With a curly gray wig and pink, comically smudged lipstick, Gary Spielberg (no relation to the legendary filmmaker), 26, is ready to rock, “Baba Fira“-style.
“Baba Fira” is the Russian Jewish grandmother persona that Spielberg created for his popular YouTube series in February 2012. In these parodies, Baba Fira force-feeds her 21-year-old grandson Olivier (a popular Russian potato salad), then nags him to lose weight in order to attract a good wife. In spite—or perhaps because of—her guilt-inducing tirades, Baba Fira has amassed 813,747 YouTube views, and comments like “Entertainment at its best! Subscribed!” are ubiquitous.
On a recent summer day, I sat down with Gary to discuss his Russian-Jewish background, comedic inspiration, and future projects. He made me erupt in laughter several times (which I’m normally not quick to do) by effortlessly shifting into Baba Fira’s high-pitched voice and lovable character.
Why did you choose to direct and act in Russian-inspired comedy?
Well, I emigrated with my family from Kharkov, Ukraine to New York in 1990. I was two-years-old at the time. And I later grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn—which is a very Russian populated area in New York. Obviously, Russian culture was a significant part of my identity. Growing up, I originally considered becoming a lawyer and even went to a high school specializing in teaching law. But I later became much more interested in film making and made a big career switch by going to Brooklyn College’s Film School. I took many screenwriting, producing, and directing classes, but I never took official acting ones.
What inspired you create a parody of the Russian babushka in particular?
I used to love prank calling my Russian friends and pretending to be their grandmother. I would yell things like, “Oh my God! Where are you?! I’m going to tell your mom!” These prank calls were very successful! I always scared my friends. And, of course, that was fun to do. I also wanted to create a Russian version of the popular Sh*t New Yorkers say meme that was popular on YouTube.
So one day, in February of 2012, I called my friend Ari Barkan, to act as ‘grandson Joseph’ and another friend to film. We all went to my grandma’s apartment in Brighton Beach when she was out for a doctor’s appointment. I then quickly did an outline for all topics I wanted to cover in the video: Babushka worrying about her grandson’s lack of a serious girlfriend, demanding that her grandson eat grenkie (Russian French toast) and then later pointing out that he’s getting fat, and criticizing her grandson’s “impractical” acting profession. When we shot that video, and I got into full Babushka mode by putting on a house robe, wig, and makeup, I literally became a different person. It was as if I really was a Russian Babushka! In those moments, all of my personal experiences with my own Russian grandmother resurfaced and the Baba Fira character was created. Everyone in the video just improvised and went with the flow. Barely anything was scripted.
I was very close to not releasing the first Baba Fira video. I personally didn’t find it so funny because I wondered “can anyone else relate to this but me?” I only ended up releasing it because I felt bad that my friends invested so much time in it. I felt very gratified when one of our Baba Fira videos became the second most viewed video on Reddit in Russia, after a political video with Putin speaking.
That’s very cool! Tell me about the Brooklyn Russian Vines.
I started it in November 2013. They’re more like Instagram videos, which are 15 seconds. The best part about these video is that I am able to introduce more characters! I joke about random things that Russian parents and people in the Brooklyn Russian community would say or do.
I promised that I would post at least once or twice day and keep the audiences coming back. And so far, that has worked out very well. The response that we got was amazing. What I love most about this project is when I get a message in my inbox from strangers saying that one of my videos “really uplifted them” or that they were “having the worst day ever, but the Brooklyn Russian Vines changed that.
My favorite character in the Brooklyn Russian Vines is “Yana,” who is a slight caricature of the 20-something Brooklyn Russian girl. Is she based on the girls you date?
Sometimes. I really tend to pick up on little things and mannerisms from any girl that I meet. I’m talking to you right now and I could be picking up on something. I also notice how Russian girls interact with each other on Facebook and social media. I take note of their statuses and their hashtags and what that might say about their general habits.
