Tuesday, June 23, 2015



My Fringe Festival show was inspired by my experience in 2004, when I closed a Just for Laughs gala set with a holocaust joke, and 3 out of 3 critics panned it in  the next morning’s Montreal Gazette. Having it quoted in the paper under the “Worst Joke” heading was not pleasant. Seeing this verdict in print made people, including members of my own family, draw the conclusion that I had bombed at the gala. At the very least, it seemed I had done a very bad thing to earn the press’s unanimous condemnation. Fortunately, this was before internet shaming became a popular bloodsport, and the incident had no real impact on anything. But in my heart it lingered as an aching memory. I felt that, by any objective measure, I screwed up. To the point that, afterwards, any mention of Auschwitz would make me feel sad inside (I know, right?).

I’d had the idea for years to perform a little video deconstruction of the incident, pulling the experience into the spotlight to have a little fun making fun of myself, the event, and even the press reaction. Then I’d spend the rest of the show running out the clock with some of my more controversial stand-up.

This year, I finally went ahead and did that show. And something interesting happened between my discomfort revisiting the video (and reviews) and presenting them in front of an audience eight times. At long last, I was forced to face the truth about the whole scandal.

The joke worked. 

It became obvious from the first couple of shows, when I would plant the idea in the audience’s collective head that they were about to watch a trainwreck of Sheen-like proportions as my Auschwitz bit tanks in front of 2000 people. Then the video would play, the joke would get the laugh, the lights would come up and I’d look out at a bunch of people who seemed unsure what the big deal was. Fortunately, the clip ends with the TV cameras making a ridiculous cut-away to an uncomfortable woman sitting there watching in silence, which most audiences latched onto as the punchline of the video (if not immediately then afterwards when I would make fun of the control room’s decision to seek out “uncomfortable Jewish mom”). Otherwise, the video comes across as totally unremarkable.

Watching this brought out into the light of day, show after show, I very soon came to wonder why I’d ever thought this was a big deal. Or why anybody else would. Certainly by the point in the show where I analyze the three critics’ reactions, they come across way less like proof of an objective screw-up and more like what they always were: three subjective opinions.

Some of my fringe shows were tougher than others. Sometimes the audience didn’t laugh at some of my riskier bits and the resulting silence would get, given the nature of the material, especially cringeworthy. The first night it happened I felt the familiar doubts and heartache return. “That one went too far. That upset some people. I did a bad thing.” 

And then it’d hit me: “Oh, that’s right, that’s what this WHOLE SHOW IS ABOUT. Some people laugh hard at this stuff. Some people don’t like it at all. Who gets the last word on the subject is totally up to you. Go out there and do it again. That’s comedy.”

There’s a lot I love about the show I did. I love that I got to laugh off past critical receptions (besides the Gazette business, the show also puts one ‘Youtube comments’ experience into perspective). I love that the last line of the show consistently blindsided the audience (take that, China). I love that I got to see people laugh at things that are “wrong” (giving hope that the myopic mouse-jockies of the Twitterati have not killed all reason and levity in the human spirit).  And I love the happiest outcome of the show: now when I hear mention of Auschwitz...well, I’ll still be sad, but in the normal “what a barbaric chapter in the annals of human cruelty” sort of way. The holocaust is no longer just about me. 

What a breakthrough!