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Queen of Laughter

Rhea Kohan reigns as mistress of ceremonies at Jewish functions in Los Angeles.

by Michael Aushenker

March 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Imagine emceeing an event following Sept. 11. Rhea Kohan knows that feeling. The mistress of ceremonies for countless local Jewish organizations hosted Friends of Sheba Medical Center's annual Women of Achievement Luncheon just 48 hours after the terrorist attack.

"I was dreading it, because who was in the mood to laugh," Kohan said of the Sept. 13, 2001, engagement. "I told them, 'Why don't you cancel? Even the Emmy Awards was canceled."

But the luncheon's honorees -- including "Will & Grace" star Debra Messing and cartoonist Cathy Guisewite -- did not cancel, so Kohan kept her commitment, as well.

Attendees of that post-Sept. 11 function recalled how deftly Kohan negotiated the line between comedy and solemnity.

"People walked in absolutely confused, distraught, upset," recalled Ila Waldman, Friends of Sheba Medical Center's executive director. "After the luncheon, they walked out uplifted. It was a real catharsis."

The self-described raconteur refuses to label herself a stand-up comedian. But Kohan's wit has, over the last decade, made her a sought-after personality in the local Jewish community, and she refuses to charge money for her humorous hostessing.

"When I get calls from [organizations such as] Israel Bonds and Sheba Medical Center," Kohan said, "I find it very hard to say no."

Comedy and music run in the family. Kohan is married to comedy writer and composer Buzz Kohan, winner of 13 Emmy Awards. Son David Kohan co-created the Emmy-winning "Will & Grace" and plays guitar; his twin brother, Jono, plays piano and drums and is a partner in the music production company, 1st Born Entertainment; and daughter, Jenji Kohan Noxon, won an Emmy in 1996 as supervising producer for "Tracey Takes On."

Days before the 75th Academy Awards, Buzz Kohan took a break from working on this year's Oscar telecast to discuss his wife.

"I like her," Buzz said with comic understatement. "We've been together for 40 years. No sense trading her in now."

Kohan has collaborated with her husband on specials, such as "The Funny Women of Television."

"She contributes a Jewish sense of humor, sense of values and heart [at her gigs]," Buzz said. "She has a wonderful way of lighting up a room, which is so rare for people who don't do this for a living. She sizes up the people at an event and makes wonderful, pithy observations about them."

The Kohan offspring report that their mother has always been supportive of their comedic and musical aspirations.

"Comedy is taken seriously," said daughter Jenji, 33. "Our dinner table was a rough room. I didn't talk for years. Everyone was very quick and had standards for funny."

Rhea Kohan grew up in "the best place in the world -- Brooklyn." She met her husband while working as a canteen girl in the resort town of Lake George, N.Y.

"He came from the Bronx, so we would never have met otherwise," she said, half-joking.

In 1967, "'The Carol Burnett Show' made Buzz an offer he couldn't refuse," Kohan said, and they moved to Los Angeles, where her wicked wit was the hit of a friend's birthday party. Word of Kohan's gift of gab spread after hosting a Jewish Family Service gala honoring a friend.

"She's just able to see things clearly and put a comedic spin on it," said Jono, 38.

Kohan greatly influenced David, the sitcom creator.

"One summer, we were all away in camp," David recalled of when he was 13. "She had a chance to sit down with her legal pad, and she wrote a novel. A couple of years later, she wrote another."

Unlike Buzz Kohan's penchant for sketches and musical comedy, "all of my mother's humor comes from character and the absurdity of a situation," David explained.

"Up until the day of the banquet," David continued, "she's convinced herself that she's going to be an abysmal failure, and then she's brilliant. She's one of the funniest people I've ever met. Particularly when she criticizes my life choices -- that's a scream."

"Sometimes I bomb like Hiroshima," Rhea Kohan said, "but I always feel that I'm doing it for a good cause, not for the career of Rhea Kohan."

The Beverly Hills-based Kohans remain a tight-knit clan.

"Every Shabbat, our family gets together for dinner," Jono said. "We just have a great time together.

Kohan loves working Jewish galas and the community loves her back.

"She is just the most delightful human being," said State of Israel Bonds' Brigitte Medvin. "She can be a stand-up comic. She researches the honorees and weaves wonderful stories about the people she introduces."

"We've had her emcee our Women of Achievement Luncheon for three years now," Waldman said. "She's synonymous with the luncheon. I can't think of doing it without her. To us, she's our perennial woman of achievement."

Rhea Kohan will emcee the State of Israel Bonds' Women's Division's Golda Meir Club Luncheon on May 8 at the Four Seasons Hotel, West Hollywood. For information, call (310) 996-3004.

Kohan will also host Women's Group of Friends of Sheba Medical Center's Women of Achievement Luncheon on June 5 at the Four Seasons. For information, call (310) 843-0100. 

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