BY HENRY SAVAGE Growing up can be rough. Comedian Moshe Kasher had it rougher than most. The subtitle of his 2012 autobiography Kasher In The Rye tells you all you need to know: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16. Born to deaf Hasidic Jewish parents in New York, Kasher’s mother and father split when he was one. His mother moved to Oakland with Moshe in tow, and soon renounced her faith to become a hippie libertine, while his father stayed back in New York and remained committed to his faith. For the next decade he was shuttled back and forth between the two — between Old World piety and West Coast permissiveness. In due time, young Kasher got mixed up with the wrong crowd on the mean streets of Oakland and then came the drugs, the crime and the madness, and eventually a padded cell. Under these circumstances, most people find God. Kasher found comedy. Fast forward a couple decades, and, at the age of 39, Kasher has a thriving stand up career, a wife, a child, a hot podcast called The Hound Tall Discussion Series on the Nerdist Network and brand new three-part Netflix comedy special called The Honeymoon Stand-Up Special, co-starring comedian Natasha Leggero, who also happens to be his spouse/baby mama. Moshe Kasher will be in town this week performing at Punch Line Philly Thursday through Saturday night. Yesterday we got him on the horn to dish about all the above.
DISCUSSED: Woody Allen, #MeToo Movement, Donald Trump + Kanye West, the Zen miseries of fatherhood, the upside of growing up with deaf Hasidic Jewish parents when you are not deaf, drug addiction, mental health, his troubled teenage past, and how he cleaned up, got sane and found comedy.
PHAWKER: You grew up to Hasidic Jewish household in New York. But you moved to Oakland with your mother when you were one. Your father stayed back in New York but the marriage didn’t end for another 10 years. At some point your mother left the faith to pursue the hippie lifestyle. Is all that true? Can you fill in the blanks a bit on all that?
MOSHE KASHER: It is all true. To fill in the blanks of it you probably want to read my book, it’s 300 pages to fill in the blank. Yeah, my mom left my dad when I was nine months old when we were living in Brooklyn and I moved to Oakland to go from hasidic judaism to another kind of black and white reality, which was the Oakland Public School System. I’m glad that she left or I’d probably be in the seminary somewhere right now, not doing an interview for stand-up dates.
PHAWKER: Tell me about growing up with two deaf parents. Obviously you learned to sign at a very early age. Clearly there are drawbacks to that situation but there must also have been some advantages as well.
MOSHE KASHER: Definitely sneaking out of the house was pretty easy. I didn’t really sneak, we just kind of turned on our boombox and walked out the front door. I don’t even know if there were particularly drawbacks with having deaf parents, I mean it’s a cliche but it’s true. They’re the only parents I ever knew so I don’t really know what it’s like to not have deaf parents, but I assume it would turn you on to cooler music.
PHAWKER: On a related note, what do you make of this phenomenon — this has happened two or three times in recent memory — where people that don’t know sign language somehow weasel their way onto the stage of some big important speaking engagement and sign nonsense.
MOSHE KASHER: I think that’s probably a byproduct of the disease of social media telling everyone that they need a platform. Those people literally took a literal platform and decided to try and make their moment happen, but unfortunately a lot of deaf people also watched that and were like, “Okay that’s not a moment, they were having a mental breakdown.”
PHAWKER: Your memoir is called 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. Let’s unpack that title a bit, let’s start with ‘drug addict’ — what was your drug of choice, when did you get started, how did that work out for you?
MOSHE KASHER: Well teenage drug addiction worked out pretty well, it was pretty much a smashing success, in that I was good at it. Mostly, I was a teenage derelict. I think now when people ask me, they want me to say I was smoking crack and shooting heroin, unfortunately most of what I was doing was sneaking out of the house, stealing, and dropping acid. You know? The good old days, before the opiate crisis when teenage drug addicts dropped acid, drank 40s, and sometimes we would crush up our attention deficit disorder medication and snort that. You know? The innocent times.
PHAWKER: What can you tell me about the criminal part of the book title?
MOSHE KASHER: We were a group of sort of derelict teenagers who were taggers, shoplifters, stole money and hustle however we could to get high and have a good time. As a result of that the Oakland Police Department started to take notice of us. I sort of got my act together when at 16 I was arrested more times than I could count, in and out of juvenile court systems or juvenile drug addiction rehab. There was one point where I was actually sentenced to community service because I bit my mother. It’s a very long story but I will tell you it’s very difficult to intimidate the other fellas on the community service yard when they’re asking you what you did to land there and you’re like, “I bit my momma.” Basically I was a really twisted, fucked up teenager and thankfully I got my shit together pretty young and now I’m a nice young man!
PHAWKER: What can you tell me about the mental patient part of the book title?
MOSHE KASHER: When you live that loud and you’re that sort of obnoxious, violent, and crazy, eventually your parents and the police have enough of you and they institutionalize you. That happened to me one day, I got sent to a mental hospital, which I don’t think exists anymore, in Ross, California because it was the only mental hospital in the area that had an adolescent wing with a sign language interpreting program, so my mom drove me across the bay to one of the most affluent communities in California to lock me up for two weeks. It was right over New Years too, I remember that, and it was truly a terrible disappointment because I had some big plans for that New Years. After that, the illusion of fun rubbed off a little bit and then I started to think it wasn’t as much fun as it was a problem.
PHAWKER: So what was your “Eureka!” moment when you decided that being a comedian was what you were going to do with your life? Who are some of your early comedic influences?
