Listen to Episode #69 here
Ignoring The Pettiness with Esther Kustanowitz
Our guest is Esther Kustanowitz. She is a writer, editor and consultant. She’s a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and a columnist at J. The Jewish News of Northern California. She was founding editor and contributor at GrokNation.com and has written for Modern Loss, Haaretz, JTA, The Jewish Week, The Forward and eJewishPhilanthropy. Welcome, Esther.
Thanks, Peter. It’s great to be here.
Esther, if you weren’t working as a writer, editor or consultant, what would you be doing?
I studied, I’m a good student. I don’t ever want to remember everything I’ve studied, but I do the preparation. When I was growing up, the answer would have been an actor. I thought it would be an actor or writer. I felt like acting had way too much rejection. Not that writing has none, but it’s a little bit like more cowardly rejection. You get a letter in the mail instead of somebody telling you face-to-face that you’re wrong for a part or something like that. Realistically, if my writing powers were taken away from me and I couldn’t form sentences anymore, I would probably end up doing something in the listening social sciences, social worker or creative enabler, listening to people and trying to help them translate their ideas into action.
You’d be a muse?
Yes, I’d be a professional muse.
The world needs more muses.
Hopefully, I’ll be an amusing muse.
If you couldn’t be a writer, you still wouldn’t do acting and you wouldn’t even fall back on your first thing, you would become a listener. You could become an interviewer.
I could, but I wouldn’t be able to write things down. I would have to deal with the audio, which is great. I love podcasting. I’ve become aware of it a little bit late to the party on it for sure. I’m hopefully going to be starting my own podcast at the Jewish Journal. It won’t be an entertainment-related podcast. That will be super fun. We recorded like a chemistry episode with me and my cohost. I called it The Chemistry Test. I think it’s going to work well. I’m excited about it.
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Let’s pretend you’re going to become a podcaster instead of a writer, a talker and a listener rather than a writer. I’m not the kind of writer that you’re a writer. You write a lot. I write painfully, but it’s been interesting doing a podcast because it is a different skillset. It’s one even that’s different than for instance, the talks that I give or the teaching that I do, which does involve listening, but not to the same degree. Podcasting is more like improv. You made a crack about, we’re improvising when we were setting up. It’s much more like improv than it is lecturing or giving a talk in a sense because almost none of this is scripted with the exception of my first question and my last question. Do you remember what my last question will be?
Tell me about this podcast that you did a chemistry test and it went well.
It’s going to be with a coworker of mine from the Journal. The two of us are fierce enjoyers and consumers of popular culture. We’re also analytical when it comes trying to figure out where it fits in a Jewish context. One of the things that I have been talking about extensively anywhere where I look at me a forum to do so is the increase in Jewish related content that’s on television. It’s largely due to the fact that television’s definition has expanded in ways that no one ever saw coming. There’s this endless ability to create content and to put it out there even if it’s a little bit more niche. That’s part of the thing, but also that people who were working in Hollywood as writers in previous generations suppressed their Jewish identities, are now allowing it to inform the stuff that they’re writing.
We see a lot more inside Jewish jokes. Sometimes it is Jewish for the jokes as that episode of Seinfeld said. Sometimes it adds depth to a character or a plot. It’s been interesting to track that. That will be part of what we’ll cover at the podcast. We’ll also try to cover things that are happening in the world, not from a political perspective but for instance, in June, it was Anne Frank’s birthday. I don’t know if you sent her a card. There were a lot of stories about Anne Frank. Like making jokes about Anne Frank, who can do that and why? What’s the nature of the joke? There were a lot of people who felt that there were several cultural products that were misappropriating. There’s a Netflix series called Historical Roasts that is run by Jeffrey Ross.
I had Julie Seabaugh on who has written a book about Roast Battles. You can’t talk about Roast Battles without talking about Jeffrey Ross.
One of these targets in these Historical Roast Battles where he roasts historical figures, it’s meant to be good fun. He did an interview with The Journal in which my cohost, Erin Ben-Moche, was the person who interviewed him. He talked about how he was doing it because he felt like the next generation had no basis in history. They did not know the history. This was a way to get them interested in historical figures to say, “Is that really true?” and then go to the internet and look it up and learn more. One of those figures is Anne Frank. What do you mean you’re roasting Anne Frank?
That’s a big punching down moment?
It can be or in the theory of it, it could be. That the way they handled it was well done. Most of the punching bag humor was aimed at Hitler FDR. There were a couple of jokes that were a little bit too far. You talked about Julie Seabaugh and her film, Too Soon, talking about 9/11. In the Jewish community, the ultimate too soon is the Holocaust. That was not as recent as 9/11 but for some reasons, it’s still like a taboo topic in a lot of circles when it comes to humor or it depends on who is doing the humor. In terms of Jeff Ross’ stuff, if you don’t like roasts and making fun of somebody kind of comedy, you’re definitely not going to like a roast of Anne Frank. If you don’t like him saying mean things about Donald Trump, you’re not going to like him saying mean things about Anne Frank. That’s for sure.
That’s a style of comedy that’s not for everyone, but the people who like it and love it. You have a term for the idea that describes the increasingly common event of Jewish references in storylines entering otherwise non-Jewishly themed TV. What do you call that?
It’s TV gone Jewy.
This is going to be a big theme in your podcast.
It’s my thing. I’ll probably talk about it more than Erin will. It’s the thing that I’ve been interested in primarily because it’s an issue of representation that I felt was lacking when I was growing up. I never saw a Jewish woman with brown hair, observing anything Jewish in a TV show ever. The only time you ever found out somebody was Jewish was opposition to Christmas. You have to wait for the Christmas episode where they would wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I’d be like, but a happy Hanukkah to Dr. Goldstein. It would be like, “He is Dr. Goldstein. There’s a reason he’s Jewish. That’s great. Thanks, General Hospital.”
