It’s common wisdom that the best comedy is essentially serious. Of course, clichés often have an underlying truth, so maybe that explains why Rob Tannenbaum, one half of the comedy-music duo Good for the Jews playing at the Highline Ball Room on Dec. 23, is both a very funny guy and yet someone who discusses his work in surprisingly sober terms.
OK, he discusses it in sober terms some of the time. On the other hand, when asked about his Jewish upbringing in WASPy Fairfield County, Conn., the 32-year-old Tannenbaum replies with an ear-to-ear grin, “What Jewish upbringing? ‘Connecticut Jew’ is an oxymoron. I come from the land of the Izod yarmulke.”
Then he gets serious.
“I was a ‘bar mitzvah’ Jew,” Tannenbaum admits. “But I believe my personality and my sense of humor are deeply Jewish. In fact, I’m Jewish in every way except my religion. I guess ‘real’ Jews would call me a Christian.”
Probably not, although they might call him an apikoros (apostate). The simple fact is, like so many other secular Jews, Tannenbaum feels drawn to Jewish thought, Jewish ethics, Jewish cultural efforts, but not to synagogue. “The things I love [about being Jewish] have to do with my friends and family,” he says.
But he is completely committed to the idea of Jewish identity, so much so that several years ago, while fronting a punk band “of no great significance,” he adds with a rueful smile, he was so miffed by the omnipresence of that other December holiday that he wrote a song, “It’s Good to Be a Jew at Christmas.”
“It’s a protest song about identity and pride,” Tannenbaum says. “And that’s how it started.”
The song ended up on a compilation of Jewish comedy songs, “with a song by my hero, Mel Brooks,” he notes proudly.
“The turning point in my songwriting was going to see ‘The Producers,’ on Broadway,” Tannenbaum says. “There I was in a theater full of tourists who were laughing at songs about the Holocaust and the Nazis. I felt liberated.”
Tannenbaum is probably better known as a rock critic, the music editor of the magazine Blender, than as a singer-songwriter-humorist. Or you may remember him as one-half of What I Like About Jew, with former Rockapella front man Sean Altman. That was the project that brought him to prominence in Jewish circles. It also brought pain when the pair split up. “It wasn’t a happy break-up,” he admits.
Both he and Altman have continued in the comedy-and-music vein. Each still performs some of the songs they wrote together.
Several of those songs, and the new ones Tannenbaum is writing on his own or with his new musical partner David Fagin, may hit the occasional raw nerve: the sex-obsessed bar mitzvah ballad, “Today I Am a Man”; the mini-history lesson, “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)”; or his new anthem “Shiksas Are for Practice.”
“We don’t expect consensus,” Tannenbaum says. “Not everybody is going to find every song funny.”
But he tells a story about receiving some important validation from a friend, “the only child of two survivors of Auschwitz,” he says. “She came to one of our shows and I have some material about the difficulties of being a German Jew. This is the person I know who has experienced the most suffering from anti-Semitism, and she found joy and hopefulness in those jokes. If she finds a joke about German Jews funny, that’s all the license I need.”
At the same time, though, he readily acknowledges that others may not be so relaxed.
“As a college-educated Reform Jew, I understand that some people may feel I’m not entitled to speak on some subjects,” Tannenbaum says. “The Jewish people are not monolithic and I’ve had dialogues with people after our shows who have misgivings about the material.”
Fagin, who is also the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Rosenbergs, a highly acclaimed power pop band, agrees, saying that you cannot please everybody. But he notes, “We’re rabbi-endorsed. We had a board member of a Jewish organization who complained about our material and his rabbi told him that he loves us because ‘if you can’t laugh at your own plight, what have you got? It’s healing.”
Fagin came by his Jewish comedy chops naturally. His mother worked the Borscht Belt circuit for over 20 years as Diane King, and he and his sister grew up watching her act.
“We had a really interesting upbringing,” he says.” We’d go to school all week then spend our weekends in the Catskills. We’d drink our Shirley Temples and watch Buddy Hackett slobber all over our mother.”
And now he’s touring Middle America, speaking on a cell phone from somewhere in Wisconsin.
“My Jewish heritage was really strong when I was growing up,” Fagin says.” And it has been reawakened through this act.”
When you ask Tannenbaum if his forays into Jewish humor have affected his sense of Jewish identity, he gets serious again.
Serious and bit flummoxed.
“Yes, it has . . . but how?” he asks earnestly. “I went to shul for the High Holy Days this year for the first time in a long time. Was I looking for new material?
“Look, the stuff we’re doing brings me into pretty intensive contact with the Jewish community. It requires me to think about what it means to be a Jew. If you can accept the idea that someone can be a practicing Jew without being observant – well, I’ve spent a lot of time practicing my Judaism. And my sense of Judaism has developed. I guess I’m an Orthodox version of a secular Jew.”
Which may or may not be funny, but it certainly is the product of someone doing some serious reflecting.
Good for the Jews will be playing at the Highline Ballroom (431 W. 16th St.) on Dec. 23 at 8 p.m., with the LeeVees, Dave Attell, Todd Barry and Rachel Feinstein. For information, call (212) 414-5994 or go to www.highlineballroom.com.