Ari Shaffir Is Tearing Down God in His New Stand-Up Hour
We spoke to comedian Ari Shaffir about exploring religion and identity in a time of political correctness.
All images by Marc Richardson.
When Ari Shaffir was six years old, he watched his father kill a chicken in one of the most theatrical ways imaginable. The death of the chicken was not a matter of farming or sustenance, but an ancient atonement ritual that made a lasting impression on young Ari. He may not have seen the humor in it back then, but decades later, this distant memory has made its way into a new stand-up special simply titled Jew.
Raised “somewhere in between” Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism, Shaffir studied and observed Jewish laws and customs until his early twenties, even spending two years in Israel to study the sacred texts in greater detail. But Ari eventually parted with the word of God in pursuit of a more profound calling: making strangers laugh in dark rooms.
For the past 19 years, Shaffir has been sharpening his comedic blade and he is now ready to throw that axe with Nietzschean precision in the direction of the God he once worshipped, his religious upbringing, and his Jewish identity. Jew is both an insider and outsider perspective on the trappings of religion, but Shaffir’s goal is, ultimately, to make people laugh, diligently foregoing preachiness in favour of the almighty joke. In other words, the sacrificial chicken of Ari’s youth did not die in vain.
We sat down for lunch with Ari at The Main Deli Steak House in Montreal to eat smoked meat and talk about ethnic humour in an age of political correctness.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: Do you believe in God?
Ari Shaffir: No.
So, you think it’s just a bunch of random atoms and molecules swirling around in the Universe and then you die and that’s it?
You’ve done your fair share of psychedelics, but you’ve never felt any kind of divine presence?
I wouldn’t say divine, I would say a universal truth. I know a lot of people feel that there’s a plane of existence that they can connect to, like your cells go back to this other place and unite with other cells and other beings—a metaphysical kind of thing—but I don’t believe in that.
But even “universal truth” implies a greater structure and meaning, doesn’t it?
Yeah. It implies that, but it’s not the case, there’s no evidence of it. Psychedelics just get you to drop your ego down to where you can see yourself outside yourself. They’re great and they have helped me tremendously, but I fight against what that feeling wants me to believe. I need more proof.
How’s your sandwich?
Totally good smoked meat. Fuck Schwartz’s and that line, man. What are you talking about? Céline Dion doesn’t know shit about running a restaurant, all she knows is having the voice of an angel.
Leonard Cohen used to hang out here, drunk and high and hopping table tops with his entourage.
Really? That’s hilarious.
Where is Leonard Cohen on the spectrum of cool Jews?
One of the coolest Jews. He kept his name, too, not like the fucking sellout Bob Dylan—Bob Meyerowitz, or whatever his name is. Leonard Cohen kept his Jew name. He’s so cool. It’s too bad he died.
You talk a lot about Jewish dietary law in Jew . Do you still eat a lot of Jewish food?
I’m still into it, man. I’m a cultural Jew, I was raised with it, so I’m still into it, like gefilte fish with kugel. Being Jewish is a culture and a religion; we have food, music, and land specific to us. All those things still pique my interest. If a story comes up about Israel, my eyes perk up and I get interested.
Are you growing out your sideburns?
Yeah, they’re called payots. I’ve been talking about this stuff for the last year, preparing this hour for Edinburgh. After four months of doing so many Jew jokes, I’ve just been growing them out and they’re the longest they’ve been. My girlfriend hates them. I don’t know why I’m doing it. I used to have them when I was little and for a while when I lived in Israel.
Why is now a good time to be exploring Judaism in stand-up?
It’s a personal thing. I’m finally ready to tackle my upbringing. This is not really to bring down religion, just my religion and the specifics of it that people don’t know. Noah and Adam and Moses other people know about, but some of it is super unique details specific to Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism. The challenge to me is to make it relatable to a crowd that has never even heard of this, so I take it to places like New York, where there’s Jews, but then to places like Perth and Edmonton, where there’s none. If I can educate them and make them laugh, then it’s OK.
You seem to take the educator role seriously. You’re up on a stage with payots , educating people about obscure religious texts, is that your inner rabbi coming out?
That’s ridiculous. I’m not trying to convince anyone.
It can’t be easy to make people laugh about ancient Jewish texts.
I love going to the [Comedy] Cellar and being like, “Has anyone talked about the Bible yet today?” Of course not. It’s all sex and drugs, I’m the only one talking about this now.
It’s hardly contemporary material.
