|Adam Oliensis, Bob Alper, and Alex Barnett, the members of The Jewish Fathers Comedy Tour|
If Jewish mothers are the butt of so many jokes, that’s because so many comedians are Jewish fathers, quips Rockland County comedian Adam Oliensis.
To help address that gender imbalance, Mr. Oliensis is teaming up with fellow comics Rabbi Bob Alper and Alex Barnett in The Jewish Fathers Comedy Tour, which will launch in Wayne on August 10.
Asked how the three-man collaboration came about, Barnett replied, “Have you heard us sing? If you had, you would quickly understand why we’re doing standup together and not forming a rock band.”
But seriously… “Also, I’ve known Adam for a long time. We’ve worked together many times and then I met Bob at a show of mine. We all then got on a call together and hit it off, and during that call we came up with the idea for the tour.”
As it happens, the show where Mr. Barnett met Rabbi Alper – “The Diversity Show,” featuring comedians from different ethnic groups – is not unlike Rabbi Alper’s own “Laugh in Peace” ensemble, including Jewish, Muslim, and Christian performers.
The new Jewish fathers group is also a study in diversity, said Rabbi Alper.
“Alex Barnett is a 40-something lawyer with a toddler, Adam Oliensis is a 50-something financial industry executive with teenagers, and I’m a 60-something rabbi with adorable 42- and 38-year-olds.”
It’s a great fit, said Rabbi Alper. “We all do material about being Jewish fathers, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. All three of us can work 100 percent clean, and our comedy is not hateful or self-hating.”
For his part, Mr. Barnett – who has performed at clubs, colleges, and venues throughout the country and has also appeared on both television and radio – declined to comment on whether Jewish mothers are funnier than Jewish fathers.
“I have a Jewish mother, a Jewish stepmother, and I’m married to a Jewish mother, so I plead the fifth, as any answer may tend to incriminate me,” he said.
He does, however, offer a reason for the perceived neglect of Jewish fathers.
“I think Jewish dads perhaps get overlooked because historically we’re not the ones who do the cooking. People tend to focus their attention and devotion on the person providing them with sustenance and nutrition. Either that or because we’re pretty bad with tools.”
Mr. Oliensis has a different take on the issue.
“I remember reading something by Dick Cavett where he asked a famous agent the difference between a successful comic and a star.” The answer, said the agent, “is a certain largeness of personality. Jewish mothers have that, so they naturally become the star of a joke. The stereotype of the Jewish woman – as someone who won’t be deterred – is overwhelming, a great persona to put in the middle of a joke. A huge character, like a Jewish female Jackie Gleason.”
The typical Jewish father, though, has been seen as someone who goes to work, comes home, and tells the children to do what the mother says.
But now, said Mr. Oliensis, “women are becoming the men they’ve asked men not to be. Fathers now are more available to their families and are becoming more on a par with the mother as a presence in the home.”
The comic, who also produces a stock market newsletter, said employment statistics from the early 1980s to 2000 show increasing numbers of women entering the workforce.
“Mom doesn’t make dinner,” he said. “She works and buys dinner. So the void in the home is filled by Jewish fathers. We’ve seen the advent of non-gender-specific helicopter parents.”
Rabbi Alper, on the other hand, thinks Jewish fathers “are funnier for sure. They’re the joke tellers. It’s our time.”
The Jewish Fathers Comedy tour will open at Wayne’s Temple Beth Tikvah, a synagogue familiar to Mr. Oliensis.
“I lived in Wayne in the early ’60s,” said the comic. “We were members of Beth Tikvah. My earliest and most vivid religious memory is sitting in the sanctuary at my sister’s 1965 bat mitzvah and looking at the stained glass window, letting my eyes wander and play visual tricks.”
He notes that when his family first came over from Europe, they were called Olasky.
“They changed it to fit in,” he said. “My great uncle thought he was anglicizing it.”
In addition to the unusual name – “Anyone with that name is probably a relative,” said the Rockland County comedian – Mr. Oliensis has reason to believe that he is an 11th-generation direct descendant of the Vilna Gaon.
