A small-but-growing number of people involved in the highest levels of professional comedy are observant Jews
At the lectern of a small Chabad House in California, a stand-up comic is performing one night. A black kippa atop his head, a chestful of military medals on his Marine dress uniform, Dave Rosner warms up the crowd with some stories about serving in the Middle East.
He met a Jewish girl there on JDate. Not quite. “I found out that ‘J’ didn’t stand for Jewish—it stands for jihad.” As an act of pride, he says, he changed the ambiguous religious preference on his dog tag ID to “Jewish.” The next day the personnel officer informed him, “Now that we know you’re Jewish, we’re going to transfer you to the Banking Department.”
Rosner, a ba’al teshuvah, bills himself as the only Orthodox member of the Marines (he’s in the reserves now) who makes his living doing comedy.
Elsewhere, in a small upstate New York community, a quartet of young Orthodox men—among them Yeshivish, Chassidish and modern—are struggling to arrange a minyan for Minchah one afternoon. So far, they have nine men. “Well, nine is just one short,” assures the Chassid in charge of logistics, guaranteeing the nervous group the imminent arrival of the tenth.
With sundown nigh, a cast of unexpected characters, including a schnorrer, a Chareidi stranger hawking some religious pamphlets and a Jewish resident of the village who turns out not to be Jewish, appear in the room where nine worshipers have already gathered. An exchange of comical comments ensues.
The minyan/no-minyan drama is an episode of Verplanck, an online series of videos that depict frum life though a lens of humor. The community, Verplanck, really exists. But its fledgling Orthodox community doesn’t.
Rosner and Verplanck are among the new faces of Orthodox humor.
For years, a staple in the stand-up world was men and women, mostly from Yuppie backgrounds, who would declare, “I’m Jewish, but I’m not religious.”
Today, a growing number of people involved in the highest levels of professional comedy—the total is still relatively small, compared to the overall industry—are religious. Many of them, like Rosner, come from the ranks of ba’alei teshuvah. “Chabad in general produces a disproportionate number of people who are willing to dabble in the creative world,” says Mechel Lieber, co-founder of Verplanck. And in this low-barriers, high-tech era, comedy has broadened beyond comics working in comedy clubs.
Today, even badchanim, traditionally the entertainers at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, can be found doing their shtick on YouTube.
Today, humor has lost much of its onus in the Orthodox—even in the Chareidi—community.
There are troupes of Orthodox performers, like Under-Dos in Israel, and The Big Mockers in the States. There’s an Orthodox comedy club in Jerusalem, founded by Rochester-born oleh David Kilimnick. YouTube is a major factor; it has opened up a new venue for funny frum people with thespian inclinations. Online there is a growing number of kosher videos, more and more expressions of performers’ creative instincts. There are also more places for aspiring Orthodox individuals to perform: shuls and schools that recognize the spiritual power of some humorous words, more venues that look to book “clean comics,” more comics who guard the kashrut of what goes into their mouths and what comes out.
Serious about Comedy
“Our roster of clean performing comedians has grown tremendously over the years due to the gain in Kosher Komedy’s popularity as well as the challenge it brings to professional stand-up comedians,” says Kenny Gluck, a Long Island television producer and entrepreneur whose Kosher Komedy firm finds comedians who don’t work blue for clients including organizers of Pesach programs and fundraisers, private parties, summer camps and “very frum sheva berachos where we tastefully roast the chosson and kallah.”
“Anyone can work dirty,” Gluck says. “Not everyone can perform clean.” His challenge is to find performers who are both clean and funny. “I saw a need to fill a void in the Orthodox community because it is becoming increasingly difficult for frum Jews to go out to shows [even on Broadway] that are . . . devoid of off-color language or topics that do not align themselves with Yiddishkeit. Kosher Komedy allows frum Jews to enjoy a night out without having to worry about compromising their principles.”
Some of the current crop of Orthodox comics play mostly at Jewish events; others do general humor to religiously mixed crowds at comedy clubs. Most are men.
“There are even a few ‘ultra-Orthodox’ comedians who cater to the ultra-Orthodox community and can perform in Yiddish,” Gluck says.
Today, even badchanim, traditionally the entertainers at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, can be found doing their shtick on YouTube.
Shabbat continues to be a problem for shomer Shabbat performers at comedy clubs, where Friday night and Saturday night (before sundown in the summer) shows are prime time. But some clubs are accommodating, especially for proven talent who are big draws; these comics can get off for Shabbat.
