Stand-up comedy is an industry rife with controversy.
The debate over what is acceptable for a comedian to say on stage has been hot button ever since the beginning of stand-up, with comics like Lenny Bruce getting arrested for his material. Nowadays, however, this conversation has mostly transformed into comedians complaining over “cancel culture” and the pushback they receive for making jokes that punch down at marginalized communities.
On October 15, “Good Timing With Jo Firestone” dropped on Peacock and deftly cut through that noise.
The hybrid docu-stand-up-special shows stand-up comedian Jo Firestone teaching the final class of a stand-up comedy workshop for senior citizens and the subsequent show the class puts on. Sprinkled throughout, Jo individually interviews her students, a wonderful cast of characters including Helaine, who once sold material to Joan Rivers, Nicki, who is “very, very obsessed with the Holocaust” and thinks gender is “a terrible concept,” and Lynne, who has an encyclopedic memory of jokes.
There’s a lot to love about this special.
Of course, as a Jewish viewer, it’s exciting to watch and discover how subtly Jewish “Good Timing” is. Jo Firestone, master stand-up teacher, comes from a Jewish family in St. Louis, and was once a member of the city’s Congregation Shaare Emeth. Teaching comedy, as we see Jo do in the special, also seems to be her way of remaining connected to Judaism. “Each year, I teach improv to CRC (Central Reform Congregation) confirmation students on their class trips to New York,” Jo told the STL Jewish Light in 2014.
Some of her latest students, the seniors at the Greenwich House Senior Center, also seem to be Jewish. Though none of them come outright and discuss their religious beliefs or ancestry (except Nicki, who makes it clear that she would like to abolish all religion), student Barbara Bova is introduced onstage as “the shammas at her synagogue” and student Zygy Susser makes jokes like, “A good pastrami sandwich is as good as an orgasm” and the fantastic opening joke of his set, “I want to thank you all for coming to my bar mitzvah.”
Beyond the Jewish Easter eggs, however, “Good Timing” is so successful in the joy it captures. As anyone who has taken a class at places like UCB (Upright Citizen’s Brigade), the act of learning how to write jokes can very easily take place in a competitive and stressful environment. That is not so with Jo and her students. I can honestly say I smiled the entire time, watching the class giggle and guffaw as they share joke writing exercises and stories from their day-to-day lives, and cheer each other on.
Moreover, comedy audiences rarely get to see senior citizens be not only in on the joke, but writing the jokes themselves; and the jokes, especially ones that give the seniors’ perspectives on getting older, are good! As someone who has experience writing jokes and performing stand-up comedy, these senior citizens and their jokes gave me pause. Not once in the special does Jo Firestone say something akin to, “This is how you write a joke.” And I’m so glad she didn’t. The way the seniors approach writing jokes and thinking about jokes is so refreshing and unencumbered by any fear of what is or isn’t a joke. The sets are silly, political, and most importantly, deeply authentic.
In his one-on-one interview with Jo, Zygy Susser relates that earlier in his life he had a dream to perform stand-up on “The Tonight Show.” Well mazel tov, Zygy! You’re now part of a special on NBC’s Peacock, and I’d say that’s pretty damn close.