Comedian, writer and actor Mo Mandel is not your typical Jew. Having grown up with a decidedly hippy influence—a Native American shaman joined his Bar Mitzvah celebrations—Mandel got his big break by winning Comedy Central's "Open Mic Fight." The funnyman has since appeared on Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham," "Comedy Central Presents,” "Reality Bites Back" and E!'s "Chelsea Lately," in addition to fictional bouts on “Happy Endings,” “Love Bites,” “Castle,” and “Free Agents.” His comedy album “The M Word” is available for download on iTunes. Jspace caught up with the comic to talk about his Jewish heritage and his future in fiction.
Jspace: What inspired you to become a comic?
Mo Mandel: I was actually a creative writing major in college, and used to write novels and short stories. Eventually I just got less angsty, so I figured it would be better to write things that people wanted to actually hear, as opposed to depressing stories of an unhappy college student.
I switched to comedy because also when you write novels and short stories, it’s hard to get anyone to want to read it. You might be able to get your girlfriend to read it once if you promise to take her out to a nice restaurant, and maybe your mom. But the thing about stand up is you can write something and share it with an audience that night. It’s a more accessible media.
How did you get your start performing stand up?
I was working at a summer camp the summer after I graduated college, and I had gotten fixated on the idea of trying to write jokes. I always loved stand up comedy, but I got the feeling that I could do that, or do better than that. So at the end of the summer I asked all the other counselors to come into the laundry room at three in the morning and told them I was going to do a stand-up show. And I did it. It went horribly. And I haven’t stopped doing it since.
Who are some of the comics that have influenced your style?
Growing up I listened to my dad’s old Woody Allen and Jackie Mason records, as well as Chris Rock. Once I got into comedy, guys like Daniel Tosh, Louis C.K., and David Attell were my favorite comics.
But I grew up listening to Jackie Mason all the time and I had his album “The World According to Me” memorized. I actually shot a ridiculous indie film with him for a month in New Jersey. The whole time we were shooting I was telling him one joke of his after another.
It’s funny because of all of the things I’ve accomplished, doing a movie with Jackie Mason is the thing my parents are still the most impressed by. Even though no one else finds it impressive at all.
How is it to mine your Jewish heritage for jokes?
The way that I grew up Jewish was so untraditional. I had a Native American shaman at my Bar Mitzvah, which was in the middle of a Eucalyptus grove in Northern California. So when I get asked to do traditional Jewish shows, I don’t know half the things that the other comics are talking about, because I didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, I didn’t grow up around a Jewish community like in New York or Los Angeles.
I grew up in a town that had five Jewish families and a lot of rednecks and Mexicans. We had our own little covert synagogue operation where we would actually rent out a Catholic church. They wouldn’t let us take down the Jesus stuff, but they would let us cover it up for the High Holidays.
Has your Jewishness influenced your career or personal choices outside of content for your jokes?
I got my big break when I won this Comedy Central competition at the end of 2007. The way it worked was they put the last three comedians from the competition online so people could vote. There was me, an African-American guy, and an Indian guy. They were each really plugging their communities to get behind them, so I was like, “I need to get on this train.” I wrote Birthright an e-mail—I had just gotten back from Birthright a week before the contest—and said, “Can you throw out an email blasting this?” They did, and I ended up winning the contest.
The reaction you get to being Jewish is so different depending on where you go. If you’re in Los Angeles and you talk about being Jewish, the crowd rolls their eyes like, “Ugh, another one,” because there are so many Jews in comedy. Whereas if you talk about being Jewish in Kansas City, you feel the audience roll their eyes because they’re like, “Oh, we hate these people!”
When I was in Cleveland, I said I was Jewish and a woman in the front row literally groaned. Then I had to do another hour of comedy to basically entertain her without bringing this up because nobody else in the crowd seemed bothered that she’d done that.
But the most annoying thing you get being a Jewish comedian and performing in the Midwest, is people—they don’t say anything mean at all—but they come up to you after the show and try to bond with you over the fact that they also know a Jew who they’re friends with. And even know that’s none of the conversation, they could be like, “Oh you’re really funny, you know, my mechanic went to law school with a guy who” or just some bulls**t and you’re like, “I don’t f**king care.” Buy the CD or don’t, but I don’t need to hear that you went to a bagel shop.
Where do you see yourself fitting into the subculture of Jewish comics?
I feel like I’m sort of neurotic but I’m not a pussy. I’ve been in a fistfight but I also can’t really change a tire. I’m somewhere in between. A lot of times I feel like I’m more Woody Allen inside than I am outside. I grew up in a dirt road, so I can’t be too Woody Allen, too neurotic, but at the same time I’m in therapy. So I would say I got the worst of both worlds—which makes for a good stand up act.
I feel like at this point if you’re just a Jewish comedian, you’re not going to have a career because there’s almost nobody who can play that act anymore. Other races who are doing comedy like Indian and Latino people can make a real great career for themselves by saying, “Hey I’m a Latino comedian! I’m an American-Indian comedian!” But for Jews that’s been around for so long. We invented stand-up comedy.
What are some of the challenges or differences of doing standup versus scripted work?
Stand up comedians have to entertain about 400 people at a time, so they think they’re a phenomenal actor. But what you realize when you start doing acting is that it’s not just performing, it’s also listening and reacting to what the other person is doing. For someone who’s narcissistic and likes to talk, it’s difficult!
Do you have any war stories from the stage or the set?
The first time I did one line on the set of this Jackie Mason movie, he turned to the director and goes, “You know, that’s not bad for a guy with no talent.” So that was pretty sweet.
I did an episode of “Castle” on ABC, where the cops busted in on me and another guy with two girls. The director was trying to figure out what activities we were going to be doing. He turns to me and the girl I’m with and said, “Let’s pretend you guys are just having a drink together and talking and laughing,” and he turns to the other guy and goes, “Let’s pretend you guys are making out and just about have sex.” So for an hour I had to pretend I was talking while this other guy gets to make out with this smoking hot actress. What kind of luck is that?
Doing “Modern Family” was a pretty special moment, because I got to shoot a scene with Ed O'Neill, who played Al Bundy. My girlfriend’s quite a bit younger than me, so when I came home and told her that I had shot a scene with Al Bundy, she said, “Who’s Al Bundy?” which was incredibly erotic actually because it just clarified to me how young she is.
Are you planning to move into more scripted projects, or will you continue to do stand-up?
The overall goal is to have the “Mo Mandel Show” on some network or cable station some time soon. But the great thing about doing stand-up is that you can always do it in the off-season. I’ve been doing “Chelsea Lately” a lot, and that’s been helping me build a fan base. But when I’m in between things, going on the road is a great way to remind yourself that people do like what you do and you do have some talent.
Do you have any advice for aspiring Jewish comedians?
I’d say be a lawyer. We don’t need the competition down here. But really, the best thing they could do is keep getting on stage. And buy my CD “The M Word” on iTunes, really study it, and tell their friends to buy it too.