"What are you doing on Christmas Eve?"
For a lot of Americans, the answer is easy. Christmas Eve is a time of traditions, from attending midnight mass, to sipping eggnog and singing carols, to sweating over inscrutable bicycle assembly instructions while a Yule log crackles on the big-screen TV.
But what about those who, for religious or cultural reasons, don't celebrate Christmas -- those who, in the words of comedian Cathy Ladman, have "been shut out of the commercial Christmas season"? It should be no surprise that these Americans have developed some traditions of their own.
For decades, the joke among many Jewish families has been that Christmas Eve is the night when everyone goes out for Chinese food. It's a cliche born from practical reality, as Amy Snell of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center (OFJCC) in Palo Alto explained: "The tradition of Jews eating Chinese food at Christmastime goes back to the days when Chinese restaurants were some of the only businesses that stayed open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The two cultures that are not busy with religious holiday traditions of their own on those days have long found mutual benefit from the situation."
More recently, a new element has been creeping into the Jews-and-Chinese-food tradition. In cities across the country, holiday events have sprung up combining Chinese cuisine with Jewish comedy. That's where Cathy Ladman comes into the picture. She's the featured performer at Chopshticks, the OFJCC's version of this new cultural mash-up, which combines comedy with a buffet-style Chinese dinner from Hunan Garden Restaurant.
"I'm really looking forward to it," Ladman said in a recent telephone interview, "because every other time I've done a show on Christmas Eve for a room full of Jews, it's been great fun." Ladman has appeared previously at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, the San Francisco equivalent, but this will be her first Christmas Eve in Palo Alto.
Ladman considers herself "a comedian who happens to be Jewish, rather than a Jewish comedian." But she notes that shared cultural heritage makes these gigs more intimate and more spontaneous than a typical stand-up performance. "I'm culturally from a Jewish family, so there's things we have in common," she explained. "I know there will be a lot of ad-libbing and a lot of talking to people in the audience. There will be a lot of shorthand because they're Jewish ... I'm Jewish ... we have a lot of similar characters in our family."
And family is where much of Ladman's comedy begins. Her material includes stories about her marriage and about the daughter she and her husband adopted when Ladman was nearly 50. With a studied deadpan, she describes this as "excellent timing," then jokes about being a member not of the PTA, but of the "PTAARP."
When asked how many of her stories are, as she puts it, "merely reporting," Ladman chuckled. "Some of it is. There are times when I've gone back to my family in New York, and some of it is nearly transcribing. But there's a way to craft it too. You have to have an economy of words and timing to have the story land a laugh."
It's a craft that Ladman has been honing for 33 years, perfecting her timing and landing laughs in clubs across the country, making numerous appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," and taping her own HBO "One Night Stand" special.
In the early days, she admits, stand-up was a way of getting attention. "It was just, 'What can I do to get a laugh?' But I think it's become increasingly personal as I've gotten older. It's about my family, about my personal growth. I think it reflects where I am in my life and what my perspective is."
With an act that trades heavily on the realities of everyday life and of growing older, Ladman's perspective sometimes leans toward the dark side. "I like to talk about things that might make people uncomfortable, but then you take the air out of it with comedy, and all of a sudden it's not so verboten and not so scary. It's just another thing. It can't hurt us."
As a prime example, Ladman has recently been workshopping a one-woman act, "Does This Show Make Me Look Fat?," in which she speaks candidly about her decades-long struggle with anorexia. But she was quick to point out that this project is "very different" from the stand-up comedy she'll be performing at Chopshticks. "I don't want people to think they're going to come to the JCC and hear about the awful details of my eating disorder."
She paused for a moment, then added, "But I know I'll be talking about food, because there'll be Jews there."
Of course, the event won't be exclusively Jewish. Christmas Eve comedy gigs have begun drawing diverse audiences, as Americans of all backgrounds discover that a good laugh and some nice moo shu are a great remedy for seasonal stress. As Ladman put it, "We all know why we're there, and we're definitely going to have fun."
What: "Chopshticks" with Comedian Cathy Ladman
Where: Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
When: Wednesday, Dec. 24, at 7:30 p.m.
Info: Go to tinyurl.com/l2tquga or call 650-223-8609