There was never anybody talking about Judaism or Jewish content or identity or tradition or customs or holidays in any deeper way. There’s a lot more of that. Even the more obscure things in Jewish tradition are having their day on TV often in an occult context. You’ll see some Hebrew popping up on Agents of Shield or you’ll see Sleepy Hollow and Grim, both of which dealt with the occult and supernatural. There was almost always a Hebrew text lurking somewhere or somebody was talking about a Golem, a monster that’s made to protect a village that originated from a Jewish myth. You would sometimes hear about a dybbuk, a Yiddish demon, all of those things.
On Arrow, there was an episode where they were looking to find people. They didn’t know where they were. They had this computer code that was indicating where they were, but they couldn’t translate it. They couldn’t figure out how to do it. Somebody looks at it and says, it’s Gematria. Somebody goes, “What’s Gematria?” He says, “It’s Jewish numerology where each one of the Hebrew letters is assigned a numerical value.” Somebody goes, “I should have seen it.” It’s one of those things that I had to shake my ear to figure out if I had heard them say Gematria in the middle of this superhero narrative, which does not otherwise touch on Judaism, except as I mentioned before, the Hanukkah Christmas opposition.
Obviously, I’m not paying attention to this stuff. When you think about television, in the ’70s and ’80s a rise in television especially comedy, featuring black Americans. It’s moving on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky, the Jefferson’s. There’s a bunch of obviously Cosby and beyond and that continues now. You’re saying that you’re finding this dripping, showing up in different places, but there’s like full-on. Is it The Goldbergs as an example of a Cosby program? I haven’t seen the show, so I don’t know.
I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of The Goldbergs. There was a series called The Goldbergs that predated that show, which was a little bit more about the immigrant experience, lower East Side Goldbergs. I called them the Oldbergs and the Goldbergs, but I don’t think that’s going to catch on anywhere. I love the way that you talked about it as dripping in. It’s seeping from the writer’s experience into the writer’s room, onto the page and to the actual final product. You see Jewish characters that are much more fully formed in terms of their Jewish identity, even if they’re not religious.
Who would those be? Give me some examples.
One of the examples is Rebecca Bunch, who is Rachel Bloom’s alter ego on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She’s absolutely a Jewish character. There is a Bar Mitzvah episode. There are a couple of songs that focus on Jewish tenancies. For instance, there’s a song called Remember That We Suffered where they’re at a Bar Mitzvah. They’re dancing around happily in a Horah, it’s a Jewish dance. They’re like, “Here we are singing and being happy, but we’ll do it in a minor key to remember that we suffered.” It’s like there’s that playing with it. Our tendency is that if some people don’t know Jews, they may not know that is a thing that happens.
That also makes sense because it perfectly reflects the experience of being a funny person in a Jewish context is that it’s simultaneously the easiest thing to do and the hardest thing to do because there is so much to play with and being funny. Humor has been part of the Jewish experience for centuries. Partially because of being a minority and this is one of the tools they can’t take away from you essentially. It’s also challenging for the reasons I described before because everybody has their own line that you’re obviously going to cross with your comedy because you don’t know what their line is until you cross it. They’re like, “That’s too far. That’s too soon. How dare you? You’re a disgrace to the Jewish people.” It escalates quickly.
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When you think about Jewish culture, it’s so diverse religiously. There are people who identify as Jewish but culturally, other folks all the way out to very orthodox. The moment you try to tackle this subject, it sounds to me like you’re balanced to bounce up against one side or the other, even ethnically the breadth of the culture in that sense. I could see how there’s an opportunity but a lot of risks.
As I’ve talked about the streaming platform expanding, but the definition of who is a Jew is also expanding. It used to be that there were few Jews of color. Now there are many more Jews of color. When you used to say the Jewish experience on film, it was almost always Ashkenazi, meaning Eastern European. There are people who come from Sephardic countries like Spain and France, have different customs and different touchpoints and also different humor points. If you talk about some of the tropes that I would feel like I even want to quiz you. When you think of Jewish on screen, what do you think about that?
The big one is this stereotypical Jewish American Princess stereotype. That’s the one that comes to mind.
Rachel Bloom did a great song called The JAP Battle Rap, which I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It’s a must-see. It’s co-written by a friend of mine, Zach Sherwin, who’s a tremendous talent and has great verbiage that he can intersperse and is a terrific rapper. I highly recommend his work. I will send you lots of links until you invite him on your show. He, Rachel and her regular co-writer, Jack Dolgen, they created this masterpiece where they talk to two Jewish women who were lawyers battling each other to see who’s best.
There are a lot of layered Jewish references in there saying that their mothers pitted them against each other because they were egged on like Seder plates. A Seder plate is a ritual object used during the Seder, which is a Passover meal. One of the objects is an egg. It’s like if you don’t know any of that stuff, you’re like, “I don’t understand what that means.” You’re carried through it by the talent that’s involved in it and the actual integrity of it musically. They talk about the Jewish-American Princess and what that means.
As the series ended, they ended a reprise of that song, The JAP Battle Rap, but it was like the JAP flattery rap or something like that where they said nice things about each other, but still in that framework of a rap battle. They specifically called out the Jewish American Princess and said that it used to be a slur. Now they’re trying to reclaim it in a different way. Since I did not identify as a Jewish American Princess if that was the only representation on screen that was negative for me because that’s what people expected a Jewish person, a Jewish girl or woman to be and that’s not what I was.
I’m thinking about the other kinds of things you’re talking about like chicken soup to cure a cold and the Jewish mother who is like overbearing. Not all of those things are Ashkenormative as we’ve been started to say around the office, but favoring the Ashkenazi Eastern European Jewish experience. Excluding people who are experienced that wasn’t Jews by choice. People convert to Judaism. They don’t have that in their background. After they convert, want to be part of the jokes. Jewish for the Jokes, Jerry Seinfeld, the Seinfeld episode, if you know that one.
