Vulture’s Good One podcast will be recording a live episode with comedian Bill Burr at this year’s Vulture Festival on Sunday, May 21, at 6:30 p.m. in New York. Tickets are available now on VultureFestival.com!
Depending on whom you ask, comedy is either under attack from, or on the attack against, political correctness. On the surface, the relationship seems confrontational, but it’s actually fundamental: For comedy to push boundaries, those boundaries have to exist. Comedians today might have less leeway than in times past, but that can serve as a challenge to be better, smarter, and more open to change and different opinions.
These sorts of conflicts are central to Moshe Kasher’s work. On his new show, Problematic, which airs Tuesdays on Comedy Central, he picks a topic — like appropriation, or the dark web, or Islamophobia — and endeavors to have an actual conversation about it. Kasher, in turn, approaches each topic with desire not to accept the status quo. He is fundamentally both open and skeptical.
This sensibility has always been the core of Kasher’s comedy, honed over years doing stand-up. It was on full display in his breakthrough bit about heaven and hell, and how the former sounds a lot like his personal version of the latter, which is embedded below. Recorded both for his first album, 2009’s Everyone You Know Is Going to Die, and Then You Are! and his 2013 special, Live From Oakland, the joke largely focuses on Christianity, but finds time to make fun of other religions (in ways, Kasher now acknowledges, that he probably wouldn’t have if he did the bit today).
That bit is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read an edited transcript of our discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The first version of your joke is from your first album, which came out in 2009. The other one is from your first special, which came out in 2013. In the original joke, you state the main points that heaven sounds like hell to you, harps are bad, and Christian rock is bad. But that’s kinda it.
I haven’t heard that joke in years. I would say that joke was a career-defining joke, but listening to the first clip, I was shocked at how half-baked it was. I had a nascent idea for a bit and I was feeling myself. It was my first album, things were going really good, and I was like, “You know what? I might try riff some stuff.” I was just freewheeling, and I have always been fascinated with the notion that one of the main facets of Christian dogma is that they are the only ones that get to heaven.
You have the seed of this joke, and it branches out, and then those branches have branches. It’s like, I have this Christian rock sentence; I could do a full minute on Christian rock. Over the course of those four years, what was your process when you were touring this?
Part of the problem of comedians doing specials every year — when the masters do it, it’s like, Okay, I guess, go for it — but when people aren’t at the top of the top level, bits don’t get to cook long enough. That bit took four years to really fully perfect and master. There were parts that didn’t make it in. The song, “Me and Jesus eat a sandwich in the back of my pickup truck,” was longer.
One line, the sort of thesis of the joke, is said slightly differently in each take. In 2009, you said, “The ironic twist of that is, if I envision what hell would look like for me personally, it’s definitely hanging out with Christians for all eternity.” And in 2013, you said, “The ironic twist of that rule, if I envision what my own personal hell looked like, it’s definitely hanging out with nothing but Christians for all eternity.”
It’s softened a bit, hasn’t it? In the beginning, it was a lot harsher, too. I do this arrogant guy onstage, so I’m not a soft comedian, but it just sounded like a bunch of horrible attacks.
It’s also much more conversational. Did you intentionally change the wording of it or do you think, as your persona was coming into focus, the words followed?
I did not intentionally change it, but I think it’s more precise. If I talk about what my own personal hell would look like, that’s a more interesting and colorful idea, and then “nothing but Christians for all eternity” is less harsh. The first part, “I don’t want to be around Christians,” that’s not true. The reality of a stand-up comedian touring through the country is two-thirds of the people that you’re performing in front of are Christians. You have to find a way to get them to laugh the whole time. There’s a lot of little back and forth, pushes and pulls. Like terrible Christian music. You had great music, there was this beautiful gospel. It becomes about the absurdity of the music and the dogma.
You’re an incredibly different performer in these two iterations. The first one is so much slower, there are sort of deliberate ums. In other jokes, you almost have a Mitch Hedberg cadence. And then, you’re so much faster. How did that change?
When did I become a fast-talking Jew? As time went on, my bits started to become longer, and that became part of the signature. I’ve got a bit in my next special that is probably 20 minutes long. It’s great, but there are certain things it’s really not made for, like late-night TV. I’m not built for that.
