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As a comedian, Moshe Kasher can be kind of loud and abrasive. He yelps the occasional punch line and doesn’t shy from offending audiences. Read his incredibly poignant new book—Kasher In The Rye: The True Tale Of A White Boy From Oakland Who Became A Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, And Then Turned 16—though, and his whole persona starts to make a little more sense. How else would a chubby, white kid of two deaf parents survive in Oakland, if not on his wits? Before his four night stand at Comedy Works starts tonight, The A.V. Club caught Kasher to talk about the book, Too $hort, and whether anyone would be sad if he died.
The A.V. Club: Your book covers some rough stuff. What made you want to write it? Did you think, “I have a story I need to tell.”?
Moshe Kasher: I have a story I need to tell. It’s kind of true, actually, in a weird way.
AVC: How did you balance your comedy persona with some of the serious material in the book, like almost getting charged with rape and going to a mental institution?
MK: That was something I had to deal with when I first started writing, knowing that it’s so dark and fucked up that I knew it was going to have to be sincere at certain points. And it is; it’s incredibly sincere at certain points. And as a stand-up comic, that’s the one thing I’m a little uncomfortable with. I’m not uncomfortable with sincerity in my regular life, but, like in terms of my product that I offer, I think that it’s weird, because comics used to be way more sincere in the ’80s. Richard Pryor had real sincere and vulnerable moments. Now it seems so cheesy if you stop your act and say, “This is why we have to help them kids. We’ve got to make sure them kids can read.”
AVC: You couldn’t do something like Comic Relief now.
MK: But I even mean, like more than that, like sincerity within the actual performance.
When I started writing this book, I knew that I had this fucked-up story in me, and I didn’t talk about it very much onstage, and I still can’t figure out if it’s because it’s too vulnerable or if it’s just that I didn’t figure out how to talk about it. But eventually I started thinking about trying to do this stuff on the road and, actually, my manager was really afraid of me introducing myself to the Hollywood community, if you will, with this really raw story, this really kind of dark story. He was afraid that I would become “the fucked-up comedian,” that I would always be linked to the story. I was sort of disappointed by that. I thought, “Here we go again, typical Hollywood shit.” And then, two or three months later, he said, “We need to turn this into a book.” So I wrote it.
AVC: When you were writing the book, were there parts you thought were too serious, or that you went back through and punched up, joke-wise?
MK: I don’t know how this sounds, but I think this book kind of happened to me, if that makes sense. I knew what I wanted to do when I set out. I knew that I wanted to write a book that told the story, obviously. I wanted it be comedy first, because I felt like there already had been childhood druggy stories that were very serious, and I felt that the unique thing here was that I was a comic and I could tell the story with some levity, and I have been laughing at these stories my whole life. But then I started writing the book, and little by little it became clear to me that it went into certain areas where there wasn’t much that was funny.
Oh, my other goal was that I wanted to talk about this area and this time in history. I wanted to talk about growing up in Oakland, a white kid, from this kind of generation of broken homes and listening to hip-hop.
There were some particular themes that I knew I wanted to hit, and when I got deeper into the project I found that it was becoming serious in and on its own. By the end, it’s not very funny at all. I think, now, that part of the power of the book is that the jokes are kind of sparkly distractions. When you’re reading, you’re laughing and not quite noticing what’s happening. One second you’re still kind of chuckling, and then all of sudden you’re in the third act of the book and in this very dark and claustrophobic place.
I think that there’s something about it that’s analogous to the way it was for me. You know, back then, it was such a non-serious thing when I first got high when I was a kid that I just thought, “This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me, or anyone ever.” So I just went into it, despite the fact that I had all this fun and excitement, and found myself in this very dark, claustrophobic place and couldn’t figure out how I got there. So, in a weird way, the narrative of the book kind of reflects my own narrative.
AVC: Was there anything in your life today that became more clear as you wrote the book?
