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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo

The L.A.-based comic duo on political correctness, chopped liver, and their characters, Ronna and Beverly

Periel Aschenbrand
April 28, 2017
Image of Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo by Robyn Von Swank; Collage by Tablet magazine.
Inset image: Jessica Chaffin (L) and Jamie Denbo.Image of Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo by Robyn Von Swank; Collage by Tablet magazine.
Image of Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo by Robyn Von Swank; Collage by Tablet magazine.
Inset image: Jessica Chaffin (L) and Jamie Denbo.Image of Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo by Robyn Von Swank; Collage by Tablet magazine.

Comedians Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo—or Ronna Glickman and Beverly Ginsburg, as they’re known in character—are confidantes and quintessential yentas. Their alter egos have been best friends for over 40 years. They are from north of Boston and have the accents to prove it. They are “fiscally conservative, socially liberal,” and when I went to go see their performance—a cross between stand-up, improv, and Broadway, where they berate their guests, each other, and finish one another’s sentences—at The Bell House in Brooklyn recently, it was SRO with a roomful of screaming queens. After the show, they sold merch—T-shirts that read “I’m a Beverly” or, alternately,“I’m a Ronna.”

In addition to their onstage career, Denbo and Chaffin have a multitude of film and television credits, along with a bi-weekly podcast called “The Ronna & Beverly Podcast.” Onstage, they’re magic makers, shift shapers who have the comedic timing and creative symbiosis that many artistic duos could only dream of. In real life, Denbo is more pensive, while Chaffin is more carefree. They are screamingly funny and so, so smart, which is probably why they have a cultlike following.

Ronna and Bev. (Image: Robyn Von Swank)
Ronna and Bev. (Image: Robyn Von Swank)

They had, astonishingly, never been to Russ and Daughters. So that’s where we went—with their non-Jewish, Midwestern producer Sam.

Periel Aschenbrand: This is my first threesome.

Jessica Chaffin: Welcome.

Jamie Denbo: This is a nice strong, chewy cup of coffee. I understand you’re married to an Israeli.

PA: Yes.

JD: It’s a catastrophe.

JC: Is he an asshole?

PA: Sometimes, but he’s really good-looking.

JC: Israeli.

JD: And he probably fucks you like a jackhammer.

PA: He did before we got married. But I’m interviewing you guys, remember?

JC: He’s accustomed to girls who can dismantle an M-16 inside of a minute and he wound up with an American JAP who doesn’t want to get up to wash a dish.

PA: Basically.

JC: This is a good grapefruit juice. (To the waitress) I’d like an order of the kasha varnishkes and chicken liver. Does the chicken liver have schmaltz?

As they are not in costume, the waitress can’t figure out why a gorgeous redhead in her 30s is talking like a 50-something Jewish mother with a heavy accent, but she is very gracious, nonetheless.

JD: Are we sharing?

JC: We have to have a knish. And an order of the noodle kugel. It’s not going to be as good as my kugel, though. Do we need an extra toasted-onion bialy? Our waitress’s name is Becca, like Rebecca, from the Bible.

PA: How much of what you do is improv?

JC: A lot. 80 percent. We sort of come up with an outline or general shape but we always have standards that we have to work in. There’s a lot of prompting and I’ll know what she wants me to talk about. We try to do a fresh story every time and we have to tailor it to the place where we are.

JD: But we have to treat every show as though there is one person who has never been there before. We have to assume that they have no idea why they are there, who we are, and why other people are enjoying us so much. So we have to cover: these are the characters. They’re yentas. They’re from Boston. They’re mothers. They wrote a book, they have a podcast. But we have to do that, also, in an entertaining way for the people who know all that already.

JC: There is a comfort in the repetition of those bits.

JD: You have to cover your bases as a live performer.

JC: (To the waitress, Becca) I’ll take ah-nothah splash of caw-fee, dear.

PA: How far do you guys live from in each in real life?

JC: Oh, 15 minutes.

PA: And you met how long ago?

JD: She was in my wedding and I’ve been married for almost 13 years. We’ve known each since 1997.

PA: We’ve ordered an obscene amount of food.

JC: We ovahordered. But we’d rather be looking at it, than looking for it.

PA: Hahaha!

JC: First of all, a girl who was not Jewish delivered the food.

Sam: How do you know?

JD: She was Filipino.

Sam: Can you say that in character?

JC: I just did.

Sam: Does that matter, that she wasn’t Jewish?

JC: It’s very typical in a deli.

JD: She was Filipina.

Sam: Is that bad?

JC: There’s nothing wrong with that.

PA: I’m dying over here.

JC: What I would like to get on record here is Sam’s first bite of Jewish food. Also, none of this is going to be as good as what I make. But we’re in a restaurant so we’re going to adjust.

JD: This is peasant food. Look, the waitress is nodding.

JC: (To Becca) Where do your grapefruits come from?

Becca: Florida?

JC: They’re gaw-jess. Let’s see what’s going on with this chopped liver. Because I make a delicious chopped liver.

PA: Do you really make chopped liver from scratch?

