Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Daniel Wildemann

Robert Alper: Holiness and Laughter

Dr. Robert Alper is an ordained rabbi who served congregations for fourteen years and holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary. He's also a comedian. He has delighted audiences for twenty years with his wonderfully unique material, presented in a way that's intelligent, sophisticated, and 100% clean. Bob performs all across North America and England at theaters, conventions, churches, and, naturally, synagogues. And he's done over 100 shows with his Arab and Muslim comedy partners at a variety of venues. The rabbi-comedian draws tremendous media attention and, among others, has been seen on Good Morning America, the BBC, and CNN.

In addition to being a full-time stand-up comic and conducting annual High Holy Day services, Bob is the author of two books: Life Doesn't Get Any Better Than This and A Rabbi Confesses. He's also produced two best-selling comedy CDs. Bob resides in rural Vermont with his wife, Sherri, a psychotherapist. They are the empty-nest parents of Zack and Jessie. Source: http://bobalper.com/bio.html

Shabbat Shalom: You've been working both as a clergyman and a professional comedian for quite a while. Which one do you like better?

Robert Alper: I was always happiest during my pulpit days when I could do "funny," mainly from the pulpit but also in smaller situations. I definitely love comedy more but still miss some of the more rewarding elements of the pulpit, such as lifecycle events. Plus, there's always been a lot of rabbi in my comedy.

Shabbat Shalom: In working as a rabbi and as a stand-up comedian, you combined two professions that are strictly distinct in most people's minds. Did you ever feel tensions between those two disciplines, between "holiness" and "laughter"? 

Alper: No, and the people who think there's a distinction between holiness and laughter are intellectually constipated. I'm afraid that religion attracts a fair number of self-righteous types who are not known for their openness or for their sense of humor. Alas. The more effective clergy, the ones who really touch people's lives (rather than only "inspire from on high"), are the ones who have well-developed senses of humor. As someone much wiser than I observed, they take themselves lightly while taking their careers very seriously. A good combination.

Shabbat Shalom: Although more and more recent studies have elaborated on the meaning and importance of humor and laughter, humor still seems to be out of place in many religious traditions and is taken rather "seriously. Why do you think this is?

Alper: Domination by humorless-type clergy in the past, some of which flows from a bizarrely stern, grim theology that's held sway. As a kid, my own rabbi was one of those. We'd see him come and run the other way. He was a famous scholar and just not warm or able to relate. He was my model in a negative sense.

Shabbat Shalom: In your opinion, what makes people laugh? What is the key to being funny?

Alper: This is a very complex question. Mike Nichols reminds us that laughter, like a genuine orgasm, is a response you can't fake. It just happens. Mel Brooks has a bit about how if I hurt my finger, that's tragedy. If you slip on a banana peel, that's comedy. Much of my personal humor involves the use of the unanticipated, like how my grandfather had a true Jewish accent, which he derived from "that faraway land of his birth: Bangor, Maine.”

Shabbat Shalom: You consider laughter "a kind of divine act" (San Diego Union Tribune). Does the Hebrew Bible teach laughter? How? 

Alper: It contains humor. Sarah and Abraham, pre-Viagra, are talking about having a child at ages 90 and 100; Sarah skeptically laughs, and Abraham falls to the floor guffawing. Esther 7:7-8 is a ribald classic, with a king peeing or puking in the garden and his staffer flopping down on top of his queen. My favorite professor, Rabbi Sam Sanumel, used to say that the Bible wasn't meant to be read "in a vibrato with a tear in it." Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there's a time to laugh, which is good enough for me.

Shabbat Shalom: One characteristic of Jewish humor is the ability to take oneself not too seriously and to be able to also laugh about oneself. Where do you see the foundation for that?

Alper: Jews have been the ultimate survivors throughout the centuries because we're experts at the survival craft (and, thanks to our delightful neighbors, have been given far too many opportunities to try to survive). The use of humor and not taking ourselves too seriously are all very effective adaptive tools.

Shabbat Shalom: Humor has always been an important part of Jewish life and tradition. In your opinion, what makes Jewish humor unique?

Alper: I'm not sure, but it may be tied in with Jews' love of language. Our literature is concise and compact, with every word worthy of scrutiny. Good humor is a similar intellectual challenge. The better comedians use language, the more effectively. A good example of the use of sparse language is a joke I don't use since I'm 100% clean on stage (though this really isn't dirty...): A man finds his best friend in bed with his wife and says, "Murray. I have to. But you ...?"