MK: When I first started comedy, me and my friends were kids. I claim—although I know that it’s a spurious and probably untrue claim—that we were the first generation of kids to act black. I’m admitting that I don’t know that to be true, but it does sound pretty good. So a big part of my childhood was affecting black culture and black accents and black music and anything black I was into. When I first started comedy, before I kind of gained any national prominence, I—in a weird way—went back to that. Marc Maron had me on WTF making fun of me about that when I first opened for him. I had this very kind of hip-hop bravado to me, and I realized that now I’ve let some of that go in my stage presence, that maybe that was because I had dropped that completely from my life, and when I got onstage I sort of rekindled it. And I think now that it was perhaps a defense mechanism that was left over from those days, which I think is kind of interesting.
AVC: In the book, each chapter begins with a hip-hop quote...
MK: You’re the first person to ask me about those chapter titles.
AVC: Really? [Laughs.] Your description of your mom, who is deaf, being okay with you listening to filthy rap was amazing.
MK: Hip-hop was a big part of my life growing up, especially West Coast gangster rap. The reason I was able to listen to it so freely was that my mom couldn’t hear any of it, so we would be driving along just blaring Too $hort’s horrible misogynistic stuff, and my mom would just turn to us and say, “This is great. I can feel the bass. It sounds so nice.” And we’re like, “Yeah, mom. We can feel the bass, too.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think your love for hip-hop came somewhat out of that idea that you were listening to something so risqué, so young?
MK: I’m not sure. Oakland at that time was like Seattle in the grunge era. Everyone listened to that music. Pretty much everyone in the East Bay, even the biggest women’s studies majors who grew up here, still will rap along to Too $hort denigrating their own feminism, because it’s this weird cultural soundtrack to this area. But sure, I got a naughty thrill out of listening to music that was that dirty, especially being that young and able to listen to it around my parents. Kids would come over to my house to listen to Too $hort records.
AVC: Were you into comedy growing up as well?
MK: In keeping with the theme of “I got my hands on,” my brother and I would listen to The Diceman Cometh. That was the dirtiest thing we’d ever heard, and we could listen to that at full volume without fear of penalty, because my mom couldn’t hear that either. I wasn’t a huge comedy fan growing up, but I definitely listened to Andrew Dice Clay a lot.
AVC: You talk in the book about being really sensitive when you were younger, and then you said recently that you don’t really get offended. How do you think that happened?
MK: Did I say I was sensitive? No, no, no. I was super tough. I never had feelings. I still don’t. When did I say I don’t get offended?
AVC: In relation to jokes, like nothing pushes your buttons anymore.
MK: Oh right, it’s a joke from my act called “Ground Rules.” It’s a setup in order to get people ready for what I’m about to do, because the joke is now what we’ve established—these ground rules. If at any point you do become offended, we’ve now established that that’s just you being a bitch, and it’s a clever way to get everybody to go, “Okay, this show’s going to be sort of maybe offensive at times, but I’ve been warned.”
Sometimes my humor does offend people, and I’ve said it before: I don’t write jokes to be offensive. I write jokes to be funny, and I guess what I find funny are things that other people sometimes find offensive. I would love nothing more than to never offend anyone, but it just doesn’t seem to work out that way.
AVC: Are your parents funny?
MK: My dad was very funny. He was a clown, for sure. In fact, according to family legacy, Marcel Marceau asked my father to come on the road with him to train to be America’s next top mime when he was young. So my dad was a joker. My mom was a funny lady, too.
My brother and I both like sarcastic, insulting comedy, so that’s a way we communicate. Somehow that’s what we learned. My mom is not a really sarcastic person. She’s a really sort of overly loving person, and my brother and I came out little cynical bastards.
AVC: Has your mom read the book? Has she forgiven you for all of the trauma you put her through when you were younger?
MK: This is my mom’s relationship with love: She forgave me the day that I stopped doing bad stuff—the very moment. She was ready to forgive me at any second that I stopped fucking up, and the moment that I did, she opened her arms to me.
