Sophie Zucker approaches one of five security guards outside Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, anxiously offering up a stuffed backpack for inspection. It’s an autumn Friday evening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Earlier that day, the FBI warned synagogues in New Jersey of a potential act of antisemitic violence, leaving tri-state Jews on edge. Unfazed, the guard peeks inside the backpack. “It’s just a tutu,” Zucker explains.
Sitting in the back row of her childhood synagogue’s sanctuary, the 29-year-old actress and comedian is the portrait of modern Shabbat, dressed in all black except for a pair of colorful Air Jordans that stand out against a sea of less flashy footwear. “Do you speak Hebrew?” she asks me.
Zucker herself can read the words, but prefers to follow the service in English and sing by memory. She comes from a musical family and sings in a precise, clear alto. It’s a skill she’s honed since childhood, and she’s not shy about it. “At Friday night services, they used to have a bar or bat mitzvah read a poem or sing a song to contribute to the service,” Zucker whispers. “My mom claims that after I sang ‘Oseh Shalom,’ they stopped doing it because they were like, ‘It’s so unfair to the kids without musical prowess.’”
Seated (mostly) quietly in a pew towards the back, Zucker does nothing to betray to her fellow congregants that she is almost-kinda-famous. When I met her for Shabbat services, she was coming off a three-season run as an actor and writer on the Apple TV+ series Dickinson, a cheekily ahistorical show about the poet Emily Dickinson, and preparing to debut her one-woman musical, Sophie Sucks Face, which she wrote and composed herself, at the SoHo Playhouse.
The musical’s not-totally-autobiographical protagonist is a woman named Sophie, who travels to her grandfather’s shiva and finds herself crushing majorly on her Israeli second cousin, Yoni. The fake Sophie knows her crush is more than a little weird: She already has a boyfriend, and Yoni is family. But when her grandmother dies just three weeks later, she’s forced to see Yoni again and confront her awkward feelings.
Like much of Zucker’s work, Sophie Sucks Face combines biographical and invented elements. Creator and character share a vocation — Jewish actor — but the show’s Sophie is only a partial reflection of the real Zucker. What distinguishes the show from other comedic confessionals, like those of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, are its musical interludes and pervasive Jewish campiness. Pregaming a night out on the town with Shabbat services is exactly the kind of thing that would happen in Zucker’s show.
Our next stop is Brooklyn’s Union Hall, where Zucker is slated to perform at a friend’s comedy show. (Thus, the tutu.) She’s avoiding alcohol until after the performance. But we happily accept plastic shot glasses of peach grape juice at the end of services, knocking back a bit of Shabbos cheer on our way out the door.
It’s surprising that Zucker chose this moment in her blossoming career to stage Sophie Sucks Face. When I met her, she had already scored a role in Jordan Weiss’s upcoming movie Sweethearts; she joined the Daily Show writers’ room in January. Her all-women comedy troupe, Ladies Who Ranch is working on a forthcoming TV show with the production company Cowboy Bear Ninja. An ignorant outsider (or reporter) might think that now is the time for Zucker to consolidate, draw extra attention to her mainstream success, rather than put on a super-Jewy show about incest in a 60-person theater.
And yet, there she was, confidently parodying the world she grew up in: Jewish New York. After briefly departing her Upper West Side shtetl for college at Oberlin, Zucker returned to the city in 2016 to pursue acting and comedy. Working briefly as an assistant on The Good Wife and answering calls for a shaving startup to make rent, she focused her creative energy on standup and improv.
From the beginning, her Jewish background — and Jewish humor — animated her work. In Family Friends, a 2018 web series Zucker made with her friend Ian Lockwood about yuppies in New York City, she parodies the world from whence she came, playing a ditzy mother who sits on her kitchen counter, munches on smoked fish and kvetches, “I looove to read Tooooorah, with my boooook club.”
Once she got an agent, Zucker thought she would find work as a writer. Instead, she earned small acting roles on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Mindy Kaling’s Late Night, and, eventually, Dickinson. On Dickinson, Zucker played Abby Wood, a frenemy of the titular character. It was a bit part designed to provide “comic relief,” Zucker recalled. But her performance earned praise from outlets like The Hollywood Reporter.
Zucker plays every character in her one-woman musical. Courtesy of Sophie Zucker
Remembering her reaction to Zucker’s audition tape, showrunner Alena Smith said, “I wrote to the casting director, in all caps, ‘I WANT SOPHIE ZUCKER!’” With Smith as a mentor, Zucker took on larger roles, in the writers’ room and on-screen. She wrote her first TV episodes in the second and third seasons of Dickinson. Meanwhile, in season three, Abby took on a small independent storyline, agitating for womens’ suffrage and feminism.
