"But don’t let me catch you laughing."
It’s not the traditional punch line for a classic Jewish joke, but a comedy club that hosts High Holy Days services is not your traditional comedy club.
The Laugh Factory, on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, has been doing that for 16 years. "We’re the only one," says Jamie Masada, an Iranian Israeli who came to L.A. as a penniless immigrant, founded the Laugh Factory in a leased storefront with borrowed money and built it into a local institution that gives stand-up classes and offers the mike to Robin Williams and Steve Martin to try out their new material.
And which sponsors free Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for 4,000 homeless people.
The club advertises the free holiday services on its marquee:
This year, Rosh HaShanah services Sept. 27 and Yom Kippur Oct. 5-6.
It started with a bunch of out-of-town comics, mostly New Yorkers, who were in L.A. for the holidays. "Most of them had no place to go," Masada says in a telephone interview. He called area synagogues and paid for tickets for about 30 comics. The bill: nearly $5,000.
"What can I do" next year, he asked himself.
Host services at the Laugh Factory, he answered. "I did it Reform," Masada recalls.
He hired a rabbi and cantor, with apples and honey for Rosh HaShanah and bagels for Yom Kippur break-the-fast.
Word of mouth got around, Masada says. Last year 500 worshipers came to the spruced-up 380-seat auditorium. "Show biz people. Regular people too," he says. Kirk Douglas and Bob Saget have served as ushers. "Kirk Douglas told me this is the only shul he can feel comfortable in."
Rabbi Bob Jacobs and Cantor Sandy Lasarow lead serious davening. "It’s a normal service," with a specially prepared Laugh Factory prayerbook, Masada says. No laughs on the Days of Awe. "I’ve seen other rabbis do more jokes than at my shul."
No two-drink minimum on these days; Masada does not charge for the services. "Contributions are discouraged," a press release advises.
The Laugh Factory accepts reservations for services but does not require tickets.
Which brings us back to the old joke about the kid who tries to get into shul on yom tov without a ticket to give his father a message, and the usher tells him, "I’ll let you in for a minute, but don’t let me catch you praying."
"It’s the greatest mitzvah," Masada says of the Laugh Factory’s spiritual home for people away from home for the holy days. "It makes me feel wonderful. I encourage people to get back to their roots."
The Laugh Factory will move eastward later this year. Masada hopes to open a Manhattan branch by January. "We’re going to do the services in New York, too."