But, so yeah, she’s read the book and she’s a big fan of it. The one thing she doesn’t love is the intimation that she kidnapped us, and I thought that was interesting, because a lot of this book, to me, is about the process of perception and memory. It made sense to me to say that my mom essentially kidnapped us, but to her she rescued us from an abusive family situation. She’s not wrong, and I’m not wrong.
I learned as a really young kid, when my dad was telling me one story and my mom was telling me another that, even as a 5-year-old boy, there was no way that both of these stories are true. Something in the middle is true, and I have to figure out what it is, what the truth is, and I never did quite figure that out.
AVC: Do you think, in hindsight, that you were a particularly bad case? Were you the worst kid ever?
MK: Yes, I think I was the worst kid ever. [Laughs.]
I mean, no. It’s interesting, having spent a lot of time in 12-step groups over the years, I’ve kind of come to have a lot of respect for my childhood and for other people. I’ve met kids who got sober younger than me whose stories make my hair stand on end and make me look like a small-timer, and I’ve met people who got sober when they were 50 whose stories make me yawn and make me think, “You haven’t gone through shit.” So, I think it’s an interesting thing.
I worked in schools for a long time, kind of, like, hook up with teenage girls, which is this thing that I would do—no, just kidding. I was a sign language interpreter for a long time, and I used to like look at the kids and think, “Was I like this?” You always have to ask yourself whether or not you went through a phase, or what exactly was happening to you back then, and I would say that most of the kids I saw I would think, “Okay, yeah these are good, regular kids.” There was something qualitatively different between the things I was doing and the ways I was acting. And once in awhile you see some kind of lonely, sick kid, and you think, “Oh, that kid looks like me. Poor kid.”
AVC: You were encouraged to start doing comedy by Chelsea Peretti, who you knew from from junior high. Has she told you what she thought about you in junior high?
MK: God, I wish you could see the pictures of Chelsea from when she was at Claremont. They are hilarious. You want to talk about white people thinking they’re black. It’s unbelievable how black Chelsea was.
But she and I weren’t close in junior high. We only sort of knew each other, and then she went to high school with my brother and became good friends with him, and then that’s how she and I became closer friends over the years. She said she mostly remembers me being chubby and having a Starter jacket.
AVC: Like everybody else.
MK: Like everybody else.
AVC: You recorded your first TV special earlier this year. What’s going on with that?
MK: We’re still putting it together, and it’s pretty much done. It looks beautiful. I’m super excited about it. And we’re going to take it out and sell it to a network pretty soon.
What’s cool is that this book is about my life in Oakland and Oakland Public Schools, and Claremont Middle School specifically, and all three of those things take a real beating in the book. Just because of what I was going through, they take—especially Oakland Public Schools—a beating. Claremont specifically definitely just gets decimated. I taped my special back home in Oakland at a place called The New Parish, and that felt really awesome to come back home and do my special here. It’s going to be called Moshe Kasher Live In Oakland.
I love my city a lot. I love my hometown a whole bunch. This Friday, I’m going to Claremont Middle School to read from the book in some of the English classes. I’m pretty excited about the loop that life has taken.
AVC: Did they call you and ask you to come back?
MK: Well, they don’t remember me. If they remembered me, I’m sure that that invitation would have been instantly rescinded. I don’t think anybody is left there who used to teach there when I was there. They’re probably all hanging from a noose somewhere.
These are all new people. I’m pretty excited about that, actually. I’m a little nervous about it, too. The thing I’m genuinely nervous about is a lot of the stuff in the book about Claremont is really race-based, because that’s really what that experience was. You really felt your whiteness. I’ve always felt the way I felt in Claremont is probably the way black people feel in the world when they’re being followed around in liquor stores and have done nothing wrong and all eyes are on them. In some weird, small way, in Oakland, the experience is the opposite, and you’re sort of suspect and conspicuous just because you’re white. So I’m going back to the classroom I imagine is mostly black kids, and I’m going to read them this story that’s really about what it was like to be a white kid interacting with all these mostly black classrooms. I do have a little bit of nervousness that they’re just going to scream, “That’s racist!”
