Talmud-quoting comedian Ari Shaffir doesn’t necessarily see himself as descended from the Jewish comedians who started in the Borscht Belt and dominated comedy for most of the 20th century.
“I’m associated with it,” he said when asked about the influence of Jewish comedy on his work before noting that he mostly saw himself as racially Jewish.
Shaffir, who spent time studying at Yeshiva University before earning an English degree from the University of Maryland, illustrated the point with a story, saying that during the pandemic, he spent time in Ecuador.
Later, when he was in Mexico with his partner, he walked past a bar playing a World Cup game featuring the Central American country.
“I’m not Ecuadorian, but we both sat and watched because there is a connection there,” he said.
The explanation belies the comedian’s recent stand-up special, titled “Ari Shaffir: Jew,” where he discussed Adam and Eve, dietary laws, Chanukah and even his loss of belief in God while in Yeshiva at Jerusalem. It also ignores his upbringing in a family of Jewish-Romanian descent whose father was a Holocaust survivor.
Rather than Brooks or Allen though, the comedian mentioned Sam Kinison, Dave Chapelle and Andrew Dice Clay when discussing influences and comedy history, despite through lines that might not necessarily be obvious.
“Ozzy Osbourne said one of his biggest influences was the Beatles, and it’s like, ‘What?! The Beatles!’ But then you realize, they’re both high-level musicians, and he’s latching onto something that’s not the genre of music. Maybe it’s their storytelling or their lyrics, but there’s something there,” he said.
Kinison’s influence, Shaffir said, was his conversational style and the ability to laugh at things people normally wouldn’t laugh at, like necrophilia, for instance.
That willingness to find humor in areas where others are uncomfortable is a hallmark of Shaffir’s comedy. Following the death of Kobe Bryant, Shaffir wrote an impolite tweet about the basketball player that created controversy and caused at least one of his stand-up performances to be canceled.
Shaffir is a frequent guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast, whom he opened for in the early 2000s. He has also created his podcast, “Skeptic Tank,” where he has discussed issues including mental health, suicide, rape and prison. He also co-hosted the sports podcast, “Punch Drunk Sports.”
He said people often are offended by things that they take out of context. As an example, he said listeners will become offended that Joe Rogan will interview Republican senators without noting that he also interviews Democratic senators.
“When you lose context,” he said, “you definitely lose comedy,” noting the stage is an integral part of stand-up and often a performer will say something not meant to be taken literally.
The former Yeshiva student and English major said that it’s important to apply the type of logic found in the Gemara and literature to statements made on stage.
A triple threat, Shaffir is a skilled stand-up comedian, a podcast host and has even acted. The stage is his first love, calling the other media vehicles hobbies.
“The worst part about acting is you have to be around actors to do it who are the worst,” he said. “You talk about the insides not being promoted and watered. There’s no reason to be a good person in the acting world, or even human. It’s just self-absorbed and beauty based. They value being famous over being a good person. Like, they’ll miss their dad’s funeral for an audition. They’re trash,” he noted with a laugh.
The comedy landscape has changed, he said, from the previous decades. In the ’80s, few comedians were able to play huge venues like Madison Square Garden. Today, many sell out similar venues. In the ’90s, television made household names out of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano and Tim Allen.
“Superstars on TV are done,” he said, “but there’s so many guys who own houses, and that just wasn’t a possibility before when you were either Ray Romano or a road-lifer barely getting by, having an apartment and dying at 70 with a heart attack.”
Still, he said, comedy is as big as it ever was and, despite those that protest comedians and show hosts, he said, both provide an outlet to find humor in the darker parts of life.
“Podcasts and comics are the only ones making rape jokes anymore or AIDS jokes and really going for it and being dirty,” he said. “When you can’t get it anywhere mainstream because someone might lose their job, then they come to us.”
Shaffir is looking forward to bringing his new stand-up routine to Pittsburgh, a city he joked, he appreciates for its casual acceptance that everyone is fat.
“It’s like doughnut, yeah! You have French fries and garbage on top of your salads,” he said before noting that Pittsburgh is a cool city like Nashville, Tennessee, or Austin, Texas, without the street cred.
“Pittsburgh is still in a golden age of being artsy, and the Los Angelenos have not come yet,” he said.” PJC
Ari Shaffir headlines the Improv Comedy Club Jan. 12-15.
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org