Rachel McKay Steele admits her parents were a bit surprised when she first told them the title of her upcoming solo show. But when the 33-year-old comedian performs “Shiva For Anne Frank” in New York City this week it will not be for the shock value alone.
“She was actually quite funny herself,” Steele said of Anne Frank, considered one of most famous diarists in history. “The initial reaction, of course, is that comedy and Anne Frank would not go together. But I think we forget a lot of what she wrote and focus on what happened to her.”
In fact, Steele noted, two new pages Frank wrote that included dirty jokes were discovered just last May. And if Frank were alive today, Steele muses, the writer would likely have enjoyed the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
“I think Anne would have been Team Selena Gomez,” Steele joked, referring to Bieber’s notorious 2013 comment that Anne Frank would have been “a belieber” on his visit to the Anne Frank House.
“I think it was a ridiculous move on his part,” she deadpans.
Over the last few years the quick-witted comedian has performed in comedy clubs around New York. This show, on November 29 and 30 at The Peoples Improv Theater, is a culmination of over a year’s work.
It will include an exploration of her own cultural and sexual identity as she relates to Anne Frank and the book she first read in high school. It was during those formative years that someone she was dating made a joke about her nose. It may or may not have been the reason she had rhinoplasty, she said.
“I tell people, ‘If you break it, you buy it if we play pickup basketball,” she said in reference to her nose. “And it’s a complete joke because I never play pickup basketball.”
Though she has mixed Jewish and Southern background — she grew up in Charleston, South Carolina with a mother that hailed from Brooklyn and a dad from Indiana — she says there’s only one time you will hear hints of her southern accent. “It will come out when I drink whiskey,” she said. (Steele also mentions off-handedly that she once caught fire from sitting too close to a menorah on Chanukah but that’s neither here nor there.)
Though she’s mining a serious topic for comedy, Steele is hopeful her great respect for Frank will shine through and the performance will be a celebration of her life. Though its crucial to push against perceived boundaries, she notes, it is also important to be mindful.
“In comedy, nothing is off limits but there is a big difference between punching up and punching down,” she said. “And there’s the question of is your joke exposing an injustice or are you making someone who is marginalized your punchline.”
She cites comedian Tig Notaro as one her inspirations, adding that she’s inspired by the many “badass female comedians who are showing they have a voice.”
And Thursday can’t come soon enough for her.
“I had my first anxiety dream specifically about the show last night,” she said. “I’m an anxious Jew.”