The name Shuli Egar may not mean much to you. Shalom Shuli, on the other hand? That probably rings a bell. The longtime Howard Stern Show “correspondent” and stand-up comic will be playing three nights at Royal Comedy Theatre in downtown Hopkins. Egar talked about his Israeli roots, bombing on stage, and dealing with the offended ahead of his first visit to Minnesota.
You’re in New York now; are you from there?
I was born in Israel the youngest of three. When I was between 3 and 4, my parents, they had a hunch the madness wasn’t going to end anytime soon, and they had lost enough family members in the military and they didn’t want their three boys to have to go into the military. So they packed up the family of five with no connections other than a couple people they knew in LA and moved there in 1978. I went to school in L.A. After high school, I moved with some buddies to Arizona. After a year there, I moved to Vegas, and I lived there for about 12 years. That’s where I started doing comedy.
What got you into wanting to do comedy? Did you always want to do stand up?
For me, it was stand up. Because we were from Israel, we had a lot of family visiting us in the States. Every time we had family here, I was the tour guide that took them to Universal Studios and to Disneyland because I spoke both languages. I was 7 or 8 or 9 and I’m taking a handful of Israelis around Universal. Saw this guy with a sandwich board sign that said “Insults, $1.” There was a line of people a mile long with dollars in their hand, giving this guy a dollar and he would just annihilate them. Years later I found out it was Don Rickles, who was filming something at Universal. I would just watch this guy tear apart these people and I thought ‘Holy shit, that would be so much fun.’
The one thing my brain always retained was stand-up. Since I was a kid, all the standup shows I watched, they were always stuck in my mind. I always remember the funny stuff. I remember Howie Mandel’s Chicago special. For me, comedy was a big deal early on. I got to the point I wanted to try it. My family said I was funny. Got to the point I’ve got to try this, and if I fail, at least I tried. But I don’t want to be in my 60s and 70s and think ‘what if?’.
When I tried it went horribly wrong. I couldn’t get off the stage fast enough. Like an hour after I got over the fear of being on stage, I wanted to try again. So I started pursuing it. Unfortunately, I lived in Vegas and there was no circuit. The hotels had a comedy club but no open mic or amateur night. There was no scene. Nowhere to develop. Me and some buddies started producing open mic shows all over town. I like to think that there’s a scene there because of what we did. If you can make a bar full of people laugh with gambling addiction, you are on your way. You have to have a really good material to compete with gambling addiction.
You start to make there and then you got hooked up with Howard Stern, right?
I was a fan for many years. I was instantly drawn to the show and this guy. I stayed up to listen to it. In Vegas, you work late hours. I get home at 1 or 2 in the morning, but the show would come on at 3. So I would listen for two or three hours and I’d go to bed at 5 or 6 in the morning. This one night I’m listening and they are talking about how they are coming to do a week’s worth of shows from the Hard Rock Hotel, and they’d be at the blackjack table. I call in and say ‘I want to make a bet with you guys at the blackjack table. I live in Vegas, you don’t have to pay for a hotel. I just want to make a bet with you.’ And they agreed. I went from listening for 10-plus years to being 10-feet away. At the time I worked at a souvenir liquor store in downtown Vegas. I brought every penny to my name – $300 – to the table. We put our bets in one spot. Of course, we get an 11 so we have to double down and I don’t have any more money. Howard staked me $300, the dealer busted and we won. I saw a crack in the door and I’m going to call every day. I’ll come up with whatever I can to play ball with these guys. That was my dream. For the next few years, that’s what I was. I was a regular caller. He took my calls regularly. I treated it like a job. I got home, I’d start writing stuff and have it all prepared. It was my thing. I had a dream that I’d get a chance to work with these guys one day. I had a lot of friends, comics, who wondered why I waste my time. I said ‘It’s my way of thanking a show that got me through so many shitty times.’ It didn’t make sense for me not to.
It seems like all those years like an open-mic setting.
One-hundred percent. One of the things I prided myself on was not plugging my comedy shows. At the time, I know I wasn’t a good a comic. I didn’t want to piggyback off his name. For me, it wasn’t about using it for promotion. It was just about being able to be a part of this thing that was so entertaining.
There are all kinds of comics out there; was it the Rickles/insult comic that inspired you or was it a variety of guys?
It was definitely a variety. I’m not a big insult guy, but if someone is fucking with me in the crowd or wants attention, I’ve been known to give it to them and they slowly learn the attention is the last thing they want from me. Bill Hicks is a great comic that I love. [Andrew] “Dice” [Clay] was a guy that was so influential just because, early on, I was doing so poorly at it and bombing so badly because, in all honesty, I wasn’t great but I was also playing to a room of people that were pissed they lost their kids’ college tuition or whatever. It was an uphill battle to begin with, but you couple that with doing free shows and people were coming to gamble and you’re starting a comedy show in front of them that they didn’t sign up for. It was a lot of combat comedy, and Dice’s album “The Day The Laughter Died Part 1 and 2,” where he bombs for two hours and that for me and a lot of my friends back then was a lifeboat. I remember there were some nights where I thought I couldn’t do it anymore, but I hear a guy like Dice bombing on purpose and having fun with it, and I’m like ‘Oh, it can be fun. It doesn’t have to be terrifying.’ Nothing that is funny and polished now started that way. You’ve got to eat a bit of a shit sandwich if you want to play this game. If it’s funny and it’s true you can’t beat it.
How do you walk the line of being true to yourself but tiptoeing “cultural norms”?
I think people get mixed up with the fact that somehow we’re perceived as standing in front of a podium and lecturing. That’s not the case. I tell people, and this is true ‘I can’t afford therapy, so you’re going to hear some shit tonight.’ I gotta get it off my chest and this is where it’s going to happen. It’s therapeutic for me. It’s also in the way you deliver the jokes, too. If you’re not an angry guy and you fake angry, it doesn’t sell. I’m a happy guy, but I talk shit and I bust people’s balls, but you know I’m kidding around.
Do you play to the stereotype of Jews being funny?
I do make a lot of Jewish jokes. I had a guy come up to me after the show and as he’s shaking my hand, he says to me I’m a Jew from New York and I didn’t appreciate the self-deprecating Jewish joke. I told him ‘As a comic, we write what we know; that’s why you didn’t hear a lot of Kwanza material. I’m a Jew from Israel. That makes me an OJ – Original Jew. My father fought for the state of Israel. If you were a real Jew, you’d have got your money back and left.’ That was the end of that conversation.
Have you come to Minnesota before?
First trip out here. I want to let all 12 Jews know I’m coming and to come see me. I’m excited to be out there. The Jewish stuff is definitely part of my act.
Tickets for Shuli Egar’s shows at the Royal Comedy Theatre are available online.