Jewish Comedy Standing Up Everywhere
A Chabadnik, baal teshuvah, and a Gerrer chassid walk into a bar. No, this is not the setup for a punchline, but a recent Motzoei Shabbos at local eatery that was hosting a night of comedy. Back in December, when I was trying to plan a fun outing for my husband and I during the days we had off for legal holidays, I was pleasantly surprised to see ads in several Jewish publications offering the chance to partake in an evening of kosher food and comedy. We ended up staying home, but hundreds of others crowded into Broadway Comedy Club in Manhattan to enjoy an event hosted by Kenny Gluck of Kosher Komedy, a company that produces shows and books talent for Jewish events.
Jewish Funny Bones
“Mentch tracht und G-tt lacht,” a man plans but G-d laughs, is an oft-quoted Yiddish phrase. Jews have always had a bittersweet relationship with humor, using it to enhance times of joy and as a coping mechanism during times of turmoil. Back in 1978, Times Magazine made the claim that 80 percent of American comedians are Jewish. What is it about Jews that make us so funny?
Elon Gold, Ashley Blaker, and Mendy Pellin have become household names when it comes to the genre of clean comedy. And today there are many other up and coming comic wannabees who are trying to climb the narrow industry ladder of laughter that is Jewish comedy.
The best ingredients for a good Jewish joke are not gefilte fish and Manishewitz because those are the kinds of jokes made by our outside observers, explains Mendy Pellin, a comedian who heads Pellin Media. For him, a good Jewish joke contains something sacred combined with our unique culture. He offers one example: “It must be hard bringing up a child as an atheist. You have to explain the science and reasoning behind everything from rainbows to global tragedy. I answer most of my kids’ questions with ‘because that’s how Hashem made it.’” Pellin also pokes fun at flaws he observes: “What kind of message are you sending to the consumer when on the back of your cereal box, in big, you print the number to Hatzalah – with directions for the Heimlich maneuver underneath?” But there is also a dark side to Jewish humor which touches on common anxieties such as food insecurity and anti-Semitism. A Jewish comic must walk a fine line between funny and offensive, or risk falling off the comedy plank.
All comics agree that one doesn’t have to be Jewish to do Jewish comedy, which explains why even in secular entertainment, we are seeing an increase in comics who refrain from using improper language or referencing questionable topics.
The Halachah on Humor
The first mention of laughter in the Torah is when Sarah was informed that she would birth a child at the ripe old age of 90. Rashi informs us that the matriarch found the news humorous and chose to name her son Yitzchak, meaning “laughter,” after the unbelievable miracle came to fruition.
There are several references to laughter in Gemara. There is a famous Gemara that states that a man can be defined by three things: his drink (how he acts when drunk), his pocket (how he spends money), and his anger. But there is another line in that Gemara which is less well-known that says a man can also be judged by his laughter (what he finds funny). In fact, it has been written that the Rabbah started every class with a joke (Shabbos 30b).
Rabbi Gil Student has written extensively on the subject of laughter on his TorahMusings.com page. He acknowledges that a little laughter in life is good and can even be beneficial in relieving stress, but a balance must be made. Too much of it and one risks the threat of deviating from the lifestyle required by the Torah. He provides evidence from the Gemara where it is written that among those who do not receive the Divine Presence is a group of mockers (Sotah 25b).
But what about comedy that is devoid of a bad language and denigration? Rabbi Student says that he is not opposed to a little downtime. As proof he cites Rabbi Shlomo Aviner’s commentary on the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (30:6) where the Rosh Yeshivah maintains that a little stand-up comedy is acceptable, but only for five to 15 minutes. Getting large groups together for longer periods of time for comedic purposes, however, is a waste of time and forbidden (ad locum, volume. 1 page 324, 29:2, page 308, see also 31:3, page 328).
“Not too long ago we got a chance to witness thousands of Yidden complete the entire Talmud. Let us use that as an opportunity to think about how wisely we use the little time we have in our lives. We are now busier than ever in history, so we have to value every moment we can,” says Rabbi Student.