As for other comics, those with less bargaining power, “if they call you to perform on Shabbos and you are unable to, chances are they’ll never ask you again,” Gluck says.
In addition to the Orthodox Jews dabbling part-time in the comedy field, especially in New York City and Los Angeles, those on the A-list of frum Jews cracking jokes for a living include:
• Elon Gold, an actor-comedian and frequent MC of Chabad’s annual fundraising telethon in Los Angeles. “Gas prices are so high,” he remarked during the Chabad Telethon a few years ago, “even Reform Jews are walking to shul.”
While working on the short-lived television comedy Stacked, he managed to have Friday night filming switched to another day.
• Mendy Pellin, a Lubavitcher who hosts a mock news program, a la Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on the Comedy Central cable network. The Mendy Report (chabadtube.com) features faux interviews, a reporter named Menachem who bears a suspicious likeness to Pellin as well as the host’s exact DNA, and an irreverent attitude towards Jewish events.
Also a stand-up, he tells audiences about the problems of getting a babysitter, whose salaries are continuously increasing. “Babysitters get paid more than I do.” And he compares the clothing options of women, who often have a closetful of dresses and accessories, to many Orthodox men, who favor a standard uniform of white shirt and black pants. Getting ready for Shabbat, he says, is “simple—I take the pen out of my pocket; I’m dressed.”
• Mark Schiff and Marc Weiner, veteran Orthodox comics. Schiff, a close friend of—and sometimes opening act for—comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld, still takes his show on the road, returning to his family in LA for Shabbat. Weiner, who doubles as a clown and puppeteer, hosted the children’s TV show Weinerville on the Nickelodeon channel from 1993 to 1997, and provides several voices for characters on the Dora the Explorer show.
Lessons in Bikur Cholim
It’s visiting time in a cramped hospital room. One visitor, a middle-aged Orthodox man sitting at the foot of a patient’s bed, offers some unsolicited advice. “So, who’s this quack who’s treating you, anyway?” he asks, referring to the patient’s physician. “Have you gotten a second opinion? A third opinion?”
Another Orthodox visitor fidgets with the patient’s IV bag, causing the patient’s feet to spasm.
In the next few minutes, more inappropriate comments and actions ensue, at the patient’s expense.
All of it is fiction, captured on the video “How Not to Perform the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim” produced by Baltimore-based Kolrom Multimedia, a full service corporate video and multimedia production house that mainly produces serious material for business clients and Jewish institutions. Word of mouth made the nearly five-minute video an instant hit after it was posted on YouTube in 2011—some 50,000 views within a few days.
Everything in the video is based on truth, stories related by rabbis whom Kolrom (kolrom.com) had interviewed for another project. The firm’s staff heard horror stories about the way well-meaning people mangled visits to the infirm, says Chananya “CJ” Kramer, founder and president; some “common sense” lessons were needed.
So was a non-preachy method.
Humor was the obvious vehicle. “Comedy is the path of least resistance,” Kramer says. It’s “the best way to give musar [rebuke] in a way that is not condescending. It’s an effective tool.”
He enlisted two members of the Baltimore Orthodox community—Mich Cohen and Shmop Weisbord—who are untrained but talented actors. He lined up a spare room in a local hospital through connections of a Hatzalah volunteer. The feet of the “patient” are his son-in-law’s. The taping took ninety minutes. The editing was done the next day, an exceptionally short production cycle for a video with professional-quality production values.
Kolrom’s successful bikur cholim video has led to a series of similar videos by other producers on various topics of interest in frum circles—shivah, shidduchim, rules of speech and “Stuff Jews say to Converts.” Rumor has it that more videos are coming.
Kramer says he doesn’t mind the competition in the serious-message-in-a-humorous-form business. It’s “only good” for the Jewish community, he says.
“How Not to Do Bikur Cholim”—a nearly five-minute humorous video produced by Baltimore-based Kolrom Multimedia—was an instant hit after it was posted on YouTube in 2011, with some 50,000 views within a few days.
Photos courtesy of Kolrom Multimedia
Schiff, who grew up in the Bronx, says he “lived in such a poor neighborhood, rainbows came in black and white.” Weiner, a ba’al teshuvah, likes to explain what the term means: someone “who can’t eat in his parents’ home.” Being a BT is “like being in AA,” Weiner says. “Both are supportive and nurturing groups that try to get you to connect with God. But unlike AA, the BT groups encourage you to drink.” The reference, of course, is to Kiddush.