One breakthrough bit for me — it’s actually kind of hacky — is about dating profiles on Myspace. Something about, “Apparently, there was a little bit of confusion about what the picture on your profile is supposed to look like? What your fucking face looks like! Not some magic trick you played on a camera to fool into thinking you were attractive.” It was a harsh joke, I wouldn’t want it on TV, but I had all these little, intricate details. Something about butter on the lens, and you put the camera up on the first day of the spring equinox right when the sun hits the keyhole, which is a Hobbit reference. I’m not particularly proud of the bit, but it spoke to my process as a comedian. This fast-talking, rapid-fire, hyperdense juggernaut train of bits.
You make a claim very early on in this bit: “If you’ve read Dante’s Inferno — which I have, because I’m smarter than you.” How much condescension do you intend to come through there?
The condescension is deliberate and only works when the crowd is in love with the idea of this vulnerable, brilliant idiot — whatever character it is that I’m doing onstage. I always call it, highbrow-lowbrow. I’m talking about stupid things smartly or smart things stupidly. If people think that I think I’m smarter than all of them, it’s not going to be a good night at the office. But if everybody recognizes the vulnerability of a person saying that the fact that they’ve read Dante’s Inferno in college means they’re smarter than everybody in the room, I’m in a good zone. Anyone who thinks that I’m being serious when I say that, they hate me. But anytime I say, “I’m amazing” onstage, it’s probably because I mean I’m not.
What is your relationship to the history of Jewish comedy?
Judaism is a big part of my background, obviously, and my reality. I find it interesting to lambaste the absurdity of anti-anti-Semitism or things that I find hateful by just saying them directly, as if they are self-evident truths. Because, to me, that’s the biggest way to lampoon that.
There’s a certain expectation that the audience would have, especially when they don’t know who you are, that Moshe Kasher is a Jewish comedian.
Yeah, and you expect more, “So, my allergies …”
Compared to your birth name Mark Kasher, which most people would be like, “I have no reading on what this person is going to be.” How do you think the fact that you’re introduced as Moshe, as opposed to Mark, has affected your career?
It’s hard to say. I didn’t change my name for comedy, although I used to make a joke about it: “I used to be called Mark Smith, but a dude with that name can’t make it in showbiz.” I mean, it’s my middle name, my father and brother never called me anything but Moshe. But the ownership of my name also was about the custody dispute with my mother. That became a polarized argument in the house: She called me Mark, but my father called me Moshe. When I was 16, getting in touch with my spiritual side, starting to go to raves and 12-step groups — raves and 12-step groups, a classic combination — I finally was like, Okay, this is who I am. And at the same time, I am the kid who was raised in Oakland public schools. I’m not some guy that’s like [Murmurs in quasi-Hebrew]. I’m an American kid from a secular city.
There’s a long tradition of Jewish people deflating Jewish stereotypes. Do you care if people are laughing at the wrong part of the joke?
I don’t know how I would know, except I have often had people come up to me after the show, like, “Hey, you wanna hear my best Jew joke?” The answer is a resounding, “No,” 100 percent of the time. And guess what happens 100 percent of the time? I hear that joke.
I want to talk about offensiveness and its use in comedy. There’s a point where you go, “Heaven and hell are Christian things. The Buddhists have tofu and marijuana; Jews have gold and money; and Muslims …” The joke focuses on the Christian idea of heaven and hell, but I want to talk about the portion where you talk about other religions: “The Buddhists have tofu and marijuana; the Jews have gold and money; the Muslims have submission and high-grade explosives.” Why do a joke that has a stereotype that some people might be offended by? Beyond just like, “Oh, it’s funny,” because you can make jokes about anything.
To be honest, that was it. I was just looking for the hardest punch line that was available to me at that time. Now, I’ve never been one to particularly shy away from a thing because it’s offensive. I’ve also never been a person that’s like, “I’m combing my bit to try to find the edgiest zones so that I can hurt everybody!” Why tell that joke that way? I don’t know. Can you think of a better punch line?
Yeah, I felt it time-stamping itself. In that moment when I go, “Muslims have submission and high-grade explosives,” I was thinking to myself, I don’t think I could tell that joke anymore. I don’t think that joke would fly.
