Small audience at ‘Comedy at Ashkenaz!’ didn’t stop comedians from getting big laughs

Jill Maragos/Courtesy

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“Comedy at Ashkenaz!” isn’t a Kevin Hart comedy stadium tour, but it still delivers its jokes and entertains its audience. Every month, people from all over the city and beyond come together at Berkeley’s Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center and enjoy easy comedy. There are no dramatic lights, fancy curtains or fog machines — just the comedians, an audience and a station just a few feet away to grab a grilled cheese and a soda.

Every second Thursday of the month, Ashkenaz hosts its “Comedy at Ashkenaz!” show. On Aug. 9, “Comedy at Ashkenaz!” — hosted by comedian Lisa Geduldig — also featured Milt Abel, Dan St. Paul and Jill Maragos. All featured acts were no rookies to the art of stand-up — they all have had their own experiences performing on various television networks and shows.

Ashkenaz’s intimate venue catered to the night’s small audience. Of those in the crowd, many seemed to know about the “Comedy at Ashkenaz!” monthly show beforehand. In fact, both audience members and comedians alike shared that they were either from Berkeley or surrounding areas. Throughout the night, they were fully engaged in each set, even when the comics moved beyond local humor.

Comedians such as St. Paul and Abel best served the crowd’s majority middle-aged demographic with their jokes related to growing older and obtaining unique life experiences. At the same time, all the comedians successfully conveyed a sense of universality in their jokes. Their performances were easy to follow, and in contrast to a larger venue, the intimate setting allowed comedians to establish close dialogues and interactions with the audience.

The acts did not shy away from ad-libbing, getting to know different audience members and explaining their approaches to writing jokes. In fact, the first comic, St. Paul, brought his two daughters to the show and introduced them. This gesture alone showed how proud the comedians at Ashkenaz are of their work and those who witness it.

However, this particular “Comedy at Ashkenaz!” show sometimes failed to stray from the “Berkeley bubble.” Of course, audiences can easily follow comedians when the content follows a distinct theme, as the Berkeley content did. But when comedians focus outside of one point of view and incorporate new ideas or lessons, they add substance to their sets. That said, each comedian missed the opportunity to challenge the ideas of a primarily liberal audience.

Though most jokes of the night were Bay Area-centered, each comedian had their own style. Their individual sets distinguished themselves through their distinct stage presences, jokes and personalities. The first set was by Abel, whose 35 years of comedic experience translated itself into his confident stance. He did not limit himself from talking about the turning points in his life, such as his divorce and the realities of aging, sharing insightful experiences with a funny twist.

Maragos, who performed second, shamelessly expressed her honest opinions on sexuality, dating culture and her own everyday struggles as a woman, unabashedly explaining why “dick pics” are not attractive. Her comedic history, which includes appearing on various television networks and performing regularly at Punch Line San Francisco and Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco, shined in her strong delivery of each punchline. These punchlines — based on her personal experiences and perspectives — created a dialogue that was direct and candid.

The night ended with St. Paul, who was the most lively act of the three. While the topics he spoke on did not differ strongly from Abel’s, St. Paul offered a different approach through his comedy by connecting with the audience through his interests. From time to time, he asked members of the crowd questions and further built off of his punchlines through their responses. He transitioned swiftly and naturally from one joke to the next while staying cautious of his next delivery.

At its core, “Comedy at Ashkenaz!” offers Berkeley a simple space to support different comedians from the Bay Area. The event embraces both its talents and small audiences. It understands the basis of what stand-up comedy’s purpose is: to facilitate a discussion that makes the crowd laugh every now and then.

Contact Maybelle Caro at [email protected].