Courage, perseverance and some tough armor are the minimum requirements to stand up for almost an hour before an audience expectant of laughs. Undeniably, the Jewish audience is a demanding crowd. For an Orthodox comedian, an Orthodox audience can be an even tougher crowd or, at the same time, infinitely more receptive. But Ashley Blaker is up to the task, and he delivered with great style as guest performer for Congregation Adath Israel last week at Bruriah High school in Elizabeth.
Blaker’s keen sense of timing and skillful ability to know and relate to his audience smoothly moved his performance from one topic to the next. Nearly all of the anecdotes, stories and perspectives related to Orthodox life in general, and often to the all too familiar peculiarities and complexities of Orthodoxy as compared with other world religions.
Well-known as a Ba’al Teshuvah, Blaker traces the experience of his transition through the lens of humor. He and his family made the move to Orthodox observance over a number of years, but after he was already well established as a television producer for the BBC. Now, saidsBlaker, “We don’t have a TV and I don’t view on television the programs that I produce.”
These are bold decisions to execute in the face of the importance of maintaining an appropriate professional posture to the very media in which he works.
The show addresses a diverse array of Orthodox observances, along with a great mix of humorous commentary on these practices. Frequently interjected are some of Blaker’s real life stories, many of them funny just by their absurdity. Addressing the always “touchy” subject of the infamous handshake dilemma that Orthodox women and men face in daily business settings, Blaker’s hilarious handling of this topic, along with clever props, keeps the audience rolling. Blaker also offers a unique blend of Jewish festival paraphernalia and the practicality of the “Orthodox selfie opportunity.” The show skates through the Jewish calendar year and lifecycle with equal ease, and keeps the audience engaged and laughing from start to finish.
In fact, one of Blaker’s unique skills lies in how he relates to the audience as a whole, and often focally to individual members of the audience—personally and repeatedly. He is particularly smooth at teasing out and playing on someone’s individuality and perspectives, then rolling it right into humor without offending.
Asked about how he mastered transcending the cultural rift between British and American humor, Blakely said, “Every word takes a lot of thought, to make sure the humor works. Trial and error, very scripted, and many friends who helped.” He studies both linguistics, cultural relevance and phraseology to integrate the cultural nuances of American humor. An advantage, he stated, is that, “The subject matter of Jewish material is universal and can therefore be successful despite being British, not because it is British.” He doesn’t totally abandon British humor however, as we find in his subtle but “spot-on” reference to Lakewood.
The Blakers are the parents of six children, two who are autistic and the youngest, who is 10 and adopted, with Down syndrome. He travels back and forth between locations, and sometimes the family comes to the U.S.
Blaker is the first Orthodox Jewish comedian to have his own BBC show, “Ashley Blaker’s Goyish Guide To Judaism,” which will return this spring. “Strictly Unorthodox,” Blaker’s hilarious off Broadway show, will run from March 4 - 7 at the Stand Up NY, 236 W. 78th Street. Performances are at 7:30 p.m.; for ticket information contact www.ashleyblaker.com/us.
By Ellie Wolf