Obviously, a lot of these things play on stereotypes especially if it’s being interspersed and being used for comedic effect in a hacky way oftentimes. The other one is the stereotypical Jewish lawyer, the joke about the ethnicity of your lawyer and indicating how good that person is as a result of it. These are ones that are coming to mind.
It’s interesting to hear it because I spend much time immersed to the Jewish community that some of those things are less part of what will identify as like a trope or a negative thing. The Jews who are good with money, that’s another one. It would be like, “I am certainly not a Jew who’s good with money.” I don’t know if that’s a stereotype that’s in our DNA somewhere, skipped a generation or skipped a whole family tree. The line between making fun of a tendency and having it become a stereotype that’s used a negative context is also like it’s a fine line and it depends on where you’re standing. It’s similar to the Anne Frank thing like when I talk about the JAP battle rap, people are like, “I don’t like the word JAP. I would never watch anything that has the word JAP because I’m against it.”
Somebody will pipe in and say, “It’s also a pejorative about Japanese people.” The context is the pejorative is solely Jewish here, but you’re arguing over who it’s insulting more, which is I would argue a Jewish thing to do is to argue over who is more insulted or who’s less insulted. Saying something like that gets me in trouble with some people and some people would be like, “That’s totally on the money.” That’s it. With the Anne Frank also like the Jeffrey Ross Roasts like I was talking about before, people didn’t need to see it to know that they hated it and it was in terrible taste, which is not a process that I endorse. If you’re going to hate something that somebody has created, you at least owe it to that creator to watch it before you comment about it, but the internet disagrees with me.
I’m working on this new project and one of the ideas in the project is about good comedy and how bad comedy polarizes it. You just can’t make everyone happy. As a comic, you have to pick your audience and you want those folks to be happy and laughing. To do it with as little regard as possible to the people who aren’t happy, especially if those people are knee-jerking. They’re not even giving you the benefit of the doubt in that sense. It sounds like you’re describing what’s a natural extension of comedy in general, which is we live in a world where it’s easy to be outraged.
It’s easy to get access to the things that are outrageous when that used to not be the case. It’s very easy to communicate about your outrage now. That amplifies what has been going on in comedy since the beginning of comedy, which is one person’s laughing at your fart joke and the other person’s disgusted. Frankly, the comics who have achieved great success often have doubled down on their risky behavior. Carlin and Richard Pryor started out as tame comics and they didn’t come into their own until they started to be provocative. I do like this idea of co-opting language that is a slur and using it in a way, whether it be playful or positive, as a way to rob those words of their power.
It also depends who’s doing that reclamation. I feel there have been opportunities in the past where Jews have like taken slurs and reconstituted them. There was The Heeb Magazine for a while. That also for me recalled the famous monologue in Life of Brian where I’ve seen the Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Brian has found out that his father is a Roman centurion or something like that. He’s like, “No.” He starts saying, “I’m a Hebrew. I’m a Heeb, Kike, Hook-nose, Red Sea pedestrian and I’m proud of it.” It’s a long series of things that he says. I thought it was funny because it was a proclamation of his Jewish identity, but there are probably people who say, “He wasn’t Jewish and the people in the trope weren’t Jewish.” They have no right to like play with that language, but they’re also a comedian. You expect them to be a little bit outrageous. The Heeb Magazine when it first came out was absolutely a magazine for Gen X. There was no expectation that people older than Gen X was going to get it or like it even that it existed. It was intentionally provocative.
It’s like a question of, “Who is your audience?” My dad has a humor blog called Jewish Humor Central where he posts videos every day of various Jewish humor, unrelated things, always clean stuff. He doesn’t go over the edge because his audience is a lot older than my audience if I had an audience. He’s never going to post anything from the Netflix Jeffrey Ross roast of Anne Frank. Even if it’s a funny incisive bit about Hitler, he’s not going to post that because his audience will go insane. He speaks a lot to seniors in Florida. If you know your audience, I’m not going to come to them with necessarily whole JAP, Heeb, all slurs based comedy cause they’re going to turn off their ears immediately. Part of it is knowing your audience if you care about that. If you are the comic who’s like, “I’m me and whoever comes to see me, they better prepare because this is what I’m going to give them. They may like it. They may not.” Some people are a lot steelier when it comes to dealing with the audience reactions and some people don’t want to be liked as much as they want to be provocative and have people talking about them.
That’s fair although I would argue that comic is more interested in the art than the commerce of the business, which is fine. In the same way that a painter might want to paint stuff that provokes and another painter wants to paint stuff that sells and also provokes in that sense. You’re from New Jersey. I’m from New Jersey also southern. We both went to Rutgers. For me, it’s been an interesting experience. My hometown was not Jewish at all. I’m from Willingboro, New Jersey. It started out as a fairly balanced town in terms of white families and black families. By the end, when I moved away, my high school was over 70% or 80% black. It’s a white flight in full effect thing, which led me to have a quite diverse childhood in the sense that I was an outsider.
I was a minority. I went off to Rutgers, which is an incredibly diverse university experience where I got exposed to two Jewish peers. I became an academic in the area of behavioral economics, which the two of the founding fathers are Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It’s not only Jewish but Israelis and so on, which is in the same way that this mentor affects and happen in comedy and other places that certainly has happened in academia. I find myself having Israeli friends, Jewish friends and so on. I’m getting a lot more exposure to these ideas, tropes and stereotypes. Sitting at dinner and hearing Holocaust jokes and not knowing can I laugh or not right at these kinds of things.
