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This comedian sees a connection between the Burning Man festival and his Jewish faith


Some comedians always seem to be on the hunt for new material. And then there are others whose lives seem to be chock full of stories just waiting to be shared onstage. That describes Moshe Kasher, who spoke about his new memoir with our colleague Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Maybe you know someone like this, that person who seems to have had a hundred different lives. And when they regale you with stories of these lives, part of you is envious because you, too, want to have sucked the marrow out of life while dancing half-naked in the desert. But that envy evaporates pretty fast when they tell you about the other lives that included a whole lot of suffering and loneliness.

Moshe Kasher is that guy. But he doesn't want your pity. He doesn't want your envy. More than anything else, he wants to make you laugh. And he does so very well in his new memoir, "Subculture Vulture," which is about six subcultures that he's inhabited throughout his life. One of them is the world of Burning Man, hence dancing naked in the desert. We talked a lot about how he found healing there. But as I said, this guy has had a lot of lives. So he also writes about being the child of deaf parents and fitting into the world of Alcoholics Anonymous and conservative Judaism and comedy and the rave scene. And while he's learned to see harmony in all these identities, as a kid, his world was anything but harmonious.

MOSHE KASHER: I had deaf parents, an identity crisis where I would fly back home six weeks a year to cosplay as a Hasidic Jew. I was in Oakland public schools, sort of socially isolated. I mean, everything was so chaotic. And that was the void that, when I found a group of bad boys who said, why don't you join us at the back of the portables and we could smoke cigarettes and we can get loaded together, it was like a molecular reconfiguration. It was like, I have found people that that accept me. I have found people that will love me warts and all because they have warts, too. And so by the time I was three years into hanging out with those kids, I was in a lot of trouble. I had slid down the ladder very quickly. And I said to myself, if I keep living like this, it's - I'm going nowhere or I'm going to perdition.

And that's when I got sober. And that's when I, you know, I just - you know, the thing that happens when you get sober is the void you were trying to fill with drugs and alcohol is - it's raw. It's like a raw wound, you know? And the way that I healed that wound in so many ways was by finding these worlds where I could be - I could find that same feeling of, like, these are my people, but that wouldn't destroy me - would build me up.

MARTIN: How does that - so Burning Man - huge festival in the desert, alternative cultures, an anarchist bent. I don't know. You say other words that fill in the blanks.

KASHER: Well, I'll tell - I can say words, but the words depend really on when you're talking about it. You know, I started attending Burning Man in 1996, when I was 16 years old. And I had heard that there was a rave in the desert. And at that time, that was all that I needed to pack a car and drive eight hours east and figure out what was waiting for me there. And when I got there, it was not - I don't know what - I didn't know what it was, but it was not a rave. It was some other thing. It was a dangerous, wild, artistic, culture jamming, fractalated, just mind-bending experience. And I was clean and sober, 16 years old. And it...

MARTIN: Right.

KASHER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: That's the part I don't - I sort of don't get. I will fess up to never having been to Burning Man. But friends of mine who have gone and things I have read make it seem that being sober would be, like, a strange experience to be there as someone in recovery in particular because isn't it...

KASHER: Well, that's the part that is - I didn't want to be some buttoned-up recovery boy for the - all of my - the late teens and 20s. I wanted to feel like I could have a life that was exciting and fun and filled with experiences and just, like, packed full of life. And I know that both Burning Man and the rave scene both elicit kind of an eye roll from people that are cynical about those things. But both of them were as healing a therapeutic elixir as the 12 steps in AA was. It was as spiritual an experience as the Torah was for me in Judaism.

MARTIN: Can you say more about what that means? Who were you when you were there?

KASHER: In the Jewish religion, every fall there is our High Holidays, the Days of Awe, you know, where you start to take stock of yourself throughout the year. Rosh Hashanah is when that begins. You start to consider the mistakes you've made, the steps that you wish you'd taken instead. And then Yom Kippur, you're sort of cleansed. And I really like that about Judaism - that every year you just start fresh. But I've incorporated Burning Man into that. And I hope this doesn't elicit an eye roll, but it's just the truth - that my Days of Awe...

MARTIN: I don't eye roll. I'm not going to eye roll.

KASHER: You're not an eye roller. No, you're an open person. But I do think when I go, now, I have incorporated the burning of the man into the Jewish Days of Awe...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

KASHER: ...I can just feel somebody going, give me a break.

MARTIN: Yeah. No, yeah, yeah.

KASHER: But that is - I have synthesized it. If the burning of the man has any actual meaning for me - it really - you know, it can mean a lot of things to a lot of people - just an excuse to party in the desert. It's a weird Silicon Valley drug-fueled corporate retreat. But for me, when I see the man burn, what it means to me is that we are all, you know, a man or a woman or a person about to catch fire. We are impermanent. And so that's where my Days of Awe start. When I see the man burn, I go, I am dying. I will die. I will be gone. What have I done in the last year that I enjoyed? And what would I like to do in the next year to create - to pack more experiences into this life?

MARTIN: Is that your opening line when you go onstage to do a set?

KASHER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I am dying.

KASHER: No, that's what I say at the...

MARTIN: And you are, too.

KASHER: No, that's what I say in the middle of the set when it's not going well. OK, I am dying.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

KASHER: This is not what I wished would happen. But you know what? Life is impermanent. We are all about to catch fire.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So, I mean, this is how you pay your rent. You are a stand-up comic. This is yet another subculture that you inhabit. If some young up-and-comer whippersnapper comic came up to you and asked what your philosophy of comedy is, what would you say?

KASHER: Make people laugh.


KASHER: I think that, you know, a lot of the writing in this book about comedy is my reckoning and the reckoning that everybody in comedy is having with, like, what the responsibility of the comedian is. And what I offer as my closest thing to a philosophy I have about comedy is that the job of the comedian is to make the audience laugh. I know that that sounds reductive, but I think that it's the truth. And there is value just in that. There is value in people watching something that makes them have joy for an hour, packed full of fun and joy for one hour. Now, sometimes that joy comes from somebody speaking truth to power - you know, George Carlin. And sometimes that joy comes from somebody just watching a guy being silly - Steve Martin. And I don't think that one is the more righteous version of comedy. I think that comedy is for people to laugh and that sometimes that includes philosophy and sometimes that includes ridiculousness. But there is spiritual and there is philosophical value in bringing people that experience.

MARTIN: Moshe Kasher, comedian and writer. His most recent book is called "Subculture Vulture: A Memoir In Six Cities." Moshe, thank you so much. This was so fun.

KASHER: My pleasure. I had a great time. Thank you for talking to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSSANOVA'S "BLUE BOSSANOVA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.