Living On The Edge with Moshe Kasher
Moshe Kasher is part of the vanguard of new comedians blazing a trail into the new millennium with cutting edge material. Growing up as a youth on the mean streets of Oakland, California, Kasher turned to recreational drugs and gangsta rap while honing what would eventually become his unique sense of humor. After his hard partying years were over, Kasher found himself boning down on religious studies in preparation for becoming a college professor.
After a chance encounter at an open mic with good friend and fellow comic Chelsea Peretti, Kasher gradually rose to prominence in the San Francisco comedy scene and has since performed on such shows as Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Chelsea Lately. His first book, Kasher in the Rye, an autobiography of his reckless years growing up in Oakland, is set to be published in the spring of 2012.
SanDiego.com recently spoke with Kasher from his home in Los Angeles and discussed his formative years in the bay area and how his improvisational skills have established him as one of the premiere comics to watch.
Would you say that as an adolescent that you were too clever for your own good?
Moshe Kasher: Growing up in Oakland as a white boy you need to learn how to be funny or invisible. Those are your choices more or less. So that’s how I learned how to be funny.
When was the first time you did stand-up?
MK: The first time I did stand-up was with a white girl from Oakland that I went to junior high with who’s a comedian named Chelsea Peretti. I saw her do an open mic in New York and I told her she should take me to one and she did and that was that.
Was this in San Francisco?
MK: Yeah, at this place called the Luggage Store Gallery, I don’t think that it exists anymore. But it was being run by this guy named Tony Sparks who does exist. Tony is responsible for generations of San Francisco comedians becoming workable and professionally funny comics. He’s sort of the fairy godfather of San Francisco open mics. He would see you and he thought if you were good, he would come and take you under his wing and encourage you.
How dedicated were you when you first started doing stand-up?
MK: I spent about a year kind of dabbling and then I got real serious after I graduated from college. Then I just started trying to do as many open mics as I could. Three, four or five a week and then, slowly but surely; comedy is like a cancer with your life. It starts to take over certain parts of your life and you’ve got to get rid of your social life and slowly turn everything over to the great God of comedy and hope you’re funny enough that it’ll pay you back someday.
What did you get your degree in?
MK: Religious Studies.
Did you have any plans to use that degree or were you confident in your skill as a comedian?
MK: Yeah man, I planned on being a religious studies professor. And then I realized talking about my dick and balls brought me a lot more spiritual connectedness than that.
Why did you choose religious studies over math, English or the arts?
MK: Well math because I’m dumb, arts because I’m heterosexual, and English I already had a real good master of that. I chose religious studies because I wanted to be a professor of religious history that was the plan. My brother’s a Rabbi and my dad was super religious and I got really interested in Jewish history and stuff like that so I thought I would study that focus on the holocaust and then when that didn’t pan out I decided, well maybe I should make a career focusing on the holocaust of my life and write some jokes about it.
What was the impetus for you moving to Los Angeles?
MK: I moved to L.A. after I had been doing comedy for about six or seven years. You get to this point in the Bay Area where it’s like running on a treadmill. You’re getting funny but you’re not going anywhere. So I finally decided that it was time to make a move. I kind of had this choice to make. Do I stay in the area and stay comfortable or do I go to L.A. and take a shot at my career? And as soon as I moved to L.A. everything pretty much changed for me professionally.
How do you like performing in the Original Room at the Hollywood Comedy Store?
MK: I like the O.R. because I like different rooms and the energy of each different room. I work at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre a lot and that’s got a very specific energy; a lot of comedy fans, people that are really there for comedy, they know the comics, they know who they’re there to see and they want you to be weird and do your thing, so I like it for that. I like the Improv because it’s a mixture between the alt-world and the club-world. And I like the Original Room because it’s saturated with this weird history in the room and in the sort of community that’s built around the room. I like that. I also like being able to bring my weird shit that I do to the stage in The Comedy Store. I like bringing my energy to that community, so that’s fun I like that.
How much of your live performances are riffing and crowd work?
MK: It’s going to be very difficult to tell between my fake bravado and my real bravado; who the real me is. I once said on Twitter I use a fake big ego to mask my actual enormous ego. I would say when it comes to crowd work that is one of the things that I am the best at. I do a lot of crowd work and it’s difficult for the skill set to be seen on T.V. unfortunately because there’s just no real opportunity for it. But yeah I do a lot of crowd work, in fact the more fun I’m having on stage probably the less of my jokes I’m telling because I’m just fucking around. I like to get up there with no plan and just totally deconstruct the whole performance. My bits are very tightly scripted bits, and I think it’s because of how long and tightly scripted my bits are that I like to weave in and out of those long kind of literary kind of bits and weave in and out of that with crowd work and deconstructing stuff.
