Being Jewish can be difficult. It can be rewarding, or even frustrating. But maybe more than anything, it can be funny.
Just ask Bryan Fogel. For the past seven years, the 36-year-old Los Angeles comedian has made a living bringing Jewish idiosyncrasies to the stage with his “Jewtopia” series — first the perpetually sold-out off-Broadway play, then the bestselling, illustrated “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” and now “World of Jewtopia,” a multimedia-based stand-up comedy show that lands in Pittsburgh’s Byham Theater this weekend.
The whole phenomenon started in 2003 when Fogel and writing partner Sam Wolfson realized, though Fogel was raised “Conservadox” in Denver and Wolfson was a Florida Reform Jew, that they had eerily similar childhoods.
“We were like, ‘Oh my God, your parents changed tables five times when they went to a restaurant too? You remember this, or how bad that was,’” Fogel told The Chronicle. “It became a catharsis of my Jewish childhood.”
The two wrote “Jewtopia” harping off of the funniest of Jewish stereotypes — domineering women, Jewish guilt, the parental push to marry a Jew — about a gentile guy who wants to marry a Jewish girl so he’ll never have to make a decision for himself again. For Fogel and Wolfson, the subject matter came easily; the play was just a drastic step for the two stand-up comedians to find legitimate work in film or television. But the grab for attention soon became their legitimate work — “Jewtopia” became the longest-running Off Broadway play in history.
Though the audience for “Jewtopia” is largely Jewish, Fogel said, it needn’t be. Like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” before it, “Jewtopia” makes jokes that cross cultural borders.
“I liken it to Chris Rock, who is one of my favorite comedians. On a personal level, I really can’t relate to him as a black man, but what he’s simply saying is funny,” said Fogel. “For me, if you’re a good comedian, it transcends.”
Though they might not be so hilarious, any cultural group could have its “Jewtopia.”
“What ‘Jewtopia’ tapped into is this idea of the United States being a land full of immigrants. But everyone’s culture, at its heart, is the same,” said Fogel. “People want their kids to marry in their religion and ethnicity. And the children don’t really care.”
With “World of Jewtopia,” Fogel made the laughs more inclusive, complete with audience participation, question and answer games and interactive multimedia. At one point, Fogel and actor Jeremy Rishe pull up the schematic of a restaurant and ask the audience to shout what is wrong with every single table — “Too close to the air conditioner, too close to the front door, too close to the bathroom, too close to the kitchen,” he said.
“It’s like a Jewish ‘Showtime at the Apollo,’” said Fogel. “It’s different every night.”
Though Fogel is no longer too religiously Jewish, the cultural jokes of “Jewtopia” have become his Judaism after childhood years where religion, “was something I had to do. There was no option,” he said. “You’re going, you’re doing this; you’re doing that. But now I’m free, so I don’t go. It becomes a decision of free choice. My parents still guilt me, but they’re in Denver. So there’s not as much guilt.”
Among the more puzzling facets of Jewish culture, to Fogel, and certainly explored in “Jewtopia,” is Jews’ conflicting take on intermarriage.
“Of all the guys I know who are Jewish, none married Jewish girls. They’re having kids and want to raise the kids Jewish, but they didn’t want to marry the Jewish girl,” said Fogel. “I mean, who doesn’t want to keep Crohn’s Disease and Tay-Sachs going? There’s a huge argument for that. Perpetuate our diseases by inbreeding.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)