(New York Jewish Week) — “You never know how people are going to respond,” says Jewish comedian Ari Shaffir, referring to his new standup special, “Jew,” which has more than 3 million views (and counting) on YouTube.
The self-released, 90-minute showcase of stories and jokes goes deep into his life story, including his studies at a Jerusalem yeshiva. Shaffir, who eventually left Orthodoxy behind, balances Talmud lessons with the neuroticism of Jewish culture.
The show gives the entire backstory of Judaism, starting with Adam and Eve, interweaving tales about Hanukkah and Passover, going through customs and traditions. It’s an oral history of Judaism, told through a brutally honest comedic lens.
After it was released two weeks ago, the special has been praised by numerous comics in the podcast world, including Tim Dillon, Shane Gillis, Chris Destafano and Joe Rogan, whom Shaffir calls a longtime friend.
There are also over 25,000 comments on the special, most of them positive. One goes as far to say that it is “the best special of the century so far.”
Shaffir, who lives in the East Village, said he has not received much negative feedback for the special, which is rare for a comedian who once received death threats and had to cancel shows for joking about NBA player Kobe Bryant’s death in 2020.
“Jew,” which was shot and performed in Brooklyn, was released Nov. 2. The date, Shaffir told the New York Jewish Week, was set far in advance — but it arrived at a moment when antisemitism became a national conversation topic, thanks to recent tweets from rapper Kanye West and Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving.
“I was worried for a minute — I thought for a second it was going to derail it,” he said of the timing, adding that he “wasn’t looking for this kind of press” in regards to his special.
The conversation only grew more intense last week, after Dave Chapelle delivered a monologue on “Saturday Night Live” abut the West and Irving controversies that critics, including the Anti-Defamation League and Simon Wiesenthal Center, called antisemitic.
“They’re ready to say that, regardless,” Shaffir said. “The complaints were already written. Most people think it’s funny.” Jewish organizations, he said, are “not known as great comedy critiquers.”
“People don’t understand that we enjoy that,” Shaffir added, referring to the criticism. “I can speak for Chapelle on this. We’re only here to make people laugh, but we also enjoy when dorks get mad.”
Shaffir, 48, has made a career off of making dorks mad, weaving tales about drugs, sex and Judaism into world tours, a podcast, spots at the Comedy Cellar in New York and the Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
While he’s known for his edgy humor, Shaffir appears more introspective and personal in “Jew” when compared to his previous work. On his Comedy Central show “This Is Not Happening,” which ran for four seasons between 2015 and 2019, he talks about planting weed for strangers and fans at sports arenas and shopping malls (the police weren’t amused). He also appeared in a sketch called “The Amazing Racist,” where he spoofs “The Amazing Race” by playing a character who constantly brings up offensive stereotypes.
With “Jew,” by contrast, Shaffir has channeled his persona into a hyper-focused, cohesive take on all aspects of Judaism, including mikvahs, Yom Kippur chicken rituals and the minutiae of when certain foods can be considered kosher. At the same time, he keeps the material palatable for a non-Jewish audience.
“You can make anything accessible,” Shaffir said. “It’s the same thing as saying, ‘My dad does this weird thing, or my country does this weird thing.’ You just explain it and you’re fine.”
While Shaffir may have turned away from religion as a young man, he said he has since found “a love for how interesting and cool it was.”
“I now see that Judaism leaves your kids with intelligence, where they value education and family,” Shaffir said. “It’s great stuff and I wanted to show that.”
When the special was released, Shaffir left a note on his web site saying that it is his “love letter to the culture and religion that raised me.”
He tells a story in the special about meeting with his rabbi from the Jerusalem yeshiva and telling him he was a standup comedian. “All he wanted to know was, ‘do you still use the teaching?’” Shaffir says in the special.
Shaffir then talks about how the rabbi gave him a lesson about Noah’s Ark, which he then turns into a bit about anal sex — all while leaving the audience with a positive spin on Judaism.
“Not all religion is stupid,” Shaffir says in the special. “It’s a good lesson, especially in this day and age.”
Shaffir was born in New York and spent most of his childhood in North Carolina and Maryland. He was “a Modern Orthodox Jewish kid” who attended the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington (now the Berman Hebrew Academy). After high school, Shaffir went to Bais Medrash L’Torah, an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, which he said was the “standard track” for a Jewish kid at his age, but eventually he had “a crisis of faith.”
“I just came home and really thought about it and I was like, ‘I’m out,’” Shaffir said. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Since then, Shaffir said he does not believe in God, but believes in the “shared history” of Judaism.
And while he’s had moments of Jewish jokes and stories in his previous specials, this is his full show on the topic, going deep within himself to find the humor within the religion, even in the darkest of places.
Shaffir’s father is a Holocaust survivor from Romania, who moved to Israel following the war. Shaffir said his story of survival was “a major part of our upbringing.”
“Their village got taken later in the war,” Shaffir said of his father’s family. “Most of the family was wiped out. I don’t know all the details exactly.”
He now has a good relationship with his parents and said they saw him perform the special live. “They liked it,” Shaffir said. “They probably liked it more than my other specials, where I was talking about [having sex with] chicks with herpes.”
While working on the special, Shaffir workshopped his material at the Fat Black Pussycat, the “sister showroom” of the Comedy Cellar in New York’s Greenwich Village. There, an audience member once asked him a question about “the pillow” that Jews carry.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Shaffir said. “But then it hit me: It’s tallis and tefillin,” the velvet bags containing prayer shawls and phylacteries that Jews carry to synagogue. “It looks like a pillowcase. You can look at it from an outside perspective, their point of view: It looks like a pillow. Their questions would get me to riff.”
He later took his special abroad, including Israel, where “it did not work,” he said. “They knew too much about it. All the exposition, they were like, ‘We know.’”
In contrast, he performed the material in places where there were few or possibly no Jews, such as Perth, Australia and Reykjavik, Iceland, where it went well. “Places where they are like, ‘I’ve never heard of [Jews],” Shaffir said. “I had to make sure it went well there because it’s gotta be accessible.”
He also performed a version of the show as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, which he said greatly inspired the special.
Another aspect of the Shaffir’s special is countering the narrative of Orthodox Jews as outsiders. “They work regular jobs,” Shaffir said. “There are ambulance drivers with yarmulkes. There’s just some weird stuff that they do. We would play basketball and we would have tzitzit [ritual fringes] and a yarmulke on, but we were on the courts with everybody.”
Shaffir has a joke in the special about using a yarmulke as a move to distract a defender during a basketball game.
“I love it,” Shaffir said. “Hopefully it goes well for him and he loses his religion. That would be cool.”