Category: Shtick

P.D.Q. Bach In Business

Loyal readers of the blog may have picked up on my interests in shtick and music, so it not come as a surprised to know that I would enjoy some of Peter Schickele’s work on P.D.Q. Bach.1 Last night I was fortunate to have attended my first P.D.Q. Bach Concert at Lincoln Center.
The best way to describe the experience would be to combine the music of classical composers, the irreverence of Frank Zappa, and the audience of Rocky Horror (though thankfully, without the drag). I’m not sure how else to explain the surreal and seamless synthesis of balloons, bicycles, basketballs, power outages, the hokey pokey, and a bagpipe vibrato.
If you find this sort of thing appealing or happen to be completely drunk, then check out come clips and the upcoming concert schedule.2

1. Many thanks to Ben Resnick for the introduction.
2. Though I doubt I can attend, I’m loving the fact that the April Fool’s concert will be held in a place called Fredonia.

The Chag Hasemikhah Drinking Game

Every four years, YU holds its Chag Hasemikhah ceremony, celebrating their newly minted musmakhim. Some of you have seen the ads in the various papers, but many if not most have had the pleasure of avoiding every possible one.

I’ve been to two of these things before, and the best description I can give is that it’s a college graduation, but with all the speeches being given by Rabbis. To put things in perspective, the most memorable moment from the first one I went to was R. Tendler’s chair collapsing on stage during Ya’akov Ne’eman’s speech. 1

Due to the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em I will be attending the upcoming one on Sunday as this is my “hag hasemikha class” and just having my klaf isn’t good enough for some people.

At any rate, as a public service to those who find themselves in the position of being stuck in one of these things, Avraham and I got together and made our own drinking game to make the day a little more leibedik. 2


  1. Seriously, this actually happened.
  2. Besides, it’s not like it’s Purim or anything.

What’s in a Name?

Happy Shushan Purim to All!
All is well in YUTOPIA, some quick updates:

  • In a nice case of v’nahafoch hu, I recovered the previously lost comments
  • Moving back to the heights soonish, likely spawning many interesting happenings.
  • Had se’udah at future apartment with a bunch of YCT folk.
  • Digital camera came in today
  • Withheld a Purim posting because in the process of writing it, I realized I lost my sense of humor. Note that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I have standards to uphold.
  • Sunday I will be officiating my first wedding. More on this at some point.

As some of you may or may not know one of my first cousins is Deena Grant, married to Chaim Davis with whom I attended Gush so many years ago. Anyway, last week Deena gave birth to a really cute baby boy. At the bris this morning, the baby was named Akiva Eliezer, which as Chaim explained is partially after the baby’s 10th generation ancestor (on the father’s side), R. Akiva Eiger.
Sounds nice, but I’m personally schepping the irony. As Chaim noted, R. Eiger was known for his staunch opposition to all things haskalah. Deena, on the other hand, is a PhD student in Bible at NYU (hamaskil hameivin yavin).
No word yet on seismic activity in Bratislava, but I’ll keep you posted.

Whisky And Whine

I freely admit I’ve never been much of a drinker – regardless of Purim and I identify liquors mostly by relation to Monty Python Shticks. Still, one of the more interesting discussions we had in smikha involved what to do with whiskey which is often stored in sherry casks.
I don’t have my Yoreh Deah handy at the moment for citations. The short version is that if the wine isn’t kosher (a likely assumption), and it gets absorbed into the walls of casks, then when the whiskey is stored in said casks the non-kosher wine (or at least the taste) seeps out and would contaminate the whiskey.
R. Moshe dealt with this in Iggros Moshe (can’t check it now), R. Tendler brought this up in class a few times and R. Schachter addressed this issue in a shiur he gave when I was in Gruss. In fact, R. Schachter related a story that he was actually on the phone with someone in a Scottish distillery who explained that the reason why whiskey is stored in these casks is because they want the whiskey to absorb flavor from the wood of the barrel itself. However, since the full flavor would be far too intense and would ruin the whiskey, sherry casks are used such that the sherry mutes the flavor of the wood. Hence, any flavor given over by the remnant sherry is actually a negative taste (notein ta’am lifgam) and thus you don’t have a problem. (Not even dealing with batel b’shishim).
So now Avraham informs me that there is a new debate on the kashrut of whiskey which is I’m sure going to start a massive riot among kiddush clubs worldwide.
I should note however, that if the whiskey was stored in a Cask of Amontillado, you should probably go easy…or at least bring a pick-axe.

