Courtesy Noam Dworman
Courtesy Noam Dworman
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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Noam Dworman

The king of comedy on the best table in the house, political correctness, and who’s to blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Periel Aschenbrand
September 12, 2017
Courtesy Noam Dworman
Courtesy Noam Dworman

The Comedy Cellar is easily one of the most well-known comedy clubs in the world. It’s sold out nightly, with lines of people snaked around the block waiting to get in to the iconic spot made famous by, among other things, the television series Louie. They want to laugh, to be sure, but they are also hoping they may catch a glimpse of the likes of Louie himself, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, or any number of the other world famous comedians who perform there regularly.

But if you want to know who makes sure it’s running properly, you have only one place to look: Owner Noam Dworman.

He’s first generation American to Israeli parents (his father was responsible for creating the Cellar and a mentor to many great comedians). As such, Dworman really is living the American Dream. It’s no wonder, then, that he’s both a Zionist and a Patriot. Manhattan born, he moved to Westchester as a kid, and it’s where he now resides with his wife and three little kids of his own.

In addition to owning one the Cellar, Dworman, also owns the adjacent Olive Tree, The Village Underground, and The Fat Black Pussycat. And he’s opening another Cellar in Vegas this winter. He reopened the famous Café Wha in 1988, and was musical director of the house band for twenty years (he recently sold it). He is also an accomplished musician, a devoted father, and a former lawyer. And he hosts the weekly political comedy podcast, Live From America, and has a show on Sirius Radio called The Comedy Cellar Show. He’s a believer in free speech and the intellectual pursuit of smart ideas. He hates political correctness and believes it is corrosive to the very fiber of our beings as intellectuals and Americans.

It’s also no wonder he’s running the best comedy club on the planet.

I had the pleasure of meeting with him recently to discuss the state of the world and the state of the infamous comedians’ table at the heart of the Cellar.

Periel Aschenbrand: There was an article about you recently in the New Yorker about the table that is the heart of the Cellar, which is reserved for comedians only and is actually kind of holy among them. According to the article, the table was moved and the whole thing sounded very dramatic.

Noam Dworman: The New Yorker presented it as a “failed” idea that I had. Even using the skeptical phrase Dworman “claims” regarding the truthful fact that the table was never supposed to move.

PA: So you’re saying the New Yorker made it sound more dramatic than it actually was?

ND: Absolutely and I could prove it if I had to. They took out every quote which indicated that I was struggling to fix an unexpected outcome. It’s just a matter of spin. The essence of the story, as it pertains to what why and how decisions were made was changed. Everyone who works at the club felt the same way. It doesn’t matter to anyone except the guy who wants his life to be accurately portrayed. Someday my kids will read it. Daddy actually didn’t fail. The truth is, Daddy was pretty smart, humble, and careful about making changes. Contractors, of course, suck. The renovations have proved to be a huge success for the place, and the table is more comfortable than it ever was.

[Ed. note: The writer of the piece, Andrew Hankinson, stands by his story, and in an email to Tablet said: “I like Noam and wish the article hadn’t upset him, but I’m not going to comment beyond that.”]

PA: Good! I’m glad to hear that. A lot comedians have recently said that everything has become so politically correct that they’ve actually stopped playing at universities because of it.

ND: Political correctness is a big problem in comedy, it’s a big problem in politics. There is no immigration discussion: It’s either you’re a bigot or you’re not. If it were about taking in millions of Hasidic Jews, people would understand that integration might be dicey… The Voting Rights Act and all that presumes for the most part that if you’re a white southerner, it is reasonable, 60 years after Brown, to be suspicious of your attitudes about race because we know that bigoted attitudes die out very slowly, through generations so that in mixed company, you can still suspect a white Southerner of probably being a racist. That’s not politically incorrect. But that’s the only culture you are permitted to worry about. But you can’t talk about it. I’m not anti anybody. I am a fervent believer in the old melting pot ideal, but worry about the viability of the mosaic. Look, in some parts to the world it’s ok to execute homosexuals. I am concerned about integrating cultures whose values are the opposite of our values. We never quite did that before. I just wish we could discuss it—even if only to show me it’ll be ok. Today, you have to enter the conversation with the “correct” opinion. There is no exchange.

PA: You happen to work in an industry where those things are discussed more, I think, than they are discussed in almost any other industry.

ND: Yeah. I am. But this is where a lot of people are coming from but they know better than to talk about it publically. It’s too risky. Am I saying something bigoted? I hope not.

PA: Are you asking me?

ND: Yes.

PA: I don’t think so.

ND: Because about fifty percent of the nation would tell you that I am.

PA: I don’t think that you are because it is abundantly clear that you are actually interested in intellectual pursuit.

ND: Yes.

PA: You’re actually interested in having a conversation. You are actually open to the possibility of being right or wrong.

