WEST HARTFORD – Ophira Eisenberg is not just a stand-up comic. She is a storyteller.
A frequent host of “The Moth StorySlams” in New York City, the phenomenon in which ordinary people step up to the mic to deliver their own stories, Eisenberg has also performed as part of The Moth’s “Mainstage” of more established storytellers. Her stories have also been featured on The Moth’s Audience Favorites CD, podcast, and award-winning radio show.
One of Eisenberg’s own Moth stories is called “Jewish Santa,” in which she talks about being the only Jewish child in her public school class in her native Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and the hilarity that ensues when she, as an “undercover Christian,” attempts to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall.
When not doing stand-up comedy or hosting The Moth, Eisenberg is also host of NPR’s and WNYC’s “Ask Me Another,” the weekly trivia, puzzle, and game show she describes as “half raucous pub trivia, half comedy talk show with witty banter, celebrity guests, and live music blended in. It’s a good time.”
Eisenberg has performed on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Comedy Central, VH-1, The Today Show, TV Guide Channel’s Standup In Stilettos, Fox, E! Channel, CNN, Oxygen Network, and the AXS Network.
Besides her debut memoir, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy, released in 2013, she has also been featured in a number of anthologies including, I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics, alongside that of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Joan Rivers, and in Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled, and the Heeb magazine’s 2010 book Sex, Drugs and Gefilte Fish.
She was featured in the New York Times’s “Telling Tales With a Tear and a Smile,” New York magazine’s “Ten New Comedians That Funny People Find Funny”, New York Post’s “The 50 Best Bits That Crack Up Pro Comics”, selected by Backstage magazine as one of “10 Standout Stand Ups Worth Watching” in their Spotlight on Comedy Issue, and hailed as a “Highly Recommended Favorite” by Time Out New York magazine. She was a Manhattan Association of Clubs and Cabarets Finalist for Best Female Comic.
Eisenberg performed late last month at the 2017 Ner Tamid Gala of Solomon Schechter Day School (SSDS) of Greater Hartford. The Ledger spoke to her about storytelling, her comedy and what it was like growing up as the only Jewish kid in her class in Calgary.
JEWISH LEDGER (JL): You are a noted stand-up comic and host of “Ask Me Another.” What possesses you to perform at a New England Jewish day school? What will you talk about?
OPHIRA EISENBERG (OE): Ha! Are you saying that I shouldn’t be doing the gig? But yes, it is absolutely by choice that I am coming to perform in West Hartford at a Jewish day school, and I guess we’ll see if after the show I ask myself, “Wait – what possessed me to do this?” I’m looking forward to it!
My show is a mixture of standup and storytelling – of an autobiographical nature. I think it offers something for everyone.
JL: What was it like growing up Jewish in Calgary?
OE: In hindsight, it was so much different than let’s say growing up in New York. The community was so much smaller. I also went to public school and was always the only Jewish girl in my class. My looks were considered somewhat exotic at the time. And then I moved to New York and for the first time felt like I really blended in. But I spent a lot of my young school life explaining to friends, and even teachers, what being Jewish meant and what the holidays were about, rather than just living them. I think that gives me a unique perspective.
JL: Your parents sound like strong people – your mother was a teen living in Nazi-occupied Holland and your father, born in Israel, fought as a British soldier during World War II. Do you think their background infused you with the strength and perseverance it takes to brave the tough world of professional comedy?
OE: Yes, they are exceptionally strong people. They are also both very funny; they love telling stories around the dinner table, and love, love, love to laugh. I think perseverance is an important skill to have in life. But you’re right in pointing out that they taught me to view things in a certain way – my attitude in my standup career has always been to just keep going, and maybe if I work harder than everyone else, maybe it’ll work out.
JL: Which do you prefer – doing stand up in a comedy club or telling a story for “The Moth”?
OE: I really love them both for different reasons. I see them as related but also entirely different, like exercising different muscles in the same muscle group. Comedy audiences arrive at a show with very different expectations than storytelling audiences. Sometimes it’s fun to just hit the stage and talk to the crowd and hit them with a slew of jokes. Other times it’s rewarding to set up a whole narrative and invite the audience to take a journey with you. It’s very satisfying to be able to switch between the two.
JL: “The Moth” is celebrating 20 years, and has grown over the years from just live storytelling to tours and the podcast. Why do you think it is so popular?
OE: I have mused about this often with friends and my opinion is that humans are endlessly fascinating and we love hearing each other’s stories and finding ourselves within them. Perhaps in this age of technology and instant gratification, we crave a low fi, long form of entertainment. The live show is electric. Hearing and experiencing the stories bonds the audience into an intimate community, and if it’s just for a few hours, everyone feels connected to each other, in the best way possible.