The Jokes On Us

SIW e-mails me about a quiz show he’s doing with some other folks and he’s looking for the looking for the funniest Jewish jokes.
You read that right – someone is actually asking me for jokes.
Of course, this meant I drew blanks. While I may contribute to Purim shticks or throw in a few lines in situations, I was never good at coming up with jokes on the fly nor have I memorized the collected works of Henny Youngman. But while I couldn’t help Steven out directly I did start thinking about what constitutes “Jewish” humor.
The obivous angle is that the comedian is Jewish – which seemed to the the basic theme of a Comedy Central special on the new Jewish comedians. This connection isn’t surprising considering that “Jewish” jokes are cultural if not stereotypical and as Sienfeld has taught us, only Jews can get away with these jokes without being considered anti-semetic.
The problem is that as cultures change, the stereotypical references become less significant. The classic Jewish jokes from the Borscht Belt were mostly based on a European “old country” mentality of Jewish culture and Jewish history. But as Jewish life moved out of the shtetle, so too must the humor.
One option is to identify and contemprize the familar themes. For example, topics such as mothers, guilt, and anxiety are are still things relavant to most people. The persecution complex may have to be toned down a bit, but there’s plenty of paranoia to go around. Or you could turn the stereotype dial up to 11 like Hebrew Hammer, which in the style of blaxploitation provided a fresh take on old ideas. Of course, some things would work better than others and through differnt comedic formats.
The other direction would be to satarize the modern societies of Judaism. There are websites and plays dealing with the modern professional Jewish world, and of course, there is no shortage Yeshivish jokes out there. The problem is that while these jokes may reflect the current reality, most of these are far too specialized to be funny for outsiders.
At any rate I’m at a loss for now, but I’m sure some things will be percolating in the back of my head.

The NCSY Shabbaton Experience

I’ve always had an odd relationship with NCSY. I was chapter president of Springfield for 4 years – 2 Junior and 2 Senior – but that was mostly because there was no one else around my age to do the job. At the shabbatons themselves I found myself somewhat marginailzed, due to a combination of adolescent awkwardness (read: geek) and having an alternative hashkafa which emphasized independent thought.
This past shabbat there was a Senior NCSY shabbaton in Springfield. An old friend my high school NCSY days, is now the regional director of some sort – despite swearing repeatedly that, “I am *never* doing NCSY when I graduate.” Aside from him, I knew a maximum of four other people who were involved with the shabbaton.
Anyway, it got me thinking back to my days as an NCSY’er. Since I’m home, I dug up a poem I wrote for the yearbook.
This was my last year in NCSY. I was outgoing Sr. President of Springfield, and my sister Esther was advisor of Juniors at the time. The Etz Chaim region has a thing called the “Torah Fund,” where they hit up the chapters for arbitrarily assessed amounts – loosely based on membership. This money went to the usual causes of supporting students for Israel programs and getting nice things for administrator’s families.
Fortunately, a chapter could fulfill its requirement by purchasing ads in the yearbook, and Springfield’s was so low that we were able to cover it by getting two ads. Esther and I decided to split one of them for Juniors and Seniors and I knocked out the following poem in roughly 15 minutes (she can vouch for that).
One editor of the yearbook was so offended by it she almost didn’t let it get published. In the end, she let it go through, but only after she mangled the meter on most stanzas. I don’t care enough to fix it right now, so you’ll have to deal with someone else’s horrible editing of a high-school senior’s 15 minute poem.
I present, now with additional annotations,

The NCSY Shabbaton Experience

YUTOPIA’s Guide To Purim Shticks

Apologies to the Loyal Readers for the lack of Purim shticks this year. I have too much real work to do at the end of the quarter, so it’s just not gonna happen.1 But I do feel the need to write about another dangerous practice of Purim: The Shticks. Each year, some people overdo it and wind up sick, hospitalized, or worse. The problems are exacerbated by a society which forces people to be clever – whether or not they actually have a sense of humor.
If you’re going to do some Purim shticks, don’t go in without preparation. I’ve been involved in more shticks than I care to admit, and I’ve found that “being funny” is easier said than done. Some people simply aren’t funny, and others might be funny but have no idea how to make a good shtick or just try too hard. So allow me help with some rules to make this Purim safe, enjoyable, and hopefully lynching free.

