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Frum, British and oh so funny!

  • AshleyBlaker
Ashley Blaker is heading to Johannesburg to have us laughing in the aisles at the Emperor’s Palace theatre to celebrate Sydenham Shul’s 75th anniversary. It will be his first visit.
by SIMON SHEAR | Aug 03, 2017

It wasn’t that long ago that this young Jewish Englishman had no particular direction in mind and was looking for a job. A former teacher suggested he should take a look at the Guardian’s media listing.

Blaker noticed an advert for a junior comedy producer. He applied on a whim. Ten weeks later he was working at the BBC.

It wasn’t the last time a series of random events and impulses fused to shape trajectory of Blaker’s career. Not long after he embarked on his new vocation, Blaker was wandering through Soho when he bumped into his school friend Matt Lucas, who told him he had been working with David Walliams on a few TV projects.

They hadn’t really worked out; it looked like their big break had come and gone. As luck would have it, Blaker had this new BBC job and was under pressure to bring in talent. Why not give it a go; maybe a sketch show or something?

They ended up creating Little Britain, one of the most successful sketches in British history.

An unlikely sequence of apparent coincidences explains how a frum Jew from North London ended up working with the cream of the British comedians. But why did he take the plunge and become a comedian himself? Why turn to sharp observational humour about frum life to mainly Jewish audiences?

In many ways, Blaker formed his comedic identity not despite his religious background, but because of it. Blaker grew up in a traditional, but not strictly observant, Jewish home. He and his wife became more observant after they were married. For Blaker the comedian, it was as if he’d found himself.

“I’d always wanted to be a standup,” Blaker explains. “I did some when I was 16, but I didn’t really have a persona, I didn’t have anything to say.” As a baal teshuva with professional life steeped in comedy, Blaker’s sharp fine-grained observational comedy about frum life, flowed naturally.

That Blaker the comic and Blaker the man, are one and the same, explains why he doesn’t feel constrained by the requirement to keep his comedy clean. Most comedians adopt an onstage persona, an exaggerated version of themselves or a completely alternative character.

Blaker lives his character. As he explains, it’s not like he performs a family-friendly set to an audience of rabbis and then goes home to swear and tell R-rated jokes.

Clean, however, does not entail tame. Blaker has received acclaim for the way he explores community issues through comedy, but of course there will always be a conservative fringe who takes issue with the unconventional.

The strong observational element of Blaker’s comedy means that you don’t have to be Jewish, but it definitely helps.

Blaker tells me that’s how he prefers it. There’s a strain of 20th century Brooklyn Jewish humour - about group identity and family and community life - that has become universalised. Think of how My Big Fat Greek Wedding or The Kumars at No 42 are basically following the format laid down by Jackie Mason or Woody Allen, with deep roots in vaudeville.

Blaker says he finds it liberating to talk about something much more specific. He’s telling stories of his own life. The strange way some people daven at the local shul; buying sushi on Golders Green Road. That doesn’t mean you need to memorise the Shulchan Aruch to enjoy the performance; but you’ll certainly enjoy the joke more if you know what a mezuzah is.

Although his standup is aimed at a niche audience, Blaker insists on holding his Jewish-centric comedy to the same standards as his TV work.

“Entertainment in the frum world, almost wilfully, is very haimish. It lacks sheen and freshness. Anything I do as a performer has to be to the same standards, the same high production values, even down to the posters.”

Blaker adds that when he first started performing at shuls, the posters would be clip art embarrassments. He vowed to set a new standard for frum entertainment. That dedication to professionalising Orthodox humour, explains how Blaker is able to perform such audience-specific comedy at major venues around the world.

Blaker will be performing in the Theatre of Marcellus at Emperors Palace on August 7. And if you are wondering what he hopes to get out of this particular experience, it is simple… “kosher Nando’s”. 

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