Imagine this: Your grandfather dies and your entire family comes together for the funeral and shiva. Sometime during these solemn events, you make out with your own cousin. A little over a month later your grandmother dies. Your family comes together yet again for the funeral, but this time you have to reckon with the consequences of your less-than-advisable actions.
To be clear, Jewish comedian Sophie Zucker has never made out with her cousin. However, the aforementioned inspired-by-reality scenario is the plot of her upcoming one-woman musical comedy, “Sophie Sucks Face.”
In Sophie’s own words, the show is “a mixture of Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside,’ Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’ and Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’ and some of my own stand-up.” Though it certainly seems ambitious to draw inspiration from such highly acclaimed works, it’s also not surprising Sophie would set the bar so high. At 28 years old, Sophie already has some impressive credits as both a seasoned comedian and actor in the Brooklyn comedy scene (alongside her comedy group “Ladies Who Ranch”) and a rising star in the TV world – she recently wrote and acted on Apple TV+’s “Dickinson.”
Needless to say, the musical comedy running next month in Brooklyn, which Sophie additionally describes as “not a Jewish show, per-se, but not not a Jewish show,” promises to be a must-see.
Sophie sat down with Alma to chat about all things “Sophie Sucks Face” and the radicalization of former Jewish American Princesses.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
You wrote “Sophie Sucks Face” after attending multiple family funerals in a short period of time. You probably don’t want to give too much away, but can you tell me more about the show and the writing process?
So there were two funerals that happened in very quick succession in my family — and then my dog died somewhere in there. I feel weird talking about it because this show isn’t really like a tender reflection on grief. The first funeral was this lovely experience. Everyone was gathering, people I hadn’t seen in a long time, and it was really nice. And then the second funeral, I remember, my aunt got a text that was like, what the fuck is going on with your family? And that is kind of how it felt. It was like, what the fuck is happening? Death can feel like this insane thing, especially when it’s happening in such quick succession.
And so I had this idea. What would be the craziest thing that could happen at the first funeral that you would have to reckon with the consequences of at the second funeral?
I was also thinking about how old people often die in pairs; it was my grandparents who passed away. The experience my family was having was not unique to us. But no one really had talked about this part of it — having to do everything again and having to organize everything a mere seven weeks later.
There’s this tool in writing that I love, and I love other writers who do it. I think it’s called defamiliarization, where basically, you take a recognizable trope and put a microscope over it and examine it and break it apart so fully that it becomes unfamiliar and unrecognizable. That’s what I felt like I was doing with this show: taking this trope of two old people who died together because they love each other — one died of a broken heart — and then breaking it open and examining one girl’s experience of it to the point where it no longer became about that.
With the angle of Jewish family and funerals, “Sophie Sucks Face” also reminds me a little bit of “Shiva Baby.”
It’s funny because I had this idea many years ago and then just now decided to do it. So it wasn’t really influenced by “Shiva Baby.” And because I knew that “Shiva Baby” just came out, I was trying to not do that. But I can’t extract my Jewish point of view from the writing, and of course, my experience of the funerals and the shiva, being surrounded by so many old Jews. And so there’s a bit [in the show] about the rituals and the rabbi.
I’ll add, I think old Jewish women are so funny. The pinnacle of comedy, to me, is listening to my mom talk to her friends from synagogue. There is a fair amount of that sort of humor in there.
Could you tell me about your Jewish background and identity?
So I’m pretty Jewish. I went to Hebrew school twice a week for most of my adolescence, and I was bat mitzvahed. And we were pretty involved in my synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, which is in New York. It’s funny because I think my big connection to my Judaism was always my Jewish community. I had really close friends, who are still my close friends to this day, from synagogue and there were all these women who were like my second mothers or whatever. That always felt like, OK, what religion means is always having a place to go on Rosh Hashanah and just being very close to like 50 Jews at any given time.
And then I went to college and I actually studied religion. I knew I wanted to be a performer, but I didn’t really want to study acting. I don’t know, it’s hubris. But I studied religion because I thought it was really interesting, and then I did learn a little more of the actual Judeo-Christian significance and how it resonated with me, and what the value is in all of that. And now I feel like I’ve re-committed to Judaism. I’m 28 but I still belong to my synagogue and now I’m a paying member. And my boyfriend and I just joined this Jews for social justice group at my synagogue. I just think Judaism is something that so colored my parents lives and my life in a really positive way. And so I’m pretty committed to having it in my life as well.
That sounds lovely. It’s interesting to me, too, because I’ve talked to a few different Jewish performers, like I interviewed Dylan Adler somewhat recently. And for him, and a lot of other Jewish performers our age, we kind of connect through comedy and performing and just being around other Jews onstage.
I’ve had this conversation with my friends recently. I feel like there are not as many Jews in the New York comedy scene as you would think there are. Like, there are obviously a few of us and we are loud, but there isn’t that trope of all these Jewish boys running around the Lower East Side pitching one-liners and getting hired on late night shows. That doesn’t exist anymore. And so my Judaism feels personal to me. And if it seeps into my art and my comedy, which it always does, then so be it.
I saw this tweet from you a while ago, that said something like, the “Jewish American Princess to improv comedian to twitter socialist pipeline.” Did you ever consider yourself a Jewish American Princess?