JC: Absolutely. Honestly, though, I think this liver is out of this world. Out. Of. This. World.

PA: Did you guys grow up Jewish?

JD: In real life?

PA: Yes. I feel like Ronna and Beverly are in real life, but yes.

JD: Yes. I grew up more religious than [Jessica] did.

JC: We both had bat mitzvahs.

JD: My mother’s still mad because I chose to do a Friday night Haftorah, which she felt was for slackers.

JC: What’s that?

JD: It’s the lazy-kid bat mitzvah.

JC: (Ignores Denbo and motions towards the knish) OK, what we have here, Sam, is a potato wrapped in pastry. This is shtetl food. This is your grandmother’s food, but with a twist. It’s called a kah-nish. We have to be careful here because this is really Periel’s morning and we have to make sure she gets what she needs. Oh! Look, the noodle kugel comes in a cute little ramekin.

PA: How often do you record the podcast?

JD: Every other week.

PA: And you guys had a TV show.

JC: We had a TV show in the U.K. It was a six-episode talk show where we interviewed celebrities in a studio. It was sort of fantasy version of our show. The podcast was just starting up around then.

JD: The podcast is its own animal.

JC: We love it because it’s such an intimate medium. The roots of our show is on stage—you saw last night (at the Bell House)—it’s raucous. And we love being around the audience and feeding off their energy. And we’re both really curious people, naturally, and we get a real charge out of it, but the podcast gives us an opportunity to get more intimate.

PA: How long does it take you to get ready?

JD: Ten minutes.

JC: It takes me however much time we have.

JD: I have the same wig. It’s almost a decade old and it’s never been washed.

JC: So gross. My wig was $19, it’s called the “Surfer Dude.”

PA: Shut up.

JC: I also make a terrific noodle kugel. I wish that one day we would do a cookbook.

PA: What you should do is have a cooking show.

JC: Does anyone want to watch us cook?

PA: In my humble opinion, the thing about the two of you is that it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. The magic that you have with each other, I think, is the rarest kind of magic.

JC: (To Becca, who has arrived to check on us) Everything is delicious. And the liver is almost as good as my liver. My liver is fabulous. I can say it because it’s true. (To Periel) The fish doesn’t ship, though. It can ship, but it won’t be very good.

JD: Ronna. Can you open my headache pill?

JC: Use a tooth. I’m going to be sick from eating so much chopped liver.

PA: Did you always know you were funny?

JD: I always knew I was different, I don’t know if I knew if I was funny, but I knew I was different. We didn’t talk the way other people talked. My father was from Jersey and my mother was from Canada and in many ways, I was both an insider and an outsider.

JC: I did. I was a very funny kid. I’m the fifth of six children.

PA: Jews?

JC: Yes, but my mother converted to Judaism. She married a Jewish guy and showed up in this community but she always had a very powerful personality so she was never going to sit back and be told how to do things. Her version of converting was that she learned to cook—brisket, matzo ball soup, but for sure she didn’t know the prayer over the candles. We had Friday night dinners and all that stuff, but she would nudge my father to say the prayers. Looking back at that now, as the age of a woman who would do such things, it’s pretty impressive to me and probably a dash sad because she didn’t have her own mishpucha to help her do these things, and she was always looked down on by my father’s family for being a shiksa. I had a bat mitzvah but she didn’t really know what was going on. She knew cultural Judaism. I feel like that’s where so much of my comedy comes from—an outsider’s perspective. You’re observing everything that goes on around you, but with a sharper eye. I grew up in Newton, Mass., a predominantly Jewish community, and I always had such great affection for all these women and their incredible confidence in everything.

PA: I think especially now, to see the two of you as Ronna and Beverly is really amazing for young women. Because you have these two characters who are so wholly themselves and so confident and are not conforming to any prescribed standard of … anything, really. Jamie, Beverly is so dirty. And it’s so great.

JD: The people I’ve always loved are the comedians who were fearless in calling things out. Like Don Rickles, bless his heart. Joan Rivers. Richard Pryor. I learned comedy from watching Good Times and Three’s Company, where we were laughing at the absurdity of social circumstances and those circumstances weren’t being denied. Because that’s how we have to deal with them. The truth is, it’s been a social learning curve for us, as well. I don’t want to offend for the sake of offending, and I think we are trying to be thoughtful in that way.

JC: Beverly is the more shocking one, so she has to carry more of that burden. Jamie is such a universally accepting person, her comedy comes from such a pure place.

PA: I feel like you’re calling out hypocrisy.

JD: And we’re not the first to do that.

PA: Of course not.

JC: It’s a long and great tradition.

JD: But we do live in a world that—and I hate to use a right-wing catch phrase—that has become more politically correct. I also believe political correctness helps people change their social viewpoint and I think it’s important in the discourse. At the same time, comedy loses something when you only do it that way because you’re not taking advantage of the darkness that every human has inside of them.

JC: That’s why what you’re doing is so subversive.

PA: Exactly. We’re giving you compliments, by the way.