AVC: You have your podcast, The Champs, though, where you have—with a couple of exceptions—all African-American guests. You can always use that as cred.
MK: I think what’s interesting about The Champs is that we were nervous that it would come off a little bit fetish-y. But the truth is all three of us in our own weird way have this kind of relationship with hip-hop and black culture. I’m not saying, “It’s okay, we have street cred.” I’m saying this is who we are. Neal Brennan created Chapelle’s Show and was working on black TV his entire life. I obviously have this background. DJ Douggpound is this hip-hop character with a stage persona.
We just thought it would be a weird conceit to have three white kids who are enamored of black culture interviewing some of our black heroes. It’s a strange idea, but it works. The other really cool thing is that we recognize that the podcast world is an incredibly white one. If you listen to the really big podcasts, the percentage of guests of color is incredibly small. We thought, not only would it be cool to have people on that hadn’t been exposed before in this world, but also we knew we’d be able to get big guests. I always say that the white equivalent of the guests we have on The Champs would probably say no to other podcasts because they’d already been asked 1,000 times to do 1,000 podcasts. Honestly, most of the people we interview—including very famous people—it’s their first time ever doing a podcast, which is think is really weird.
We interviewed Robert Townsend. He’d never been on a podcast before. Wayne Brady, he’s never been on a podcast before. A lot of the guys we’ve had on, it was their first time. Most of them are reluctant to do it, not because they’ve already said too much, but because they’re like, “I don’t know. What’s a podcast? That sounds weird and boring.” Then pretty much every guest we’ve had on has been really excited by the end of the episode.
AVC: How do you explain what a podcast is to someone? I don’t know how I would explain to someone in my dad’s generation, “Here’s what it is, and here’s why you should come over to my house.”
MK: Neal said the other day a podcast is kind of like a radio show meets a book, because it’s so long and so expository, and the interview can be so long. You don’t have to rush the interview, so you get a real picture of a person.
AVC: You’ve acted in a couple of shows recently, and you’re doing the podcast, and you have a book. Do you think of yourself as a public figure now?
MK: It is weird to me. I don’t know if it’s true or not, to be honest. I still don’t know. When you start doing comedy, you think to yourself, “I want to be a headliner.” And you become a headliner, and you’re like, “Oh wait, this isn’t what I meant. I meant I want to be a headliner that’s famous enough that people come see me specifically.” And that’s a huge leap, because most of the time most of the audience is there to see comedy in general. They’re not there to see you. For me, they might be there to see a Chelsea Lately comedian. If I’m lucky, that’s what’s going on. And then slowly, slowly, over time, I start noticing, “Oh, more of these people are here to see me. They’re here to see Moshe Kasher,” which is super exciting, and so that’s awesome and little by little I know.
I did a WTF taping in Michigan. It was kind of an accident, but I got brought on stage to tell this story. I saw Chicago’s own Tommy Johnagin almost getting into a fight at this comedy festival, and I kind of helped break it up. It was a very strange situation.
There were, like, these two hunters that were at this bar we were at in Grand Rapids, and Tommy kicked his can. Literally, a hunter wearing camouflage was like, “Pick up the fucking can.” Tommy said, “We just kicked it. We didn’t litter.” And the guy’s like, “Pick the fucking can up, motherfucker.” And I don’t know if he really talked with that kind of an accent, but it feels right.
Anyway, then Tommy went to go give him a talking to as to why he couldn’t speak to people like that, which almost never works, never ever. No one is like, “You know what, you’re right. I can’t call you motherfucker. I’m sorry.” So Tommy just went back, and somehow this beast of a human, this animal man, ran over the bar to Tommy to check him, and no one did anything. There was like seven comedians around, and we all just watched as they rushed Tommy.
