You don’t have to be Jewish, but it helps, on comedy night
A few comedians walk into a bar — OK, so maybe it’s a Jewish Community Center — and take turns at the microphone telling jokes about family.
Their families. Your family. Everyone’s family. What’s more universal than wacky relatives and their caricatures, right?
“When I talk about myself, I’m mostly talking about the foibles of the culture that I come from,” says Steve Bennett, a native of Minnesota and one of six comedians slated to perform at the JCC in Sherman on Saturday, April 6 for “Laugh Out Loud Comedy Night.”
And by foibles, Bennett means serving lime Jell-O with chunks of elbow — not fruit cocktail, not diced apples, just bits of the aforementioned elbow — for a rather wretched dessert.
But whatever you do next, please don’t offend the host. And definitely don’t spit out the recipe roadkill in your napkin.
“Minnesotans are polite to a fault,” says Bennett, a self-described rookie comedian at 61 who practices law by day and hits the open-mic circuit by night. “If you’re a Minnesotan, you don’t try the Jello-O and go, ‘That’s disgusting! What’s wrong with you?’ Instead, you take this tiny, little bite and go, ‘Oh, that’s different.’”
Comedy nights have become annual staples at Jewish institutions in Connecticut, from temples across Fairfield and Litchfield counties to JCCs in Sherman, Stamford and Greater New Haven.
In fact, the JCC of Greater New Haven will hold its 13th annual Comedy Deli Night the same night as the Sherman show. Meanwhile, Temple Beth Elohim in Brewster, N.Y., which draws many of its members from Connecticut, sponsored its 26th annual Comedy Night last November.
These comedy shows have become one part fundraiser, one part community builder — nights to strengthen temple and JCC communities as well as the community at large. The programs bring people together to promote inclusion, diversity, and if you’re really lucky, the kind of jokes that make you snort like Ralphie’s kid brother eating mashed potatoes in “A Christmas Story.”
Mike Calcagno, a Long Island native who has opened for the likes of Kevin James, Ben Bailey and Nick Di Paolo, also will perform at the JCC in Sherman. He’s been doing standup comedy for the last five years. Calcagno loves his job, but admits the craft can be all-consuming.
“I was always funny with my friends growing up. But when I first tried standup, I wasn’t funny,” he says. “I hit a wall. I knew right away — ah, [insert colorful language here] — this is going to be really hard, but I’ve kept at it.”
Along the way, Calcagno started his own production company, Laugh Track Films. In addition to working with Saturday Night Live alumnus Jim Breuer on sketches — remember Goat Boy? — Calcagno works with his father on a series called CalcagKNOWS, where the two men try to answer impossible questions without using the Internet.
It’s a good place to visit on YouTube if you’ve ever wondered, “Why do horsepower and torque cross at 5252 rpm?”
Like Bennett, Calcagno finds humor at home.
“I talk about my family and my fiancée a lot — my dad, my mom, aunts and uncles, everyone,” explains Calcagno, 28. “My future wife is half-Jewish. Her family is very similar to mine. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Italian, Jewish, whatever. The jokes are still relatable.”
For Jessica Saul, a 25-year-old comedian who grew up in Florida before moving to New York, the punchlines come from her experiences dating and working in the big city.
“I’m not really a storyteller. I’m more of a quirky Jewish girl who has something to say,” notes Saul, who has been collecting open-mic appearances, and more and more paid gigs, for the last two years. “My standup is really a lot of character-based stuff and voices.”
Some of Saul’s impersonations include celebrity chef Paula Deen, actress Jennifer Lawrence, comedian Sarah Silverman, and of course, her mom — just maybe her go-to source for material.
“The suffering and the stereotypes are real,” Saul says. “Being raised by a Jewish mother either leads you to insanity or some kind of outlet. For me, it’s comedy.
“The thing is, we’re not really a big religious family. Not at all. Probably the most Jewish thing about us is that we eat bagels.”
Along with Bennett, Calcagno and Saul, the “Laugh Out Loud Comedy Night” in Sherman will feature standup comics Matt Carter, Youngmi Mayer and Ed Prokopski.
Ultimately, Bennett believes, standup comedy is an important form of self-expression.
“I heard a person say you’re playing a character on stage. And you are. You’re playing yourself,” Bennett says. “The idea with standup is you take who you are and then you amp it up a little bit. You make it bigger — not totally exaggerated, but bigger — and that makes it easier to see the elements of your character. And then, of course, you have to be funny.”
The rest will take care of itself. Just don’t spit out the lime Jell-O in your napkin.
Brian Koonz is a freelance writer and former reporter, editor and columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group.