Comedian Orny Adams talks about his Jewish background (just not on stage)
By Steve North
(JTA) — Despite a career of more than two decades kvetching incessantly about life’s absurd little annoyances, comedian and actor Orny Adams insists he’s an optimist who’s always been an early riser, eager to tackle anything that confronts him.
“When I wake up,” he says, “I find myself to be a very happy person, excited for the day. I love to forge ahead; I love a challenge.”
After a perfectly timed pause he adds, “And by 2 p.m., I just want to curl up and get into a fetal position.”
Adams truly believes “the world beats us down. Every. Single. Day.”
Born Adam Jason Orenstein, Adams concedes his worldview is shaped by being Jewish.
“We Jews find pain in everything!” he says with a laugh. “And we don’t forgive. You hear people of other religions say, ‘You murdered my kid, but I forgive you, that’s what God would want.’ Jews? We never forgive. We don’t even forgive a bad meal!”
Adams is currently sharing his insightful, rapid-fire observations at Montreal’s prestigious Just For Laughs festival, where he debuted as one of the “new faces of comedy” in 2000. On his 18th anniversary, he’s headlining the event’s popular “Ethnic Show,” which runs until July 26.
His comedy mentor was the late Garry Shandling, and Adams first came to national attention in the 2002 documentary “Comedian,” which contrasted superstar Jerry Seinfeld with the then-struggling younger comic. Seinfeld remains supportive of Adams’ career, which has since included appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show” and “Conan.” Younger audiences know him from his six seasons as Coach Finstock on the MTV series “Teen Wolf.” He’s done specials for Netflix and Comedy Central, and his 2017 special “More Than Loud” is airing on Showtime.
The “Ethnic Show” in Montreal features Maz Jobrani, an Iranian American; Gina Brillon, a Latina; Loyiso Gola, a black South African; and Matteo Lane, who is gay and Italian. Each is expected to poke fun at their “traditions, customs and cultures,” although Adams is more likely to do that in an interview than on stage.
For example, despite a recent trip to Israel, don’t expect to hear the comic’s thoughts on peace in the Middle East.
“I go completely the other way,” he says.
Adams jokes about the motor vehicle bureau, about fad diets, about the decreasing softness of Q-tips — the “small things that bother us every day,” he says. “And within 10 minutes, in a comedy club or theater, people start looking around and realizing we’re all laughing at the same things. We’re more similar than dissimilar.
“Some comedians try to divide the audience,” he says. “I go up there and use comedy to bring us closer together.”
The 47-year-old comic grew up with two sisters in Lexington, Massachusetts, in a Conservative Jewish home, attending Camp Tel Noar in nearby New Hampshire every summer. His father conducted market research and focus groups; his mother was a kindergarten teacher.
“We’re very close; we speak daily,” Adams says. “My sisters are married with kids, but even though I dated the most, I’m still single. I fell in love with comedy, and it takes a devotion and selfishness that I couldn’t and wouldn’t put somebody through.”
His parents still call him Adam (or “boychik”), but he decided to change his professional name early in his career.
“Orny was always my nickname, but also, I didn’t want an audience’s first impression of me to be ‘he’s Jewish,’” Adams says. “I’d rather they hate me for something else first, then hate me for being Jewish!”
Although he jokes about Jew-hatred, Adams felt it early in life.
“I grew up in a community with a lot of Irish Catholics around us,” he recalls. “From a young age, I would hear people say ‘You’re a cheap Jew.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m only eight years old; I don’t even have any money yet!’”
Turning serious, Adams says, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more secure with being Jewish, and I couldn’t care less. I’m proud, and I have the tools to defeat that sort of in-your-face antisemitism.”
Adams was subjected recently to the newest iteration of online Jew-hatred when his family took their first trip to Israel. He has 370,000 followers on Instagram.
“I couldn’t even post a picture saying I’m on a beach in Israel without tons of posts from people writing ‘That’s not Israel; that’s occupied Palestine,’” he says. “I’m not political, nor am I smart enough to understand the politics and complexity of that region … but that was sad.”
The trip, however, was a lifelong dream come true for his dad and an eye-opener for Adams.
“They were flying F-15s about 10 feet above my hotel,” he says. “The entire building was shaking. I live in Los Angeles with earthquakes and I never felt anything like this!”
The family took a guided tour along the Syrian border, just as the United States, Britain and France were attacking suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria.
Adams relates the conversation with his guide:
“I asked, are we safe? He said, ‘Of course, this is Israel, safest place in the world!’ I said, ‘In America we don’t hear bombs like this. That feels safer to me!’ The guide said, ‘No, no, no. We’re safe. We eat falafel every day on the beach.’ They always change the subject!”
Adams was impressed with the Jewish state in various ways.
“Israelis have so much pride and love for their country, and they want you to love it. That is genuine,” he says. “It’s a much tougher culture, but I allow that. I don’t live under those conditions, and can’t imagine living in a place surrounded by other countries that would love to see them eliminated.”
He was pleasantly surprised even before arriving in Israel.
“When you announce you’re going there, 50 people on Facebook give you names of people you’ve never met who will drop everything to take you out for a night in Tel Aviv,” Adams says. “I think that’s amazing.”
As for his appearances in Montreal, Adams expects he will continue to craft and hone and tighten every joke he tells, as he’s always done.
“I even eliminate syllables in my bits; that’s how important the rhythm is to me,” he says.
Will he have time to grab a bite at Schwartz’s Deli, the city’s legendary cathedral of smoked meat?
“I don’t think so,” he says with a smile. “You eat a sandwich at Schwartz’s, it’s so salty you can’t talk on stage for three nights.”