Zucker tackles similar themes in her own comedy — but with a modern flair. Abby, as a 19th-century woman, is limited to displays like knitting VOTES FOR WOMEN into a blanket, Zucker pokes fun at the persistence of those now-outdated gestures in the 21st. Abby can’t be sarcastic about feminism, but she can.
In Sophie Sucks Face, which will return to New York with a run at Brooklyn Comedy Collective in March, Zucker plays every character, using each of them to introduce — and mock — a different way of living a Jewish life. There’s Sophie’s mother who cares more about performing grief than experiencing it; her uncle, nastily quipping about death; and Devina, a family friend who goads Sophie into explaining the culture wars by complaining that all her favorite comedians have been “canceled.”
Most importantly, there’s Yoni. Buff, tall and fresh out of the IDF, he’s a Zionist dripping with post-army certainty. In conversation with Devina, Sophie stands up for her beliefs and argues for a nuanced view of the culture wars. With Yoni, she finds herself nodding along nervously assertions that, in Israel, “We fight them to the death and that’s all there is to it.”
Yoni’s appeal isn’t just sexual. His outlook offers Sophie a glimpse of a theoretically simpler life in a place where being a Jewish actress doesn’t entail, as our heroine puts it, being “thrown in the oven when they come to town.” Even as Sophie accuses her cousin of being complicit in apartheid and mass murder, she can’t help getting lured into the fantasy.
Just as Sophie Sucks Face tries to balance many different ways of being a Jew, the real-life Zucker wants her industry to accommodate different ways of tackling Jewish subjects on stage. In early versions of the show, she didn’t even say the word “shiva” for fear of drawing comparisons to the 2020 movie Shiva Baby.
But ultimately, Zucker changed her mind. Crinkling her nose disdainfully at the idea that only one funny woman gets to talk about Jewish funerals, she said, “I think that’s a version of antisemitism, to say, ‘Well, we have the one Jewish story and we have the one Jewish creator.’”
At the end of Sophie Sucks Face, Sophie sets herself to making it work with her current boyfriend and her life as a diaspora Jew. Instead of, as she puts it, eloping with Yoni to “be a nasty slut in Tel Aviv,” she returns home to New York: to the boyfriend who used to work for the anti-occupation organization If Not Now. To a life as a public-facing Jew.
After Friday night services end, the real Sophie Zucker leads me to Union Hall, where she dons the tutu at last. She’s set to perform at Lockwood’s semi-scripted comedy show, Ian Lockwood’s Girlfriend Pageant, a parody of traditional beauty contests in which female comics vie for his “approval.”
Zucker’s character, a reformed “bad girl” named Angel, does not win the pageant, but she elicits enough cheers to make her creator happy. As soon as the show ends, the comedians and Zucker’s real-life boyfriend, an attentive and kind man whom I too would choose over Yoni, decamp from Union Hall in search of another bar.
By the end of the show, Zucker’s onstage persona has mastered the temptation to “be a nasty slut in Tel Aviv.” Courtesy of Sophie Zucker
En route, Zucker’s friends are eager to sing her praises to the reporter in their midst. Zucker, however, is already looking ahead to the day when Sophie Sucks Face might become a comedy special or even a movie. And when she tells me about her vocal training, she’s referring not to the show’s three-day engagement in New York last November, but to the 30-day run she hopes — no, plans — to have at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “I want to sound good for like, a month straight,” Zucker says.
Eventually, we end up at the Bed-Stuy bar C’mon Everybody, where a drag show is in progress. There’s a kinetic energy in the tight space, where performers, bartenders, customers and bouncers zip around like pinballs.
For Zucker, there’s something special about going from her own performance to seeing the drag queens at C’mon Everybody. Like her, they’re up-and-comers in New York, good at what they do but not famous for it — yet.
Turning back to her fellow comedians, Zucker screams along to Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u.” Looking at Sophie’s backpack, inspected outside her synagogue just hours ago, I remember that there are people who would rather replace C’mon Everybody, replace Sophie Sucks Face, with another kind of culture altogether, something far more monotonous and uniform.
At Union Hall, Zucker and I had talked about fear. “People marching with guns saying ‘Jews will not replace us,’ synagogues being shot up, that scares me,” Zucker said. “And it scares me for other people.” She spoke about social media solidarity, which in her opinion is “the bare minimum” of support: “I’m working on this bit satirizing that. What are other bare minimum things that you can do to support the Jewish people?
For Zucker, choosing to stand up and live her own life is the bare minimum. She might become a movie star someday, or not. But she’s living her values. And laughing at herself while she does it.
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