Even jokes that Americans who spent a lot of time in Israel make about the Israeli sense of humor. When is too soon is five minutes after it happened and when it is not too soon is an hour after it happened. It depends on how close you are to that the particular tragedy. I remember that there was one point I was in Israel and a Palestinian had driven a truck into a crowd. That was like the first time anybody had used a truck to inflict terrorism. I was talking to a friend of mine. I said, “It’s tragic what happened.” She said, “Yeah, but I already heard three jokes about it.” It’s because that’s part of the way Israelis cope with things as being a little bit more caustic and reactive in a way that we always have that period in America of after there’s a tragedy, we were grouped by praying. Israeli recover from that a little bit more quickly at least in a public sphere. Obviously, tragedy strikes personally and it’s not something you get over quickly. It doesn’t slow anything down there.
I’ve spent some time in Israel and for The Humor Code, we went to Palestine in some ways to see is the same phenomenon evident on the other side of the wall? Anytime you find robust people, which certainly Israelis qualify, you find the potential for jokes in the face of tragedy especially immediately in that sense. I’ve done some research on this idea of Too Soon. I haven’t looked at it from a coping standpoint. I’ve looked at it from the passage of time standpoints or the passage of time helps and eventually hurts. At some point, you get far away from it that it’s no longer a viable topic that’s there.
I always go back to my friend, Alonzo Bodden‘s quote. Alonzo is a standup and his perspective is, “It’s not too soon if it’s funny.” There is this notion of how good is the joke? This is getting back to your point about Anne Frank roast, who’s the real victim? You make a joke about a topic and some people like, “You can’t joke about that topic.” Is it a joke that perpetuates something negative or is it something that tries to do away with the classic. You can’t tell jokes about rape, but what if you make jokes about rapists? How it’s done to me matters a lot more than when is it done.
There’s a film which, if you haven’t seen, you should see it, called The Last Laugh. It’s a documentary about the Holocaust in comedy. It interviews people like Jeffrey Ross, Gilbert Gottfried, Mel Brooks and Sarah Silverman talking. That issue comes up, it’s about the quality of the joke. It’s about who you’re punching up and not punching down where jokes about Hitler, Thyme or jokes about concentration camp maybe not unless it’s in the context of their making their life a livable by telling a joke. There are a lot of different ways to come at it. Anyway, you come to the Holocaust, someone is going to tell you that you’re a bad person. It’s like preparing that’s part of the dance.
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From my earlier life as an academic, I did a lot of work on moral psychology. It was that work that set the stage for humor research. The first paper I ever published was about what makes moral violations funny. That served as the initial test case for the Benign Violation Theory, which I know you came prepared to talk about. First of all, I’ve had 68 or so guests. I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever had a guest show up with notes. I noticed them obviously because it’s unique. If you live in a world of moral psychology, some things are sacred and some things are secular. The rules for sacred things are different than the rules for secular things.
Some of these things might be ritualistic, but one of those things is about trying to keep the sacred, sacred. You don’t want to mix it with the profane, with the secular in a sense. Comedy is quite secular and/or profane. The idea that there were some topics that are off-limits for some people, it’s an easy way to navigate the world. You don’t have to wait into the complexities when you say, “You’re not allowed to do that in a sense,” which comics achieve that because they’re like, “I’m good at this. Let’s see what I can do.” Certainly, Mel Brooks is an outstanding example of someone who’s certainly not for everyone but is highly skilled. You’re like, “Let’s give him a shot.”
When you think about Too Soon, he did the whole musical number about the Inquisition. It’s like if the Holocaust is too soon, maybe the Inquisition is okay to joke about, it turns out no. Maybe you can go back and say, “Wandering the Desert, is that okay to make fun of?” “No, not yet.” Keep going back and be like, “Creation?” “No, it’s not funny.” It depends on who you ask and how willing you are as a listener and a consumer of comedy, understand both the intention and also the reception. If you hear a joke that’s funny about the Holocaust that you might not make yourself, but you think it’s well-crafted and it makes you laugh, that can be something that you think about like, “Why did that make me laugh?” The part of the research that you did like trying to figure out why do people laugh at certain things and why do they keep laughing at them? Do they get to a certain point where it’s not funny anymore? Sometimes it’s the surprise that somebody would go there. The surprise can register as laughter, which can register as funny. Later can mellow out into discomfort, which is also part of the comedy process is pointing out things that people aren’t comfortable to talk about.
A lot of comedy points out what’s wrong with the world. That can serve a purely entertaining purpose, but it could have this additional layer of getting you to recognize something that you thought was normal and it’s now seen as wrong. Since we talked about your notes, people want to know what’s in your notes. What is it that you wanted to talk about? What were you preparing, Esther?
I did read the first chapter of your book that was available online that was some of the notes. I love the idea of HuRL and HuRT. HuRL being the Humor Research Lab and HuRT being the people who are part of it. The people who get things hurled at them. That started me thinking about acronyms in general. When I came across the International Society of Humor Studies, which ISHS, I started thinking about how to pronounce that. The best I could come up with is like, if you were drunk and you tried to pronounce ISIS, it’d be like ISISH like that what it would be. Is that funny? I talked about ISIS. ISIS isn’t funny, but to make fun of the way ISIS sounds, that it sounds like a treat that you would get on a hot summer day. It’s that funny. It’s still ISIS. There’s still somebody who’s going to say, “You shouldn’t make fun of ISIS. ISIS is going to come to get you.”
Somebody is going to come along and say, “It’s not ISIS anymore. It’s IS.” That can ruin a funny moment easily. I sometimes do Esther-splain and I have to stop myself because when somebody gets something wrong, it’s a natural instinct to be the know-it-all, who corrects them. That seldom wins you friendship points or invites back to parties. I do tone it down unless somebody is wrong. I did have a conversation with somebody where they insisted that red velvet cupcakes were made of red chocolate. I said that was not a thing. He insisted that it was. I said, “Do you want to go to the internet to see who is right?” He goes, “I don’t need the internet to tell me that I’m right.” I was like, “You don’t because they’ll tell you that you’re wrong. You don’t want to go to the internet.”
