For the Times of Israel posted February 8 2016
LONDON — It’s Saturday night at Golders Green Synagogue in London and an audience wanders in, ready to be entertained.
The headliner, it’s fair to say, is not impressed with the venue, since we are seated at the back of the shul behind weighty pillars, and the stage is just about the size of a pocket handkerchief.
But despite the cold outside and the limitations of the production, Ashley Blaker, who styles himself as Britain’s only strictly Orthodox comedian, soon has the audience in stitches. His 90-minute-long routine – astonishingly long by most British comic standards – is a hilarious and gentle tease through the vagaries of Jewish life in 21st century Britain, spinning off into sparkling riffs about “frum gorillas” and how not to shake hands with women.
The Golders Green gig is part of a 41-stop tour of Britain, known as “Ungefiltered,” with much in well-established Jewish hotspots, some in smaller pockets such as Hull or Sheffield. And at every event Blaker both amuses and astonishes.
That should be no surprise: By day, he is a TV comedy producer, working on high-profile shows at the BBC. And by night, he is a stand-up comedian, holding up his mirror to Jewish life.
The astonishment, of course, is that with Blaker, what you see is what you get: a skinny bearded man in his late 30s wearing a black suit and kippah, and sporting peyot and tzitzit of the strictly Orthodox community to which he now belongs. But this is not a uniform which he dons only for his interfaces with Jewish audiences. No, he wears this in his day job at the BBC, too.
And, engagingly, he has to be one of the only TV producers who doesn’t own a TV.
Blaker attended what he laughingly calls “a very Jewish school.” In fact Haberdasher’s Aske’s – known universally as “Habs” – is a fee-paying school in north London famous for hot-housing extremely clever students, many of whom were and are Jewish.
Outside the UK, the best-known Habs pupil is Blaker’s near-contemporary, Sacha Baron Cohen. Others who also attended the school and are very well-known on the UK comedy circuit include Matt Lucas (who was in the film, “Bridesmaids” and works with Blaker on the popular series “Little Britain”), and comic and novelist David Baddiel.
According to Blaker the school had a very competitive atmosphere and though there were many Jewish pupils, the teachers were not beyond suggesting a football match – “shall we play Yids versus Yoks?” (My mouth drops open at this information, though Blaker is quick to note that political correctness probably prevents such a suggestion being made today.)
Blaker plainly had a hunger for smart comedy long before his current incarnation. He was doing five-minute comedy turns in London clubs when he was 16 or 17, phoning up cold and asking for an open mic spot. The adult Blaker is mildly critical of his adolescent self: “I wasn’t very good, very influenced by other comedians.” He only stopped because he had to revise for exams. He also, he says, used to do lunchtime shows in school, which attracted big audiences.
He seems unsure where this appetite came from, although when pushed recalls that one of his grandfathers was in a “Stars In Battledress” unit in World War II.
But, on the whole, Blaker seemed destined for an academic career, though he did always say he wanted to be a comedian. Certainly he did not want to be a doctor or a lawyer like so many of his contemporaries.
Instead his first stop was Keble College, Oxford, where he read history.
“I didn’t enjoy Oxford much – and actually I wasn’t really there a great deal. I had a car and I went home a lot,” he said.
Despite his apparent lack of focus, Blaker got a “double first” and then drifted over to Cambridge to take a doctorate.
“There the work is really important, I got a real shock to the system. Your notes have to be impeccable, you have to have footnotes,” he said.
His PhD was in pre-English Civil War religion but in the end Blaker left Cambridge without a doctorate, but with an M.Phil, or master’s in philosophy.
And he still didn’t have a job.
But then two things happened almost in parallel which shaped the Ashley Blaker we see today. He married, and a welcoming atmosphere at his local synagogue, and encouragement from its rabbi, began an increasing commitment to Jewish observance – which Blaker says is still a work in progress. “My wife and I are always asking what more we can do.”
The couple now have six children, two of whom have autism, and an adopted daughter with Down’s Syndrome, and their home is cheerfully strewn with toys and books. He’s keen to emphasise that he did not turn religious overnight, that it was a gradual embrace “of doing more.”
Almost in tandem he had a drink with a former Habs teacher, who showed him an advert from the BBC, asking “Do You Have Funny Bones?”
The BBC was looking for trainee comedy producers, and they hired Blaker for six months. In order to stay on, he had to come up with proposals for TV or radio. And he bumped into his old school friend Matt Lucas, who told him about a sketch show idea that he had.
The show was “Little Britain,” one of the most successful comedy shows in the UK, with its string of subversive jokes and catchphrases which would have been instantly familiar to any of Blaker and Lucas’s school contemporaries.
“Little Britain” first aired on BBC Radio, but then moved to TV. Suddenly Blaker was in the right niche, working with Lucas as a writer, co-creator and producer of several of his shows, and then branching out to work with other comedians. Additionally he has launched his own TV company which, with tongue firmly in cheek, is called Black Hat Productions. Black Hat is making two TV series, due to be broadcast later this year.
As Blaker became more visibly observant, people in his community began to ask him about the dichotomy of being a frum man in a highly secular world.
“I was asked to do a Melava Malka and it was really a talk with a few funny lines. It went quite well, but then various other groups like Aish and the Jewish Learning Exchange also began to ask me,” said Blaker.
“It gave me a taste for performing again. I thought, I could turn this into a routine, and not be encumbered by having to put over a message. I mean, there is a message in what I say, but it’s much more subtle”.
So – even though he is well aware that most club comics have fixed routines of not much more than 20 minutes – Blaker ditched the talk, and instead honed a sharply funny 90 minutes which is currently rocking them in the aisles all over Jewish Britain. His show tours in Israel after Passover and he also has dates lined up in North America at the end of the year. There will also be an Ashley Blaker comedy CD available after the end of the “Ungefiltered” shows.
His audiences are a convulsed mix of sheitel wearers and even some former Habs classmates. Though almost all of the current tour has been at Orthodox synagogues, at least one Reform synagogue is said to have asked for a block booking at a recent Blaker stand-up. So he knows he has a broad appeal, and is already planning a new tour, which will be in theatres rather than shul halls. He’s performing one show with separate seating for men and women but says he wants his shows “to be acceptable to all Jews, and it shouldn’t require a huge amount of knowledge for it to be funny”.
Just the same, Blaker is very choosy about what he does. He won’t do clubs or Jewish comedy nights, won’t be on a bill with other Jewish comedians, and will certainly never compromise on his observance in order to crack a joke.
His work as a BBC producer has given him a sense of providing “a public service remit,” and his hope is that he can do the same for Judaism.