MOSHE KASHER: You mean was I ever sitting in a padded cell in the Ross Mental Hospital and thought, “I know! I’ll turn these tears into the tears of a clown.” Unfortunately, not really. I kinda feel like eureka moments are a myth. Not that anyone’s never had one, but I feel like they allow people to stay in their horrible lives longer than they should because they’ll go, “I’ll just have a moment when I’ll realize I can’t do this anymore.” Unfortunately, that’s not really how it works most of the time. Most of the time there isn’t a eureka moment, there’s a slow grind that keeps going and you’re like, “Oh I’ve hit bottom.” You know, as everyone says, “You hit bottom when you stop digging.” I didn’t have a pop my head out of my ass moment, I had a lot of pull-my-head-out-of-my-ass moments and then finally I went to rehab for the last time right before I turned 16, and then it was years of kind of getting my mental health on. Years went by and I always wanted to be a writer ever since I was a little kid, I also acted, so when I saw a friend doing stand-up, I was like, “Aha! That is the combination of writing and acting that I’ve been looking for.” You do it all yourself. So I tried an open mic, and I guess that was in 2001 and the rest is sort of history.
PHAWKER: Curious what your take is on the whole Woody Allen controversy specifically and the #MeToo movement in general?
MOSHE KASHER: What’s my take on the #MeToo movement and Woody Allen? [laughs] I feel as if you are trying to get me in trouble. The thing about the #MeToo movement is that it is clear that it is time for men to listen to what women are saying. That said, I’m going to continue to do that. I think it’s powerful, it’s intense, and I think people are frightened and a lot of men are frightened. People get frightened when things change and I think that change is generally a good thing, especially when it comes to inundated power structures that allow things like violence and sexual miscreants. I’m not afraid but I think fear is interesting, but not as interesting as progress, so I’m going to focus on that and keep listening.
MOSHE KASHER: How’s that for a diplomatic answer?
PHAWKER: That was perfectly put, thank you. Any thoughts on the Kavanaugh hearing shit show?
MOSHE KASHER: Look. I think our entire political process has turned to bunker warfare where no one cares anymore about doing the right thing.
Here’s what I think is shocking: that I remember the Anita Hill case and I just can’t believe this is happening again. I mean aren’t there enough conservative judges out there with a squeaky clean background, that don’t even have alleged sexual assault charges levied against them? Can’t they just choose one of them? Isn’t there a vetting system? I just actually can’t believe that we are doing this again. It’s kind of a jaw-dropper, and I think it shows very clearly that the political process has turned from trying to make any progress to bunker warfare. World War I trench warfare where no one cares about doing the right thing, they just care about advancing their position.
PHAWKER: Has the Trump presidency been good or bad for your comedy — meaning has it been a source of material or just bummed you out in a creativity-killing way?
MOSHE KASHER: I don’t think that the Trump presidency has been the comedy boom that everybody thought it would be. I think people are extremely angry and extremely depressed on both sides of the political divide. On stage I don’t tend to be a political comedian and off stage I’m very strongly politically opinionated, but on stage that’s not really what my act is about. In that way it’s good because people are trying to find a respite where they can have a good time and laugh, but no I don’t think Trump is good for comedy. I don’t think this presidency is particularly good for anything. I will say people are complaining in the comedy community that every comedian thinks they are a political comic now. It is true that every young comic is doing five minutes of Trump jokes, and it’s not that people are turning into political comics, but that the political process has gotten so unbelievably loud and has swallowed our whole society. It’s all anyone ever talks and thinks about, that people don’t even realize that they’re doing political comedy, they’re just trying to write jokes about the only thing that anyone’s talking about.
PHAWKER: What is your take on the Kanye/Trump love affair?
MOSHE KASHER: Kanye needs our help and our prayers. It’s not for me anymore that’s for sure. I feel grateful that I’m not a teenager that chooses well-designed sneakers over a well-designed ideology. I’m not buying Yeezy’s personally so as a result I can just say, “I’m good,” and I’d rather listen to music that is actually saying stuff that I care about.
PHAWKER: Congratulations on the birth of your child in February.
MOSHE KASHER: Thank you very much. [laughs] She is a big Kanye fan, so, she’s got little baby Yeezys and a little tiny MAGA hat too.
PHAWKER: How has being a father altered your perspective as an artist, beside more dad jokes in your set, presumably?
MOSHE KASHER: I don’t even know what a dad joke is. I’ve noticed every time I make a joke, people on my instagram comments are like, “Dad joke.” I’m like, I guess so by virtue of me now being a dad, I guess they’re all dad jokes. Isn’t a dad joke a bad joke? I think dad jokes are bad. I don’t make bad jokes, I got these good jokes out here. [laughing] A lot of my current act is about the crushing reality of a new father but still trying to be cool and pathetically clinging to my youth. That’s what my life is about now. Trying to stay cool but also trying to not neglect my child. So I’m only going surfing two times a week now.
PHAWKER: Last question, what was the last joke that somebody told you that made you laugh out loud?
MOSHE KASHER: Last night I had dinner and I found out that a sex addict friend of mine was acting out so much that he got kicked off of Tinder, and I didn’t know that was possible. That made me laugh for a really long time. That’s not really a joke though. I mean there was an Onion article today about Kanye West that said, “Kanye West Announces His New Name Is Tim,” and that for some reason really made me laugh. [laughs] Tim West.