It’s hard to know, because the joke was built around saying the harshest thing as you’re getting increasingly offensive, as you go through each religion.
You put the Jewish thing early, so it’s like, “It’s all in good fun thing.” It’s interesting because there is a certain sort of raising the stakes that those jokes have, and if everyone agrees it’s in good fun then the audience is like, “Cool, he’s raised the stakes,” but I always am curious because for a joke to raise the stakes, it has to assume that someone is offended.
That’s interesting. I never thought of it like that. There is a bit on that album that’s like the ground rules, which comes right before this. Something like, “If you were offended, I did a little thinking before my preshow prayer, and it turns out I don’t give a fuck.” And then, “That won’t stop people that come up to me and say, ‘I was very offended by what you said tonight,’ and I go, ‘Oh, well, I was just kidding, the whole time actually.’”
That conversation has changed since that album came out, right? Now, there’s this whole new conversation about intent — which, as a comedian, I’ve gotta say, I love. The excuse of you were kidding will not fly.
Now, I’m not onboard with the argument that jokes are destructive to humanity. There are bigger issues, and I do not necessarily subscribe to the belief that jokes perpetuate violence and racism. They lampoon those things most of the time. But I could be wrong about that. I’m not a sociologist or an expert. I once heard Bill Maher, a person who everybody finds very offensive, say, “Whatever is good for me as a citizen, is bad for me as a comedian,” and I thought that was a really interesting point.
I’ll give an example: If I were to tell that joke now, would I do the “high-grade explosive”? I might leave that part out. Not because I necessarily think it shouldn’t be told, although maybe I do. I haven’t thought about it in a long time. I didn’t even remember that line was in there, but also I don’t think it would work today. People would be like, “Eh … that’s …”
There is the idea that the audience is always right, but also the idea that audiences are too sensitive these days. The audience is the audience. You can’t be like, “be different people.”
I’ll give you another example that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: The word faggot. When I first started comedy, it was a very, very, very popular word for straight alternative comedians to use about themselves.
Right? But it was always this, like, righteous, “I’m on the right side of this conversation.” In fact, on the album, I say it because it really was a situation that happened where this car full of guys rolled by and screamed “faggot” at me and my three straight friends. It turned into this whole bit about, “I was gay bashed recently, but I’m not gay … haha.” And then I say “faggot,” but I’m always on the “right.” (I’m doing air quotes for the podcast listeners.)
It was always this huge comedy word. Any time you did that, big laugh. Everybody would love it. Then things started to develop and change, and all of a sudden you would find diminishing returns with that word. I started to find that it was harder to go to that well. Now, I don’t say that. I don’t think it’s wrong that you should ever say it. I don’t know. But it just doesn’t really work as a comedy word, and that’s probably a really good sign for humanity in general, that we’ve all moved to the point where even a person on the “right side” (air quotes again) of that argument can’t use that word. So good for me as a citizen, bad for me as a comedian.
I don’t think this is the case with you, but there’s the comedy idea that laughing is agreement — and if you can get someone to laugh at something they don’t agree with, it’s a more impressive feat.
Patrice O’Neal is the ultimate example. Watching Patrice when he came to San Francisco was a truly great experience. Some women would walk out, but then you’d have these demographically feminist women begrudgingly sitting there going like, “Uh, I hate this, but it is funny.”
I am only on the side of funny. As a stand-up, I have no agenda other than, “Is it funny?” As a citizen and a progressive, I have other agendas, but when I get onstage, I don’t really care about. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings in general, as a human, and I don’t want to alienate crowds as a comedian. But I will tell the joke that has integrity to me.
Stand-up is inherently one-sided, but with your new show, Problematic, is the goal that someone leaves with answers, or is the goal that people are entertained, and then maybe they’ve taken away something? What is the balance that you hope the show strikes?
I’m not interested in a rhetorical answer. A lot of shows have been working on the rhetorical answer of “don’t elect Donald Trump” for a long time, and it didn’t really work. I’m not trying to change the political landscape. I’m trying to delve into big conversations in a way that’s fun, and the takeaway from anything I hope would be, Wow, I know more about that topic than I did before, and I had a really fun time laughing at that topic. What I want people to take away is that you can have conversations about any topic, and that you shouldn’t shy away from topics because they make you uncomfortable.