Badchanim are hired by Chassidim to entertain the crowd at weddings and other simchos. The occupation existed as far back as the Middle Ages, when they were known to be like troubadours traveling around Europe telling jokes related to scriptural and Talmudic passages. The modern day badchanim frequently incorporate impersonations of Jewish religious figures and American politicians in their repertoire, and their skit can now be found not just in wedding halls, but on YouTube channels as well.
Yoely Lebovits is one of the most popular badchanim working today in Chassidic circles. He is most known for his imitation of Hungarian characters, which earned him the moniker “Pester Rebbe.” He explains that a badchan differs from a contemporary comedian because his primary language is Yiddish and he incorporates scholarly overtones in his monologue. Lebovits says that the job of a badchan involves more than making people laugh. They are typically expected to research the 12 to 15 guests who will be called up to dance, and whom in the interim will also be jested. Badchanim must also compose songs for each of those individuals and sing it with emotion and with music that is played with a musician without any discussion or preparation beforehand.
Lebovits says that a badchan can enhance any party. “Sometimes people will spend so much to try to make the simchah the best, but they forget the main ingredients of joy, happiness, and laughter.”
People think that the job of a badchan is just about being funny, but Lebovits says that their primary function is to make people cry in a good way, stirring emotion at an auspicious time of the simchah. He also credits humor for helping bring Moshiach saying, “Anyone could be a mini badchan by following what the Gemara says: “If you see someone sad and you make his or her day with a smile, it can also end galus.”
Today’s badchanim have expanded their roles; they are now being hired to do more than just sing jokes, their job descriptions often include being an emcee and even doing a heimish style stand-up routine at parties or shows. They have also branched outside the Chassidic community and broadened their clientele.
So, You Think You’re Funny?
Eitan Levine, a New Jersey native, battled cancer as a child. He had a lot of free time on his hands and spent it writing down his thoughts on composition notebooks. Over time, the journaling morphed into a joke book. When he was 15, he decided to perform those jokes at the Stress Factory in New Jersey.
“I did super well my first time, and I kept at it,” he says. “Now I’m a staple in the industry. Well, at least according to my mom, I am.”
A graduate of Yeshiva University, Eitan founded Kosher College Comedy Tour, which brings clean Jewish comedy to campuses in the Northeast.
Mendy Pellin recalls spending most of his school years in the hallways because he couldn’t resist making jokes in class. “I guess I haven’t really changed that much,” he notes, “and thanks to YouTube and other platforms, I didn’t need anyone’s permission to explore my talents.”
Levine says it is not difficult to be a clean comic. “You must be true to yourself and ask, ‘how do I honestly feel’ about certain situations.”
The real dilemma is trying to figure out how dark one can go with an audience. For example, is it okay to joke about Neo-Nazis to older crowds? For Pellin it is more about observing daily nuances we all take for granted. For example, he quips that it is impossible to concentrate during a sermon when there’s an entire congregation needlessly smashing their fingers. After the sermon, they always announce the page for Mussaf, yet everyone feels the need to use their finger as a bookmark while the Rabbi tries to formulate his thoughts. “Have you looked at your finger after a Shabbos HaGadol speech?” he asks. This observation was the muse for his sketch about a serious, yet preventable, medical condition he calls siddur finger.
Life as a Jewish comic is not always so funny. Levine shares a moment in his career that he wishes he could erase. Four years ago, he was hired by Camp Simcha, the same camp he attended as a kid when he was battling cancer, to help with their fundraiser. The upscale event, which took place at the Times Square Marriot, was attended by 500 people who paid $1,000 a plate to be there. It didn’t go well. “Do you know how hard it is to bomb at a show raising money for cancer patients as a cancer survivor who went to the camp, they’re raising money for?” He was supposed to be introducing Mayor Bill de Blasio, but that never happened. After the event, Camp Simcha uploaded all the entertainers’ videos up on their YouTube page except for Levine’s.
Who said there is no money in comedy? Clean comedy is definitely on the rise.
According to Professor Jeremy Dauber, who teaches in Columbia University and has written several books on the subject, including, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, he expects this genre of comedy to only increase in popularity starting, “Given the increasing and flourishing venues for all sorts of comedy, and the lack of gatekeepers to its dissemination – anyone can post to YouTube, for example – I’d expect to see more voices from various and diverse parts of Jewish life as venues for comic examination.”