ND: I am. I really am.

PA: Your father was from Israel?

ND: And my mother. My father came there in 1938, when he was eight years old and my mother came later. Her parents always lived there. My father came with his whole family.

PA: So interesting. And you have three kids, right?

ND: Yes. My son, Manny, is named after my father, Menachem.

PA: Is your wife Israeli as well?

ND: No, she’s from Brooklyn. She’s not Jewish. She’s Puerto Rican and Indian. We converted the kids, for whatever it’s worth.

PA: What’s it worth?

ND: Who knows. In terms of how their Jewish community may or may not regard them in the future, the Orthodox are more and more restrictive about how they define Judasim.

PA: Ha! Well, according to the ultra ultra Orthodox, we’re not even considered Jewish.

ND: No, no. I’m Jewish. They may consider us bad Jews… But there is a big difference between bad Jew and not being a Jew at all.

PA: Fair enough. Has your wife been to Israel?

ND: Yes. Twice. She loved it.

PA: It’s a very complicated place obviously, but it’s a hard place not to love.

ND: I am like 1000% pro Israel in every way. I think it’s a remarkable place considering what they’re up against.

PA: It’s a complicated place, right?

ND: Well…

PA: Or maybe you don’t think so?

ND: I probably don’t think it’s that complicated, actually. Are you talking about the Arab Israeli issue?

PA: Mmmhhhmmm.

ND: I think dealing with it from a logistical issue is very complicated. I don’t see the rights and wrongs of the situation all that complicated…

PA: Keep talking.

ND: It depends where you want the story. I was talking to a famous comedian and he wanted to start the story with WWI—he calls that the original sin. But if we start the story at the peace negotiations between Clinton and Barak and Bush and Olmert, I think you have a pretty clear case of one side that was ready to make a deal and one side that in the end didn’t want to make a deal, so if you wonder why it hasn’t been resolved, I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

PA: Interesting.

ND: It may sound silly to say, buy I feel like if they had wanted to make the deal, they would have. They famously twice walked out with no counter offer. So what else is there? I asked this same famous comedian…

PA: Who will remain nameless?

ND: Yes. I said, if you go through the whole history of the last sixty whatever years, has there ever been a time when an Israeli leader got to a fork in the road and if he only went this way, instead of that way, today there would be a two state solution? I can give you dozens of times prior to the occupation where the Arab leadership easily could have had peace with Israel. To say one other thing about it, none of this is to explain away any barbaric, immoral, indefensible treatment of the Palestinians. I read Benny Morris’s book, Righteous Victims, and he described bluntly and truthfully, I think, unjustifiable treatment of the Palestinians. But lo and behold, Benny Morris is a right winger today, and he hasn’t retracted any of it, he just doesn’t think they want peace. Even the occupation, Israel didn’t attack Jordan, Jordan attacked Israel .

PA: what I think is complicated is how it presents itself in our everyday lives.

ND: You mean the Jews?

PA: Yes, actually.

ND: Wait. Just to finish my thought… I liken it to a prisoner in jail. The prisoner may be innocent or the prisoner may be a murderer, either way you have to treat the prisoner humanely. However he wound up there. The Palestinians are essentially prisoners, even metaphorically, so whether they are innocent or not, however you want to see that, none of that gives Israelis the right, morally, to treat them badly. I’m not defending any of that. But I don’t think we are worse than any power relationship of that kind. I make someone a manager here and three weeks later, they’re being abusive to the employees.

PA: You know there is an expression in Hebrew for that, “Eved Kee Yeemloch.”

ND: Right. And I think American Jews should be ashamed of themselves. They don’t stand up for themselves. There is a lot of anti Semitism in the world, in France, in the deli, in every cause that espouses intersectionality, in left wing campus groups, growing anti Semitism and you cannot get an American Jew to comment on this unless there is an anti-Trump angle. They will go crazy about any other bigotry, cry real tears of solidarity, but when it comes to this, they are cowed and uninformed, and they simply won’t stand up against anti-Semitism. So who will?

PA: I agree it’s not a great look for us. On a more pleasant note—and sorry to jump—but what’s your favorite drink?

ND: Jameson on the rocks. Here’s the thing: I don’t drink it very often because it’s so delicious to me, I would just drink it like juice. So I try to drink things that I like less.

PA: That’s a good answer. How do you eat your eggs?

ND: Sunnyside up.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

ND: Black.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

ND: Passover.

PA: Did you have a Bar Mitzvah?

ND: Yes.

PA: What did you wear?

ND: A brown suit that I bought at Barney’s and Mayor Koch was there when I had the suit altered.

PA: what shampoo do you use?

ND: Head and Shoulders.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

ND: Lox.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

ND: My cell phone. That’s it.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

ND: Sneakers.

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