Yes. I grew up in New York City and I went to Hunter College High School, which is a magnet school on the Upper East Side. I was friends with a bunch of Jewish girls, who are still my friends to this day, and we had the Coach wristlets and the Juicy tracksuits and we were sort of deemed Jewish American Princesses, which I will say, probably only would have happened at a school like Hunter where we were in the minority. If we had gone to like, any private school in the city, I don’t think anyone would have singled us out for that.
But yeah, that was a big part of my identity and just learning to not to be offended by that and taking it in stride. People wouldn’t stop calling us that, no matter if we asked them. And then I went to Oberlin and found comedy, and I think I’ve been the same the entire time. I tweeted that and I was like, I’m an original. And then my friend Simone Norman replied to it and was like, no, this is me too. And I was like, nevermind.
The ubiquitous radicalization of former Jewish American Princesses.
Yes, yes. It happened to all of us via improv comedy.
So what would you say are your favorite Jewish traditions?
I’m a big Passover girl. We always go to my aunt’s house, and it’s always a fun gathering of people and lots of singing and all that. I also really love the Friday night services at my synagogue; the live music is really cool.
In the pandemic, my mom and her friends started doing Zoom Shabbat. And so that was really fun, because it’s like, 30 Jews. It was nice to gather in that way throughout a tumultuous time, but also just so funny to be like, [mimicking the voice of older Jewish women] did you see the care package that the rabbi sent this week? They actually did a really nice job. Stuff like that.
“Sophie Sucks Face” isn’t your first musical comedy; a few years ago you put on a pop musical called “Mistressbate.” I’m curious as to what draws you to musical comedy? And is any part of that deriving from a Jewish connection to music?
Not necessarily. I’m a classically trained pianist. So I played piano and learned music theory and composed for 17 years, and I thought I was going to be a musician. And then I just didn’t really gravitate towards all the things you had to do before you are a professional musician, all the gigging. I never really got into it.
But with comedy I loved doing a show that I put my heart into for, like, 12 people, you know? It just resonated differently.
I think my love of music probably comes from my dad, who also loves music and played me music a lot when I was younger. But I will say, I think my dad’s connection to our Jewish life is through a lot of the music that we hear. Because he’s otherwise not particularly religious, but he really loves that ritual of singing and my synagogue has this whole band.
Who would you say are your Jewish comedic influences?
Rachel Bloom has really been a huge example of what is possible in terms of combining music and comedy and this somewhat Jewish and very female perspective. When “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” came out all these friends texted me and were like, oh my God, Sophie, the show you were destined to watch is being made right now. I think she’s so funny.
I really love Melissa Broder. She’s more of a writer; she has a couple books, some personal essays, some fiction, and she also is Jewish. And I think she just writes in this incredibly raw and provocative way about everything from sex to eating to her relationship with her mother. It can be shocking, but it never feels like she’s just doing it for shock. She’s just being honest. And that is something that I like to use in my work.
Honestly, I love Liz Phair. She’s not a comedian or Jewish, but she just sings about the way she feels about love and relationships and it’s kind of the way that I feel about them. And she’s a little bit irreverent, a little bit scared of it. She just wants to be this little rocker chick who runs around, and that’s kind of what I want to be, too. But I’m a comedian, so I’m not as cool as her.
You talked about this a little bit, but in what ways would you say that Jewishness influences your comedy?
Well there’s obviously the humor aspect of Jewishness; I do think that being loud, irreverent and too honest is very funny. And that feels like a lot of the Jewish people I know. But I also think there’s the Jewish tradition of meditating on a text. Like when you get bat mitzvahed, you have to analyze your Torah portion, right? And so there’s that idea that you have a new take on a classic idea. And that is a lot of what I like to write. I mean, I’m saying this and I literally will get up on stage and be like, here’s why my socks say I’m a bad girl today. You know what I mean? It obviously does not influence all of it, but when I’m thinking about my big ideas and my big projects, which “Sophie Sucks Face” is one of them, I am always trying to say something and trying to bring a twist to a classic, whether that’s playing with the tropes of musical theater or reinventing what I think a solo show could be or talking about death through the lens of a horny 28-year-old.
What was your experience like on “Dickinson,” going from acting on the show to being a member of the writing staff?
It was awesome. All my dreams came true. I remember when Alena Smith, who’s the showrunner and creator of “Dickinson,” asked me for some of my samples and asked me if I wanted to join the writers’ room. I didn’t sleep for like 24 hours because I was like, oh my god, is this actually happening? And It happened right after my grandmother died, right around the second funeral.
But yeah, being in a writers’ room is incredible. I feel like I just got to learn so much more about how the show is made, but then also got to write some fun stuff for the actors I love on set and for myself.
OK, just one more, somewhat philosophical question. Do you think there is such a thing as Jewish comedy?
I think there is such a thing as comedy that is funnier to Jews than to other people. But I think that exists in every religion or cultural sort of niche. I saw Alex Edelman’s show “Just For Us” and it was fantastic for everyone in the audience, but even he makes a joke at the beginning of the show where he’s like, you’re really gonna love this if you’re this certain kind of Jew. And I am and I loved it. I think that’s how I feel about Rachel Bloom and Melissa Broder and all those people, too. They speak to an experience that we share, and so the humor cuts that much deeper.
But I don’t know, when I think about what Jewish comedy is, I think about a comedian doing jokes about Moses for a Purim event. And maybe that is what Jewish comedy is, but that’s not my Jewish comedy.
“Sophie Sucks Face” is running at Life World in Brooklyn, NY on March 4 and 5 at 8 p.m. You can buy tickets here.