Robby Hoffman

Robby Hoffman is coming back to Montreal to tell it to you like it is

Even if you’ve never met her, Robby Hoffman is right about why you’re wrong. She’s a small, queer ex-Hasidic comedian with a Daytime Emmy Award. What have you done with your life?

Robby Hoffman is coming home.

The seventh of ten siblings raised by a single mother in a Hasidic household in Cote-des-Neiges, Hoffman was on her way to becoming an accountant, when, just a few hours into her studies at McGill, and on the first day of class, she decided instead to be a comedian. Today she has an Emmy, a list of writing credits, a comedy special and several Just for Laughs appearances under her belt. It’s been said before but always bears repeating: Don’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of your dreams.

Taylor Noakes: How exactly did you get into comedy?

Robby Hoffman: I kind of heard of it and then thought, okay. That’s the short answer. At that point I was in Montreal. The biggest comedy festival in the world is happening — a lot of people don’t know that but I think that is unique — and when I caught wind of what that was, I kind of thought, ‘Well, that’s me…’ having no expectations or understanding of what that is.

And then I kind of just asked, ‘Where’s the best place to bomb?’ And I was led to this horrendous loft on— what’s that street? Prince-Arthur? St-Laurent? It was called Too Much! and it was started by George Braithwaite. He was an artist as well. And it was just this loft that was packed with — I feel like I’m like a Kurt Vonnegut novel describing this — but it was just like random people, many people from the street just trying to get warm. People were smoking inside, doing shots. I was probably much too young to be there, but that’s where I started standup. That kind of smoky, packed, disgusting, dilapidated artsy loft is actually ideal for standup.

TN: Do you remember your first show? I’m assuming it was at Too Much!

Robby Hoffman: It was there. Yeah, I got up. I had a shot when I got in with these guys who were maybe in their 30s, but, you know, quite a bit older than me at the time. They offered me a shot. I was very sheltered in terms of having a drink or a cigarette. I remember having that one shot with them, which was disgusting. And then all the cigarette smoke from everybody smoking inside, I was really nauseous. So I get up there. I’m supposed to do five minutes, but I did one minute, and then I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m actually a little nauseous. So I’ll come back later.” 

So I went outside for some fresh air, felt better, went back inside and said to the host, “Okay, I’m ready to do the other four minutes now.” And he’s like, “No, you can’t. That’s not how this works.” And I’m like, “What do you mean? I came in with five minutes and I only did one, so now I have four left…” that’s me being Jewish and mathematical. And he’s like, “No, you can come back next week.” And I did and I kept going back. I was excellent from my second time on. People say, “From the first time on?” And I said no, “The first was wretched, but the second time was excellent.”

TN: I guess that’s why they call it a “tight five,” not a tight one followed by a prolonged break and then another four.

Robby Hoffman: But the smoke, Taylor, you can’t imagine the smoke!

TN: Oh no I can, I’m a lot older than I probably seem. I remember smoking in bars and clubs and restaurants. You can’t even smoke on outdoor terrasses anymore in Montreal. It seems a little barbaric actually.

Robby Hoffman: Montreal has really lost itself.

TN: Who are your comedic influences?

Robby Hoffman: You know, it’s a really, really tough question. I don’t think I grew up with too much comedy, but I would say my family, you know. I pull a lot from my life. I find life to be very funny. My life in particular has been just a nightmare, which I can only laugh at, you know? And as funny as, you know, Jerry Seinfeld is, nobody’s funnier than my brother Shmuely. I give my brother 1,000%— the Venn diagram of what he’s doing and what I find funny is a circle. He’s not allowed to come to any of my shows because of the heckling but outside of actual comedy spaces he kills me.
Robby Hoffman plays Just for Laughs in Montreal on July 29

TN: I know you have a lot of siblings — do you ever workshop material with them?