Kenny Gluck is a New York media producer who has literally made a business out of Jewish comedy by creating and branding Kosher Komedy, a production company and agency that finds and books clean comedians and entertainers for Pesach programs, fundraisers, parties, camps, schools, and in his words, “frum sheva brachos where we tastefully roast the chassan and kallah.” 13 years ago after seeing a void in the Orthodox community, he started his company because he wanted to give religious Jews an outlet to share and enjoy jokes without having to compromise their principles.
Before venturing into this uncharted territory, Gluck made sure to seek the counsel of several rebbeim. The first show they ever did took place on the birthday anniversary of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zatzal.
After the show, a Lubavitch rabbi told him that the timing was a siman that the business is a good idea. “He explained to me that 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,” says Gluck.
He received some backlash after hosting a recent event on New Year’s Eve. “What people don’t understand is that we are not celebrating the day or what it represents. Judaism is not opposed to comedy if it is done in an appropriate way.”
How has the job of a Jewish comic evolved?
Lebovits says, “Well, I can’t do any Nextel jokes; the newest youngsters have no idea what that is.”
Levine quips, “I make too much money and don’t know where to put it all sometimes.”
On a serious note, all the comics acknowledge that the internet has made their job harder because clients will view highlights posted online and expect every joke to be a hit. Lebovits says it is more difficult for badchanim to perform. “Chances are that the audience has heard it or seen it on social media from a previous show.”
“And, with the internet, those that want the best ‘hechsher’ in comedy should have a kosher phone – without internet. So they can’t complain to me about watching something they don’t approve of, while watching it on an unapproved device,” adds Pellin.
“Comics must embrace social media but also hope it doesn’t burn them,” warns Levine, stressing that comedians have to be very careful with their word choices due to today’s overly PC culture. Pellin agrees commenting that he cannot call anyone what they are anymore. “I have to refer to segments of the population by what they aren’t. For example, people will be offended if I use the term ‘gentile,’ so I must say ‘non-Jew.’ Actually, I can’t even use the term ‘Jew’ anymore because it’s offensive. At my show, I must refer to them as ‘non-gentiles.’ Or, at mixed shows, it’s safe to just call everyone ‘infidels,’” jokes Pellin.
Because the pool of Orthodox Jewish comics is small, jobs can be scarce. Some individuals in the industry try to sabotage fellow comics while others are supportive. With the lack of possible venues, Orthodox comics have a harder time testing their material. “Each joke that a mainstream comedian delivers at a show has been tried out, reworked, improved, and perfected by performing it at comedy clubs scores of times, but a lot of the kosher material wouldn’t work at the clubs and has only been tested at my Shabbos table. So, I try new stuff at every show that is untested. If it doesn’t work, just let it go,” pleads Pellin.
Gluck advises anyone toying with the idea of becoming a professional to be sure that this is what they want to do full-time because the odds are stacked against them. “If you are successful, you can make more than a lawyer especially during the busy Pesach season, but other than that, the work is hard and slim,” he warns.
The Future of Farce
It started with the Catskill’s Borscht Belt, then it spread to hotel Pesach programs; today kosher restaurants, synagogues, JCCs, and many other Jewish venues now offer stand-up as part of their line up of entertainment when it comes to trying to draw a large crowd.
“It just caught on. I’d love to take credit and say that I’m the reason, but I guess Hashem put me in the right place at the right time. What’s old is now new,” says Gluck.
“There’s so much talent in the frum community and it’s amazing seeing more and more people being comfortable enough to use their talents. There are way more options for making a living in the creative space than there was 10 years ago. Comedians no longer have to moonlight as real estate agents, Amazon sellers, and B& H employees,” says Pellin.
Jews have always been known to be funny. Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning Jewish author Saul Bellow explained the phenomenon saying that, “Oppressed people tend to be witty,” and well, Jewish history unfortunately has no shortage of suffering. Some of the most famous comedians of all time were (are) Jewish (The Three Stooges, George Burns, Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason, and Jerry Seinfeld, just to name a few). Is it the cholent or our genes that give us the propensity to be preposterous? We may never know, but it’s nice to see that entertainers today, both Jewish and secular, see the value in clean comedy.