I guess because of my childhood and my background—I don’t guess, this is definitely true—I didn’t think it through. I just saw this guy running after my friend, and I went and, like, grabbed the guy, and I put him in a full nelson. This guy’s like twice my size. I’m such a small person. I’m holding the guy, and I could, like, smell him and feel his sweaty back, and I’m thinking, “What the fuck am I doing right now? Why am I doing this?” And the guy clearly had the same thought. “What the fuck is this guy doing?” And what’s also interesting is that Tommy and I always joke about the fact that we look really similar to one another. Do you know who Tommy Johnagin is? I kind of look like a gay Tommy Johnagin.
The guy turns around, and I’ve got him in this full nelson. I imagine he probably thought, “Wait a minute. How did that gay guy get behind me all of a sudden?” But he cocked back and swung at me, and I just found what my default in a real fight is. I kind of fetal-positioned up and was just like, “Uh oh, this is it.” I kind of became this small fetus, and then nothing happened, and I didn’t get punched, and I kind of peered my eyes open and the guy was on the ground. He had fallen when he went to swing on me. He was so drunk he had fallen on the ground, and I just thought, “Well, this worked out well” and ran away.
But anyway I got pulled onstage to tell that part of the story on the WTF taping in Michigan, and I was really struck with how many of the people as they came out into the lobby were saying, “I fuck with The Champs, I fuck with The Champs.” So I think that, little by little, our podcast and my stand-up and my book are slowly creeping me into public prominence in a way that is weird. And I’m not sure if I like it yet or if I don’t like it, or I’m happy or not happy with it, but that’s the way it is. I’ve clearly put all my chips in.
AVC: If that guy had murdered you though, the local paper would have said, “Random guy gets murdered at a bar,” not “Host of The Champs.”
MK: You don’t think? That’s a terrible thing to say. [Laughs.] You don’t think I would have at least gotten a mention in The Comic’s Comic or Punchline Magazine? “Comedian Moshe Kasher murdered at a comedy festival”? Or are you saying that CNN.com probably wouldn’t have covered it?
AVC: I think Splitsider would cover it, but I don’t know that the local paper would have led with “comedian” rather than “tourist.”
MK: No, they would have been like “Comedic genius. Slightly edgy. Good looking. Questionable sexuality. Moshe Kasher murdered today, the comedy community mourns.” I’m sure there would have been at least some Twitter activity. Like one tweet maybe? “Moshe Kasher, why is he dead?”
AVC: This is to get at, generally, the idea of what makes someone famous. Talking to Judah Friedlander last week, I was thinking, “Oh, he’s famous.” But is he? He’s certainly famous to a certain amount of people, but beyond that?
MK: That’s so interesting. Who’s famous anymore? No one. There are these comedians that are famous in a weird way. There are comedians, like Anjelah Johnson and Russell Peters, [who] are unbelievably famous, but in a way they’re selling out 1,000-person stadiums. Russell Peters is selling out stadiums and, to be fair, he is genuinely famous in Canada, but he’s also selling out multiple thousand-seat theaters in the United States. Anjelah Johnson sells out thousand-seat theaters on a regular basis, and yet, if I go to my friends and I say “Anjelah Johnson, Russell Peters,” they’ll be like, “I don’t know who that is.” So, it’s a weird thing. Who’s famous? I guess, certainly, obviously the big famous people. We know who they are: Chris Rock, Dane Cook, people like that. But Louis C.K. is now famous. He’s pretty much genuinely famous. Even Louis C.K., my mom, I’m pretty sure, doesn’t know who that is, so it’s, like, weird. Famous has become shattered into a million little pieces.
AVC: Or everyone you know watches Parks And Recreation or Community, so we think those are huge shows, but then you see the ratings, and they’re not, really. More people are watching The Big Bang Theory.
