in the wry
Comedian Moshe Kasher
This Portland-compatible humorist uses clever, irreverent quips and cutthroat tweets to laugh off his dark past.
It’s hard to sum up all the reasons to like stand-up comedian Moshe Kasher. It can’t just be his hair—a wayward side-do that he hilariously refers to as a “Gitler” (gay Hitler)—or the fact that he dresses like a hipster librarian, Portland’s version of a prince in shining armor. Nodding affectionately at his own effeminate veneer and nerd sensibilities, his comedy is self-deprecating enough to be likable without overdoing it, and he’s politically passionate enough about issues like gender and homophobia to hook an audience in, but not so preachy that he alienates them. He’ll jump between a high-brow joke about Dante’s Inferno, a hilarious story about getting into a bar fight in San Francisco, and a bit entitled “I am an Amazing Lover” so seamlessly he almost makes it look easy. After nearly a decade of doing comedy, his acerbic wit and delightfully snarky alternative style have taken him to festivals like Just For Laughs in Montreal and SXSW in Austin, and he has graced television screens with performances on Chelsea Lately and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
As he gears up to host a show at the Hollywood Theatre tonight, and preps for the release of his memoir in March 2012 (cheekily titled Kasher in the Rye) Culturephile catches up with Moshe on the phone to talk about politics, Twitter, and his tumultuous adolescence.
What can you tell us about this showcase on the 27th?
It’s myself and a couple of my favorite guys, Ron [Funches] and Ian [Karmel], who are both really funny, and a few other guys—it’s a terrific lineup. I really love Portland, the intelligence and the weirdness of the people here.
I’m on the road a lot, so when I get to places like Portland, where real people that you would actually want to hang out with exist, the shows get all fun and psychedelic and awesome. My biggest feeling about comedy is that every single crowd has a cool story buried inside of them, and if I don’t find that, that’s my fault—I didn’t do my job. I love to find that narrative, that connection. That’s my favorite thing to do. Hot-diggity-dog!
Lots of comedy fans are excited about the release of your memoir—what can you tell us about it?
It’s my first book, and I’m super excited. Ultimately it’s the story of a tragic childhood; my ridiculous, crazy, absurd tale about growing up as a white boy in Oakland with two deaf Hasidic Jew parents, going in and out of mental hospitals and rehab for years by the time I was fifteen—y’know, all the stuff that comedy is made of! Laughs all the way! Ha, ha! I had no desire to write an after school special about the terrors of addiction, but in some ways I did anyway. Most of the book is really funny, but it’s also kind of a trap, because towards the end when everything falls apart, it’s pretty gut-wrenching.
Memoirists have all kinds of approaches to writing, and your story is so complex and crazy—what was your approach?
Well, being my first time doing a project like this, I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote this proposal, my publishing company gave me this advance check—but then I was like, “Uhh, how do you…do this?” I basically went from the beginning to the end; I wrote in a pretty linear way. It literally starts with a scene of me coming out of my mother—exiting the chute, if you will. And it ends with the day I got out of rehab for the last time. I’ve been sober a long time now.
Something I’ve noticed about other comedians’ memoirs is that they focus so much on their career, how they came up, et cetera. My story’s just so different, in that it’s really a ridiculous narrative about my childhood—I think it’s a pretty special book. The whole first section is about how weird it is to go back into your own memory trying to dredge things back up. It’s kinda like going through all your old Xmas lights that are tangled in a big, messy heap. (Though I’m a Jew, so this metaphor doesn’t add up.) I wasn’t exactly keeping a good diary when I was 13 and in mental hospitals. I’m just relying on my own fragmented, drug-addled memory to piece everything together. Lucky for me, the police, school district, therapists, rehabs, and hospitals all took pretty good notes. Oh—and my mother’s a hoarder. So everything got documented.
Kasher in the Rye is a pretty awesome title. Did you have any other “working” titles?
