Jewish Comedy Turns Sane
Once an institutionalized mental patient, the comic Moshe Kasher unleashes his psychological self-abuse in the new memoir Kasher in the Rye
Moshe Kasher introduces one bit on his 2009 debut comedy CD, Everyone You Know Is Going to Die, And Then You Are, by saying the words, “I went to college.” Which, given that Kasher is a 32-year-old American Jew, would seem a little like his saying that he breathes oxygen.
Except that for Kasher, picking up a bachelor’s degree was anything but inevitable. In Kasher in the Rye, his new misery-lit memoir, the comedian explains that he was, for most of his teenage years, headed in a very different direction. His father, a deaf baal teshuva who found his place among the Satmar Hasidim in Sea Gate, Brooklyn, would have preferred him to train as a Talmud scholar, but even before his bar mitzvah, Moshe had discovered a passion for illegal drugs. “I was 12 years old and I found my calling,” he recalls. “Stay high, stay drunk, at all costs.” He fulfilled this program throughout his adolescence in Oakland, Calif., during which—according to his literary testimony—he was drunk or high every day, stole from grocery stores and from his mother, hung around with homeless junkies, racked up thousands of dollars in phone-sex charges, and was booted from one therapist and teenage rehab program after another. He robbed kids on the street, wrote graffiti, urinated all over the floor of his bedroom, and, at one particularly low point, was accused along with his friends of gang-raping a teenage girl.
Kasher grew up in the home of his divorced mother, who, being deaf like his father, could not hear him sneaking out of the house at night, or blasting Too $hort on her car’s stereo, even when she was sitting in the seat right next to him. But he doesn’t blame his troubles on growing up in a family doubly destabilized by divorce and deafness. How could he, when his older brother sailed through a fancy liberal arts college and onward to a progressive Orthodox rabbinical school so as to return to his hometown and serve as the senior Jewish educator at the U.C. Berkeley Hillel?
If Kasher’s not the only contemporary stand-up comedian with a rabbi sibling (see: Sarah Silverman), he is, as far as I know, unique in being the grandson of a Yiddish writer—in this case, Dovid Kasher, who wrote the 1939 novel Tsvishn Vent, or Between Walls. This yikhes—atheist socialist grandparents, Hasidic father—might begin to explain why the comedian, who was born, raised, and later institutionalized under the name “Mark,” has claimed “Moshe” as his stage name. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, where your name is your brand, Kasher’s assumption of an impossibly Jewish name (one that only 5 percent of American Jews surveyed in 2008 said they would even consider giving to their children) seems like an even bolder affirmation of Jewish identity than Barbra Streisand’s refusal to undergo rhinoplasty.
So, it’s not surprising to find that Kasher’s boilerplate bio reads “Comedian. Jew. Jew Comedian.” (Also, “OBGYN.”) What might be less expected by anyone who discovers him through the memoir, rather than encountering him at a comedy club or as iTunes’ 2009 Best New Comic, is that though Kasher has been through teenage hell—on an episode of a podcast called The Champs that he co-hosts, he told actor and comedian Craig Robinson that he has been arrested more times than he can now remember—his material turns out to be, at least by the standards of contemporary stand-up, somewhat gentle, if not gentile.
That’s not to say he’s as anodyne as Seinfeld, but his targets tend to be easy ones: Obesity is gross! Middle America is lame! Hippies don’t shower! Christian rock sucks! He notes, on his CD and elsewhere, how stupid it is that audience members are offended by his jokes (“If it makes you feel any better, I was just kidding. The entire time. That’s what I do at the comedy club, lady-that-doesn’t-know-how-things-on-earth-work”). But that anyone is offended at all seems more a consequence of where a working comedian performs these days—places like Edmonton, Louisville, and Modesto—than it is evidence of Kasher telling the hard truths of a Lenny Bruce or a Richard Pryor.
Kasher has succeeded in the comedy world, so far, by making jokes about the same sort of things that annoy people who didn’t grow up with two deaf parents and really bad drug habits. This may be why, in the memoir, along with rap epigraphs, he cites Taco Bell, Super Mario Bros., the WWF, Stand by Me, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, Ghostbusters, Transformers, Robocop, and Star Trek: The Next Generation as if he is checking off items from some standard “I’m an absolutely regular child of the late 1980s and early 1990s!” comedy-shtick syllabus.
His material gets a bit more interesting when he risks revealing more of the rawness behind his smarmy regulation-issue hipster-nerd facade, as in the bit with which he ended his 2010 set on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. He began that night with tired material about how unpleasant it would be to spend eternity in heaven if you have to hang out with your family. But as this culminates, Kasher channels his mother’s voice in what a novelist would call free indirect discourse, intensity rising until he’s screaming at himself: “That’s when forever begins, with your mom, on the cloud next to you, looking over at you, complaining about your harp playing skills, how you don’t play the harp that great anyway, how your brother used to get straight A’s when he played the harp, nobody wants to see you on stage telling jokes!” He pauses, looking down at the floor, as if shocked by what he has said, and then ends the set while the audience wonders just how true that all was. It’s obviously a stagey bit—obvious not just because he performs it regularly, but also because if it is grounded in his actual relationship with his mom, he has had to translate her flurries of sign-language disapproval into shouted words that his audiences can understand—but, to my ear, it sounds a genuine emotional note.
The memoir suggests that Kasher has succeeded in normalizing himself, more or less, as a young American Jewish man. He read Catcher in the Rye, sobered up, and went to college. His mother was present on graduation day to tell him she loves him; Kasher was on hand at his father’s deathbed to see the man sign, “I’m lucky you are my son,” and then he sat shiva, finding the ancient ritual “very comforting.” If he has pursued an unusual career, he has done so for the same reasons that plenty of suburbanites do. And what’s more normal, these days, than publishing a self-indulgent memoir and marketing the crap out of yourself?
As a stand-up, Kasher has real gifts: a sufficiently quirky persona and a command of the English language that rises above the general standards of his trade. The question remains whether, as his career continues, he can create comedy out of his more unusual experiences—say, fluency in American Sign Language or precocious addiction and recovery. If not, it may come to seem that his “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude, credentialed by a childhood of vice, belies the same desperation to be normal (and rich) that too often lands promising comedians in that sad, weird spot of having a stage but nothing to say.
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