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In a famous “Seinfeld” episode, Jerry believes his dentist, Dr. Tim Whatley, converted to Judaism for the jokes.
In the real world, is up-and-coming Jewish standup comic Jamie Lee a Texan for the jokes? That was the suspicion raised by one Texas Jew when he caught her act on Conan O’Brien’s show last September.
Lee had just made her late-night debut, delivering a five-minute set on Conan’s eponymous show. Her routine, which touches on familiar comic fodder like relationships, eating disorders and insecurities, also drew on her Jewish and Texas background.
“My body is my temple because sometimes my rabbi is in it,” went one zinger.
“The only time I think people can really tell I’m Texan and Jewish is when I’m on a booze cruise, because drinking brings out my Southern accent and being on a boat brings out my nausea,” went another.
That got laughs, but this reporter’s Texan friend was less amused.
“It’s not rare to be Jewish and Southern or Texan,” he wrote. “It’s quite common. It’s not like some circus sideshow act. A Jewish eskimo, that would be weird. Jewish Texan? There were 5,000 just at the University of Texas.”
Lee had “to be real Texan/Southern, not someone who moved to Dallas from Palm Beach at age 5” to be able to tell jokes like that, fumed the Texas Jew. But what is Lee’s take? On a recent winter’s morning, she arrived at a diner in Manhattan to talk about her budding comedy career and her Texas bona fides.
The bubbly 29-year-old comedian spoke about the experience, both terrifying and gratifying, of performing on a nationally broadcast late-night show.
“It looks very well lit, it looks very warm and friendly and it is. The staff is very warm and friendly, but it's pitch black, the audience is quite a distance from you, you can’t see their faces and the laughter doesn't sound super loud because of the acoustics in the room, so it’s a very lonely experience,” she told JNS.org regarding her debut. “Those five and a half minutes were incredibly lonely and it almost feels like when you have a bad dream that ‘I was on stage naked and there was a whole auditorium.’ It feels like that. It doesn’t feel like traditional standup.”
Lee talks about standup rapidly, passionately, articulately, and like it’s the most important thing in the world, and, for her, it is. She describes being on stage as a kind of drug or addiction. She does not understand comedians who go on breaks. She has performed as often as she can since the first time she got on stage about six years ago. But she does not look the stereotypical funny person. Her pretty-girl looks are reminiscent of Vivian Leigh, an actress with a similar-sounding name that famously played Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” rather than a rough-and-tumble vaudevillian with shtick to sell.
It turns out that Lee’s Southern credentials are kosher. She was born and bred in Dallas and her non-Jewish father is Texan “as far back as possible.” On her mom’s side she is “fully Jewish New Jersey,” but that did not have much of an influence on her upbringing. No Jewish traditions were kept at home.
“I went to a bar and bat mitzvah once,” she recalled. “It was a brother and sister who were born a year apart and had it together.”
That was pretty much it.
In fact, had it not been for “Melrose Place,” she might not have known of her Jewish background until later in life. It was the 90s and the Darren Star-created soap opera popularized cross necklaces among teens in suburban Dallas.
Lee, then 10, made the mistake of wearing a cross while visiting her grandmother in Teaneck, NJ.
“‘[My grandmother] would be like, ‘Why are you wearing that cross?’ and I said, ‘It’s cool.’ She said, ‘You can’t wear that, we’re Jewish,’” Lee recalled. “Honestly, I think that was the first time I ever heard I was Jewish.”
She briefly flirted with Jewish life at college, but her real introduction to the tribe came when she moved to New York after college. There, she attended her aunt’s Passover seders, became acquainted with her Jewish boyfriend’s family, and soaked it up through osmosis.
“When you’re here, that’s the big difference,” she said of New York and Judaism. “Here being Jewish is part of the culture. It’s celebrated. You’re always around people who share similar beliefs and have similar backgrounds. In Texas at UT there was the Jewish sorority, the Jewish fraternity and campus Temple and that was it. It didn’t feel like it bled into other areas of your life.”
New York was also where her career got off the ground after—no joke—she attended comedy school. She was out of college and new in town when she decided to take a class that taught stand-up.
“I remember my teacher used me as an example one day and said, ‘she has the it quality’ and I don’t know what she was talking about but it meant so much to me to have someone professional think that of me. For her to think that of me was amazing and I thought maybe I should stick with this and then I just did.”
Guided by a newfound sense of purpose Lee landed a job at Comedy Central, but as a publicist, not a writer or performer. She would write up press releases during the day and perform at open-mics at night. In 2009, after four years of pushing other people’s work, she decided it was time to go pro. She quit her job, sold most of her belongings and moved into a tiny apartment in Brooklyn bracing herself for a life of destitution that was sure to come.
“It was just, ‘here we go, starving artist,’” she said.
Within weeks she got a job as a writing assistant to a dream team including Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Papo, Chuck Matrain and Jeff Cesario. She sat in on their meetings, typing up the material they came up with.
“It was a comedy fantastic four and me,” she said. “It was the most overwhelming/wonderful thing I ever did. I just said, ‘This is why I quit,’ and I was learning from them so much.”
After that gig ended she appeared on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” wrote for an MTV show called “Ridiculousness” and toured college campuses. Last summer she was invited to appear at “Just for Laughs,” a prestigious annual comedy festival in Montreal.
Soon, Lee will know whether a pilot she helped write will be picked up. In the meantime, she’s going to be on MTV’s “Running From Strangers” and “Failosophy.”
“Stuff feels more consistent,” she said. “I am very cautious of having another drought, but I’m hoping that now it’s happening.”