San Francisco

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy Brings Jewish Humor To Chinatown Over Christmas

“I was accused for many years of killing Henny Youngman,” says San Francisco comedian Lisa Geduldig, host and founder of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy

Famed for his one-liners and violin chops, Youngman had appeared in the 1997 show when he was 91, and passed away two months later. 

The event, meanwhile, is entering its 23rd year as a running gag based around the stereotype regarding a certain faith's preferred restaurant option on December 25th. And it's going as strong as ever with a mix of alter kockers and comedians from younger generations, Geduldig assures us.

She also notes during our interview that David Brenner died after a Kung Pao gig — “but not as a result of Kung Pao, as might have been the case with Henny,” she hastens to add. And there's no connection to the time, she clarifies, when she tried to book Morey Amsterdam, only to find he’d just passed. 

This year, she's putting fresh blood on the bill. 

The headliner is Los Angeles funnywoman Wendy Liebman, who has appeared on TV (Carson, Letterman, Leno, Fallon, Kimmel, Ferguson, plus specials for HBO, Comedy Central and Showtime) and in clubs throughout North America.

“Wendy focuses on the wording of her jokes,” says Geduldig. “All comics do” —but it’s her style, the way she throws away lines, that for Geduldig represents a certain Jewish sensibility.

The show requires first and foremost that each performer be Jewish, and then that they have either specifically Jewish material or a Jewish sensibility. Geduldig claims to be unable to define that quality, but points to a comedian she’d hired one year whose whole shtick was being miserable. “If that’s not Jewish...” she says.

Another top act this year will be Dana Eagle, who has appeared on Ferguson, Comedy Central and other TV shows, and is a frequent opener for Bill Maher. Her one-woman show, “Mood Disorders: A Light-Hearted Romp Through Crippling Depression,” tells you what you can expect this year. 

Representing the male side is New York comedian Mike Fine, whom Geduldig says is in his 30s but has a Borscht Belt style to his writing, material and delivery. 

The deadpan Geduldig, who hosts Kung Pao in her signature tux and tails, also runs the monthly “Comedy Returns to El Rio” in the Mission District and has MCed a variety of comedy shows in addition to Kung Pao — her specialty is a mix of Jewish and LGBTQ comedy

In the early years of the event, she hired a mix of gay and straight comedians but eventually ran out of gay comedians. Each year she seeks out prospective entertainers in various ways, and although by now many comedians nationwide know about the show, she sometimes runs into challenges: some comedians are orthodox Jews who won’t perform on Friday nights; others are previously booked or charge too much or are actually already, like Morey Amsterdam, dead. Performers ages have ranged from 14 (a kid who arrived with his parents) to 91 (that would be Youngman, whom she found asleep backstage in his wheelchair just before introducing him--but he rallied round like a pro). 

 The idea for Kung Pao was hatched back in 1993, when Geduldig was hired for a gig in Massachusetts which she assumed was a comedy club but discovered was a Chinese restaurant. “The waitresses were serving treif, I’m telling Jewish jokes, and I thought of doing a Jewish comedy night in a Chinese restaurant. I was haunted by this idea.”

It’s an unwritten law, of course, that Jews, who traditionally do not celebrate the all-American Christian holiday, must go to Chinese restaurants on Christmas. But, she notes, “Kung Pao is by no means anti-Christmas. It’s just an alternative.”

Located at New Asia Restaurant, the walls will once again be festooned with Chanukah decorations: inflatable dreidels, a dreidel piñata, ersatz matzoh balls, etc.

The meal ends with an assortment of fortune cookies containing wise yet somehow dirty-sounding Yiddish proverbs that Geduldig has culled from Leo Rosten books and online. So you might get a fortune that reads “Don’t pee on my back and tell me it’s raining,” or “A pimple is no problem on someone else’s tushy,” or the old standby: “With one tuchus, you can’t dance at two weddings.” She originally conceived of the cookie idea as a joke, heading down an alley in Chinatown to what she describes as a fortune cookie sweatshop that specializes in custom-made cookies. It turned out the fortunes fill some sort of emotional need, she says.

Kung Pao attracts some non-Jews, including Chinese-Jewish couples, and basically appeals to anyone with a sense of humor and a taste for either a seven-course Chinese banquet featuring peppery and peanutty Kung Pao chicken (the early, 5 p.m. show) or veggie dim sum and cocktails (the 8:30 show). Still, most of the audience is indeed Jewish.

No one sits alone; each table accommodates a group of 10 and each is named, in alphabetical order from Alan King to Yenta, for an iconic Jewish performer (Barbra Streisand, Joan Rivers, etc.), Yiddish word (Chutzpah, Kvetch) or distinctively Jewish food (Gefilte Fish, Matzoh Brei). 

Raised in Plainview, Long Island — where she was such a wise-ass in junior high that she was kicked out of a class — Geduldig came to San Francisco in 1982 and eventually started performing what she calls “openly gay and openly Jewish material.”

Jokes aside, Kung Pao has given away tens of thousands of dollars to charities since its first year, in the Jewish tradition of tzedakah. This year’s beneficiaries are the Institute on Aging’s Friendship Line, a crisis hotline for seniors, and Legal Assistance to the Elderly.

“I have a special place in my heart for seniors,” says Geduldig, who is in her 50s. She remembers how her grandfather would come to visit, put one of his hats on her head and tell her stories. Living in Mexico in her 20s, she realized how fragmented and separated our society is and knew she wanted to have people of all ages in her life. In fact, she made a film about an octogenarian soul sister, “Esther & Me”, which screened at multiple film festivals. “People in this age group are so funny--the bluest of humor,” she says. “The beneficiaries represent me: my politics, issues important to me.”

Thus you won’t see a right-wing or homophobic comedians at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy. The event is “progressive, queer, Jewish definitely—everything that San Francisco is.” 

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