March 4, 2004
Did You Hear the One About Haman?
"Purim is bizarre," said comedian Joel Chasnoff. Or at least the customs are a little weird. Consider the way Jews celebrate the demise of Haman, the bad guy: "We eat him," Chasnoff said. "Actually we eat a pastry that's named after his ears, and the natural implication is that the filling inside is some sort of fruity earwax."
The "eew"-factor led to a sketch, "Haman on the Couch," that graces Chasnoff's CD, "Hanukah Guilt: The Comedy of Joel Chasnoff." In the sketch, an agoraphobic Haman visits a psychiatrist because he's been suffering paranoid delusions, notably the fear that throngs of children will chase him down to lick poppy seeds out of his ears.
The religiously specific bit is what one might expect of Chasnoff, who, at 30, has already carved out a niche with humor based on loving spoofs of Jewish life.
"He speaks from a very positive Jewish perspective and also a deeply Jewish perspective," said Jeff Rubin, communications director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in Washington, D.C.
While comics such as Chris Rock and Margaret Cho riff on their respective minority cultures, Chasnoff does the same about growing up a religious Jew. Influenced by observational comics such as Seinfeld, his observations are of attending a Chicago-area day school, his Conservative bar mitzvah, visiting Israel and, of course, the holidays.
One of his favorites, as a kid, was Purim, when Chasnoff and his classmates wore elaborate costumes to school. In the fourth grade, he recalls, he went as pop star Michael Jackson, which now seems kind of scary, but then was almost de rigeur.
"I was this 3-foot Jewish kid wearing glitter and a glove and trying unsuccessfully to moonwalk," he recalled. "It was great."
Purim was the perfect holiday for Chasnoff, the class clown, who found eliciting yuks to be "a way of getting attention."
"I was always short," said the comic, who is still slight in stature. "I remember when I was 4 or 5, I even had nightmares about being a dwarf or a midget. So being funny wasn't exactly compensation, but it was a way of standing out. Plus it felt good to make people laugh."
Chasnoff found himself dressing up, yet again, for the University of Pennsylvania's Mask and Wig comedy troupe, whose all-male actors performed in drag.
"I wore pantyhose, high heels and tight-fitting dresses," he said. "I was a skinny guy, so I had a pretty good bod."
He was more than pretty good when he did his first standup show at Hillel, his junior year, armed with observations he'd jotted in a notebook. Soon thereafter, he visited a friend at the University of Michigan and convinced that Hillel to let him perform for $1 a person. Chasnoff began making a name for himself on the Hillel circuit, but opted to put his career on hold after graduating from Penn in 1996. He had long-dreamed of serving in the Israeli army: "It was the ultimate commitment to the country, and I knew I'd regret it forever if I didn't go," he said.
His one-year stint proved to be a positive Jewish -- and comedic -- experience. It inspired bits about the most common Israeli word, "Ehhhhhhhh," and about the security guards who questioned him at the airport: "Did you pack your bags while you were by yourself, with no help from your parents, your grandparents ... or Hamas?"
When he returned to the United States, the Israeli riffs became part of his act, along with bits about American Jewish life. For example, Chasnoff joked about Lieberman winning the presidency, "which would be great because then we could finally get rid of that stupid Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn and replace it with a national search for the Afikomen."
He says his act is stereotype-free: "I've made a conscious decision that my comedy will be based on positive, genuine experiences," he said. "It really bothers me when Jewish comics who don't really have any Jewish identity make fun of Judaism. It's just so detrimental. How many jokes can you tell about Jews being uptight with money?"
Chasnoff, who now performs within and without the Jewish community, feels his ethnic bits have been more successful than the generic observations he riffs on while performing in mainstream clubs.
"But right now a lot of my Jewish stuff is only understood by Jews, and I'm kind of sorry about that," he said. "I'm searching for ways to bring Judaism into my act in a way that can be understood by everyone."
One solution has been talking about his wife and 2-year-old twin daughters, which has allowed him "to be personal without just relying on my Judaism."
But Chasnoff's heritage -- and Jewish pride -- will always remain part of his act. Consider "The Purim Song" on his CD, which playfully disses the stereotype of Jews taking over the world.
"I make it clear we haven't," he said. "Because if we had, New Year's Eve would be in September."
For information about Chasnoff or to purchase his $15 CD, visit www.joelchasnoff.com .