Robby Hoffman: Zero, never. They workshop material for me! They come up with the most offensive, nothing premises and they say, “You can use this for your act!” And I say, “You use it! Why would I want to talk about it?!” They’ll want to be comedians. When I started doing standup, six of my siblings were like, “So what, you think you’re better than me?” and I said, “No, I’m just doing my own thing — there’s nothing preventing you from doing it.” I literally had six siblings all try standup or try open mic nights, and they would use my name. They’d say, “You know, I’m Robby Hoffman’s brother.” And I’m like, “Can you please leave me out of it! I have no pull yet!” They were very unhelpful (laughs).

TN: Your Hasidic background comes up a lot in interviews and your material. I think the public may have a preconceived notion of what this community is and I’m wondering how true those notions are, or whether there’s any truth to them. They’re often portrayed as exceptionally conservative, inflexible, old-fashioned and perhaps for those reasons wouldn’t be very tolerant of a queer woman comedian coming from its ranks. What do you think?

Robby Hoffman: As conservative as they are, you must remember they’re still Jewish. So funny comes naturally. These aren’t conservative Mormons. They’re still funny and often incredibly funny, brilliantly funny.

TN: Did you leave the community or were you brought out of it?

Robby Hoffman: I was brought out of it by my mother. I was born into it. My mother was Baalot Teshuvah, which is a way of saying she became more religious. She became enlightened, she found God, but for us, we were just covered head to toe and boiling hot. We didn’t have the same enlightenment being born into it. So when we were brought out of it — by the way, we cooled down quite a bit moving to Montreal, I can tell you that much.

TN: So were you already out of the community when you came to Montreal?

Robby Hoffman: No, there are many Hasidic communities. It’s better to think of Hasidim as an umbrella under which there are something like 200 individual Hasidic communities, and though they may look a lot alike on the outside, or to an outsider, to someone like me there are a lot of nuances, such as the way they dress, or the places they originate from. There are small variances between those communities but they are separate communities to an extent. Most Montrealers are probably familiar with the Hasidim of Outremont, who are Satmar, but the one that I grew up in is a Lubavitch community, which is centred on Westbury, Plamondon and Van Horne in Cote-des-Neiges.

TN: What do you think people most misunderstand about Hasidim?

Robby Hoffman: I don’t know that they misunderstand, I don’t know what they’re thinking. They see some weird Jews walking around and that’s probably accurate. There’s some weird Jews walking around. They do their thing and we do ours. Are they weird? They are! There’s almost nothing to say. Hasidic Jews live so seamlessly in big cities, but it’s also the weirdest way to segregate. You know, Hasidic Jews aren’t the first people to want to segregate or isolate from outside influences, or temptations, or wanting to preserve old traditions. But most people who do that — take the Mormons or the Amish — they go do that in Utah, they go to a rural area where they’re surrounded by mountains. Perfect! That’s a great place to segregate! Not Jews — Jews will segregate in the middle of New York fucking City. We like to segregate but still be around people. We want to be in it. I guess we’re like cats. We’ll talk to you when we want to talk to you.

TN: For your upcoming Just for Laughs show, is it going to be like your special I’m Nervous, or is it going to be all new material?

Robby Hoffman: All new. It’s going to be all new and very comfortable. I don’t give a fuck. I’m not taping it, so good luck to whoever’s out there. I’m really excited to be doing this in Montreal, that’s why I came up with the show’s name (Homecoming King). Most people don’t know I have this Montreal connection, but I wanted Montrealers to know this is their show and I’m coming back to them and I’m really excited about that. So this is kind of our show. I’m coming back specifically to show Montreal what I’ve been up to.

TN: What do you most look forward to when coming back to Montreal?

Robby Hoffman: It’s literally the greatest city and it has no reason to be. People use food as a barometer for cities, and I’ve lived in some really great cities, but the best food is in Montreal. And it has no business having that amount of great food, you know? It’s like a small, nothing dot of a city so — why is it even competing? But it does, it’s world class, it kills it. And it’s rude, and it’s mean, and there’s such tension for no reason, it’s petty and the whole shit is so dramatic, and I just love it. ■

OFFJFL presents Robby Hoffman at Théâtre Sainte-Catherine (264 Ste-Catherine E.) on Saturday, July 29, 7 p.m., $38

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Comedy section.