There’s something nerve-racking about stand-up comedy. A poor soul is up on stage with no notes, no backup, nothing. It’s one human, in front of strangers who have come to laugh. In this contrived setting, there’s nothing incidental or spontaneous, which in real life is often the source of the biggest laughs—the unexpected.
Here, on stage, the laughs are expected, and both sides, the comedian and the audience, know it.
Now, take all that nerviness and add a deadly serious idea—the world’s oldest hatred. That was the awkward vibe I felt Wednesday night at the start of “The Roast of Anti-Semitism,” a live show featuring top comedians from Elon Gold and Jeff Ross to Modi, Howie Mandel, Rachel Bloom and many others, that packed the house at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.
“There is a long, rich Jewish tradition of confronting antisemitism with direct humor, and comedians have always been front-line fighters in the war against hatred,” is how the promoters introduced the show on their website. “There are people that argue that making light of prejudice, or turning purveyors of it into absurdities, robs hatred of power. With today’s disturbing rise of antisemitism, comedians are ready to fight back.”
The problem, of course, is that comedy doesn’t usually work well with predetermined agendas. Comedy is difficult enough as it is.
The difference with this show, however, is that the crowd was primed and ready. These were hardly strangers. Many of them have been involved for years, in one way or another, with “the fight against antisemitism,” a fight that has been deadly serious. On this night, you could feel that the crowd was ready for something different, not just because they wanted to laugh, but because they’re tired of losing. After all, despite all the serious fighting, all they keep hearing is that antisemitism is “worse than ever.”
The first two performers, Elon Gold and Jeff Ross, set the tone for the show. It’s not just that they had the crowd in stitches—it was their mojo. They were modeling a winning body language that empowered the audience in its long and frustrating “fight” against an ancient and pesky disease.
Comedians, by definition, can never show weakness. Bravado is their shtick. When Gold took on white supremacists who chant “Jews will not replace us,” he didn’t fight back with condemnations or calls for “more education.” He fought back with punchlines.
When he said to haters, “We don’t want to replace you, we just want to put braces on you … we just want to manage your portfolio … we want to place you, in a 30-year fixed low-interest mortgage … we want to fit you for glasses, heal you, teach you, inspire you, make you laugh, represent you in a divorce and she replaces you,” he made the haters look like losers.
Indeed, the notion that haters are losers is a deeply empowering one, especially if you are not a hater. It suggests that haters are the ones with the problem, that haters are the ones who deserve all the crushing ridicule we can heap on them.
The notion that haters are losers is a deeply empowering one, especially if you are not a hater.
Jeff Ross followed Gold with a hysterical, freewheeling set that even poked fun at Jews, honoring, like Gold, the long Jewish tradition of being able to laugh at ourselves. He then took the gloves off with an original song, “Don’t f*** with the Jews.”
That word may come off as vulgar, but his underlying idea was smart and timely. Stop apologizing for your success, he was telling his fellow Jews in the audience. Own it. That’s where your power lies. There should be a price to pay for messing with the Jews, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The show didn’t pretend to be a substitute for the traditional ways the Jewish community fights antisemitism. Rather, it suggested the right body language for the fight—as winners, not whiners. And if any group knows how to play like winners, it’s the comedians.
In a sense, the show went beyond its billing. It didn’t just roast antisemitism, it roasted antisemites. And it roasted them not with fear or yelling, but with good-old-fashioned punch lines that ought to make them nervous.
Originally published by the Jewish Journal.