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.
SAN FRANCISCO — 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.
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.
But the show didn't always run so smoothly. Take Geduldig's first attempt to explain the concept to the Chinese restaurant owners – most of whom spoke limited English.
"I often wished I had a film crew following me because some of these things seemed like a Woody Allen movie in the making. All 5 ft., 1 in. of me coming in and saying, 'I want to have this party for Jewish people on Christmas, but no pork.' It just went on and on," she says. "And then I finally realized the question was, 'Do you have a banquet room and is it available on Christmas Eve?' "
After she secured a location, Geduldig told the restaurant owner to expect about 200 people. More than twice that many showed up.
Other snafus have arisen over the years, too. Once, a comedian started on a bit about Latino waiters at the Last Supper, complete with a Hispanic accent. A woman in the audience stood up and shouted that the joke was racist. Geduldig, wanting to preserve the calm, says she "flew over the tables" and escorted her out. A few others followed. It was the only time such an incident has occurred.
Growing up on Long Island, the youngest and only girl in a family with three children, Geduldig says she came from a typical Jewish family. Her neighborhood was predominately Jewish – except for the Mazzolas who lived next door. "I remember they came over once with some eggnog, and I felt like the Coneheads had come over," she says.
Geduldig is dressed in tan pants and a blue T-shirt. She has long brown straight hair with a streak of gray in the front. Despite peppering her conversation with the occasional joke and the smooth timing of a professional comic, Geduldig doesn't profess to be the funny one in her family. If anything she was the most politically active. When she was 8, she protested the Vietnam War with her father. The experience had a profound impact on her – and not just because she got to yell obscenities with her dad.
Early in her career, Geduldig worked at a smattering of nonprofits and as a reporter for a public-radio station. It wasn't until 1989, when she gave a speech as best woman at a friend's wedding – to rave reviews – that Geduldig decided to try stand-up comedy. She still performs today, but now spends most of her time producing comedy shows, including the Annual George Bush Going Away Party, now in its third year.
Kung Pao itself started to flourish around 1997. That was the year Henny Youngman, the king of one-liners, agreed to headline the show. He was 91. "Getting on stage and introducing him, I literally had to fight back tears," Geduldig says. "I was 35 at the time, he had been performing for 70 years, twice my life ... and he was asleep in his wheel chair."
Youngman's manager woke him up just before show time, prompted him with a few cue cards – and he was off. Unfortunately, it ended up being Youngman's last show. He died two months later. "I've been accused of killing him for eight years now," she laughs.
Since the show's inception, Geduldig has dedicated a portion of ticket sales to various organizations. This year's beneficiaries are The Jewish Home, a residential-healthcare center for seniors in San Francisco, and the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, a home for the aged.
Shelley Kessler, who will attend Kung Pao for the 14th time on Christmas, admits that initially the show was a place to go "to have fun." But now she appreciates the altruism, too. "It's about connecting with people who care about good causes and having fun while we're doing it," she says.