MK: Exactly, and then Mike & Molly is this huge show. Well, that guy Mike from Mike And Molly [Billy Gardell] is a stand-up comedian, so who is a more famous stand-up comedian? Is it Mike from Mike & Molly, or is it Louis C.K.? I don’t know. Do more people know who Mike is? I just have no idea.
So in that way, fame has become a weirder thing to go after, but the thing about me is I’ve never been after fame. That sounds cliché, but it’s true. I think fame sounds uncomfortable to me, but being able to like write this book and make my living doing very exciting, creative stuff sounds really amazing. It has been really amazing.
AVC: You were a guest on Doug Loves Movies recently, and you mentioned that you’d read all three Hunger Games books. True?
MK: Hunger Games. That’s the movie about the Japanese competitive eater, right? Lots of hot dog eating. Very impressive.
I love The Hunger Games, but that kind of stuff is like pornography to me. Anything like that, again. I love The Hunger Games. I love Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I love the Game Of Thrones. In fact, it’s weird that I went into comedy isn’t it? I always wondered if I should have been a fantasy writer or something. Someday I will actually. I have a plan.
AVC: Now that you have the nonfiction book under your belt...
MK: Yeah, I definitely want to write some fiction, for sure. I already have half of the next book. I already have it all mapped out. I’m ready. I’m ready to bring it to the world.
AVC: You really have it mapped out?
MK: I really do have one mapped out. I really do, and I’ve begun to write it already. It’s kind of an odd... I don’t know if I should say exactly what it is. I don’t know what the rules are in things. That’s the other weird thing about books. No one fucking tells you what to do. I’m, like, showing them the book, and they’re like, “Congrats, you sold it. Now write the book.” And I’m like, “Cool. Well how?” And they’re like, “I don’t know, good luck.” So I didn’t have a clue what to do exactly, so I just thought, “All right, I’ll begin.” So I did.
But The Hunger Games is great. I’ve also seen Battle Royale. Have you seen that?
AVC: Of course.
MK: So it is weird how much that seems that they are the same. The lady [author Suzanne Collins] says that she never saw Battle Royale, and I know enough about comedy to know that sometimes where people accuse other people of stealing their jokes, what it really is that people synchronize thoughts. And it’s interesting that there are certain things that become in the cultural zeitgeist at the same time. Like all of a sudden, at a certain point, there were five comedians doing jokes about Kuato, the character from Total Recall. I remember that. Or all of a sudden people were talking about unicorns. It’s, like, a weird thing. Most joke-stealing is just that. It’s just two people having the same thought at the same time, so I do think it’s possible that The Hunger Games and Battle Royale just kind of happened independently of one another, but there are so many similarities that it’s hard to believe she never even heard of it.
How do you think this interview went? One to 10?
MK: Whoa, that’s so high. What a high number. That wasn’t even in the possibilities. I see that you have things to do and you’re trying to get off the phone with me right now.
AVC: Oh, no, no, no.
MK: I identify that. I honor your needs, but I want to make sure there are some funny moments in this interview that you can put in. Let me just say that I’m excited to come to Chicago. It’s the first time I’ve ever done comedy in Chicago properly. Here’s a funny anecdote, and then we’ll say goodnight: The only time I ever came to Chicago before was I did a show at the University Of Chicago when my brother was a rabbi there—and already not a hilarious group of people—but the comedy show was in an enormous basketball auditorium, and in one end of the auditorium was me and the stage and the mic, and all the way at the furthest-most point in the room was a chocolate fondue fountain, like a multi-tiered chocolate fountain spilling chocolate onto fruits. Who do you think won in that “battle royale”? Do you think the comedy of the obscure comedian, or the liquid chocolate on fruit? Needless to say, no one listened to my set that night. They just ate fondue, and so now I’m very excited to have real Chicagoans come see me talk some shit and buy my book.