My unorthodox life in Little Britain
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.