My un­ortho­dox life in Lit­tle Bri­tain

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CUL­TURE BRIGIT GRANT

WHEN YOU pic­ture a stand-up co­me­dian, Ash­ley Blaker isn’t the first per­son that comes to mind. Sure, he has a beard like a lot of laugh­ter mer­chants on the cir­cuit but, un­like them, he also has peyot and wears tz­i­tit, rarely sighted at The Com­edy Store.

No one knows this bet­ter than Ash­ley, who didn’t em­brace his faith un­til he reached his twen­ties. He had spent his as­sim­i­lated youth try­ing to get open spots at com­edy clubs af­ter hon­ing his act at Hab­er­dash­ers Boys School.

Clearly there re­ally is some­thing funny in the wa­ter at Ash­ley’s Hert­ford­shire alma mater as Sacha Baron Co­hen, David Bad­diel and Matt Lu­cas are all for­mer pupils, though Ash­ley, who went to both Ox­ford and Cam­bridge lost in­ter­est in mak­ing laugh­ter for a liv­ing.

“I loved com­edy and thought that when I got to Cam­bridge I would au­to­mat­i­cally get in­volved in the Foot­lights, but I just got im­mersed in the work,” he says of the 17th-cen­tury Chris­tian the­ol­ogy he stud­ied there.

“But when I fin­ished with a dou­ble-first from Ox­ford and then a Mas­ters in Phi­los­o­phy at Cam­bridge, I quickly dis­cov­ered that no one wanted me or cared.”

Ash­ley had no idea what he was go­ing to do, but a timely beer with a Habs teacher drew his at­ten­tion to the media pages in the Guardian and he spot­ted an ad that asked: “Do You Have Funny Bones?”

“The BBC were look­ing for trainee com­edy pro­duc­ers and they hired me, though it was only for six months and, in or­der to stay on, I had to come up with pro­pos­als for TV or ra­dio,” says Ash­ley. “And that was when I bumped into Matt Lu­cas in Soho who took me to the Grou­cho Club and told me about his sketch show idea.”

That sketch show was Lit­tle Bri­tain and it se­cured Ash­ley’s po­si­tion as a writer and pro­ducer and led to other col­lab­o­ra­tions with Matt in­clud­ing The Matt Lu­cas Awards and, more re­cently, Pom­pi­dou.

Ash­ley Blaker has worked with nu­mer­ous other comics, too, and cur­rently has two se­ries on BBC Ra­dio 4: Bri­tain Ver­sus The World and Chat Show Roulette.

“I also have my own TV com­pany — Black Hat Pro­duc­tions (yes, that re­ally is what it is called) — and we are mak­ing two se­ries: Cou­ples and Josh Howie’s Los­ing It – which will be broad­cast in 2016.”

De­spite sit­ting op­po­site this Charedi TV pro­ducer in a North Lon­don kosher deli, food barely en­ters the equa­tion as there so much to dis­cover about this mul­ti­fac­eted in­di­vid­ual. He not only wears the sig­na­ture black suit and kipah of a deeply re­li­gious man to work with some of the coun­try’s most risqué comics, but that’s what he wears it on stage, too.

Not con­tent with a life — an un­usual one for an Ortho­dox man — be­hind the scenes, Blaker has been scal­ing back his TV work to pre­pare for his first stand-up tour, Unge­filtered, which will take him to se­lected venues (pre­dom­i­nantly syn­a­gogues) through­out the coun­try.

Given that when he first stands up in a shul, con­gre­gants as­sume he is just another vis­it­ing rabbi, the fol­low­ing hi­lar­ity is all the more en­joy­able and the en­thu­si­as­tic re­views on his web­site from the likes of Rabbi Men­del Kal­men­son, Chabad of Bel­gravia and Rabbi Dovid Eisen­berg of Prest­wich He­brew Con­gre­ga­tion are a testa- Dar­ing: Ash­ley Blaker backs up his com­edy with the Tal­mud ment to his abil­ity to amuse the tough­est and un­like­li­est of crowds.

Of course, like any stand-up, suc­cess de­pends on the ma­te­rial, which in Blaker’s case con­sists of his ob­ser­va­tions on Or­tho­doxy. Not shak­ing hands with women; Gateshead yeshiva; wear­ing a base­ball cap to travel to work — all these fea­ture in his 80-minute act, which has to be seen to be ap­pre­ci­ated. And it re­ally is ap­pre­ci­ated, no­tably by those who would or­di­nar­ily never have dared to gig­gle at their own rit­u­als and be­hav­iour.

“I was asked to en­ter­tain a group from Bor­ough Park in New York which has the largest Ortho­dox com­mu­nity out­side of Is­rael,” says Ash­ley. “They were com­ing for a wed­ding and booked me for a night dur­ing the sheva bra­chot. The men were in shtreimels and the women were be­hind a screen, but they all laughed and a lot of them asked for my card af­ter­wards.”

Though Blaker would never de­scribe his switch to Or­tho­doxy as an epiphany it has com­pletely changed his life and he is vis­i­bly joy­ful about it. Sparked by a year’s free shul mem­ber­ship fol­low­ing his mar­riage to wife Gemma, the in­vi­ta­tion to make up a minyan by Edg­ware United’s Rabbi David Lis­ter led to the spir­i­tual awak­en­ing and he is now part of the fur­ni­ture at the shtibl, Machzikei Hadass, in Edg­ware.

He also has six chil­dren, two of whom have autism, and an adopted daugh­ter who has Down’s Syn­drome.

Ash­ley Blaker could easily be the sub­ject of a TV doc­u­men­tary though, as a sea­soned pro­ducer, it’s un­likely that he would risk such ex­po­sure. Not that he would ever see the pro­gramme as, by his own ad­mis­sion, “I am prob­a­bly the only per­son who works in TV, but doesn’t own one”.

Yet he is keen to carve out a ca­reer as a stand-up and po­ten­tially break Amer­ica, if only to show that Ortho­dox Jews can laugh just as easily as those who are non-re­li­gious and un­af­fil­i­ated.

“My show is for all Jews be­cause the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence is uni­ver­sal,” he says. “Of course, when I per­form for a Charedi crowd in Stam­ford Hill I make slight ad­just­ments (Abra­ham be­comes Avra­ham) but the hu­mour it­self doesn’t change. And I know that ev­ery­one isn’t go­ing to agree with what I say as I have had to deal with com­plaints.”

But if any­one chal­lenges Ash­ley Blaker on his new di­rec­tion he has the Tal­mud to fall back on as he ex­plains: “The prophet Eli­jah, while wan­der­ing through a mar­ket place, was asked who would en­ter heaven di­rectly and he pointed to two co­me­di­ans. ‘Only them,’ he said ‘Be­cause they heal through laugh­ter.’

Ash­ley Blaker is cling­ing to that story, but I don’t think he’ll need it. For your chance to win a pair of tick­ets to see Ash­ley Blaker’s stand-up tour, turn to page 41.

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