“My great-grandmother heard from her grandfather that she was the eighth generation,” he said. This makes him part of generation 11; and his kids, generation 12. Still, he noted, while such illustrious lineage may have helped him develop a healthy respect for academic achievement, it is absolutely no help when it comes to raising teenage girls.
Mr. Oliensis – who plays clubs in New York City and the surrounding area, as well as synagogues, theatres, and JCCs throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania – said there are good reasons why a disproportionate number of comedians are Jewish.
“Humor was probably not huge before the destruction of the Temple, but we live in a hostile world and our strengths are intellectual, so making light of catastrophe becomes a necessity, and then a virtue, deflecting pain and anguish.”
Humor, he said, is also “very talmudic. It looks at a little detail everyone takes for granted and unfolds and unpacks it with questions – turning it over and examining it from every aspect. The synthesis squirts out as humor.”
Mr. Oliensis, who studied martial arts for many years, said he thinks of comedy as a kind of “intellectual aikido.”
“You turn [your opponent’s] energy against him.” While comedy is obviously a friendlier pursuit, “it’s the same kind of process. You take what’s given and turn it around into something else.”
Mr. Barnett agrees with this assessment.
“Our tradition of questioning lends itself to examining life and trying to explain the ironies and misfortunes … that befall humanity, which is what comedy is all about. Also – and I’m certainly not the first to say this – given our history, with so much tragedy, you have to be able to laugh or you won’t survive.”
Mr. Alper – an ordained rabbi who holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary – detailed three possible reasons why Jews have flocked to comedy. First, he said, alluding to the traditional answer that humor is a response to victimhood, “if you can intellectually outsmart your oppressor, you’ve scored your own modest victory.” In addition, “Jews have always prized portable professions. You can’t take your factories or farms when you’re kicked out, but you can take your brains.”
Finally, “Jews are in love with language – playing with language and examining meaning.” Standup comedy, too, involves playing with language, he said.
Are there any drawbacks to being a rabbi in this profession?
“In standup, you don’t see a long story building, and rabbis usually tell really long stories,” he joked. “But being a rabbi is only a handicap if you’re in a comedy club with a bachelorette party going on.”
Usually, he said, his only problem is when “people think I’ll be like their own rabbi.” That misconception, he added, usually disappears quickly.
Otherwise, he said, being a rabbi is an asset, since “comedians need to be unique to make their way in the world. I have an amazing niche market.”
Throughout his 27-year career as a comic, Rabbi Alper has performed all across North America and England, at corporate events, theaters, nonprofits, conventions, private parties, churches, and synagogues. He’s done more than 200 shows with his Arab and Muslim comedy partners, at a variety of venues, but primarily colleges and universities. A frequent guest on television programs, he is also the author of three books.
As a regular presenter on Sirius/XM Radio, Rabbi Alper fondly remembers sitting next to a cattle truck driver from Kansas during one of his trips and hearing the man – who follows his show avidly – repeating his material word for word.
If this is any indication, the Jewish Fathers Comedy tour will resonate with non-Jews as well.
Barnett has no doubt about that.
“I say this because I’ve performed for non-Jewish audiences and gotten a good reaction. Also, we started doing the act in English – instead of just Hebrew and Yiddish – so now non-Jewish people really get our stuff.” [Editor’s note: He’s joking.]
Rabbi Alper, who lives in Vermont but maintains “a vacation cottage on the Upper West Side” of Manhattan, said the group hopes to pursue a synagogue-based project where families can memorialize living or deceased loved ones – fathers or grandfathers – by sponsoring a show in their behalf.
“I would do it for my father,” he said, recalling how his late father loved to tell jokes. He described the venture as “an opportunity to memorialize [or honor] someone by giving the community an opportunity to laugh.”
“The nicest thing that ever happened was when a woman came up to me after a show and said ‘My husband died six months ago. This is the first time I’ve laughed.'”
|What: Jewish Fathers Comedy Tour
When: August 10 at 7 p.m.
Where: Temple Beth Tikvah,
Cost: $18 a ticket
Information: Call the synagogue, (973) 595-6565