Backstory: Kosher comedy over egg rolls
As a respite from Christmas, a group in San Francisco gathers to hear Jewish comedians at a Chinese restaurant. It's become a tradition.
On Christmas Eve, Jay Luxenberg, a doctor in San Francisco, will be doing his usual ritual: dining at a local Chinese restaurant with his wife. While there, he'll be getting a healthy serving of laughs to go along with his chicken chow mein.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Luxenberg, who is Jewish, has been doing the same thing for nearly 13 years. He is part of a small but increasingly tightknit group of people in the San Francisco area who have found their own form of entertainment on Christmas.
In this case, it's attend an evening of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, a four-day event started by local comedian Lisa Geduldig in the 1990s as a respite from the usual holiday hype.
While the show was intended as a gathering for Jews, today people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds look forward to the annual event, and attend year after year.
Friday night, and for the next three days, four comedians – all Jewish – will perform on stage twice nightly at the New Asia Restaurant in Chinatown. As the website puts it: It's Kosher comedy, not kosher food. In the end, close to 3,000 people will attend – one third of which are returning audience members.
"It's fun to be with other people who don't celebrate Christmas," says Betty Weinberg, a regular attendee. "We look forward to it every year."
The community that has developed around the show was fostered in no small part by Ms. Geduldig herself. She oversees all aspects of the event, including publicity, and acts as the master of ceremonies every night. Up until three years ago, she used to sell tickets from her home.
"Since I sold the tickets for 11 years, I got to know everybody's story, everyone who's coming," she says. "I know so many of these people. [They] feel this proprietorship and this kind of pride."
Ms. Weinberg and her husband, Sanford, for instance, along with eight friends, have attended every year for the past 13 years.
Both grew up on the West Coast and say their families didn't do anything significant on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, so to have an event like Kung Pao, as it's called, gives them a venue for a meal and some mirth.
Similarly, the Luxenbergs attend regularly with friends, even though they've seen some of the performances before. Jay Luxenberg likens the experience to that of his years as a "Deadhead." Even though the Grateful Dead played many of the same songs at each performance, the experience was different every time.
"The atmosphere is so much more at Kung Pao Kosher that the jokes don't matter that much," he says.
This year's headliner, Cathy Ladman, is one of those repeat performers. A regular on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," the Los Angeles-based comedian is drawn to Kung Pao because it's well marketed and because audience members – Jewish or otherwise – are there for similar reasons.
"For the most part you get a bright audience, and there is this added bit of background," she says. "You know at the outset that there is something common that binds the audience together."
Geduldig got the idea for Kung Pao in the fall of 1993, while performing at a woman's comedy night in South Hadley, Mass. "It was to be at the Peking Garden Club, which I assumed was going to be a comedy club," she says. "And I pull up and it's a Chinese restaurant."
Later on Geduldig and a friend were talking about the irony of it all – telling Jewish jokes in a Chinese restaurant – and the idea for Kung Pao was born.
Fourteen years later, it has become institutionalized. Geduldig has an event coordinator, 12 volunteers per show, a lighting and sound guy, T-shirts, sponsors, a program guide, and a raffle. She even special-orders fortune cookies with Yiddish proverbs.