How comedian Michael Shafar learnt there's no such thing as a free lunch


Comedian Michael Shafar likes to poke fun at his Jewish heritage. With Passover ending on April 4, he says his show promises to be more fun than another family dinner.

He has only just returned to comedy after finishing chemotherapy for the second time in December. Having lost a testicle to cancer, he has incorporated that into his act, saying he now feels more comfortable in skinny jeans.

He has said that his experiences from initial diagnosis in 2017 to today have provided much material for his routines. He is performing in Melbourne, before moving on to Sydney and Brisbane.

michael shafar comedian
Comedian Michael Shafar likes to poke fun at his Jewish heritage. Photo: Monica Pronk.

How has your cancer diagnosis affected your comedy?

I was relatively early into my comedy career. I'd started doing stand-up in open mic nights in 2014 and I was diagnosed in 2017. After three years things were starting to pick up: I'd got a job working on The Project for Channel 10 and I'd done my first season of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Doing well was one of the reasons I'd ignored my health for a while. I was too busy doing comedy and working.

Since the diagnosis, it's become a strong theme in a lot of my shows. In 2019 I did a show called 50/50 which only focused on the cancer experience and thought I was done with it, but had a relapse last year, and as a comedian, you can only focus on your experiences, so I was forced to talk about that again.

How big a part does being Jewish play in your comedy?

Definitely quite a bit. I only realised how Jewish I was when I started doing comedy. I grew up in the Jewish community, most of my friends are Jewish so when I went into comedy I was surprised that I was often the only Jewish person in the room or in the line-up.

It became a point of difference, to be quite honest. I do feel when you're Jewish and talking about that on stage it's important to represent the community well. Often I might be the first Jew that people in the audience have met or seen.

What was your first job?

It was working at Subway Elsternwick (in inner Melbourne) when I was 14 or 15. I was paid $8.20 an hour and I loved the job because I got to make my own Subway sandwich for lunch.

It was my favourite part of the job and I remember one day I stuffed it full of everything I wanted and my boss came in and said, "I just served some Jewish people and they always want extra."

My boss didn't know I was Jewish, but I thought it was offensive and I wanted to tell him off, but at the time I was eating about $70 of meat in my own sandwich.

I remember that interaction very well, but I only left when they said, we'll pay you an extra $1 an hour but you don't get a free sub any more.

What's the best money advice you've ever received?

I was told to invest in Bitcoin and I never did. While it was the best advice I received I never did it and it keeps me awake at night. Had I done that I wouldn't have to be doing the Comedy Festival this year, that's for sure.

What's the best investment decision you've made?

Supporting the Sydney Swans football club.

They are the team I chose to support when I was seven years old, only because I loved Tony Lockett. My friends laughed at me for choosing a team from Sydney but they've had tremendous success in my lifetime. That's an investment in my time and support that's paid enormous dividends over the last two decades.

What's the worst investment decision you've made?

When I was about eight years old the family went to Ballarat's Sovereign Hill, where the gold rush was in the 1800s, and I was very excited and I thought, let's find some gold. I thought we were finally going to get rich quick.

The whole day I was keeping an eye on the rocks on the ground to see if I'd spot any gold. A lot of the stones have gold dust on them and I was thinking, why isn't anyone else noticing these stones? The entire day I'm collecting stones and rocks and I couldn't hold up my pants I had so many rocks in my pockets. I thought, the family is going to be so impressed, and we got home and I was so chuffed. I said, look at all the gold dust, there must be millions of dollars of gold dust.

My parents explained the gold dust I thought I saw was mostly dirt and therefore not of any value at all. I'd spent an entire day of carrying rocks and having my pants falling down for no financial benefit. It was definitely my worst investment in time and energy.

Is there anything you find funny about money?

What I find funny is the secrecy about it. It's like the only taboo or social construct we still have. People talk about politics, cancer in my case, but money is so offensive to bring up at a dinner table.

I remember my grandfather on my birthday would give me $200 cash.

He'd beckon me over and he'd have four $50 bills and he'd give it to me in such a way that you couldn't see the money in your hand. He handed it over like a drug deal, it was always in secret. He taught me never to be ostentatious about money.

What is your favourite thing to splurge on?

I would say food. That's like the only reason I try to earn money is so that I can eat the food I want to eat. That's my splurge. I don't care about nice clothes, or anything.

I laughed when my dad bought a nice car - what a waste, I told him, think of all the lovely dinners you could have instead of buying that Jaguar. If I have a good Comedy Festival I'll lash out and get a pizza for $20. That's my splurge.

If you had $10,000 where would you invest it?

I actually would keep it in the bank and check that it's still there every day. I wouldn't invest it - I'd be too scared. People are always saying, make your money work for you. It's just enough that it's there if I ever need it.

I like to know it's there and never spend it. I'm so neurotic. I think if you invest it you'll lose it all. Years ago, I bought shares in Telstra and it went down and I've been miserable about it ever since. I just like to have money in my account and every so often I'll use it to buy a pizza and that's about it.

What would you do if you only had $50 left in the bank?

I'd buy a few lottery tickets, but I'd also work. I'd say yes to every gig I was offered. I'd be driving Ubers, I'd be doing shows on cruise ships. I'd absolutely debase myself to have more than $50 in my account.

Do you intend to leave an inheritance?

Absolutely not. I'm all about maximum value. For me to die with money would be a complete waste of that money. I'd want to make sure every cent I ever have is spent before I died. I'm trying to time things perfectly.

Ideally you would die in debt. A lot of debt. That way you've got more than your maximum value. I'd like my children saddled with an awful, awful debt when I pass away.

What's been your best money-making career move?

I guess leaving Subway Elsternwick was a good decision. I think I would struggle to live off $8.20 an hour now. If I still had the free lunch I'd still be there. Although, I have to thank the manager for his stinginess because that forced me to find an alternative career. That was the best decision given the loss of the lunch.

No one would know I'm a lawyer - I certainly don't practise. I did some clerkships, which is like an extended job interview, at a law firm. You work there for a few weeks and they suss you out and you suss them out.

Boy, did they hate me and, boy, did I not care. It was certainly not a good fit. It's hard to be funny in a stale office environment. It was probably a good thing I didn't become a lawyer.

Finish this sentence: money makes ...

... no sense because we attach a value to this thing that has no inherent worth, no social value other than the idea that we have of it, which is far from tangible and yet it controls everything we do.

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Julia Newbould was editor-at-large and later managing editor of Money from November 2019 to February 2022. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.