July 14, 2024
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Expect the Unexpected: Ashley Blaker’s Comic Odyssey

How does a young Jew from London who studied history at Oxford and began a doctoral program at Cambridge wind up as a comedy writer for the BBC and for British television legends like Graham Norton, and as a mid-life husband and father of six, a stand-up comic? Not a conventional path for a nice Jewish boy from the London suburbs. Forget the conventional; Ashley Blaker is about as out-of-the-box as they come.

It was a long road to Blaker’s life as a performer (at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, off-Broadway, and international venues). The career seeds were planted much earlier, in junior high and high school, during which time comedy was an enjoyable teenage sideline. He always wanted to do stand-up, but these ambitions fell by the wayside once he began university. His “Oxbridge” education, which could have led to a distinguished career in academia, instead landed him a job as a comedy writer for the BBC. After many years, at age 40 and with a family to support, he had gotten the “bug” again, done some local comedy and earned plenty of laughs. By that time, even the rabbis were curious. So Blaker took the plunge and went into full swing as a solo act. Imagine going straight from not being a comedian to a 41-day tour! After that, if any of his old colleagues were skeptical about his career transition, their skepticism was gone.

Truly, Blaker tries to get people to see him as out-of-the-box. He succeeds at that and is almost always challenging people’s perceptions of him. And yet his demeanor belies his comic prowess and stamina: BBC-groomed, slight of build, self-effacing, unassuming and clearly Orthodox, Blaker has none of the superficial bluff and bravado of most comics. When he pushes the envelope, it is neither raunchy nor mean-spirited. He merely provides a wry look at a demographic he knows exceedingly well—his own. For example, a very recent tweet:

“Tonight is Yom Kippur, when Jews afflict themselves for 25 hours. Because apparently 2020 hasn’t been enough of an affliction already.”

Some of Blaker’s material is loosely autobiographical. It is not explicitly Jewish in terms of family life, but more about raising many children. “If you come to see me at SoHo [Playhouse], you come into my house,” he said. “When I perform at a synagogue, I am in someone else’s house, but when you come and see me in a theatre, it’s the other way around. You can’t please all the people all the time. You aim for the people who like you. You want to be someone’s favorite.”

When Blaker writes for his shows, he gets bored by talking about the same “safe” topics. Consequently, he gets varied reactions to his material and always many emails to take jokes out. Some in his audience decide to become the arbiter of what is “kosher” and what is not. On his website, he has gotten emails about halacha as it relates to content in his shows. He rarely replies, unless to set the record straight when he receives emails from people who misremembered material. In contrast, and a bit ironically, he has never had complaints from gentiles in the audience. He has learned a great deal from them and suspects he has achieved two goals in performing for non-Jews—to bring people together with laughter and to dispel anti-Semitism.

Blaker recalled that an Orthodox rabbi told him that it was all right to take his religion seriously, but not to take himself too seriously. He has certainly heeded the rabbi’s good advice. Although he lives a thoroughly Orthodox lifestyle, he has not always been observant. As his “epiphany” and foray into Orthodox Judaism began somewhere in his 20s, he can also see Orthodox Jews and Jewry from an outsider’s perspective. He is firmly, and humorously, committed to his religion and family. He is also committed to multicultural understanding. That is why for a few years he has worked with Imran Yusef, his friend and colleague in comedy, and co-written and performed with him for gentile, Jewish and Muslim audiences across the U.K.

Blaker came to know Imran when, as a television producer, he booked him for a show. In 2018, Imran came to see him perform at the Edinburgh Fringe, and Blaker suggested that they tour together. As an observant Muslim, Imran was fascinated by Blaker’s religion. The TV show they were about to do together was canceled due to COVID. Despite this, their performance at a large suburban theatre was so well attended that Blaker joked that more Jews want to see a Muslim than a dayan (Jewish judge), whose shiur at a nearby synagogue had to be canceled. Inram was unsure how the audience would react to him, but they embraced his humor and spirit. Audiences in Bradford, a largely Muslim community in England’s north, also found the duo entertaining.

Blaker is always evolving and constantly pushing himself. He sees live performance as a bonus as he loves performing to a crowd. Although he performed live not long ago and could book more performances now, they could be canceled two weeks prior due to COVID. Everything live now is ephemeral. So now he is working on an at-home version of “Goy Friendly” to send to JCCs, theatres and other organizations.

A few months ago, for goodwill and to give housebound audiences some light relief, Blaker released his first off-Broadway show for free on YouTube. Now he has uploaded two complete shows, “Strictly Unorthodox” and “Prophet Sharing,” as well as additional clips. As another gesture of giving back to the community, Blaker has also performed around 100 shows for synagogues, charities, schools and other organizations on a pay-what-you-can basis.

What’s next? Well, that’s hard to say. One thing is for sure, though. Ashley Blaker will always keep the momentum going, and his audiences laughing.

Rachel S. Kovacs is a professor of communication at CUNY, a PR practitioner, arts reviewer (offoffonline.com), and writer. She can be reached at [email protected] or  at
 

By Rachel S. Kovacs

 

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