Ivor Dembina cut his teeth on the alternative comedy circuit
with original material, so I was surprised to discover him performing a show
At sixty-three, it turns out that Ivor Dembina is in his prime.
Narrative comedy shows are de rigueur in Edinburgh. But stories demand exposition, and laughs can be sacrificed to make way for it. Good jokes will be dropped from a show if they can't be crowbarred in to fit the theme. The North American tradition of delivering a fifty-five minute club set with no through story has been adopted by a handful of comedians. But what Dembina has successfully done in Old Jewish Jokes is marry the narrative and the club set, the old and the contemporary, to create something special. For once, the jokes actually drive the story – and Dembina's experience as a comedy writer shows.
The local rabbi books Dembina to perform at a benefit in his temple. Over the weeks before the gig, Dembina is drip-fed directions on what he isn't allowed to say. The first request seems reasonable enough, 'don't do material about the Holocaust, the faithful wont like it.' Dembina explains, importantly, that 'his jokes about the persecution and murder of a people based on their race' are not at the expense of the victims. Nevertheless, the rabbi stands firm and Dembina accepts the instruction. Weeks later a second request is made. Now the rabbi wants to avoid any mention of Israel. Dembina reluctantly relents. Of course, this Fringe audience is not at a temple, so Dembina shares his banned gags with us. The jokes may be a wee bit close to the bone, but they are very funny and it’s clear from Dembina, that the joke is on the aggressors.
For the most part, Dembina's style is laid back and non-confrontational, so we allow him the occasional near-knuckle gag. Again his experience, this time as a performer, is much in evidence. For example, he's not afraid to use silence to make a joke work whilst successfully prompting his audience to think.
There are a lot of terrific gags in the show, both old and new – each and every one of them is delivered perfectly. Not only is Old Jewish Jokes very funny, but the issues it raises concerning censorship, the Holocaust and Palestine will continue to be reflected on and debated when this year's Fringe is long since over. And so, at sixty-three, it turns out that Ivor Dembina is in his prime.