JD: I appreciate it. But it’s complicated because I also want to acknowledge to the world that I recognize that my ability to engage in what can sometimes be controversial or subversive material is because of a certain level of class and white privilege.

PA: Duly noted. Granted. And agreed.

JD: And that has been pointed out to me and I don’t think it’s wrong. I don’t think it should stop me from doing it, but it’s important to acknowledge.

JC: You can’t please everybody. My point about the subversive thing is that in order to change someone’s viewpoint on something, sometimes they have to see a grotesque version of it so they can see the hypocrisy or the humor.

JD: Let’s put it this way. There’s a lot of questioning in my soul right now because of what’s going on in the world.

JC: We haven’t actually talked about this, but I think it’s an act of resistance.

PA: I totally agree.

JC: You are pushing the envelope and pushing people’s buttons in a way that is so important.

PA: Exactly!

JC: We’re so lucky that we get to say exactly what we want about all of the bullshit that is going on in this world and I think the fans our connect to is that we are putting a voice their feelings. Not to toot my own horn.

PA: I also think it’s really wonderful how you sexualize women of that age.

JD: I think the comedy of it is that everyone has, in their family, some lunatic matriarch who either knows everything or thinks she does and that’s what we’re going for.

JC: I think it’s moved beyond that. In the way that Ali G. used his ignorance to shine a light on other people’s ignorance, we use age. We’re women of a certain age and we can say whatever we want. My whole idea of how I fit into this world and what it means to say whatever you want has completely changed since we started the show.

PA: Listen, there’s a real political and feminist edge to what you guys do.

JC: And it’s because the characters are so well-drawn. We don’t sit around and talk about what our agenda is. We just grew up around such strong, ballsy, Jewish women who said whatever the fuck they wanted and we’ve appropriated that. And it’s coming from a really genuine place.

PA: And that’s what it feels like. What’s your favorite drink?

JD: Beverly likes a Splenda mojito with an extra Splenda.

PA: And Jamie?

JD: I don’t drink but once in a blue moon you get a perfect Arnold Palmer.

JC: You have to control the proportions. It’s not 50/50. It’s iced tea with a splash of lemonade. Jamie’s other favorite drink is the end of anything I’m drinking.

JD: She doesn’t finish.

JC: It’s not that I don’t finish, it’s that I’m not finished. As herself or as Beverly. She’s like a cat. She’s like, “What you are drinking? Can I have a sip?”

PA: And what’s your favorite drink, Jessica?

JC: My favorite drink as both myself and Ronna is Grey Goose, fresh lemon juice and mint shaken and stirred, up, in a martini glass.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

JC: Dunkin Donuts, cream and sugar.

JD: Iced, venti, cream, one raw sugar.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

JD: Scrambled.

JC: Fried. I hate omelets, though. Unless it’s delicious.

PA: What does that mean!?

JC: It’s true. I love anything that’s delicious. My mother used to say that to us when she was teaching us how to cook. You do this and and then you do that and then you cook it until it’s delicious. And when it’s delicious, you serve it.

PA: That’s so good.

JD: That’s amazing.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

JC: I love the high holidays. Ronna’s favorite is Hanukkah because she does a party every year.

JD: Beverly’s favorite is Simachat Torah because she loves all the dancing and the children and she loves Purim because she thinks Vashti is a real feminist. And I like Passover. I like a story meal, where it feels like my kids are really paying attention.

PA: So you both had bat mitzvahs. What did you wear?

JD: The entire family clashed but my dress was a gorgeous lavender eyelet dress with a ribbon dyed to match my shoes. My parents were angry because I just wanted to have a party and get presents.

JC: I still harbor great aggression against my mother about what I wore and the way the pictures were taken. I had terrible hot, humid curly-hair pictures and I wore a pink floral ruffled top and skirt.

PA: What shampoo do you use?

JC: Shu Uemura.

JD: You don’t want to know.

PA: I do.

JC & JD (in unison): Suave.

JC: I just guessed that!

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

JD: Neither. I have a very non-Jewish soul.

JC: I have a very Jewish soul, especially when it comes to food. My soul is at rest when I’m eating smoked salmon. Also it’s Scottish and it’s Jewish and that’s what I am.

PA: I love that! Five things in your bag right now?

JC: Lip balm, lip balm, lip balm, lip balm, lip balm. Wait, me or Ronna?

PA: Both of you, but the lines are very blurred.

JD: Imitrex for migraines, lip liner, a lot of quarters for the meters, a pen—and I don’t always have it but I wish I did—gum. Beverly never leaves the house without a ball of tissues, her telephone, a charger that never works, a snack that’s loud, and floss.

PA: And Ronna?

JC: Cle de Peau concealer, purifying water hand wipes, La Mer lip balm, Nurofen Plus, and a bottle of Xanax.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

JC: I like a very expensive Van. Snakeskin Celine Vans. Ronna likes a 75 mm heel from Saint Laurent or a classic black Gucci pump. Prada also makes a comfortable one.

PA: Jamie?

JD: A Dansko clog. I’m a lesbian from the ankle down.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.