It’s a Sunday night at the Broadway Comedy Club, and the laughter in the room of the club is as abundant as the drinks flowing from the bar. A roster of comics perform their material, much of it raunchy, expletive-filled and/or downright insulting. Then Joan Weiner is introduced, and she strolls onto the stage amid applause.
Clad in a modestly long flowing skirt, Weiner could be mistaken for a typical Orthodox Jewish mother. Then she grabs the mike and starts her bit. She tells the audience about her travails as a mother, starting with the birth of her son: “The doctor asked my husband if he wanted to cut the umbilical cord. But they didn’t ask me, because Jewish mothers don’t ever cut the cord.”
Weiner is clearly no conventional Jewish motherShe recalls a recent visit to Florida. “Everyone there is so old, I saw a bumper sticker that said, ‘Don’t blame me, I voted for Roosevelt.’ . . . It’s the only place in the world where Starbucks has an early bird special: a Sanka latte and a prune danish . . . So many people there bring their caregivers to Sabbath services, I didn’t know whether I was at a synagogue or a Baptist church!”
Ba da dam.
Weiner is clearly no conventional Jewish mother: A successful standup comic, she performs at Manhattan comedy clubs and for audiences across the tristate area. But what distinguishes her from most other comics, aside from her modest attire, is her squeaky-clean monologue.
“I never insult people or curse onstage. People don’t want to be singled out or embarrassed. To get onstage and curse would be easy. But this is all clean comedy. So I have to be much more creative,” she said.
Weiner admits it’s tough to find role models in the standup world, for most Jewish comics either insult audience members or poke fun at Jewish stereotypes. She attempts to do the opposite.
Such convictions have won her fans, particularly in her own Jewish community in Bergen County and beyond. Demand for her services has continued to grow, with new bookings on a regular basis. “I kept thinking this would all run its course, but it hasn’t. It keeps getting bigger,” she said. “In very religious communities, they don’t get to see much comedy. They are hungry for entertainment. Some of them don’t watch TV or go to movies regularly. So they keep calling me. They want to laugh.”
She performs for a variety of audiences, with people from all types of backgrounds and levels of religious observance. Recently she has performed at a singles event where comedians paired up the audience. She has performed for young couples in Elizabeth, postpartum women in Kiryat Joel, and a women’s open mike night at a girls’ high school in Teaneck. She also performs regularly at a postpartum respite home in Monroe.
For the past several years, she has also served as MC for preliminary rounds of the Jewish Week comedy contest. In addition to several gigs at small comedy clubs in Manhattan, she has several performances coming up in Long Island synagogues, and a one-woman show in August.
As for her favorite audience? “I love performing for moms, because they don’t care if I’m funny or not,” she quips in her typically self-deprecating humor. “They are just happy to be out of the house for the night.”
For many years Weiner lived far from the glare of the spotlight. She worked in multimedia, and was a project manager whose life took her to many different communities, including Jerusalem, Boston and San Francisco. Performing standup comedy was on her list of fifty things she wanted to try before she died, she said.
So she tried it in 2002 by entering a contest for amateur comedians held in Manhattan. “It was so much fun to get up there,” she said. “People at the show asked if the sheitel (wig) was part of my act. They had never seen an Orthodox woman doing comedy before.”
Much of her material stems from the contradictions of being a religious womanThe following year, she returned to the contest and became the first woman to win the renowned comedy bout. She came home with the trophy: a gift certificate to Macy’s—and newfound celebrity. Ever since, her comedy career has soared.
Much of her material stems from the contradictions of being a religious woman. She pokes good-humored fun at stories from the Bible, at the obligations of dressing modestly, observing holidays and marriage.
She notes that during the time of the Bible, “Moshe (Moses) approached the burning bush, which was miraculous because the bush burned and burned and wasn’t consumed. “I do that every week,” she shrugs. “I burn my husband’s dinner. And he doesn’t consume it.”
Audiences love her, said Jerry Kahn, a standup comic and founder of the Big Mockers, a comedy troupe of Jewish religious comics. “Joan is a very funny comedian who tells stories about her life as a married, Orthodox Jewish woman,” he said. “She is one of the few comics who can perform from that perspective and give a full, solid show. I’ve had comedy bookers and members of the audience come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed her humor. Her material is appreciated by a wide range of audiences. She was one of the first comedians that I invited into my comedy troupe, The Big Mockers. I can always count on her to have a great performance.”
Weiner muses that Jewish comedy has undergone a dramatic transformation. “Notice that many Jewish comics don’t think of themselves as Jewish comedians. That’s a label imposed on them by the outside world. They represent a certain Jewish stereotype that was never exactly accurate, and is definitely outdated.”
If what is generally considered “Jewish comedy” has come to an end, or has been absorbed into American comedy, Weiner doesn’t consider that an altogether bad thing. “I don’t think it was ever very Jewish to begin with. Identifying Judaism as bagels, neurosis and overbearing mothers was never a genuine experience of Judaism anyway,” she said.
Jewish comedy has morphed into American comedy, asserts Weiner, because Jewish comedians have morphed into American comedians. “They’ve left Jewishness behind in their comedy because they’ve left it behind in their lives.” Weiner, on the other hand, asserts that her comedy is authentically Jewish because her life is authentically Jewish.
“The new wave of Jewish comedians can’t really speak to the larger experience of authentic Judaism. What about Jews who don’t feel an exclusion in a negative way? Those of us who love the American Jewish experience?
“I’m trying to create an image that is just the opposite of some of the negative Jewish stereotypes that have been portrayed. I am trying to show a modern woman struggling with the challenges of raising myself up to an ideal of Judaism that is still relevant and very positive.”
Weiner is not the only observant woman onstage these days cracking jokes. Right now there is a small but growing contingent, she said. “I know a single Orthodox comedian who does jokes about looking for the right man,” she said.
Too often, Jewish—mostly non-observant—female performers convey a negative message, Weiner said. “It’s that same message of trying to get past the traditional Jewish roles, and being proud of their own promiscuity and social freedom from their own religious background. I find it more sad than funny. Some comics are hilariously funny and willing to do things on stage that I wouldn’t be, and in some ways I envy the freedom they allow themselves in comedy. But there is also something about that comedy that makes me a little sad. I’m trying to find the narrow place where it’s ok to laugh at things in Judaism that are funny without making Judaism itself a laughingstock.”
People may consider standup an odd choice for a religious woman. But Weiner says it works for her. When a woman is in the midst of her years of raising her children and focusing on family, it is important for her to do something interesting, something that injects a healthy shot of adrenaline into the everyday, she said.
“To get up on stage and talk about what most people only talk about in therapy is great. I talk about how my brothers used to hang my dolls up on nooses when I was little. Can you imagine? People are paying me to hear to me talk about my life and my neuroses. Now that’s funny.”