At just 33, Jon Steinberg is already a wizened veteran of the North American comedy circuit. A regular performer at Yuk Yuk’s comedy clubs and at numerous comedy festivals, Jon has lately been garnering numerous funny-man roles in film and television.
The long-time stand-up comic, a native of Ottawa and for some years a Toronto resident, is also the outstanding candidate for Canada’s Jewish Comedian. Recently I caught up with the man himself during his busy touring and filming schedule to tap the pulse of the comedy scene and get his thoughts on what it means to be a Jewish comedian in the 21st century.
How does Judaism figure into your routine?
I include some material about being Jewish in my act, but it’s not the focal point. That said, anything from your background that makes you unique or different is good for material.
There is virtually no humor in the Torah whatsoever. How did Jews get to be so funny?
Even though there’s no humor in the Bible, the way it’s studied is very similar to the process of writing jokes. Every word and phrase is pored over in looking for possible alternate meanings: “Why did they use this word here when they could have used this other word that means pretty much the same thing?” Those are the same types of questions I ask when I’m writing and editing my material, too.
Do you see yourself as part of a long tradition of Jewish comics like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, etc.
I’m proud of the rich history of Jews in comedy, and there are very funny young Jewish comics coming up, but I’m also happy that the voices represented in comedy are becoming more diverse. With that diversity you can’t have the same kind of dominance by one group. In the past a lot of comics were Jews, so a lot of the great comics were Jews. It was just statistically representative of comics as a group. I’m not trying to bring people down, but if we’re talking about the [list of] best comics 50-100 years from now, I don’t think there’s gonna be quite as many Jews on it. We should be happy we helped to build something that other people are embracing.
How do non-Jewish audiences respond to Jewish material?
I write my Jewish material with non-Jewish audiences in mind, ’cause that’s usually who I perform for. In fact, I’ve stopped thinking of them as non-Jewish audiences; now I just call them audiences. Many small towns I go to don’t even have one Jew! You taste what they call bagels, and then you understand why (there’s my one attempt at a joke; I’m not proud of it). But getting back to the question, I try to make my Jewish material about how we’re all similar. For example, I do a joke about how Chanukah and Christmas are similar; many comics have done jokes about how they’re different…they are more similar than I expected.
Do you encounter many other Jewish comedians on the circuit?
Of course I encounter other Jewish comics on the circuit – what kind of a question is that? If I’d said No, that would’ve really called into question the whole premise of this article.
What has been your most successful joke?
I don’t know if I have a most successful joke. There seems to be a sweet spot when a joke is sort of new, but not too new, where it works really well. The first few times I tell a new joke I’m nervous, ’cause I don’t know whether it will work. The sweet spot comes after you do it enough and realize that it works, but before you get tired of telling it.
How do you find inspiration for new material?
Inspiration for material can come from anywhere. Talking to people, things you see on TV, conversations overheard while travelling. After you’ve been doing comedy for a while, your mind changes. You’re always analyzing and questioning everything you see and hear. All the things that annoy regular people, from larger social issues to minor everyday annoyances, are good fodder for comics. On the one hand you are turning those problems into something positive by making them into jokes, on the other you are always looking for problems where there may not be any. It can be difficult to turn it off at times.
Jon Steinberg is an award winning comedian who has toured all over North America. You may recognize him from his own half hour comedy special that aired on CTV and The Comedy Network, his numerous appearances on The Debaters on CBC radio and television, the Family Channel’s Really Me, or various other TV and radio appearances. He has performed at numerous comedy festivals including the internationally renowned Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, as well as the Winnipeg, Halifax, and St. John’s festivals. You can catch him on the upcoming CTV sitcom Spun Out starring Dave Foley and the film The Art of The Steal. http://www.jon-steinberg.com/