Meet Stand-Up Comic Betsy Salkind

betsySalkind

She has been questioning religion since she was 10 years old. Find out how Betsy managed to transform her questions into jokes&#8212and make a living from it.

The Boston Globe said that "there are countless ways to make someone laugh, and Betsy Salkind knows most of them." When we checked out her comedy, we were astonished by her comedic range: in addition to her clever stand-up, she does totally wild improv (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen her squirrel impression using matzah) and even performed a one-woman show based on Hollywood’s exploitation of Anne Frank. You want to talk about guts? Meet Betsy Salkind.


You clearly get a charge out of doing religious humor (whether it pokes fun at the Bible Belt or Judaism). What is the appeal of “going there”?

I think I’ve been questioning religion since I was about 10 years old, when the men in temple got up and said, "thank God I was not born a woman." It has just always seemed like something that needed to be addressed, and the more reverent we’re supposed to be toward it (and its followers) the more I think we need to ask about what it’s really saying. And of course humor is my favorite way of going there (or anywhere really).


Did you come from a family where the humor was no holds barred, or is that boldness something you found on your own?

Humor was definitely a part of my family—most of it anyway—and if you told the right joke you could avoid a beating. My mom was always making wisecracks, like when I broke my nose in junior high (in rural Virginia) and she came to the hospital, and when they told her what happened she said, "Oh, thank God she’s not pregnant." All of my brothers are really funny too, and one did stand-up for a while. He’s still a great joke writer.


In your one-woman show “Anne Frank, Superstar,” you warn media outlets that there will be “Holocaust humor” in it. Can you explain? And what is the reaction you get from audience members?

The piece is really a satire about how Hollywood exploits the Holocaust (in general, and Anne Frank in particular; hence my term "Anne Franxploitation"), so even though there are those who would think you can’t do anything funny about the Holocaust, I don’t think anyone’s actually been offended by the show itself. It does perhaps ride close to some edges, but I think Anne Frank comes off really well in the piece. I wanted protests for the publicity, but it just didn’t happen. People really like the show.


Have you ever been (verbally) attacked for taking on “serious” Jewish issues (such as the Holocaust) and what is your response to it?

I’ve been attacked more often for other things, like pro-choice humor. Like I said, there are people who think it’s wrong to make any kind of joke about things that are tragic. They do not feel comfortable about laughing at things that make them feel uncomfortable. I feel quite the opposite and prefer humor that is about things that matter. I look hard to find the humor in the awful so I can talk about these things in a way that people might be willing to hear. I think you can joke about anything, but it’s the perspective that matters. For example, I think it’s okay to make a joke about rape, but it had better be anti-rape.

On the whole, though, I find Jews more open to humor about Jews (even serious things) than those of other faiths. Maybe because Judaism encourages questioning. Of course the Orthodox is a whole other thing; they don’t even want to see a woman on stage.

Have there been moments when you felt like you took religious jokes too far?

There have been moments where I’ve taken those jokes too far for a particular audience, but I feel that the excesses and abuses done by and in the name of religion are far beyond any joke I might tell, and I sometimes get offended that people are offended by me pointing those things out. My latest work is about the Old Testament, in which I took eight stories from various books and told them pretty much as they really are in there; my illustrations give voice to the women, the children, and the animals, as well as give commentary on the classic interpretations of the stories. No doubt some will call these irreverent and offensive, but really they are the actual stories, and they do beg for explanation. Of course my versions are funny as well. Five of them have been adapted to video and are on YouTube, and two of the stories are in the book Betsy’s Sunday School Bible Classics, available on Amazon.com.

On a separate note, your squirrel impression is one of the best animal impressions I’ve ever seen. Where the heck did that come from?

I have terrible table manners. The bit started out with me eating a ginger snap in front of fellow cast members of a Boston sketch comedy troupe called The Other White Meat, which spun off from the improv troupe Guilty Children. I have always loved animals and I was chewing on that cookie like a rodent and my castmates said I should do it in our show. I said I didn’t think it would be funny to anyone but us, but it turned out they were right. I looked for larger and larger things to eat and eventually settled on matzah, which is the perfect squirrel chow for the bit. I load up at Passover every year, and always have a box in my trunk. (Professional tip: unsalted only. If you try this at home, this will prevent additional pain when/if you cut your mouth.)


What has been your single best stand-up moment?

There have been many great moments. And these are what keep me going when I have the worst ones. The best ones are always when I am performing and am "on" and the audience is getting everything and we’re playing and then I suddenly become conscious of what I’m doing and it’s a huge thrill. I think the first time this happened was when I first performed at the Emerson Majestic Theatre in Boston (with The Terrorist Bridesmaids, Deb Margolin, and Reno.)


What is your worst?

The worst was in London at the Comedy Store. I had only been doing stand-up for a few years. It was a Saturday night and I went on at midnight after the regular show and the audience was extremely drunk by then, and I was a feminist and an American (very much pre-Obama—it was during the reign of Reagan/Bush when Americans pretended to be Canadian). They were yelling and throwing pints of beer and I cut my set very short and cried in the alley and swore I’d never do comedy again.


What Jewish women comedians do you admire?

The first Jewish woman comedian I loved was Gilda Radner. And Roseanne was the first stand-up I loved. Now there are so many great Jewish women comedians. One of my favorites right now is Julie Goldman.


What is your ultimate dream goal for yourself in comedy?

I would love to be writing for Ethel, the animated show I created about activist children. Ethel is a fifth grader who has organized her Girl Scout troop into a revolutionary cell. And I’d love to have the ability to keep creating things, be they books, stand-up, plays, shows, and have distribution just happen (by someone else who wants to exploit me to our mutual gain).


What one question do you wish I’d ask, and what is your answer?

Q: What do you think happened with the election of Brown?
A: Apparently in the nineteenth century Massachusetts made a pact with Satan.

About the Author

Betsy Salkind
Best known as "Squirrel Lady," Betsy has appeared on Girls Night Out, Last Comic Standing, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She was a staff writer for Saturday Night Special and Roseanne, and is author of More Than Once Upon a Time and Betsy’s Sunday School Bible Classics (children’s books for adults), as well as the blog Ethel’s Law.

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