By Rochelle Maruch Miller
With his black hat, white shirt, black pants, beard, and payos, it is a stretch to envision Ashley Blaker as an internationally acclaimed comedian. But appearances to the contrary, the world-class performer has had two sellout UK tours–“Ungefiltered” and “Meshuga Frum”–and also performed tours in Israel and South Africa. He has garnered accolades the world over for his hilarious comedic routines, including the following message from Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth: “Unforgettable, terrific, fantastic! Yasher koach for all the laughter you bring to so many people around the world.”
Blessed with an abundance of talent, Ashley is able to take whatever direction his life goes in and make it funny. ”With every new thing I do, I see the possibility of a comedy routine,” he says. Now he is about to make his U.S. debut with a not-to-be-missed off-Broadway show in New York’s Gramercy Theatre on Thursday, December 7.
For Ashley, who holds degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, performing standup comedy represents a lifelong dream brought to fruition. Raised in a traditional home in the UK, he attended the same private school that Sasha Baron Cohen went to. Already as a teenager he harbored dreams of being a comedy performer and honed his talents by performing in comedy clubs as well as doing 40-minute skits in the school hall. Additionally, he appeared on TV several times, competing as a contestant on game shows. Despite his comedic talents and media visibility, it would take many years for Ashley’s aspiration of becoming a comedian to materialize.
Ask Ashley to tell you the source of the “big break” in his career, and he will respond without hesitation. “It’s all a matter of hashgachah pratis,” he declares. “I had finished studying and was unsure of what to do next. One of my former high-school teachers suggested that I buy the Guardian, which is a newspaper I had never read. This was on a Thursday; four days later, while perusing the paper, I found an advertisement, “Do you have funny bones?” seeking a comedy producer for the BBC. Not only had I not read the paper prior to that week, it was the only week the advertisement had been placed.”
After responding to the ad, Ashley was hired by BBC. But the element of hashgachah pratis did not end there. After not seeing one another for several years, Ashley chanced upon an old school chum, Matt Lucas, a rising star in the comedy industry, one week prior to starting at the BBC. “Let’s make a show together,” they decided. Working in tandem, the dynamic duo impacted the industry with their respective talents, producing the wildly successful Little Britain. Ashley became a successful writer and producer on many hit comedy shows in the UK, working with comedians such as James Corden, Russell Brand, and John Oliver.
What inspired the sought-after producer and writer to embrace the lifestyle and attire of a chareidi Jew? “After my wife and I got married, we were given a free membership to the synagogue closest to our house, which is offered to all newlywed Jewish couples in England.” The shul happened to be Orthodox, and Ashley felt comfortable attending services with its friendly rabbi and warm and welcoming environs. Responding positively whenever he was needed for a minyan, Ashley soon became an integral part of the shul, growing in his Torah observance each day.
At the outset, Ashley’s growing observance was discerned by some of his colleagues in the entertainment industry. Initially, upon noticing the kippah atop his head, some inquired whether it was a holiday or some other special day. “It was a gradual thing,” he recalls. “One day, I came in wearing my kippah. Several months later, I turned up with my tzitzis hanging out. Then came the white-and-black clothes, followed by the hat and the payos growing longer. There was something new happening almost every day.”
To defuse the tension that inevitably arose at meetings, his good friend Matt Lucas began introducing them by saying, “I’m Jew-ish, but this guy is a real Jew. He’s not gonna shake your hand. Go on; stick it out. Watch what he’ll do.” The majority of his colleagues and clients have tremendous respect for Ashley’s religious beliefs and values and the Kiddush Hashem he performs each day by living his life according to the tenets of the Torah.
Ashley credits becoming frum as the reason for his success as a comedy performer. “From age 16, my dream was to be a comedian, and I had never given up that dream. One day, I received a call from a rabbi who invited me to speak at a melaveh malkah,” he recalls. “I asked him why he was interested in having me speak, since I am not a rabbi. The rabbi replied, ‘The people will be interested in what you have to say. You work at the BBC with all the big stars. You have a beard and payos. You wear your tzitzis out and you wear a black hat. You don’t shake hands with women.’”
Despite Ashley’s initial apprehension, the rabbi felt the audience would be inspired by hearing about how it is possible to remain steadfast to one’s beliefs amid success in the secular world. “I accepted the rabbi’s invitation and spoke at the melaveh malkah and enjoyed the experience immensely. It went very well. I discovered it was like something I hadn’t tasted in a long time and I got ‘hooked’ back in. I realized that it was hashgachah pratis–that I had to become frum to start performing again. As a 16-year-old, I really didn’t have a defined, proper subject to talk about. That all changed when I became frum; the experience gave me something to talk about.”
Come 2018, the prolific performer, producer, and writer will have his own show on the BBC, called Ashley Blaker’s Goyish Guide to Judaism. He also has his own production company, Black Hat Productions. He has been looking forward to performing in the United States–especially in New York–because, he says, “People have been messaging me on social media for years with the same question, ‘When are you coming to New York?’”
Happily, we will be afforded the opportunity to experience Ashley Blaker’s relentlessly sidesplitting humor as he takes New York by storm on Thursday, December 7 at the Gramercy Theatre. He has orchestrated the show to hilarious perfection.
“I have been through the show with a fine-tooth comb and replaced every British word or phrase. Mobile has been replaced with cellphone; pavement is now sidewalk. I even had to leave out one of my favorite jokes, with the punchline, ‘On your head be it.’ It was absolutely hilarious, but no one would have understood the punchline, which is why I had to remove it. But I haven’t had to change the subject matter. What I’ve discovered over the last few years is that Jews are very much the same, no matter where we live. We all share similar experiences. Many people have commented after viewing my performances online, ‘Wow, I thought that was just a Crown Heights thing!’ and ‘I thought this only happens in Boro Park!’ It turns out, we triple-park and leave the car with the hazard lights on everywhere! Our obsession with sushi is universal–it’s the same in Golders Green and Stamford as it is in Flatbush and the Five Towns.”
Ashley Blaker’s essence is multifaceted, infusing lives with light and hope and inspiring others through exemplary chesed. Truly an extraordinary couple, Ashley and his wife, Gemma, are the proud parents of six beautiful children, two of whom are autistic. They adopted their adorable little girl, who has Down syndrome.
Unpretentious and gracious, he is humbled by his success and never fails to express his appreciation to Hashem. For Ashley, the most rewarding aspect of performing is his ability to bring people together through the message of his comedy. “Last year, I did a show in Newcastle. We had ten yeshiva bachurim from Gateshead sitting in one row and a female rabbi sitting in the next row. I’m proud to be able to bring people together like that.”
For ticket information, visit AshleyBlaker.com or see ad in this issue.
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative media consultant, lecturer, educator, and writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. She welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com.