Up-and-Coming Jewish Standup Comic Jamie Lee a Texan for the Jokes?

December 20, 2012 2:48 pm 0 comments

Jewish standup comic Jamie Lee. Photo: Courtesy Jamie Lee.

In a famous “Seinfeld” episode, Jerry believes his dentist, Dr. Tim Whatley, converted to Judaism for the jokes.

In the real world, is up-and-coming Jewish standup comic Jamie Lee a Texan for the jokes? That was the suspicion raised by one Texas Jew when he caught her act on Conan O’Brien’s show last September.

Lee had just made her late-night debut, delivering a five-minute set on Conan’s eponymous show. Her routine, which touches on familiar comic fodder like relationships, eating disorders and insecurities, also drew on her Jewish and Texas background.

“My body is my temple because sometimes my rabbi is in it,” went one zinger.

“The only time I think people can really tell I’m Texan and Jewish is when I’m on a booze cruise, because drinking brings out my Southern accent and being on a boat brings out my nausea,” went another.

That got laughs, but this reporter’s Texan friend was less amused.

“It’s not rare to be Jewish and Southern or Texan,” he wrote. “It’s quite common. It’s not like some circus sideshow act. A Jewish eskimo, that would be weird. Jewish Texan? There were 5,000 just at the University of Texas.”

Lee had “to be real Texan/Southern, not someone who moved to Dallas from Palm Beach at age 5” to be able to tell jokes like that, fumed the Texas Jew. But what is Lee’s take? On a recent winter’s morning, she arrived at a diner in Manhattan to talk about her budding comedy career and her Texas bona fides.

The bubbly 29-year-old comedian spoke about the experience, both terrifying and gratifying, of performing on a nationally broadcast late-night show.

“It looks very well lit, it looks very warm and friendly and it is. The staff is very warm and friendly, but it’s pitch black, the audience is quite a distance from you, you can’t see their faces and the laughter doesn’t sound super loud because of the acoustics in the room, so it’s a very lonely experience,” she told JNS.org regarding her debut. “Those five and a half minutes were incredibly lonely and it almost feels like when you have a bad dream that ‘I was on stage naked and there was a whole auditorium.’ It feels like that. It doesn’t feel like traditional standup.”

Lee talks about standup rapidly, passionately, articulately, and like it’s the most important thing in the world, and, for her,  it is. She describes being on stage as a kind of drug or addiction. She does not understand comedians who go on breaks. She has performed as often as she can since the first time she got on stage about six years ago. But she does not look the stereotypical funny person. Her pretty-girl looks are reminiscent of Vivian Leigh, an actress with a similar-sounding name that famously played Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” rather than a rough-and-tumble vaudevillian with shtick to sell.

It turns out that Lee’s Southern credentials are kosher. She was born and bred in Dallas and her non-Jewish father is Texan “as far back as possible.” On her mom’s side she is “fully Jewish New Jersey,” but that did not have much of an influence on her upbringing. No Jewish traditions were kept at home.

“I went to a bar and bat mitzvah once,” she recalled. “It was a brother and sister who were born a year apart and had it together.”

That was pretty much it.

In fact, had it not been for “Melrose Place,” she might not have known of her Jewish background until later in life. It was the 90s and the Darren Star-created soap opera popularized cross necklaces among teens in suburban Dallas.

Lee, then 10, made the mistake of wearing a cross while visiting her grandmother in Teaneck, NJ.

“‘[My grandmother] would be like, ‘Why are you wearing that cross?’ and I said, ‘It’s cool.’ She said, ‘You can’t wear that, we’re Jewish,’” Lee recalled. “Honestly, I think that was the first time I ever heard I was Jewish.”

She briefly flirted with Jewish life at college, but her real introduction to the tribe came when she moved to New York after college. There, she attended her aunt’s Passover seders, became acquainted with her Jewish boyfriend’s family, and soaked it up through osmosis.

“When you’re here, that’s the big difference,” she said of New York and Judaism. “Here being Jewish is part of the culture. It’s celebrated. You’re always around people who share similar beliefs and have similar backgrounds. In Texas at UT there was the Jewish sorority, the Jewish fraternity and campus Temple and that was it. It didn’t feel like it bled into other areas of your life.”

New York was also where her career got off the ground after—no joke—she attended comedy school. She was out of college and new in town when she decided to take a class that taught stand-up.

