The Talmud and stand up comedy can sometimes evoke each other, as if the Ten Commandments were handed down from the Catskills.
Did you hear the one, for example, about the funeral procession running into the wedding procession?
No, this is not a riff from the New York Comedy Festival, which opens Nov. 3 under the shadow of a war between Israel and Hamas.
These are specific instructions from the Talmud, Judaism’s essential text.
If a funeral procession meets a wedding procession, the Talmud instructs, the wedding procession has right of way. Proceed with life. And its joy. L’Chiam.
Caroline Hirsch is no biblical scholar. She is New York’s premier impresario of comedy, who founded the New York Comedy Festival in the aftermath of another great terror, the attacks of 9/11.
But she speaks with a wisdom from the ages as she explains why it is not just ok, but necessary, to laugh through dark times.
“As we live in New York City, a major metropolitan city of the world, we are always being hit by something else happening –a shooting last night in Maine--it effects all of us,” Hirsch said in an interview last week.
“I think that comedy is able to give us this coping mechanism that helps us, through laughter and humor. We use this to kind of mend all of the trauma that we always go through.
“I think that laughing and having a good time is all part of a healing process to what we just witnessed two weeks ago. And I think that it’s a good thing that we have this. It’s a good thing for all of our psyches to really get together, gather and laugh. It’s the gathering, and that makes us even stronger and helps us heal.”
Hirsch has been managing a lot herself this past year. She closed her famous, and eponymous comedy club, Caroline’s, when her landlord raised the rent in the aftermath of Covid. She also has completed a compelling film, The Conspiracy, about the recurrent lie that Jews have conspired to control the world.
Nothing funny about that. She is showing it at film festivals, hoping to find a distributor.
“I produced a movie about the history of anti-semitism. So all of this is hitting at once with me,” she said, describing how she spent all of Saturday, Oct 7th, glued to television trying to understand what was happening as Hamas attacked towns and a music festival in southern Israel.
“The film is going to be screened again at Temple Emanuel, November 15. It’s a very important movie. We knew this was happening. The world is obsessed, I believe, with hating Jewish people. And, as we can see, this is coming out more and more now through what we are seeing on the college campuses.”
But Hirsch had gotten on the phone to talk about the healing power of comedy not the ever-present cloud of anti-semitism. “I don’t want to make this into a political thing,” she says, turning the conversation back to the festival.
With her club closed, the festival will be bigger than ever, ten days instead of six, more than 100 acts across venues ranging from Madison Square Garden to The Beacon to The Hard Rock Hotel. (nycomedyfestival.com)
Many of the acts that would have appeared at Caroline’s, she says, will now be incorporated into the festival.
Hirsch says she does nothing to instruct or police comics on how, or whether, to handle the Middle East crisis.
“The situation in Israel–between Israel and Palestine–I don’t think I’ve ever heard any jokes on stage or anyone talk about it, in all my years of listening to comedians.”
She is aware, she acknowledges, that Dave Chappelle got some blowback for comments he made during a Boston set the other day. She says she is not happy about that. But she does not know what was actually said because, as Chappelle points out, attendees were required to surrender their phones. Chappelle is not scheduled to perform at the festival.
“So I don’t want to bring it up that that’s part of anybody’s act or will be part of anybody’s act,” said Hirsch. “I’m not sure what will happen there. I’m not going to monitor anybody. We will see where all this falls. But I’m sure everybody will be respectful of the situation.”
The situation, as she called it, is at the very heart of one group’s act.
Comedy for Peace is a group started in 2019 “that aims to unite Jewish and Muslim communities through humor and mutual understanding.”
The group says its first goal “is to show everyone that we can, very easily, collaborate, standing on one stage together, to have fun and to laugh on ourselves and on each other, without any politics involved.”
The group’s Muslim, Christian and Jewish comics will appear as part of the festival on November 8.
“It’s kind of clever,” Hirsch said of the group “It’s kind of helpful. It’s kind of healing to have that show in the festival, too.”
Does the present situation make it more difficult for them to do what they do, Hirsch is asked?
“I don’t think so. I think there will be more of a need for it.”