My Night with Comedian Joel Chasnoff

One (non-Jewish) Shalom Life reporter's experience with the funny, skinny Jewish kid from Chicago.

Published: May 19th 2011
in Culture » Society


I'd first like to take the opportunity to introduce the newest member of my top five all-time comedians list (and no, I will not divulge who got the boot). Ladies and gentlemen, Joel Chasnoff: The skinny Jewish kid from Chicago who turned me into comedic fodder during his 45-minute set Tuesday night at Absolute Comedy Club. 


I met with Chasnoff briefly before the show to discuss his book and early life as a comedian. 


The book "188th Crybaby Brigade" with the tag line that actually reads "a skinny Jewish kid from Chicago fights Hezbollah" recalls his year spent in the Israeli Defense Forces. The beginning of our conversation was quite lighthearted and I immediately got teased for having a tape recorder. Chasnoff says, "Welcome to the 21st century!" and "Most people use their phones now." 


Chasnoff grew up in Chicago and attended school at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Psychology and Math. Before the inevitable book plugging -- I mean questioning -- I had to know where the sharp-witted comedian got his big break as a stand-up comedian. "One Summer at the age of 20 I was leading a U.S.-wide trip to Israel with teenagers, and that was the first place I tried it," he says.


I follow up by asking when exactly Chasnoff discovered that he was funny in the first place. For some reason, this question always strikes me as a good one for comedians because it takes a lot of confidence to stand on a stage and try to make people laugh, especially Torontonians (even if we are slightly diluted New Yorkers). Given that Chasnoff has toured with the likes of Jon Stewart and made his mark at comedy central, it's a wonder to me where this fervour to be humorous for a living comes from. 


"In school, [growing up] I was always the smallest once in the class and it influenced my need to stand out in some other way. I was also the smallest kid in a Jewish school, and if you're the smallest kid in a Jewish school you got to have something. Also in college and high school I was a part of a comedy group, and participated writing, acting, and directing. It really showed me how to write a show and to write jokes. You really have to spend time writing jokes and preparing the material. I really take it seriously."


Slowly, I make my way into book territory and my first thoughts are, how does someone find humour in tales of the Israeli army? An army he describes as the greatest in the world because of their sneakiness!  "As a comedian, who's been doing it somewhat organized since high school -- it's my natural point of view to look at something from a comedic side. In the army, it was pretty much anything really absurd or unusual. Any army I think, but especially the Israeli army for me, you have these absurdities like 18-year-old kids who have barely graduated high school and are thrown into life-and-death situations. It's a mature stage of life yet they are still children."


He describes the book as a blueprint of the Israeli army, essentially a day in the life of the young men and women who serve their country. What they eat, how they sleep. He discusses everything from basic training to their experiences together in Lebanon. One key point, which he notes during the interview, "the book is very much about Israeli identity. I think Jews in North America have a very strange relationship to Israel. We idolize Israelis, we also have a hard time with some of their characteristics, they're very different from us. So, I try to get into that as well -- the culture clash. What it means to be a Jew in North America."

When asked about his preconceived thoughts about the book, he says "to tell you the truth I didn't have an agenda, it's just the truth. There are some instances where I am pro-Israel and some where I criticize the army. There are some things I agree with, and some that I don't. I support Israel, but I'm not going to support it blindly."

We had to cut the interview short because it was almost time for the show to start but he promised to be outside afterward so I could grill him a little bit more. He then returned to his illegible notebook, which I imagine was his genius.


During the show, Chasnoff cleverly asked if there were any non-Jewish members of the audience and I raised my hand. Judging by the disbelief on his face that "Nelly the reporter from Shalom Life" was the non-Jewish person in the audience, I knew I was in for an embarrassing 45 minutes. 


The audience roared as I became not only a reporter but an accessory to the show. The skinny Jewish kid from Chicago was on a roll and although I was flushed, I was happy to feel a warm reception from the audience after the show. One person even approached me saying, "You really took a beating out there, good job!" 

Absolute Comedy hosted a great night of laughter and cultural unity. Even though I come from a different community, unity is universal. Sure, I was the fodder of many jokes, but I was laughing too. 


After the show I asked him one final question: What's your motto?


His response: "To always have a non-Jew at the show!"

Related articles: (Joel Chasnoff, comedian, Jewish comedy, Absolute Comedy Club)
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