Shabbat Shalom: In Umberto Eco's famous novel The Name of the Rose, the author lets two of the monks debate whether Jesus ever laughed. How would you answer this question?

Alper: First, I would have said, "Umberto, what a stupid topic for a conversation. Of course Jesus laughed." Everyone laughs, unless they're living under totally grim circumstances, though there was even humor in the camps during the Holocaust. (Again, fighting against all odds.) My comedian partner, Ahmed Ahmed, laments how humorless many Muslims are, reminding them that Mohammed had a good sense of humor. He asks, "How else do you think he got disciples?

Do you really think people would stand around and say, 'Hey, that guy's really depressed? Let's follow him!”

Shabbat Shalom: What implications could that have for Christians all over the world?

Alper: Far be it from me to tell Christians what to believe and how to act, but it would seem to me that when Christians place emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, they're inspired to engage more in what we Jews call tikkun olam, the repair of the world. When emphasis is placed primarily on Jesus' death and supposed resurrection, the focus becomes one of pity and individual salvation in an afterlife, which doesn't do all that much good for those being murdered in Darfur.

Shabbat Shalom: In your dual show with Ahmed Ahmed, a Muslim comedian, you demonstrate how humor can bridge even inter­confessional gaps. How could other religious groups find inspiration in this concept? Do you believe that humor could contribute to solving tensions between different religions?

Alper: Absolutely, when the humor is unhurtful, non-controversial, appropriate, and clean. Bottom line: When people laugh together, it's impossible for them to hate one another.

Shabbat Shalom: Derek Brewer wrote in A Cultural History of Humor that the "joke of a group" is often times the "pain of another person:' You are known for telling"clean jokes:' In your CD Guaranteed Funny: 101 Totally Clean Jokes, where did you draw the line so that a universal audience could find humor without isolating a specific cross-section? 

Alper: Simple: I can tell jokes about Jews, about Vermonters, about married men, and about others because that's who I am. A comic has the license to make fun of himself or herself, but not of another group. When these standards are upheld, you can be pretty sure that you won't be hearing any hateful, demeaning jokes. Some of the jokes might be critical, even somewhat prophetic in their subtle critique. But again, the teller has permission because he or she is not crossing lines.

I heard a comic recently who did a whole routine on midgets. The comic was obviously not a small person himself. It was one of the most hateful and hurtful things I've ever heard, under the guise of "humor." That guy crossed the line.

Shabbat Shalom: The Reader's Guide (Chicago) contrasted your comedy style with the "shticks of the Seinfeld-Leno-Letterman wannabes who haunt the clubs these days'' as being fresh. Would you agree with such a contrast?

Alper: Absolutely. It took me quite a while to disabuse potential clients that I wasn't from the previous generation of Borscht Belt or of the ilk The Readers Guide mentioned. I think the "fresh" refers to the fact that, rather than doing what most comics do these days ("I just moved to LA:' "Here are the differences between men and women:' "My boyfriend farts."), I can talk about unique topics like officiating at weddings and funerals, being a Jew in Vermont, and parenting teenagers. That's fresh.

Shabbat Shalom: In the introduction to his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, culture critic Neil Postman contrasts two fictional prophecies—G. Orwell's 1984 with A. Huxley's Brave New World. Huxley feared that we would be ruined by what we came to love, namely entertainment. Do you see yourself as a contributor to that danger?

Alper: Nope. There's entertainment, and there's entertainment. Stand-up comedy, first of all, is interactive, with performer and audience involved, hopefully in a relationship of sorts, in contrast to people staring at a screen. More importantly, there's a holiness to humor. And finally, some comics say things that would be worthy of an Amos or Isaiah. Think of Chris Rock's routine with the black man who says, "I take care of my children,' to which Rock retorts, "You are supposed to take care of your children. That's your job! What do you want, a cookie?" He's making an important statement on parenting and priorities, while the audience also busts a gut.

Shabbat Shalom: In conclusion, what called you into using humor, or why do you believe that your brand of humor is important?

Alper: I was always funny, even as a toddler. I did Bob Newhart routines in high school, which got me elected to Jewish youth group offices and editorship of the high school paper. More importantly, the girls admired me! The comedy is good. It was always a significant part of my rabbinate. And, hey, it's total fun. My brand's importance is because it demonstrates, as others have done, that laughter is holy and can be clean and unhurtful.

This interview was conducted by Daniel Wildemann.

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