I’m curious. This is your chance.
You talked about a little bit in the chapter about incongruity as Pascal articulated it or your co-author wrote the chapter because you were a character in the chapter.
I was involved in editing the chapter.
You are familiar with the contents of the chapter for sure. It talked about like the incongruity of that’s where the humor comes from.
That’s what most people think.
I thought that the breakdown into violation plus what’s normal and those concepts, which I’m not explaining well now, and you obviously explained much better. For me, when I think about what makes me laugh, I think about things that are both expected and unexpected. When I watch a traditional sitcom, I’m often able to predict the punchlines. When they go to the place that I got to, I’m proud of myself for getting to the same place as the comedy writers, the professionals who are doing it for many years. It doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t make me laugh. It pleases me and I feel seen or I feel like I’ve seen them and we’re compadres or something like that even though we’ve never met and probably will never meet. What I’m responding to is the predictability of it. What I am like laughing out loud, everybody, LOLs all over the place in their text messages now, but I will never use that unless I am laughing out loud, which is a rare occurrence than me saying, “Ha.”
I do a lot of “Hahas.” That’s funny but LOL, I say for actually laughing out loud too.
Most people don’t, they use it like, “I have to go to the store after work, LOL.” I’d be like, “Why does something funny happen there?” He’d be like, “No, it meant I couldn’t go home on time.” I’d be like, “That’s not funny. Why are you LOL-ing?” “I’m saying haha.” I’m like, “No, you’re saying LOL that you laughed out loud. Why are you laughing out loud?” People stop calling me. That’s what this is. It’s like a chronicle of the friendships I’ve lost by trying to be funnier, like trying to correct someone or maintain a line in the sand. The purity of language that if you’re laughing out loud or you should be laughing out loud. People are like, “You take this way too seriously.”
Esther, I want to make a couple of comments and observations. One, it’s clear to me that you have comedy chops. You write about a lot of heavy stuff. You’re on this podcast for a reason, which is I met you a few years ago at a Thanksgiving party in LA or something like that.
It was a comedy workshop that you were giving. You’re leading like five of us through comedy writing. I remember there was or you were presenting something and talking about different types of comedy. There was a bunch of us there. We all got little notebooks with the mustaches on them.
I remember the meal. That’s funny. I did do that. I do remember that now. In any case, we met at that event. Obviously, I encoded that you were funny. We’ve been connected.
I always said you were smart.
To me, it’s clear you have comedy chops because even listening to you talk through the way, you’re thinking about acronyms and you’re turning it into jokes in a natural quick-witted way. Obviously predicting punchlines, that’s something that I can’t say that I’m good at it except I sometimes start to do it when you start to figure out like I was watching Anthony Jeselnik, his most recent Netflix special. I did it a couple of times and was quite proud of myself. It took me watching the first two-thirds of the special to get to that point. What I think is interesting about the pleasure that you get from that so I have a scientific answer for the pleasure that you get from that.
That isn’t amusement as you have identified it’s not or correctly identified as not being amusement. The Benign Violation Theory has some things in common with Incongruity Theory that is that benign violations often are unexpected. They’re often surprising. They often create some conflict in which people see as an incongruity. The problem is that there are many incongruous things that are clearly not funny. The idea that you need both something wrong and okay and that those two things have to be happening in close proximity to each other. Often it’s not incongruity, but doesn’t have to be. The Benign Violation Theory is a Ha-ha theory, but it’s not an A-ha theory that is that many jokes, many comedic things produce a moment of insight, “Ah, I see it. I get it,” kind of experience.
[bctt tweet=”It’s fine to have an idea, but you also have to be open to other people’s ideas.” username=””]
Moments of insight are not limited to comedy. They happen when you’re solving a puzzle, scientific insights, solving math problems, doing Sudoku or coming up with the answer to a crossword puzzle, all have this moment of insight that has this lightning-like experience. This surprising experience associated with it. It’s pleasurable to solve the problem and it’s especially pleasurable when it happens like a bolt of lightning. When you’re predicting punchlines, those are bolts of lightning because they’re happening so fast. You’re not laughing, but you’re enjoying yourself unless the jokes are so hacky that you’re judging it.
It could be they’re terrible jokes and anyone could predict them. I like to believe that it’s because I have some deep comedy insight and I’m able to predict where sentences go.
You have language skills. That’s super clear to me. As an aside, if I could make a plug, if you listened to one other episode of I’m Not Joking, you might like the episode with Sommer Browning. She is a poet and comic. She talks eloquently about the need to stretch language. These are my words, not hers. She sees languages this living organism, almost like a muscle that if you exercise it, it grows stronger in a sense. Her belief is that we need to work hard to use words in new ways because it contributes to this entity. The richer, stronger and the more diverse this entity is, the more useful it is. Obviously, we live in a world where too often it’s not being stretched in a sense. You strike me as someone who’s stretching language.
You’ve talked about my comedy chops and I think I always had them growing up.
Clearly, your dad values it.
Comedy was always a part of it. Often the old Jewish comedy, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Carl Reiner, the 2000-year-old man. Generationally moving onto Rob Reiner because comedy does run in the family sometimes. My dad also always wrote these song parodies that were Jewy. They were parodies of regular songs. There was a parody of piano man called Hazzan man. Hazzan is a Jewish cantor in the synagogue. He’s performing for people and he’s unappreciated. It was the same thing. It was always funny. We sang those things growing up. I always say that in terms of blogging. I started blogging before my father did.