Being able to riff on small, everyday things that most people don’t even notice is part of being a good comedian. Speaking of which, who’s your all-time favorite comedian?
My favorite comedian is definitely Russell Peters. I want to emulate his work, since he also gears toward an immigrant and first-generation-born audience. He makes great jokes about growing up in an Indian home and many non-Americans can relate to his material. He’ll mimic a conversation that he has with his parents. He’ll say things like “Dad, I’m not feeling well,” and the dad will overreact and say “Oh my goodness. You have fever! We must take you to the hospital!” Russian parents can also be just like that, and I love how this humor connects all kinds of immigrants together. Watching someone like Peters motivates me to get into stand-up as well, though it’s obviously a different monster than directing and acting.
Do you specifically aim your comedy to a Russian-Jewish audience, or to the broader Russian community?
I try not to make specific Russian-Jewish jokes because I think that everyone in the Russian community should be able to relate to my material. I have many non-Jewish friends and I want everybody in the Russian community to find my vines enjoyable. But, okay, maybe there’s just one Yiddish phrase that I use in my videos: “Kishin tuchus!” (“Kiss my butt!”) My mom and grandma always say that to me when I want something but can’t have it. “You want so-and-so? Kishin tuchus!”
I first went on Birthright two years ago and had a blast. I even made a Baba Fira video during the trip and got my fellow Birthrighters to be in it! After that initial trip, I really wanted to go on Birthright again as a leader of the group. I even became a prime advertiser for the EzraUSA subdivision of Birthright, which attracts many young Russian Jews. I ended up recruiting 275 applicants to the program.
And after I got involved with Birthright, many other organizations targeting young Jews—like Hillel campuses in New York—heard about me and asked me to perform Baba Fira skits at their events. I now volunteer for young Jewish organizations like Ezra USA. The Jewish community in New York is a very generous one and I strongly believe in giving back. I also believe in maintaining my Jewish identity and having a Jewish wife! We’re a small breed and we need to keep strong.
What’s next for Baba Fira?
The next video project is going to be like a “Russian Cooking for Dummies.” In this weekly YouTube series, Baba Fira will show everyone how to cook Russian food. I love to cook and learned a lot from my own grandmother. So, I’m excited that this series will be both educational and entertaining, and also hopefully expand to an American audience as well. Stay tuned and learn how to make really good borscht!
But, other than that, Baba Fira’s biggest future project involves making a movie. The premise is Baba Fira traveling with her grandson Joseph across America, as they get into lots of hijinks. I met up with some writers at Comedy Central to discuss it. There’s definitely potential to make Baba Fira bigger and reach a wider audience.
I know we spoke a lot about the fictional “Baba Fira,” but what is it like having a real Russian Jewish grandma?
My grandmother is very cool. She was a medical surgeon in Ukraine. And she also, of course, makes great and abundant food. I love when she makes kakleitki—Russian style hamburgers. But she’s also on my case a lot and will ask the same questions about my personal life multiple times. And she’ll be blunt with her opinions. While this tests my patience, it has also helped me to become a better person in general. My grandmother’s tough love has definitely prepared me for the rest of the world’s criticism. Now, thanks to my Babushka, general criticism doesn’t really bother me. And I’m starting to cherish my grandparents more than ever because I know that they won’t always be around. While they’re still here, I’m asking them as many questions about their past as I possibly can. I listen to all their incredible, miraculous life stories and even plan to eventually make a documentary about them. Aside from the lighthearted and funny aspect of my Baba Fira videos, I hope that that they’ll also encourage my generation of Russian-Americans to become more aware of their roots and appreciate the very wonderful craziness of having babushkas and dedushkas (grandfathers) around.
To meet Baba Fira in person, check out the Annual Brighton Beach Jubilee Festival on Sunday, August 24.
Rebecca Mordechai is a graduate student in English Literature and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
(Images supplied by Gary Spielberg.)