• Marvin Silbermintz, longtime writer for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. Bearded, with a large knit kippa, he is often referred to, incorrectly, in news stories as a rabbi. Also a performer, he often turns up on the Chabad Telethon, doing familiar, synagogue-oriented shtick. He comes up with inventions catering to the frum crowd, such as the oversized “yarmulke comb” that allows the wearer to comb his hair without removing his skullcap and a “kiddush fork” that stretches to a length of a few feet, giving a hungry congregant an advantage over people standing in front of him at the kiddush table at shul. Coworkers know that Silbermintz leaves early for Shabbat and yom tov. “Marvin, what Jewish holiday is it today?” he says Leno asked once. “Danny Kaye’s birthday,” Silbermintz answered. “I’ll have to leave early.”
• Newcomer Eitan Levine, a recent graduate of Yeshiva University, where he worked on WYUR, the campus radio station, and wrote for the student-run satirical news site, The Quipster. He’s performed at comedy clubs in the greater New York area and organized the Kosher College Comedy Tour, which brings clean Jewish comedy to campuses in the Northeast.
• Reuven Russell, who does stand-up, teaches theater and public speaking at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in Manhattan, and regularly plays the role of Rabbi Hersh Rasseyner in The Quarrel, a play about two old friends—one a believer, one secular—who reunite. The son of the late comedian Joey Russell, Russell grew up surrounded by his father’s professionally funny friends. He accompanied them on the job, he says, “and saw what it takes to tell a joke.”
Russell tells of sitting on top of a newspaper on the New York subway. “Are you reading that?” someone will ask. His response: “I stand up, I turn the page, I sit back down and I say, ‘Yes, I am reading it.’” And he offers his unique interpretation on Israel’s storied military victory in the 1967 war: “Israel had to win the war in six days, because the equipment was rented.”
• Rabbi Hershel Remer, probably the most obviously Jewish of the group. He’s bearded, with shoulder-length payot, a long black coat and a large woolen tzitzit beged over his shirt. “It doesn’t get any more Jewy than this,” he is prone to announce. “If you think Jackie Mason is Jewish . . . ”
Rabbi Remer’s a Chassidic Jew, his appearance seems to say. Not quite, he says. “I attended yeshivahs of multiple Chassidic groups, and I still wear all of the Chassidic battle gear, but I would not call myself Chassidic.”
“The demographics that love me most are people who were raised as Catholic or who attended Catholic school. I’m popular with a whole spectrum of groups that all have one thing in common—they are all misfits. Catholics have always been misfits in America—something they have in common with frum Jews. We all have lived way outside of the mainstream.”
The content of Rabbi Remer’s material is sometimes edgy, but his style is definitely frum. “My limits in terms of material became clear when I performed as a cast member in a live comedy show. I was the one person in that show who would not touch members of the opposite gender, nor would I dance with them. That aspect about me often came under the spotlight, and I found myself explaining to audiences about the laws of shomer negiah—not touching members of the opposite sex. ”
Rabbi Remer is an alum of Los Angeles’ YULA day school and UCLA. “I have no message. I am on stage purely to have fun and make people laugh. Period,” he says. “I love making people laugh, and I was born to do it.”
Some members of the Orthodox community “have always been interested” in creating and hearing comedy, says Mordechai Schmutter, a resident of Passaic, New Jersey, who writes books, contributes humorous columns to Orthodox publications and moonlights as an occasional stand-up. The opportunities for humor in an Orthodox setting weren’t “always available,” he says, so interested people “convinced themselves that they weren’t missing it.”
That’s changing. The Orthodox community now sees comedy as an outlet.
“It’s definitely good for us not to take ourselves so seriously,” Schmutter says. “Orthodox comedy allows us to have similar ‘Okay, everyone’s going through that’ relief for things like Pesach cleaning and mishloach manos stress and helping kids with their Chumash homework.”
“There is a stigma to comedy—that it is somehow ‘leitzonus’ [frivolous joking] and displays a lack of seriousness,” Lieber says. “Leitzonus doesn’t mean being funny; it means ridiculing proper moral positions. We don’t do that in our show.
As for always being serious, the Torah doesn’t demand this at any level,” he says.
Proponents of humor in the Orthodox community cite some well-known sources: the story of the Talmudic sage Rabbah starting each lecture with a joke, the story of Elijah pointing to two jokesters in the marketplace who are destined for a share in the World to Come, the statement in Ecclesiastes that there is “a time to laugh.”
