With preconceived notions of comedian Moshe Kasher’s ranty brand of shout-based humor I was weary of his new memoir Kasher in the Rye: The Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16. I first stumbled upon Kasher as I was browsing through a comedy podcast’s guest list. I admit to clicking on his profile because I thought he had kind eyes and a cute smile. My motto has always been “let your conscience be your guide,” and my conscience has always been a 12-year-old girl. The link took me to an AV Club interview interspersed with videos of his stand-up. I clicked on the first clip and within seconds my eardrums were hit by a cacophony of manic shouts, over the top fury, and general smugness. (Can the human ear detect smugness? When it’s hearing the phrase “Because I’m smarter than you,” then yes, yes it can.)
As the mammoth subtitle explains, Kasher’s memoir charts his adolescent journey through therapy sessions, rehab clinics, continuation schools, and the occasional rape charge. Alongside his lovable gang of fellow drug-addled junior thugs, he stumbles through the thorny jungle of adolescence armed with nothing but wisecracks and behavioral issues. The memoir’s early sections, which focus on his parents’ Jewish heritage, marital squabbles (when he was four, his mother sort of abducted him and his brother, moving across the country), and mutual deafness (his parents met at 1967 World Games for the Deaf), are by far its strongest and most involving. His perspective as a hearing son born from deaf parents is particularly fascinating. One moment in particular, when his mother is ordering Taco bell in her “deaf voice” (represented by the phrase “RAAAAR!”), is liquid-spittingly hilarious.
The rest of the memoir focuses on Kasher’s adolescent adventures in drug abuse and juvenile delinquency. Opting for a more Holden Caulfield-esque voice than a wise, introspective adult, Kasher ends up giving the impression that the wounds of his teenhood (as a teen hood) haven’t yet healed. If his intent was to channel the voice of his defensive, whiny, self-involved teen-self, then mission accomplished. It doesn’t mean I enjoyed listening for 200+ pages.
In prose, Kasher seems out of his element. The theatricality and rage characteristic in his stand-up translate poorly to the written word. Where he loses his footing most is when he sacrifices genuine pain or insight for a cheap exclamatory joke. Speaking of cheap jokes, one of Kasher in the Rye’s biggest turn-offs is the way it handles homosexuality. Many jokes stem from Kasher appearing gay, something he is quick to reassure the audience he is not, the subtext being, “Of course I’m not fucking gay!” Whether he is innocently discussing masturbation techniques with his childhood pal, fearing anal impalement due to a seatless bike, or getting into a shoving match with a lispy, flamboyant drama teacher (talk about a drama queen!), he makes it clear that gayness is wack. I often found myself tuning out, waiting for the homophobia to end so I could resume my reading experience.
Slogging through the latter chapters, which focus on his more monstrous behavior becomes a chore. Frustratingly, Kasher compresses his recovery into two skimpy chapters and fast-forwards through the hard work of AA, receiving his GED, and attending UC Santa Barbara. Imagine how much more powerful his story could have been if he’d have embraced those redemptive acronyms. Instead, he concludes his brutally honest, mildly funny memoir on a self-congratulating note: I was a bad kid, but now I’m a good guy.