Neurosis, catharsis & strong mothers: Why comedy comes naturally to Jews

Neurosis, catharsis & strong mothers: Why comedy comes naturally to Jews

Comedian Joe Bor
Comedian Joe Bor
Comedian Joe Bor
Comedian Joe Bor

On Sunday, I am proud to be performing stand up at Just For Laughs in aid of Akiva Primary School in Finchley.

It’s the second year of Just for Laughs and, I’m told, the first one was a huge success from a social and financial point of view. It’s also a fundraising event for Akiva PTA and a wonderful charity, Leukemia & Lymphoma Rsearch.

Jewish comedy has a rich tradition, from Mel Brooks to Rodney Dangerfield to Groucho Marx. Some of my favourite comedians are Jewish: Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Sacha Baron Cohen. There are some incredible Jewish comedians working in the UK today: Adam Bloom, Carey Marx, Simon Amstell, Matt Lucas, Mark Maiier, Josh Howie, Brett Goldstein, Steve Hall, Ian Stone and many more. In fact, in my first ever review I was described as “a young Adam Bloom”, which made me really happy, although I’m not sure it made Adam quite as happy when I told him.

Like most comedians, I write from my experiences. I find, whether I intend to or not, that I write about things that you would associate with Jewish comedy: an obsession with food, my mother issues and neurosis. Modern Jewish comedy is primarily the comedy of neurosis, along with observations and self-deprivation.

It’s popular because audiences like to hear about someone else’s problems as it makes you feel you’re not alone. I love telling jokes or stories about when I embarrass myself – it transforms the painful moment into something quite lovely: laughter. In many ways, Jewish comedy is the comedy of catharsis. Maybe there is a wealth of Jewish comedy because, unlike Catholics, we don’t have confession and it’s cheaper than counselling.

They also say some of the best comedy comes from the truth and Jews aren’t afraid to share and be honest. We are also often associated with analysis and psychotherapy and I don’t think that’s incredibly far removed from the process of stand up comedy, although because they’re predisposed to analysis they can make tough audiences.

Jews have experienced a painful past – this may be one reason why they gravitate towards comedy as it’s a way of coping. My grandfather’s family died in the Holocaust and I feel our family has embraced comedy to help deal with that. My mother is a big part of my comedy. She is extremely funny – knowingly and unknowingly. She wears her heart on her sleeve and, like most Jewish mothers, is very outspoken and therefore a great source of comedy.

In writing my current show, A Room With a Jew (which I’ll be taking to the Edinburgh festival), I’ve learnt an awful lot about my culture. Whenever my mother comes to see my stand up, she feels the need to constantly contribute to my act. She came to one of my preview shows and my monologue soon turned into a dialogue, which was probably more fun than the planned show. I may have to try to persuade her to come to Edinburgh so she’s in the audience every day.

I now quote her a lot in my show. She came up with a particularly unknowingly funny response when I asked afterwards what she thought of it and she said: “It’s tough listening to one person talk for an hour”.’ More accurately, I think it was tough for her to sit quietly for an hour.

The more I think about it, the more I realise how my mother has contributed so much to the process of me becoming a comedian. Her very vocal and dominant personality around the dinner table and at social events meant that for me to be heard I needed to find an alternative outlet. And her constant reinforcement of the importance of meals and meal times is certainly a contributing factor in me talking about food – a lot – on stage.

It can be tough being a Jewish comedian and talking about Jewishness on stage as audiences, often outside of London, are naive about Judaism and have a prejudice without any knowledge. I’ve recently been met with a few hostile responses when mentioning it, but tackling those prejudices and making audiences laugh can help create a positive attitude to our culture.

I never planned to be a comedian, but with a Jewish background full of neurosis, mother issues and food obsessions, it’s probably not surprising I’ve taken this route.

• Joe performs at Just For Laughs on Sunday. For tickets, email

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