I always say that the tree didn’t fall far from the apple, but when you put some extra to comedy, it’s the other way around. It’s like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. I also have self-described as a level one improv expert because I’ve taken level one numerous time at different schools. I enjoy improv so much more than stand up because I feel like it’s more conversational. I feel like there’s more team building. I feel like it’s not one person versus the audience. You get a chance to riff with somebody, find out how their brain works and build something with them. I’m much better in a studio with somebody like talking back and forth than I would be if I started talking to myself.
I know this from my various attempts to do Facebook Live where it’s me and I can be like, “Anyway, so then anyway.” When you’re actively engaged with somebody who is there for the same reasons, you are not for fame, glory and the punchline, but to build something real that people can relate to and laugh at the realness as opposed to a clever one-liner. That’s much more appealing to me, both in terms of performing and in terms of watching as well. Bad improv is hard to watch. When you get bad improv, it’s often because people aren’t working with each other or they’re working independently on the same stage.
They’re not adhering to the rules of improv. I’ve said almost exactly the same thing that you said about improv. First of all, I’m a lot more present. When I watch stand up, I’m busy deconstructing it as a humor researcher. I liked the comradery of improv. I liked the spontaneity of it all. I would make a case for you to try 201 for UCB. I’ll tell you why because it will satisfy an additional part of your persona, which is the analytical part. In 101, this is for the audience, not for you because you’ve taken it at Upright Citizens Brigade, that’s my improv training center of choice. They’re all very good. They’re giving you the basics of how to create a scene. Obviously, practicing this stuff a lot, not worrying, trusting, learning how to gift, like the idea that we’re all supporting actors, etc. 201 is designed to start to create comedy.
You’re not supposed to tell jokes in an improv. The 201 version of this is that the things that are often funny in improv are what they call the unusual thing and its justification. They call this game. You identify the game of the scene, which is the justification of the unusual thing. If you, your partner and all the other members of the group who are working through scenes, often as part of a herald, a long-form improv show. If everybody gets the game, recognizes it, they can reproduce game in different ways. It provides a backbone across themes. It creates a lot of comedy. My suspicion is you’re going to be good at identifying game and you’ll be good at creating a game in other ways because that’s where the smarts of improv happen versus the sociability of it. The best improvisers are sociable people but they also were equally smart as this sort of standups of the world.
A lot of the people that we identify as good at improv also have been playing with the same people for a long time. I had the opportunity to attend a live taping of ASSSCAT, which is the UCB signature show.
The founders are members of ASSSCAT.
I contended that in New York. They filmed it for Bravo. It’s available if you look on YouTube for it. I attended a live taping where it was Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz and Andy Victor. It was like these people who have known each other for a long time, also Matt Besser and Matt Walsh.
I’ve had Matt Walsh on the pod.
I have to go back and look for that. They’re the people who basically birthed it. They have worked together for many years. They know by looking at each other what they’re going to do. There’s that group mind that one of my improv teachers talked about where you’re communicating with each other without telling that person what you’re going to be doing next. That’s magical. That’s rare. You see it on whose line is in any way with Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie and a couple of other people who have worked together for years, are familiar with the format. They know the format backward and forwards and have had many chances to gain with each other to find the game with each other. It looks like a well-oiled machine.
You leave there thinking, “That seems like it’s easy to do. We’ve all had people in our lives who we can riff with, who can read us and know like how we’re going to build the conversation. That’s always the way I thrive in a social environment also is with people. I don’t need to be the center of attention. That’s also a different person goes into improve and goes into standup. A lot of my friends are standup comics. They’re the show and you’re the audience. Some people managed to bridge that and engage in the audience in a non-heckling context. There’s more of a dialogue. I found a lot of standups want to be the center of attention.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a wonderful art form. I gravitate to the improv stuff. I keep podcast episode dropping. I’m going to drop a couple more. I had Billy Merritt. Billy is a longtime UCB instructor and a forthcoming episode after yours launches I’m having Will Hines also an instructor, an improviser. They’re both on a house team here in Los Angeles called The Smokes. They have published a book called Pirate Robot Ninja that is a taxonomy of improvisers. It’s a fun idea. It touches on some of the things that you are talking about. The pirate is a little bit of the look at me brash person who does something spectacular on stage while the robot is a little bit more listening, paying attention, playing the supporting role. Their argument is that the ultimate improviser can do both. That’s the Ninja. I do like this idea of we’re all supporting actors. The best improvisers embrace that idea is that if we all take on that role, we create something special where everybody has a chance to stand out, but it comes from someone else.
Also in life and community building, that’s the ideal as the feeling. It goes back to a Jewish concept, which I always have to arch back to because “I’m me.” The idea that we’re all responsible for each other. This is something that I’ve done and I’ve taught some improv workshops that are basic improv rules in the context of short-form games but also juxtaposed with principles of Jewish community building. We are all responsible for each other or you shouldn’t take yourself outside of the community. You should feel that you’re always a part of it. You don’t rely on a miracle. You give everything you can to a scene so that it goes. You don’t wait for somebody to rescue you.
These are all things that are part of community building. If we all viewed ourselves, whether we are the leaders or the followers if you want to be broad strokes about it. Depending on whatever your community is, whether it’s an office environment or if it’s a youth group or social group, the idea that everybody’s an equal part of the group is not always assumed. It’s not always the operating point for a lot of people. The idea that there’s no leader of the group that like you’re part of the group. Everybody’s bringing their own stuff and their own brains to the group. Improv has also taught me like if you have an idea for something and you’re working in a group context, it’s fine to have an idea but you also have to be open to other people’s ideas. If the idea that emerges that is better is not yours, you have to let go of your ego and go along with it.
I referenced this project that I’m working on earlier, I’ve talked about it on the podcast before so it’s not a secret. I’m wondering what your reaction to the title of it is going to be. Esther is squinting her eyes at me.
