Funny and Feminist Too

One of the nicest things about comediennes Lotus Weinstock and Emily Levine is the utter lack of hostility in their acts. Unlike the sometimes meanness of Joan Rivers, or the all too common victim shtick humor of Phyllis Diller, Weinstock’s and Levine’s humor is brainy yet kind. A sense of humor with a sense of consciousness. These women are, in fact, part of a blossoming group of female comics who will not make their brains or beauty the butt of their jokes.

It’s easy to see why Levine and Weinstock have become close over the years—they met at the Comedy Store, a major Los Angeles comedy club where both perform regularly—and enjoy performing back to back for the same audiences. Their material and approach, though certainly flavored with their distinct personalities, are both rife with political and feminist allusions. Emily says:

“Both our acts are very political. We may not talk about politics per se, but we talk about the politics of relationships, the politics of good and evil. It’s definitely from a Jewish feminist point of view. The message we want to give is strongly anti-racist, pro-peace, pro-reason, and pro-love.”

Weinstock and Levine attributed the political/feminist tone of their material to their strong Jewish identities. Being a Jewish woman comedian is not as difficult as it may seem, they say. “Personally,” Weinstock says, “I think it’s the easiest thing for a Jewish woman to be! You can say whatever you want as dynamically as you want. You get admiration and you make people feel good. I have a line, ‘Since the Jewish people have so many comics, why doesn’t Israel have a laughing wall?'”

Because of their identification with Judaism, she adds, “We both have a tremendous consciousness not to be self-loathing or in any way perpetuate stereotypes.”

Certainly one of the most common stereotypes and targets for laughs is the “J.A.P.”—the Jewish American Princess. Once, a man in Levine’s audience called her a J.A.P. She remembers it well.

“I said to him, ‘You know, it so incenses me to hear that, because it denigrates Jews and Japanese, and that means the only people to have come out of World War Two smelling like a rose are the Germans!” In silencing the heckler, Levine also earned herself laughter and applause from the audience.

It was, in fact, during a five-week visit to Germany that Levine developed a sense of her own Jewish identity. Assigned there to write a German situation comedy, Levine noticed that the biographies of Nazi leaders were getting a great deal of media attention. This added to her sense of isolation.

Back in New York, Levine decided to purge the experience the best way she knew how: on stage. Referring to Nazi Germany’s attitude toward Jews, Levine commented to her audience about a Jewish woman: “Oh, she’s cute as a button… or would she be cute as a button?”

As both friends and colleagues, Weinstock and Levine periodically test lines on one another to insure that no material is offensive. They worked themselves into a state of high anxiety before one performance where the audience turned out to be predominantly elderly Jews, worried that some of the sexual, political and Jewish themes in their acts might offend their listeners.

Laughing at the memory, Levine says, “I found out later that one old man said to an old woman next to him, ‘I hope they’re dirty!’ And she said to him, ‘l hope they’re feminists!'”

Levine has not always had an easy time owning up to her intelligence on stage, but recently has used it as a sharp tool in her act. One night, while she was playing at a Los Angeles club, a man in the audience said that she reminded him of his mother. Levine retorted, “Why? Did your mother go to Harvard too?”

Levine, after graduating Harvard with honors, dubbed spaghetti Westerns in Rome and later taught children in New York before joining an improvisational group, the New York City Stickball Team.

Her appetite for performance whetted, she left the Team to write a one-woman show, appropriately titled, “Myself, Myself, I’ll Do It Myself,” which she performed at the Improvisation in New York. Among the many fans to discover her was Jack Rollings, manager of such comedy giants as Woody Allen, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Rollings and other friends encouraged Levine to concentrate on stand-up comedy.

For Weinstock, on the other hand, the choice of comedy as a career option was clear from an early age. She sold her first joke for $10 to Milton Berle when she was five. She was the bunk clown at camp, a natural performer. When she misbehaved, Lotus (then called Marlena) was punished by not being allowed to watch The Milton Berle Show and I Love Lucy on Tuesday nights.

Emily and Lotus have cultivated their Jewish identities more and more over the past few years, and have been studying Torah with a U.C.L.A. Hillel rabbi. Weinstock says, “We’re very Midrashic in our approach. We have questions: How can we survive and not be bitter, and still love? We search for equality and fairness. This sense of purpose was kindled for me when I was in Israel. I was surrounded by people who were asking important questions.

“I’ve always gone for the most holistic experience I can. I want to be as enlightened and understanding and loving as I can be, and I like to sprinkle insights along the way. Every piece of my act is a breadcrumb from the path of my experience.”

Judy Rosenfeld is a farmer member of the JSPS Governing Board.