Comic Keith Barany doesn’t tell dirty jokes or pick at people’s insecurities to get a laugh. That’s one reason he’s a popular comedy choice for country clubs, corporate events and Jewish community centers. He tells funny stories from his life, but in a way that gives them a universal appeal.
Universality is important to him because although he grew up an Orthodox Jew in New York, he’s no longer a believer and doesn’t really identify as Jewish. He wants to go beyond tribalism and describes himself as a citizen of the world, “sort of like Albert Einstein — though I’m no Einstein,” he said.
“There’s a whole spectrum of ways people can be products of the Jewish culture and one of them is to say, ‘I’m no longer Jewish,’ and that’s where I fall,” he said.
Barany will perform his autobiographical comedy at the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center on Wednesday, Feb. 15.
He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish enclave on the Upper East Side of New York City and pieces of his current act carry over from the time he was still steeped in that community. Barany’s stories include details anyone can relate to, Jewish or secular, because it’s better to be the kind of comedian who makes it clear that his experience, at least in part, is somehow common to everyone, he said.
He and Jerry Seinfeld, someone he has worked with in the past, have discussed the wisdom of their similar approach to comedy. Seinfeld uses observations as the core of his routine, and even though Barany thinks that is the better strategy, he sticks with his own game plan because he is “so good at my autobiographical stuff that it feels like it’s observational to people who relate to it very strongly,” he said. “I’m kind of bridging the gap between me and Seinfeld.”
About 10% of his bookings come from JCCs, Jewish Federations and Reform communities. He sometimes performs for Conservative Jews but “they’re not as enthusiastic about comedy programming,” he quipped.
He used to perform for Orthodox audiences, but has since stopped. The audiences were always great, but he realized he was uncomfortable with the gap between what he believes now vs. the Orthodox crowd.
“I choose to be comfortable on stage,” he said.
He’s mindful that a lot of non-Jews come to his shows and he’s careful to explain Jewish cultural or religious themes before launching into specifically Jewish stories to ensure that nobody feels like an outsider. The importance of that was brought home to him early in his career when he was still doing more Jewish-specific comedy, much of which was based on his yeshiva training.
He was making a Talmudic reference in one of his stories without any explanation. It was so familiar to him and friends who had grown up as he had that it never occurred to him that there were Jews who didn’t know it. But his nephew, an Orthodox rabbi, told him that many people, even many Jews, aren’t going to understand that joke because they haven’t been to a yeshiva.
“So I said, ‘OK, I get it now.’ I’m a comic with a religion-based Jewish upbringing, presenting a cultural Jewish show, for the most part. When I slip back into my religious persona, I make sure everybody understands what I mean,” he said.
He knows he’s something of a rarity in the world of comedy, and warns people who might be troubled by someone who isn’t easily labeled that they might find him unsettling.
“Among the uncommon people, I am considered very uncommon,” he said.
That hasn’t hurt him though. He was even one of the very few comics in the country who booked a lot of jobs during the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic. With restrictions varying by state, Barany, who often works in country clubs instead of comedy clubs, was still able to perform. About 80% of his performances are in country clubs.
He also owns a comedy agency, KB Entertainment, that works with others who do PG-rated comedy.
During the pandemic, Barany moved to Logan, Utah, a small city with a tiny Jewish population. After living in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, he discovered that even Salt Lake City was a little too big.
He hasn’t performed in a comedy club in some time but he occasionally goes to support other comics, especially at open mic nights. What many people don’t know about comics, he said, is that “laughing is kind of off the menu.” They sit at the back of the room and break down the jokes as each comic delivers them. It’s really just another day at the office. JN
To register for Comedy Night with Keith Barany, visit vosjcc.org/comedynight.