[bctt tweet=”Any leadership environment helps people around you know that they’re valued.” username=””]
I’m indicating anticipation without trying to interrupt the flow of the conversation, but you won’t say it.
It’s called Shtick to Business. I thought of that given your background, you would either love or hate that idea.
I love that you used it. I don’t know if I would love it if I used it, that’s the other thing. Shtick is a comedy and I’m going through this with my cohost now because we’re trying to name our podcast and we can’t do it. We’re having such trouble. We’ll eventually get to it. We’ve gone back and forth about including Yiddish, not including Yiddish, including something it’s about the Jewish community, but that’s granular and people aren’t going to get. We want to be accessible to everybody and we don’t want to be the word I used before Ashkenormative. We want to be inclusive but yet specific. That’s been hard. There’s thinking about like using Yiddish that not everybody knows what it is. In Shtick to Business, people would be like, “It sounds like a stick, but it’s shtick and it’s a comedy book. I better read it and find what it means.” That works for that context.
I’m working hard at the subtitle of it. I’m not going to give that up yet because it’s not settled. The idea of the book is translating the practices and perspectives of the world’s funniest people into actionable business lessons. What can we learn about innovation? What can we learn about team building? What can we learn about professional development from these people who have this incredibly challenging job? Obviously, it’s impossible to do that without thinking about improv and the topics that we’re talking about. Most of life is improvisational and most things that you want to make in life, you need other people.
The moment you need other people, you need to get along with those people. You need to listen to those people. You need to support those people. You need to be able to give them feedback. That chapter is going to be focused on these kinds of things. Think about something as simple as this, you’re a boss, you have a problem that you need to solve. You call a meeting with your top people. We know from the behavioral sciences is that you need people in that room who don’t think like you because the likelihood of solving the problem goes up with new perspectives. You have to embrace diversity. You also need to develop inclusiveness.
The lowest ranking person feels as comfortable contributing as the highest-ranking person. In part, because they know they’re not going to be hurt for saying something contrary, but also that they know that they’re going to be heard or why would I even bother with it. Certainly, the worst thing that you can do as a boss is to say, “We have this problem, here’s how I’d like to solve it, but I want to get your feedback. You’re not going to get anything versus we have this problem. What do you think I should do?” In the end, you say, “I’ve been thinking about doing this.” Even that simple change of where do you put your hypothesis matters.
One of the challenges is that the leader wants that feedback. A lot of organizations I’ve been involved with where a leader will come into the room and say, “I want your feedback on this problem.” The answer is, “I decided before I walked in here that I’m going to do it this way. I was hoping one of you would have a better idea but you don’t. I’m going to go ahead with mine.” It was like every level of insulting and a time-waster. It’s part also of any leadership environment is helping people around you know that they’re valued. Not just saying, “I value you,” but actually walking the talk.
Essentially, it’s not that improv has this magical formula, it’s what improvisers have realized that they have a very difficult job, which is to create a scene out of nothing and to make that scene comedic if indeed that’s the goal of that particular show. In order to do that, you need ground rules. If everybody in the group can embrace those ground rules, make them automatic, suddenly the likelihood of solving this problem goes up. It happens that a lot of life has that similar thing, which is we need to create a solution. There are often many solutions and it’s often going to be messy doing it. I want to cover a couple of other things. It’s fun talking to you about this because I’m working on this project. This stuff is top of mind. I’m doing tons of reading and writing about it. It’s fun to talk to someone who is thinking in the same way. You also do work on loss and grieving. This is a heavy topic and probably not the best topic to end on, but I don’t know much about your work in this area. I want you to tell me a little bit about it.
I’ve always said that I feel I have the tragedy and comedy masks of old, the image of theater. The Greek sense of the crying and the laughing that I have them floating over my head. I pull on them as necessary one or the other, sometimes both. Part of life is dealing with loss, which I always knew obviously because I’m a human being who has been aware of mortality since the early years. My mother passed away in 2011. When that happened, I was one of the first people in my social group to have lost a parent. As a writer, as somebody who has always dealt with the tumultuousness of my emotions by writing about it. I started writing about her when she was in the hospital and it wasn’t looking good. I wrote it that there were some highs, there were some lows.
I made some observations, some of them were comedic because I was trying to make myself laugh. It’s when we’re sad is when we most need like a bolt of humor, even if it’s not necessarily something everybody will laugh at. I learned that also from my parents. My mom, when one of her parents died, I don’t remember which one, there was something that happened, which is so granular that I’m not going to get into it now. It was something relating to death that made her and the other people who were in the room laugh. I remember it was needed and she referred to that often. I knew that was value for her. I also feel being able to dwell in this space where there are things in life that are sad. At certain points in after a loss, it does feel we’re getting sucked down and then maybe it feels like that a little less.
There are things that I’ve learned to laugh at even as I recognize that they’re part of a deep wound. For instance, I’ve been writing about it for a long time. I proclaimed I was writing a book about it early on. However, many years later and I’m still working on the book. It was titled Nothing Helps, But This Might Help, which is everybody’s approaching me that I know nothing helps. They would proceed to offer something that they thought would help. If somebody said, “I know nothing helps, but I’m here if you need me.” That’s all you need. You can also offer specific offers of help. It’s like, “I know nothing helps, but I am going to Trader Joe’s after I leave the Shiva House. If you have a specific treat in mind that you’d like, please let me know. I’m happy to pick it up. It’s no trouble.”
It’s no trouble is the magic word for me because I don’t want anybody to go to any trouble for me. If they’re going anyway and they wouldn’t mind, it’s something specific and something I can focus on. There were things like that I was able to point out that people were like, “That’s cool to know about.” As I went through the experience of the immediacy of the loss and also the years since I’ve started thinking about the things that remind me of my mother, there are all the normal things that remind you of somebody who’s passed away, their birthday, a piece of clothing or whatever. There’s all the random stuff that you don’t realize until you pass it. It’s part of your life.
