For the last year and a half or so, I’ve been performing and traveling with some “undercover Jews” on a tour entitled, “You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish.” Our show features African American, Indian, Italian American and Vietnamese Jewish comedians. I’m the token Italian American Jew in the show.
I’ve personally done a lot of shows at synagogues, for Hillels, and appearances at Jewish events. But a small portion of my set always needed to be wasted on explaining exactly why a guy named Mike Capozzola is booked in a show with comics named Goldman, Cohen and Markowitz. The line up usually sounded like a law firm, plus a typo.
Sometimes the rabbi, the cantor or a congregant hosting the show would try to make a joke of it while introducing me. It was never useful, even if they meant well. “He has an Italian name, but he assures us he’s Jewish. Maybe he’ll tell you all about it… please welcome, I hope I’m saying this right… Mike Kap- Cap… Capo? Capozzelli…?”
Even landing Jewish gigs, getting my info to a Rabbi or Hillel director needed a pre-emptive explanation. It meant cutting and pasting this line from other outreach e-mails: “I’m actually Jewish, despite the last name.” [In the interest of full disclosure – I’ve cut and pasted those seven words from an old e-mail for the sake of authenticity.]
At some point, I realized that it would be easier to just create a show with a title that not only celebrates a degree of diversity, but also takes away the wide eyed stares of incomprehension that have greeted me as I take the stage. Sometimes I hear (or imagine) gasps and chatter, “What’s he doing here?” How did this happen?” “Mah-Zeh?! “Do something, Lenny..!”
Was it so unthinkable and uncommon that there were Italian Jews walking among us? Surely there were others out there…
I’d known a few other “undercover Jews” in my life. At Hebrew School, attendance being taken put my friend David and I back-to-back: “Bloom, Capozzola, Carnicelli, Cohen, Erenberg…” For the most part though, aside from me, my brother Steven, and David Carnicelli, Italian Jews seemed almost mythical.
Then, at Ithaca College, I encountered a stunningly beautiful Italian-Jewish girl several years ahead of me whom I met at High Holiday services my Freshman year. (I can’t recall her name but I like to picture it as the best of both worlds, “Contessa Francesca Abromowitz.”) She called me a “Kosher Meatball.” She may have even patted my head. It was the first time that I’d heard this term and the mere fact that it had a name at all – was very cool. It sort of legitimized the brand.
There’s also another term, “Pizza Bagel.” I’d heard that first from my friend, Lauren, who like me, and The Contessa has a Jewish mom and an Italian dad. I’ve tried a few times to get the term “Kugelroni” in play, but no one seems interested.
Being a Jew with a distinctly non-Jewish name has meant, regrettably, that I’ve been a fly-on-the-wall when people decide to share some anti-Semitic thoughts and leanings. I was halfway through a haircut when the barber explained away someone’s greed with this line, “Well, he’s a Jew you know…” I got up and said, “We’re done here” and I left. It was shortsighted of me to leave as this barber is now doubly assured that Jews will do anything to save a buck, like leaving midway through a haircut.
My dad was a passionate crusader for positive images of Italian Americans in media. He deplored the gangster, buffoon, henchman and slob stereotypes. Until 9/11 changed the face to Muslims, it was the Bad Italian that permeated network television like the smell of garlic. Any crime, superhero or legal drama in need of a bad guy could just point to the Italian. It was always a variation on this revelation of corruption: “If these documents say what I think… then this leads all the way to Senator Esposito’s office!”
Understandably, the sitcom “Happy Days” was off limits growing up. The Fonz was not as welcome in our house as he was in the Cunningham’s. But it was endlessly amusing to me that Fonzie was a played by Jewish actor, Henry Winkler. In addition to being a comedian, I’ve been a cartoonist all my life and I snail-mailed a FONZ spoof of mine to Mr. Winkler not long ago. He called to thank me for the art and the note, but I was on line at the DMV and somehow missed the call and it rolled into voicemail. Still, very cool to hear “Mike, it’s Henry Winkler…” when I played my messages. He even included a very authentic L’Shana Tovah.
My story: my background is just 25% of the group with whom I travel and perform in this Jewish comedy night. The other comics all have very varied and separate backgrounds. Samson Koletkar, whom I’ve known for years, may very well be the world’s ONLY Indian-Jewish comedian. He usually headlines our shows and he’s found a nice niche getting booked at Indian festivals and comedy nights where they can only afford a fraction of what Aziz Ansari gets paid.
Joe Nguyen comes from Atlanta. He’s a great writer with a sly delivery and gifted comic mind. Joe has a great stretch of material about his experiences on the Birthright Israel trip. In 2010, we did a Hillel show together and the idea started percolating for this tour. But it wasn’t until I’d met acclaimed Bay Area storyteller Gina Gold that it all fell into place.
Gina hosts a monthly show in Berkeley, CA called “TMI: Too Much Information.” At her show, I saw Gina tell a fantastic story about being Jewish and African American. That was the night that I had the idea to assemble this pile of comedy crayons into a single, themed, and packaged box.
Since April of 2014, we’ve played sold out shows at JCC’s, synagogues and theatres in California, Seattle, New York and Canada. It’s been a lot of fun, but also there are moments that transcend any intentions and hopes.
One night we received a compliment that I’ll never forget. An elderly woman told us that she had not heard the sound of her husband’s laughter in many years until the night of our show. It was off-brand of me to get teary eyed, but I did anyway as she thanked us.
We’re headed your way very soon and we hope that you’ll give thought to attending.
“You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish.”
Sixth & I: Thursday March 23rd 8pm, Sixth & I 600 I Street, NW Washington, DC
Temple Solel: Saturday March 25th 8pm, Temple Solel 2901 Mitchellville Rd, Bowie, MD