You know what the worst thing about stand-up is right now? All of these comics were like, “If Trump gets elected, it’ll be terrible, but we’ll get a lot of material out of it!” And then they all just stopped doing material about it and started making serious political statements. They’re all failures as comics. I’m not saying some people, but most of my industry is garbage when it comes to politics. They just make statements.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know why they’re lazy about it. If you want to say something, your artform is jokes. If a musician wants to make a statement about something, like Bob Dylan, he writes a song about it. He doesn’t do a song about love and stop and say, “Can I talk about politics for second?” He’ll write a song that’s anti-war. When David Bowie went on Top of the Pops and did this androgynous thing and was almost kissing this dude, that was his way of normalizing queer identity; he’s showing it through the artform. That’s what you’re supposed to do, but comics have gotten lazy and we’re already the laziest industry! You write 30 minutes a day and you’re ahead of everybody else! Just write five minutes more and turn your joke into a funny joke. I don’t even care if your joke isn’t funny, as long as you tried to make a joke.
How would you describe your work ethic?
I’m an ascetic. I’m one of the few ascetics. I’ve been at it for 19 years and I gear everything toward stand-up and putting out the best product. Even when I take sabbaticals, it’s all about rejuvenation for stand-up.
How much of that discipline is rooted in your religious education?
It’s a good question. It might be, because I was studying Torah all day, all night. You wake up at eight, pray, then study ‘til other prayers. I think it really got me moving 100 percent into something.
You’re an ascetic with no smartphone, but you’re still pretty active of Twitter. How does that work?
I have a flip phone. You can still tweet 140 characters from a phone, but you can’t check it. But that’s how Twitter started, from text to tweet and then people would check their computers when they got home. The best thing is that I can’t see the reaction, so I can’t waste my time seeing if people are angry or happy. Once it’s out there, I stand by my tweet.
You address a lot of Jewish stereotypes in your new hour. Do you ever worry that people in the audience are laughing at those stereotypes more than at the actual jokes?
One thing I hate in ethnic comedy is giving the audience the opportunity to laugh in a racist way at a thing. A lot of times dwarf comedians will do that, Arab comics, and gay comics will do it; everyone is laughing, but they’re not laughing at the joke, they’re laughing at this crazy character. But I can’t control why you laugh.
Even though you’ve renounced your faith and are currently making fun of it for a living, religion must have instilled some good comedic instincts in you?
Oh, for sure, dude. The whole Talmud is logic-based. It helps you just analyze and break down works. That’s why a lot of Orthodox Jews go into law, it’s an easy shift. You have to break everything down logically, and that’s what I do now with my stand-up, just break down everything in a logical way. It’s for sure helped me. All of that shit goes into who you’ve become; all the bullies you’ve had, all the teachers you’ve had.
So you’ve weaponized your religious education to a certain extent?
What I do is I use that training to break down the training itself. I like tearing down gods, it’s one of my favourite things in stand-up. There’s the gods in my heads and the gods in other people's heads, like when Lemonade came out and everyone was super high on Beyoncé, I was like, “I’m going to have to shit on her. I have to. Everyone is loving her right now.” I’m also a troll, so the easiest time is when everyone is super high on someone.
Any advice to young people growing up in strict religious households?
Those people are definitely not reading this [ laughs]. Part of me wants to say, “Get out! It’s ridiculous, you’re fooling yourself, there’s no God!” But I’ve gotten to an OK place with this now. I would say, “Don’t take your shit too seriously.” I hope they would get that out of it. We all have ridiculous stuff. We’re tossing chickens over our heads. We can all see how that’s silly-looking. Just have some fun with it.
A lot of comics are complaining about having to deal with political correctness on campuses and elsewhere. Is it a hindrance for you?
We’re in the best time comedically ever.
Really? It seems like a lot of comics might disagree with that assessment.
It’s vibrant and it’s dangerous again. It hasn’t been like this since Lenny Bruce. You can go into a club in a downstairs basement room in New York and hear something where a comic might put his career on the line to make an anti-trans joke. And you’re like, “Whoa! I heard something really out there,” the way Lenny Bruce was just cursing and getting arrested. It’s the same thing. You can lose your show over this and a comic is still willing to do it? This is outlaw shit. It’s an exciting time to be a comic. A lot of comics complain about it so hard, but comedy is cool again. It’s awesome, I’m loving it right now.
So, you embrace the new parameters imposed by political correctness?
You can’t take what I love doing away from me.
Thanks for lunch.
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