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Funny Business Makes a Comeback
Turn on the television and Jon Stewart is making you laugh and think at the same time. On your iPod, Marc Maron is holding court. In Atlantic City, Jerry Seinfeld and Bob Saget are headlining the Borgata on successive nights. And Sarah Silverman has more than over 4.6 million followers on Twitter.
Thanks to the proliferation of TV networks, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, podcasts and the like, Jewish comedians have never been more in the public eye. At the same time, comedy itself has enjoyed a resurgence in the United States, and Philadelphia is no exception. After nearly two decades of a fallow period, comedy is cool again, with more venues and more comedians plying their craft here than ever before.
The comedy scene in the city has become so strong, in fact, that there is an entire school to teach those of us, Jewish and otherwise, who have always wanted to learn how to be comedians.
“There’s a magnetic attraction between comedy and Judaism,” says Brad Trackman, the founder and chief instructor of Philadelphia Comedy Academy. Citing himself as Exhibit A, he adds, “Jews gravitate to comedy — wherever there is grief, guilt, pain, disparity and a need for attention, it draws us in.”
Trackman, whose school is located inside of the Helium Comedy Club in Center City, knows from whence he came. The 42-year-old Mount Laurel resident has performed across the country — before he opened his academy, he was on the road an average of 290 nights a year — and is currently in negotiations for his own reality TV show. “I think there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and for us, it’s better to laugh than to cry,” he says.
Trackman says that the reason he got into comedy is the same as most every other male comedian working (or trying to work) today: women. After graduating college, he started working in the shoe department at Bergdorf Goodman in Mahattan, “but my girlfriend told me that she didn’t want to date a shoe salesman.” He took a comedy class, and the profession stuck — although the girlfriend didn’t.
The reason that one of Trackman’s prized pupils, Randy Maniloff, got into comedy is very different. “I had been working on a book project (General Liability Insurance Coverage: Key Issues in Every State) for about three years,” Maniloff explains. “It consumed me. When it was finished, I had a sense of post-partum depression, and I was looking for something that would be a challenge, that would fill my head.” For Maniloff, who says he has worked on being a comedian in his head seemingly forever, comedy school was a natural choice.
Although he has only been involved in the craft for a year and a half, Maniloff, a former partner and current full-time counsel at White and Williams LLP in Philadelphia, obviously has what it takes: This summer, the 46-year-old from the Northeast, performing under his stage name of Randy Spencer, won the fifth annual DeBella Comedy Competition, an amateur contest sponsored by DJ John DeBella’s radio station, WMGK-FM.
“I don’t do any religious jokes — my routine is probably 75 percent wife jokes — the bickering couple is a Jewish thing, right?” he says.
Maniloff insists he has no intention of leaving his day job. “I’m not trying to become a professional comedian by any stretch; I just want to continue to get better at it.”
As Alison Zeidman will attest, Maniloff has the right idea. “I am hard-pressed to think of anyone doing comedy in Philly who doesn’t also have a day job,” says Zeidman, the co-founder of Free For All, one of the city’s leading organizers of open-mike nights.
Not that she is complaining. Like everyone else contacted for this article, the 25-year-old Zeidman, who works at the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, says the combination of a burgeoning number of venues and a tight-knit and supportive community makes the city an ideal place to be doing comedy. “It’s not like New York or L.A. — you’re not going to be seen by talent scouts — but as far as coming up and developing your skills and producing your own shows, it’s great.”
Zeidman, who also doesn’t feature any Jewish material in her routines, believes that one of the reasons Jews seem to be so disproportionately represented in comedy is because of the support for creativity within families like hers and within the Jewish community at large. And, like Maniloff, who says his father thought of himself as the next Jackie Mason, she says it didn’t hurt that she grew up in a family of funny people.
Despite enjoying and relying on the support of her family in South Jersey, Zeidman knows that to succeed in comedy means to leave Philadelphia. “If you want to get noticed or have a career,” she says, “you have to move to New York or L.A.”
If she does leave and then comes back to the area as a headliner, her first stop, like that of almost every top-tier comedian to perform here, will be at Helium, the comedy club founded in 2005 by Marc Grossman.
The former financial services professional-turned-impresario had absolutely no experience in comedy before opening Helium — something that he says worked in his favor. “A lot of clubs are opened by people who love comedy or who are comedians,” he says. “You have to make it a business first if you want to succeed. It’s like a cook who opens a restaurant. If you want it to succeed, you bring in a business guy and he hires a chef.”
Grossman entered a comedy landscape still decimated by what he calls the “Comedy Crash” of the 1990s. “There was a lot of comedy on TV, every bar and corner store was doing comedy — there was just a glut of it,” he recalls. Nevertheless, the 39-year-old Cherry Hill, N.J., native and member of Temple Beth Sholom saw a need to be filled, specifically nighttime options for his 30-something demographic. “We were past the phase of going out to bars and we weren’t quite at the phase where we would go to the Philly Pops. There is a great restaurant scene, but what do you do after dinner?”
Judging by his success — there are now Heliums in Portland, Ore., and Buffalo, N.Y., with a deal just signed to add a location in a southeastern city — he wasn’t the only one looking for something to do. Since he proved that Philadelphia was ready for a comedy resurgence, the scene has grown to the point that there are now multiple places each night to see someone kill or bomb, and there are hundreds of comedians competing for space at the mike — and their numbers are only getting bigger.
At Helium’s seventh annual Philly’s Phunniest competition this summer, the number of contestants had to be capped at 150 — “around 200 people wanted to enter,” Grossman says. The four-week event, which drew hundreds of audience members each night, offered Grossman the comedy equivalent of a farm system. “It allows us to see a lot of fresh talent. If the Phillies had these contests, they would be doing a lot better!”