Ivor Dembina's guide to Jewish humour

Wednesday, October 03 2012

A familiar face on the circuit now for nearly 30 years, Ivor Dembina has a run of shows in Hampstead and Stoke Newington called Old Jewish Jokes. Here's Ivor on what defines Jewish comedy and what it means to him

Ivor Dembina

"Old Jewish Jokes" was a originally a 20-minute curtain raiser to my ostensibly more serious "This is Not a Subject for Comedy" – a one-hour solo show about Israel, Palestine and the Jews. The idea was to offer a warm-hearted sweetener to the more challenging subject of ethnic conflict.

However, in the course of doing my jokey prelude, I discovered that many of the issues around Jewish identity were already there in these famous old traditional gags. At the same time, I looked into of my own experience of being a Jewish comic and came up with a truth-based narrative that the old jokes could be woven into.

The result is another "story with jokes" in its own right – one that reveals my affection for Jewish humour and my fascination with the Jewish predicament; feeling different, but wanting to be treated the same.

Jewish humour is above all a flavour. Many of the best jokes have little or no "Jewish" content but succeed because of nuance and delivery.

You can try it yourself. Take the following short joke:

"An old couple are at home, she's up in the bedroom and he's downstairs in the kitchen.
She calls out: 'Peter, will you please come upstairs and make love to me!'
And Peter says, 'Sorry darling, I'm afraid I can't manage both.'"

Now, change the name Peter to Harry and replace the exclamation mark with a question mark.

Finally, replace ''Sorry darling, I'm afraid' to 'Leave me alone'.

Deliver the amended joke in a gentle sing-song tone, making sure you raise your shoulders slightly and screw up your eyes on the old man's response. And bang, you have a Jewish joke.

There's a knowing weariness to Jewish comedy that honestly reflects my own attitude to the comedy business, bumping around its lower echelons for nearly 30 years. When I'm performing the show I feel that my past and present have arrived at some kind of meeting point and I can sense the audience recognising it. It's a very satisfying feeling.

Often, the high point of the show is when I ask the audience to join in and start telling their own favourite Jewish gags. To get to the point where there's a room for of people, Jews and non-Jews laughing at a shared Jewish shtick is quite liberating and joyful. Jews, not just laughing at themselves but allowing others to laugh at them. I tell you bubeleh It doesn't happen very often.

Click here for the full details of Old Jewish Jokes shows at The Alice House (Hamsptead) and Ryan's Bar (Stokey).
• He also runs drop-in sessions for anyone interested in learning more about stand-up,
details here.
Finally, Ivor has a one-off performance of his highly recommended show This Is Not A Subject For Comedy on October 11, details here.


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