Fresh from a stand-up tour of Israel, Ashley Blaker, the UK’s only Orthodox Jewish comedian, returns with his brand new show to Leeds. JLife’s Evangeline Spachis caught up with him for a chat.
How was your trip to Israel?
I had no idea how many people would come and it was one of those things that I went into blind but hopeful. And it was great, all the shows were full houses and well-received. I really enjoyed performing there and look forward to going back. It was an interesting crowd and I got to meet people from all over the world.
Did you have to adapt your routine for an Israeli audience??
I was touring last year’s show, ‘Ungefiltered’, and so I was very keen to adapt and take out routines that had lots of British references such as things that demand that you know what a Geordie accent sounds like. I want the greatest number of people to be able to enjoy it and not leave people thinking “oh I didn’t know what that meant”.
What will your new tour ‘Meshuga Frum’ cover?
The show goes through what I believe are the 10 commandments, or the 10 things you’ve got to do if you want to really be ‘meshuga frum’ [translates as ‘crazy devout’]. I won’t spoil it by saying what those things are. All Jewish people like looking at others and saying “oh they’re meshuga frum”, but there is no agreement on what that actually means and how you define it so that’s what the show’s about.
Do you play to mainly Jewish audiences or is your stand-up for everyone?
‘Ungefiltered’ was definitely for a Jewish audience and ‘Meshuga Frum’ is definitely aimed at a Jewish audience. I think a non-Jewish audience will still enjoy it and I had non-Jewish friends who came to the last tour who got around 70% of the jokes. I think this show is slightly more universal.
There’s something quite liberating about doing a show that doesn’t require that explanation. For example I’d say that 99.5% of Jews knows what a mezuzah is, whereas 99.5% of non-Jews don’t know what a mezuzah is, so a joke that has the punchline ‘mezuzah’ is great for a Jewish audience but not for a non-Jewish one.
I very much hope to do another tour that combines the two and is more aimed at a general audience, explaining everything in much easier terms.
How did you find your own comedy style?
I think most comedians just talk about the things that interest them and hope that the audience enjoy it as well and that’s the way I’ve always worked. You shouldn’t try and predict an audience and try and second guess what the audience will want to hear.
I first did stand-up when I was 16 and started performing on the circuit. I remember loving Frank Skinner and I really wanted to be like him. But that’s not good, you need to find your own voice and you need the maturity to do that. It’s enough effort to stand on your own and perform a show for 90 minutes without also acting in someone else’s persona.
What is your background?
I grew up in Elstree, Hertfordshire in a very traditional, shul-going family. We definitely weren’t unaffiliated, but neither were we meshuga frum. Later on after I got married, I became more observant. This has actually given me the opportunity and the inspiration for things I want to talk about in my stand-up. It gave me a voice that I didn’t have before when I was much younger. If I hadn’t become frum, I doubt I’d be doing this.
Tell us more about your time as a producer.
About 50% of my time is spent producing and writing radio and TV. I have my own company for radio called Black Hat Productions and I have two series on BBC Radio Four at the moment: ‘Couples’, which is written and performed by Julia Davis and Marc Wootton about couples in therapy, and a sitcom series called ‘Josh Howie’s Losing It’, which is a six-part series. I’m also going to be making a new show about Twitter with Adil Ray, star of Citizen Khan.
You’re in Leeds on 1st March. Do you have any connections to the city?
I came for a Shabbos about four or five years ago and I spoke at UHC Shadwell Lane and BHH, so I’ve definitely been around the community. I performed the last show in Leeds last year at BHH and it was a full house! I look forward to coming back and meeting people that I met last time. I’m also speaking about writing at the Leeds Library for Milim, the Leeds Jewish literature festival before my show at The Carriageworks.
Ashley Blaker performs at The Carriageworks Theatre on 1st March. For tickets visit Ashleyblaker.com