I was walking in my neighborhood once. I saw a Ziploc bag on the street. I remembered this story about how my mother said that you should always travel with Ziploc bags, especially if you’re on a plane because the Barf bags on airplanes don’t always contain it. If you have a Ziploc bag, you could zip it up, put it in your bag and throw it away later. I was like, “Has my mother been walking around with Ziploc bags of vomit in her purse?” You’re laughing, I’m laughing. A Ziploc bag on the street could mean nothing to anybody or it can mean everything to somebody. Those kinds of things and that’s a funny story, but it also made me cry. It’s like the space between laughter and tears is like a Venn.
The things that make us laugh and the things that make us cry are often the same, just interpreted in different ways. I lost my mom in 2012. My dad in ’97. Listening to you talk about the things that remind you of her, for me, they are sayings. She was a single parent and money was difficult. My mom always used to say beggars can’t be choosers. I still say that. It’s one of those things that often I’ll even attribute it to my mom. It’s like my mom always said, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” My touchpoints for her, seven years after her death, is often her perspectives coming out of my mouth at times.
I’ve had an annual Mother’s Day, I called it Remembering Our Mothers Day Brunch, for people who have lost their mothers and are like, “I’m alone on Mother’s Day and feel like assaulted by not having plans and assaulted by the media with its constant, “Buy your mother flowers, don’t forget to call your mother.” It’s relentless. One of the things that we did was we had a wall of wisdom where people would write down on Post-its the things that their mothers used to say and could talk about that with a group or not depending on how they felt about it. It was always interesting to see the range of perspectives that people had. The one I always put up there ignores the pettiness of other people, which is something that I’ve always tried to come back to. She always thought that there a lot of people who are petty and don’t want you to succeed, but you should ignore them anyway and go on with your life.
It’s fitting to end with that idea because it relates to what we opened up talking about, which is the notion that you can’t make everybody happy in the world of comedy, especially in that sense. Last question, what is it that you’re reading, watching or listening to that stands out? It’s not just good. It’s great.
That’s why I watch a lot so I’m going to come back to that and once I’ve had a chance to figure out what the answer to that is. I’m reading I Like To Watch by Emily Nussbaum. She’s an incredible writer. It’s a collection of essays that she wrote for the New Yorker about television. They range from like Buffy to Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I’m finding her analysis to be salient and interesting. I don’t always agree with everything she says. She’s super smart and she talks like me. She uses words like trickily and things like I’d have to tell out of their friends that they should look up or if asked me what they mean if they don’t understand me. That’s what I’m reading.
I’m watching a lot of different things because I have a TV column. I’m watching a lot of things. I love Schitt’s Creek. I thought it was incredible. It took me a couple of episodes to get into it, but I was marveling at the performances of Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy and Dan Levy. They are good. It’s the comedy that I was describing before that I can’t predict the punchline. They’re people who I can’t know how they’re going to react or sometimes saying like one word, like the way Catherine says like Alexis. The way she says her daughter’s name. There’s something about it that she thinks me laugh every single time because it’s so pretentious.
The characters are well-drawn. I’d say also there’s a movie coming out on Netflix called The Red Sea Diving Resort. That stars Chris Evans who’s Captain America as a Mossad agent who’s working to rescue the Ethiopian Jews from Sudan where they’re being persecuted in the ’80s. That was an interesting movie. In terms of listening, I’ve started listening to this podcast called I’m Not Joking. I’m getting acquainted with the variety of podcasts. It’s an overwhelming space to visit these days.
The barriers to entry are pretty low and there are lots of choices.
I’m intending towards like pop culture and humor podcasts. I’ve been listening to Pop Culture Happy Hour, which is an NPR show with four people talking about pop culture. It’s probably the closest to what my podcast will be with two people. We’ll probably do some interviews too. I’m trying to get acquainted with it, but it’s also hard because there’s a slew of them out there and there’s no quality control. I have to rely on my friends to recommend things. My friends have varied tastes, like the True Murder podcast, those true murder heads.
I love those, but it doesn’t do anything for me. I get it.
There are the ones that are like very celebrity personality-driven, which is okay if you like that celebrity. You have to like them a lot in order to listen to all their stuff. I tend to also look at not the podcast host, but who they’re interviewing. There are few of them that I will listen to every episode. Mostly, I’ll go through the list and say, “They’re talking to this person. I would love to see what that person says.”
Esther, thanks so much for doing this.
Thank you. This was a joy. It’s lovely to come to visit you in Hollywood and welcome to LA. I hope it’s treating you well. There’s certainly a lot of comedic based things to experience. I hope you’re getting to all of them.
I’m on my way.
- Esther Kustanowitz
- Los Angeles Jewish Journal
- J. The Jewish News of Northern California
- Modern Loss
- The Jewish Week
- The Forward
- Julie Seabaugh – previous episode
- The Heeb Magazine
- Jewish Humor Central
- The Humor Code
- The JAP Battle Rap
- Alonzo Bodden – Previous episode
- International Society of Humor Studies
- Sommer Browning – Previous episode
- Upright Citizens Brigade
- YouTube – Upright Citizens Brigade – ASSSSCAT Improv
- Matt Walsh – Previous episode
- Billy Merritt – Previous episode
- Pirate Robot Ninja
- I Like To Watch
- Pop Culture Happy Hour
About Esther Kustanowitz
Esther Kustanowitz is a writer, editor and consultant. She is a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and a columnist at J. The Jewish Weekly of Northern California. She was founding editor and contributor at GrokNation.com, has written for Modern Loss, Haaretz, JTA, The Jewish Week, The Forward and eJewishPhilanthropy.