy of it all of the time. The inverse of tragedy is comedy.”