Who else is performing on the shows with you?
MK: I’m bringing two people that should be headliners on their own. They’re both going to blow me off the stage and then I’m going to up there and pick up the pieces. Melissa Villasenior is coming down, she’s great. She’s a super good impressionist and comic, she’s at the level of talent and of fan base that she should be headlining. She’s got the America’s Got Talent thing and is really blowing up, she’s really good. Then I’m bringing Brent Weinbach as well. He’s featuring but only because he’s not yet passed at The Comedy Store. He’s a headliner on his own. He used to bring me on the road with him for many years back when I lived in the bay area and I had zero going on in my comedy career, so it’s nice to be able to turn the table and be like, ‘Bitch you’re opening for me now.’ It’s nice to be able to return the favor, is what I meant to say.
Do you have any plans for this weekend’s Comic-Con?
MK: I’m going to be banging out nerd pussy if that’s what you mean.
What can you tell me about your new podcast?
MK: Me, Neal Brennan and DJ Dougpound from Tim and Eric just started a podcast together called, "The Champs." It’s Doug dropping sound effects and beats over me and Neal kind of hosting an hour of ridiculous chat. We have a rotating black guy guest, there’s a different black guest every week. It’s coming at you very soon. I don’t want to toot our own horn but it’s pretty fucking incredible. Look out for it.
Do you still party or are you straight edge now?
MK: I’m pretty straight edge. Now who knows, if the right girl comes along at the shows this weekend and has a good pinch, maybe I’ll fall of the wagon. But for now I am still straight edge.
How long have you been clean?
MK: Since I was very young.
Do you think once you stopped doing drugs that it helped you become a better comedian?
MK: I will say that what I think is interesting about it, is that because I’m a person that has done plenty of drugs in my life but I stopped very young, my whole comedy career has been informed from a straight edge sober brain, and I don’t think that it’s better or worse, I just think it is a part of my voice. That kind of perspective, I’ve never had getting high and drinking and partying as part of what’s informed my comedy.
When do you feel that you discovered your voice?
MK: I’d say that was probably between my first and second set. I don’t know, it took me along time. I think it took me a little bit longer than my peers that I started with. I think I was the last one to really pop, and I was also the last one to really get myself onstage. It took me five years I think.
Out of the peers you started with, is your ability to riff and work the crowd much better than theirs?
MK: The truth is all of us have equalized. I think it was Sue Murphy who once said, “You’re not in competition but anyone but yourself.” And I think that’s really good advice. When it comes to crowd work, the other guy from my era that’s real good at that is Jacob Sirof. A lot of comedians, the only time they ever go into the crowd is when they’re defending themselves from attack. So all they have is this little bag of tricks that the pull out to defend themselves. I think that’s why sometimes comedians have a vibe that crowd work is about not having time or is weak or something like that. I do believe and always believe that those people are just jealous that they don’t have the skill set to go out and really do that. Everybody I know that’s really good at crowd work also has a really well developed act separately but also has that skill set too. Not to say that people who are just joke writers are somehow lesser, I’m not saying that at all, I’m just saying it’s a very particular kind of skill set and one of the main things about that I like the most is that you are essentially jumping out of the airplane hoping that you have a parachute. It’s a very risky proposition to go out into the crowd and allow them to form where the next 45 minutes are going to go. But my belief is that every crowd has a story in it, and if I don’t find that story it’s not because it was a boring crowd it’s because I didn’t do my job. It takes risks and I think that was a part of me finding my voice. I got to this point in San Francisco where I would go out at my home club, The Punchline, and I would just not do jokes. I would do my full seven minutes or my full ten minutes and I’m going to try not to tell one joke and see what happens. That really changed me as a comedian.
Do you have any advice for aspiring comedians?
MK: Comedy is brutal man. It’s not for the meek and it’s not for the hobbyist. My opinion is, if you have any other option than comedy, you should take that option. It’s cliché for a reason, there’s no way to get good at comedy except by going up and performing comedy all the time. There’s no short cut. Some people are more talented than others and it’ll take them less time. You can’t do it in front of your bedroom mirror, there are some things you can do in front of your bedroom mirror, but that’s not one of them.
Does Mosher Kasher have a message for the children?
Moshe Kasher: To all those young girls out there, make yourself fit and pretty. I want you to be thinking about that eighteenth birthday, because it’s on that eighteenth birthday that I’m going to be coming right up on you in that rear view, you’re going to see me. By that time I will be pretty old, but I want you doing crunches and start that disordered eating right now so that you’re ready for me when I come at you when you’re eighteen. Wu-Tang!
Moshe Kasher headlines The La Jolla Comedy Store July 22-23.