Comedy | June 23, 2020
As we live through the ups and downs of life, laughter begins to play an invaluable role in our mental well-being. Perhaps comedy can provide a helpful lens through which to view the sometimes stressful responsibilities of our life.
When you think about the big issues about life, religion, Judaism, all this stuff, on that list, it’s probably pretty unlikely that you would think that the topic of comedy should even be there. Comedy is usually more lighthearted and something you do to distract yourself from the larger, bigger issues of life. But that’s never really been the case for me, which is why I thought it was so important to have a thoughtful conversation and discussion about the role of comedy in life and religion and all of these matters, because ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been a student of comedy, and I love great jokes. I think I was probably, maybe 11 years old, when I remember hearing the first time a rabbi made a joke that I got, that I understood. I forgot who it was, but someone was talking about Shlomo Hamelech, King Solomon, and the fact that he had so many wives – in the stories he had many wives in different lands – and leaving that aside, the rabbi said, “He had so many wives, can you imagine how much pareve of ice cream he had during the Sheva Brachos?” And I was 11 years old and I cracked up, and thought that was a really funny observation.
It’s an interesting joke because it requires so much prior knowledge. You have to know the personality of Shlomo Hamelech, you have to know what a Sheva Brachos is, the parties that we throw in the days following a wedding, and you have to also know that commonly, at a Sheva Brachos, pareve ice cream, since the meal is very often meat, so at a Jewish Sheva Brachos they’re going to be serving pareve ice cream as dessert. Obviously, when I broke that down, any sort of humor in this has been totally deteriorated and lost, but there’s no question that the niche component of humor creates this insider communal dynamic, where the more inside or the more niche the joke is, the more of an insider and the more you’re able to kind of smile and smirk at your own community.
And this is actually something that I did for many years, more formally, I had a column in a fairly well known magazine known as Mishpacha called The Top Five List, and I would write these cute top five lists about these idiosyncrasies and nuances in the Jewish community that even inside the Jewish community were considered extremely niche. You know, what kind of shirts Jews like to wear, what kind of cars they like to drive, what kind of jobs that they have. And I learned the art, so to speak, of developing these mini skits in my column that would poke fun at the community. And I always tried to be constructive, and very rarely did I upset anybody, but I think in the art of comedy, there’s something much more valuable and much larger.
And that’s really what developed afterwards, was not just my fascination with comedy, but my fascination with comedians. There’s a personality of a comedian, a stereotype, an angstyness, there’s a friendly competitiveness in the world of comedy, of comedians, comedians who would charmingly describe as the comedian’s comedian, people who other comedians go to to flesh out and develop their jokes, comedians that other comedians don’t like, and they hate and they’re jealous of them because, maybe it’s the Dane Cooks of the world who other comedians roll their eyes at and think that they’ve kind of sold out in comedy. And I was fascinated by the personality and the industry of comedy, because as an educator in the world of education, specifically Jewish education, I found so many parallels in the way that educators grapple with their own identity, their own professional identity, their own professional community, and the worlds of comedy.
And I found this on a few levels. Number one was the angst, and any rabbi can talk about this, the angst and pressure of developing material sermons, shiurim, classes, all of this stuff, the angst and pressure to constantly be churning out more content, the angst and pressure about recycling your content, the competitiveness of different rabbis and educators looking askance at one another and saying, “They’re just shelling out for the biggest thing, they’re not saying the real sharp, edgy ideas.” And the concept, obviously of a rabbi’s rabbi, the educator’s educator, the people who people go to flesh out their great ideas who the public may not even know about, or may not even be that enamored with, but that more sagely figure that the educational community turns to.
And I found in the world of comedy a lens that helps me grapple with the angst and pressure of my professional responsibilities, the need to separate my professional identity, or not totally separate, but at least have healthy boundaries between my professional identity and personal identity. You are not the last great speech you gave. You are not the last great article you gave. And anytime I would hear comedians talk about bombing on the stage, it always provided me such a great deal of comfort because I’ve experienced that. I have bombed, I have messed up, I have come on stage and not gotten the reaction that I wanted. And when you’re so beholden to an audience, in every profession, not just comedy, not just education, but every profession to an extent is beholden to an audience, just it’s more acute in comedy. And in this world that helps me articulate, so to speak, the distance and the healthy distance that you need between what you create and who you are. And I’ve always turned to this world and I really loved it, which is why I’m so excited about the conversations today with three amazing personalities.
First, my dear friend Gary Gulman, who is such an amazing personality, has done so much to shed light on issues related to mental health, the mental health that goes into creating comedy, the issues that go into developing materials, and the pressures that that places on a person. He is an educator of empathy and really a remarkable personality, and one of the most hilarious comedians, certainly not just in the Jewish world, he’s probably more known outside of the world, and has done all the major late night shows, and he has a great comedy special on HBO that we have links to. He is wonderful.
Secondly, a fascinating person who I didn’t have a friendship with beforehand, but our conversation was really intriguing, and that’s Leah Forster who has a hilarious Instagram channel with her beloved Tichel Tuesdays, where she plays in this Ultra Orthodox Hasidic personality. And that’s the very community, while she’s not situated in that community right now, but that’s the community where she’s from. And it’s a conversation about community, personal identity, and comedy inside of the Jewish world.
And finally a thinker and writer about the human experience in a extraordinarily scholarly but also welcoming way, it’s such a distinct honor and privilege to welcome Rabbi Daniel Feldman, who is a Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshiva University. He’s a world renowned writer and speaker, and he’s written on two topics that I think intersect, which is why I thought comedy is so important, and that is Jewish values as they relate to the human experience, and also comedy. He also happens to be absolutely hilarious. He definitely enjoys… The topic that he enjoys making fun of the most, much to my chagrin, is very often me. But he is absolutely hilarious, he’s super wise brilliant. And I’m so excited that we got to sit down with them, and I hope you enjoy the conversation, and sometimes maybe even smile.