Rule 1: Know The Types of Humor

Humor is an art. It’s more than just throwing out one-liners or insults. I recommend reading A Netizen’s Guide to Humor for some general pointers. Intelligent satire is better than the one-liner insult. Insulting one-liners aren’t funny unless you’re a professional like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. You’re not. Use some creativity.
Satire is generally the best way to go for Purim shticks. Here are a few suggestions:
If you’re too lazy to come up with something from scratch, just take something popular and redo it. Songs, gemaras, ads, articles, or whatever. What you do will normally depend on your forum. Some shticks need to be performed, others are better in print. If you’re doing a magazine, be sure to mix up the styles.
The original piece should be serious, thus increasing the comedic impact. If you try to modify a comedy piece, you run the risk of extreme lameness. The only way you could pull it off, is if your version is better than the original. Try to pick something that would be familiar to your audience. The Hamevaser song, although funny, was lost on most people. In YU people either read Hamevaser, or they heard Dennis Leary. Few people knew both.
Any idiot can fool around with Photoshop, but few posess the twisted talent of Ephraim Shapiro.2 If you don’t have the ability of Shapiro, use minimal image editing, and put more effort into the caption. Take this for example. Initially, they just imposed “YU Registrar’s Office” on the guy’s butt. I’m sure you will agree, the end result was much funnier.
Reuven summed up the problem with puns nicely: the better the pun, the worse it is. They can be useful for a change of style to to give the joke another level of humor. Just remember to use them sparingly. And never make a shtick completely out of puns. You will get beat up.
Trust me.
Remember that details are important. A poor choice of words can turn a funny shtick into a tasteless one. A good idea with poor execution just isn’t funny. Even worse, you’ve wasted a good idea. Finally, don’t make a joke if it’s too obvious. If there is a joke that just has to be made, find a clever way of doing so.

Rule 2: Know Your Audience

You have to know your crowd. What will they think is funny, what jokes won’t they get, and what will they think is offensive? Since you never know who is going to come across your shtick, try keep it tame or nuanced. Remember that “funny” can be measured quantitatively by how many people think it’s funny, and qualitatively by how funny it is. Ideally, you’d like to maximize both, but realistically this is just about impossible. If you can, layer the shtick with multiple meanings so it will work on a peshat and derash level.
If you’re writing a journal of some sort, remember that you don’t have to have each article be funny to everyone. Actually, it would probably be better to direct some shticks to certain types of people, provided the range of your readership is covered.

Rule 3: Avoid Redundancies

If it’s been done before, don’t do it again. Fortunately Hamevaser hasn’t had a Purim issue in years because they had this problem. Essentially, most of the issue was written by one person. While he was funny, the jokes got stale after the fifth year. You’d have to go way way back to the Beis Grinky days to see some good original humor.

Rule 4: Know Your Limits

It’s really important to know when you’re not being funny or your just forcing it. If your idea is lame, then drop it and move on. If you have a good idea and need help with details, get some help. Personally, I’ve done my best shticks while collaborating with people like Ben and Avraham. Friends can tighten up details, and make sure it’s funny to other people besides yourself.

Rule 5: Safek Shtick Lehumra

If you’re unsure if it’s funny or offensive, use discretion. There is no shortage of lame, unfunny, and insulting shticks out there, and we don’t need another one. If you need filler, go for the surreal. Some people might think it’s lame, others will be too drunk to notice. Odds are someone will be offended by any given shtick. You don’t have to be overly sensitive, but avoid gratuitous attacks.
Again, if you’re not sure how it will be received (or worse, you are sure), better to leave it out.

Rule 6: There is NOOOOOO Rule 7

Don’t take yourself too seriously – this post included.
If you have your own suggestions or warnings, add them to the comments.
I’m about to become even more reclusive3 as I go on a non-stop writing binge until Spring Break. Expect blogging to be slow for the next two weeks or so unless something comes up.
Purim Sameach

1. Or at least not in time for Purim. I might post some of them later, but we’ll see.
2. Although, I must give props to Ben for this one.
3. Yes, that’s possible.

Masechet Bava Commie

The previous two posts were technically before my smikha days. My first year in smikha was also one of the more auspicious years in YU’s PR history. It started when YU removed stacks of the Commentator from Belfer Hall right before the annual open house. An embarrassed YU eventually compensated the Commie for the papers, but the fun didn’t stop there.

The story hit the mainstream press with YU being the evil supressor of free speach. The New York Times reported the story, and coincidentally was itself removed from campus. R. Lamm was even disqualified from US News’ ignominious Sheldon Award because “administrators are supposed to look the other way, not conduct the thefts themselves.” Of course, YU couldn’t do much about US News since they rely on them too much for their annual college rankings.

Censorship extented to Judaic Studies as well. Some of YU’s Roshei Yeshiva criticized the new Bible journal Nachalah and several copies also turned up “missing” after the SOY Sefarim Sale (it turned out that the Nachalah staff was to blame – since no one came to pick up the unsold issues, facilities management removed them.) Finally, the integrity of SOY’s prized publication “Beis Yitzhack” was compromised when two students dared to not only quote R. Saul Lieberman, but they actually treated him with respect.

With all this happening, we couldn’t just let this go by. I never attempted a fake gemara before, but this was too good to pass up. Ben came by my aparment and we created Masechet Bava Commie. While many fake gemaras just tell a story as it might appear in the Talmud, we quoted and paraphrased actual gemaras, rashis, and tosafot, weaving the shtick with actual sources to the point where we should have included mekorot with the Purim issue.