“I remember my teacher used me as an example one day and said, ‘she has the it quality’ and I don’t know what she was talking about but it meant so much to me to have someone professional think that of me. For her to think that of me was amazing and I thought maybe I should stick with this and then I just did.”

Guided by a newfound sense of purpose Lee landed a job at Comedy Central, but as a publicist, not a writer or performer. She would write up press releases during the day and perform at open-mics at night. In 2009, after four years of pushing other people’s work, she decided it was time to go pro. She quit her job, sold most of her belongings and moved into a tiny apartment in Brooklyn bracing herself for a life of destitution that was sure to come.

“It was just, ‘here we go, starving artist,’” she said.

Within weeks she got a job as a writing assistant to a dream team including Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Papo, Chuck Matrain and Jeff Cesario. She sat in on their meetings, typing up the material they came up with.

“It was a comedy fantastic four and me,” she said. “It was the most overwhelming/wonderful thing I ever did. I just said, ‘This is why I quit,’ and I was learning from them so much.”

After that gig ended she appeared on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” wrote for an MTV show called “Ridiculousness” and toured college campuses. Last summer she was invited to appear at “Just for Laughs,” a prestigious annual comedy festival in Montreal.

Soon, Lee will know whether a pilot she helped write will be picked up. In the meantime, she’s going to be on MTV’s “Running From Strangers” and “Failosophy.”

“Stuff feels more consistent,” she said. “I am very cautious of having another drought, but I’m hoping that now it’s happening.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Education Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    JNS.org – My wife Suzy and I will never forget our wedding day. It was not just the uplifting ceremony and beautiful party that left an indelible mark. Some life-altering advice that we received from one of our guests informed and shaped our lives from that day forward. My high school teacher, Rabbi Moshe Yagid, pulled us aside just before the chuppah and challenged us to choose one mitzvah that would be the foundation of our marriage and our lives. He explained [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    JNS.org – Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. After guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    JNS.org – At the turn of the century, a young Jewish immigrant arrived in New York. So begins the history of many American Jewish families. It is 27-year-old Albert Allaham’s story, too, with a few unusual twists. Albert’s “century” is the 21st—he arrived almost 100 years after the massive waves of European Jewish immigration. Rather than coming from a small town along the Danube river, his shtetl was Damascus. His first American business was not a pushcart on the Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    Did you know that in the entire Bible, only one birthday is mentioned and it is that of Pharaoh? And did you know that according to some scientists, by accepting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is impossible to prove or disprove that the sun is the gravitational center of our solar system? In his new book, REBBE, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking details as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Mitzvos New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    JNS.org – Omelet sandwich: 5 shekels. Iced coffee: 5 shekels. Tuna sandwich: 5 shekels. Fresh-squeezed orange juice: 5 shekels. Cheese bureka: 5 shekels. There’s plenty more on the Cofizz menu, but you get the idea. Dani Mizrahi and Amir Amshalm, two Israeli men in their early 30s, asked themselves: Why not launch a take-out food joint in busy neighborhoods around Jerusalem where everything—and that means everything—goes for five shekels, or about $1.50. They’d seen the concept take off in Tel Aviv, where [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    The new FX Network drama Tyrant was shot entirely in Israel, just 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, Bloomberg News reported last Tuesday. Tyrant follows the life of an Arab dictator’s second son Barry, played by Adam Rayner, who reluctantly returns home to the Middle Eastern nation of his birth to join the family business away from his suburban life in America. The elaborate set production for the primetime drama included a crew of 300 and a reported cost of over $3 million [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Skokie, Il-born 25-year-old Erin Heatherton (Erin Heather Bubley) is rocking the modeling world. And in a new interview accompanying a cover spread for Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, she says Jewish moms are “constantly trying to set her up with their sons.” Imagine that – who would have thought? “The moms, they’re doing what they do. It doesn’t matter what country they live in, what city – grandmothers, too,” she admitted. “But I’m probably going to do that too one day.” Heatherton was [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Israel First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    Some 15 Turkish university professors and lecturers will take part in a first of its kind seminar at Holocaust museum Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies starting next week. The trip is especially significant as Holocaust denial is rampant in the Arab world. A Palestinian professor was recently forced to resign after he led a trip to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz. Participants in the week-long program at Yad Vashem will experience in-depth tours of the museum’s archives and [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.