Oh, yeah. I originally had “A Million Little Feces” and “Portrait of the Asshole As a Young Man,” but those just didn’t make the cut. I actually did just finish reading “Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man”, by Bill Clegg, which is a very special book. It was cool to read a book that deals with the agony of addiction—as opposed to mine, which deals with the absurdity of addiction. I wrote him a letter, actually. All my book’s chapter titles are west coast rap references, which were part of the landscape growing up in Oakland in the early 90s around a bunch of white kids who wished they were black.
As an ambiguously radical and political comic, what are your thoughts are about the “Occupy” Movement that’s going on globally right now?
I was pretty cynical, at first, but I think that’s a huge part of the problem. Everyone is living under this awful blanket of cynicism, We’ve been taking all of the opium—metaphorically, mostly—that the world is feeding us. It takes these kinds of weirdos and freaks to kick the dust loose, but little by little, people are waking up.
You have to think about the 1960s and Vietnam, and how those kids were all the jobless freaks of their generation who got hated on in the media. All the hula hoops and the didgeridoos—or whatever lame instrumental equivalent the 60s had—all the hacky-sacking, it was the same young people fighting that struggle. They started to shake lose the reality of “normal” people, but it takes longer for people with jobs to catch on or get involved. I wish I could be out there in a tent on the street, but I’ve got a career and I gotta pay my rent. Of course, it’s about to be winter, so I guess we’ll see how much dedication these kids have. Look, I don’t wanna get too political here, or to polarize your audience, but somebody has to say it: I think the biggest problem facing the “Occupy” movement is the pubic lice. I don’t think that those pubic lice are going to help move the revolution along. We should really, really be taking care of all the pubic lice. Top priority.
You’re kind of a big deal on Twitter. As a comedian, what are your favorite and least favorite parts of Twitter?
I like Twitter a lot—it keeps me in constant creative mode, throwing jokes out all the time. In my stand-up, I have many bits that are five or ten minutes long, which can feel dense. Twitter is very self-limiting and I love that. The thing I like least about Twitter is how much it contributes to this new social standard of being cruel to people on the internet. There’s so much harassment, and it gets worse the more followers you have. Hate for the sake of hate can get pretty corrosive. When you’re an entertainer, you’re a part of it, and you have to learn when to feed into it and when to leave it alone.
People have weird assumptions about public image—that you’re open to any and all scrutiny if you’re a celeb or a wannabe celebrity. But…why is that true? I never agreed to that! I’m just some guy on Twitter. I’m sorry, is this free entertainment not free or entertaining enough for you? It’s free! What’s everyone bitching about? That being said, I used to jump on celebs a lot myself. Twitter can be a good place for taking irresponsible people to task, like Chris Brown or horrible corporations or the Phelps family [the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church].
Yeah, I’ve followed some of that. Have you ever been afraid for your safety, getting in these crazy internet wars with people who find you offensive?
With the Phelpses? Psht. No, not at all. You find yourself wondering how much of it is real, and how much is performance art in some weird way. They’re so over-the-top that it’s hard to take them seriously. That’s part of why I went to war with them when I did. Everything they do is reported on, so they’ve already won the battle for attention. Pretending that they’re gonna go away if we ignore them is naive. But as a comedian, it’s my responsibility to make fun of them. And god, they make it so easy. There are people on the internet who are dangerous, but not the Phelpses. I’ve had a couple of very strange interactions with people online—like people whose entire [Twitter] timelines are about or directed towards me. That’s a little obsessive, but it feels so benign to me. Some of the stories I hear from female comics are insane. It seems like every female comic I know has a for-serious internet stalker. In comparison, me getting called “fag” by a bunch of strangers doesn’t seem so bad.
I’m not really trying to be “edgy” or anything—i dont write the jokes that i write because i want to shock anyone. I just write what I find funny, and the result tends to live in that realm of being a little pushy and snotty. It’s not that I’m trying to be offensive, it’s that I don’t get offended.