“There is nothing as destructive as depression,” and humor is an effective way to counter it says Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, author of countless books, including Smiling Each Day (Brooklyn, 1993). He has served for decades as a psychiatrist, incorporating humor into his practice when he deemed it proper.
His guidelines: don’t offend, don’t ridicule.
“If it’s appropriate humor, it can be inspirational,” says Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program.
“Our first show in the Five Towns [in Long Island, New York] fell out on the birthday anniversary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson], and a Lubavitch rabbi explained to me that the Rebbe always said if you could take something mundane and ordinary and turn it into something kosher—acceptable and clean—you’re doing something great, a mitzvah,” Kosher Komedy’s Gluck says.
But appropriate is a relative concept. One man’s clean comedy is another’s dirt.
People arranging entertainment for their Orthodox organizations’ events try to screen their performers in advance. “It doesn’t always work out,” Rabbi Buchwald says. Stories circulate in the Orthodox community of comedians whose acts proved to be totally inappropriate for their conservative audiences, embarrassing for the sponsoring organizations and the audience.
“Halachah is our ultimate guide—we most definitely convey messages,” says Verplanck co-founder Lieber. “Therefore, modesty is maintained in both dress and language. Topics are also generally benign . . . it makes the job of writing material a thousand times harder.”
Different Orthodox audiences have different standards of what’s acceptable, what’s funny and what’s out of bounds.
“Of course you’ll never be able to please everyone all of the time,” says Gluck. “Although it seems more often than not that everyone leaves our shows laughing, happy and in good moods—unless the food wasn’t that great, or it was too hot or cold in the room, or they couldn’t get the server to come over, or the show was too long, or not long enough . . .”
Some synagogues are fearful of engaging comedians, says Jerry Kahn, founder of Big Mockers Jewish Comedy Troupe, because of performers’ reputations as shmutz-meisters. “Now they think that every comedian is treif.”
The Frum Funny Business
Is it hard for someone who looks “ultra-Orthodox” to gain a foothold in the comedy field?
Not necessarily, Rabbi Remer says. “My ‘Jewy’ look made me unique when I started performing at clubs; to that extent, it was an advantage over other comedians.”
He says that his “family and friends in the Torah-observant Jewish community love that I’m a comedian.”
Today, authorities on humor in the Orthodox community agree that there’s more receptivity—if it doesn’t offend religious feelings. “This is very good for Orthodox Jews,” Kahn says. “It gives us a platform to show our Jewish viewpoints in humorous ways. Unconnected Jews can see that being observant doesn’t prevent a comedian from being cool, quick-witted and ‘with it.’”
Kahn, an unrepentant one-time class clown, says he meets teachers from his childhood. “Do you remember asking me, ‘What do think you are, a comedian?’” he says to them. “Well, here’s my business card.”
At his Off The Wall Comedy Basement in Jerusalem, Kilimnick presents acts in English and Hebrew. “Working on Russian,” his resume (“Jerusalem’s Comedian”) states.
Kilimnick, who made aliyah in 2004, studied in Yeshivat HaMivtar. He started doing comedy at Purim shpiels. He saw the need for a frum comedy club as an outlet for people wishing to do comedy and those wanting to hear it.
“The material for my shows comes from a place of sadness, happiness, a yearning for change,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “A lot of philosophers were comedians in their time. If everything were the way they should be, then the world wouldn’t be as fun to talk about.”
“Every time I go to Tel Aviv,” he says, “there is always an Israeli coming up to me saying, ‘Tel Aviv is New York.’ My response is, ‘I’ve been to New York; it’s very different. In New York you can find kosher food.’”
Rosner, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine reserves, has performed on military bases in the Middle East, sometimes coming under hostile fire (from the enemy, not from members of the audience).
When he performs, he asks himself, What example are you setting?
Rosner says he did his comedy routine at a non-Orthodox synagogue on Long Island a few years ago. He described the experiences—and challenges—of living an observant life in the military.
A couple, senior citizens, drove him to the railroad station after the show.
They were impressed that he was able to be frum in uniform. “If you can do this in the Marines,” they told him, “we can do more on Long Island.”
Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.
To see the sidebar on Joan Weiner, a frum female comedienne, please visit http://jewishaction.com/05/2013/joan-weiner-a-rare-womans-voice-2/.
To hear interviews with some of the comedians featured in the article as well as an interview with a new comedic voice, please visit ou.org/savitsky/kramer; ou.org/savitsky/rosner; ou.org/savitsky/lebowicz.