The First Step
10/14/2013 - 11:34
Joel Chasnoff
Joel Chasnoff
Joel Chasnoff

I’m writing this blog post — my first in the Comic’s Journey series — from my hotel room at the Airport Sheraton in Tampa.

Last’s night’s show: the Jewish Federation Campaign Kickoff, for 130 people, including seven rabbis and several non-Jews, in the sanctuary of Congregation Rodeph Shalom. I like performing in synagogue sanctuaries.

You’d think that doing comedy from the bimah, the holy ark behind me, would make an audience tight. But in fact, it loosens them up. I think it’s because we’re conditioned to open our soulds when we walk into a synagogue sanctuary. Plus, sitting in a sanctuary implies a sense of community—and that’s what every comic wants: an audience that’s unified. Next time you go to a comedy club, pay attention to how the MC spends the first 10 minutes chatting up the crowd, asking where they’re from and who’s got a birthday and what brought them there. Sure, she might crack a few jokes. But what she’s really doing is turning a disparate collection of people into an audience of one mind, one focus, one reason for being.

In any case, I’ll take a sanctuary comedy over social hall comedy any day.

As for the show itself...

The performance last night was solid, start to finish, with only one minor… well, not exactly a lull… But around the 25-minute mark I noticed the laughs got a tad quieter.

This doesn’t surprise me. Every show has it’s peaks and valleys, and often it has to do with the character of the audience. Jewish crowds are either culturally or religiously oriented, but not both. I spent the first part of last night’s show knocking ‘em dead with jokes about summer camp, Jewish basketball teams and the nature of the Shabbos Goy—cultural humor. So when, at minute 25, I took a more religious angle—namely, the intricacies of Jewish holidays—it’s only natural the vibe changed.

Honestly, I doubt a single person noticed. But I pay attention to these energy shifts. And while I didn’t need to last night, sometimes I’ll take a change in energy as a cue to drop one block of material and start another.

Most often, this happens when I perform for a Hillel on a college campus, where I have no idea what kind of audience I’m going to get. My crowd could be a group of day school graduates who, had there been no Hillel, would start one on their own—they’re that Jewishly committed. Or, they could be students for whom Hillel is their one and only refuge on campus—the building where they know they’re welcome, where they didn’t have to rush or pledge to get in, where they’re certain they’ll be greeted with a smile.

These are two very different types of crowds. In that case, I spend the first fifteen minutes feeling them out, testing and re-testing them until they essentially map out the show by themselves. It took me years to learn to do this, by the way. Those first couple years of my career, I’d simply run one joke after another in the desperate that something, anything, would stick.

Next performance: this coming Sunday in Brooklyn, NY, for 400 Orthodox women who I’m told will walk out on me if I even mention the s-e-x word.

Geez… how do they think they got here?

Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian and author of "The 188th Crybaby Brigade" about his service in the IDF. Visit him at

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