The Comedy Writers' Holiday
By ROB KUTNER
For the past seven years, I have written comedy
professionally, for Dennis Miller’s HBO show and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. For the past 14 years, I have
written Purim spiels.
Does that mean it’s easier to break into Shushan than it is into Hollywood? I
can’t say. But for me, Purim has always been incredibly synergistic (as they
say in the vernacular). Unless you’re a rabbi, cantor, or etrog farmer, most holidays require you to choose between going to
work or going to shul. Purim allows
me to do what I do for work, and a mitzvah at the same time.
Of course, the tradition of Purim comic irreverence goes back centuries, from a
humorous poetic retelling of the Megillah passed around the Jewish community in
16th-century Venice; to troupes of European Yeshiva bochers who went from house to house,
performing Purim sketches and songs; to full-on, operatically costumed and
scored theatrical productions throughout 17th-century Europe; to a
Purim play in Hamburg, Germany so raunchy, it was banned by local
authorities—and one in Frankfurt that was actually burned!
Purim is the one day of the Jewish calendar on which excess is mandated and
subversion of social norms encouraged. So it’s not surprising that Purim has
found a happy home in rigid traditional settings, as a cathartic release valve
or a vehicle for voicing normally verboten
criticism of authority figures, or both. Yeshivah students would cross-dress
and “roast” their yeshivah heads and elders. The Bobover sect puts on a
legendary Spiel in Brooklyn that has featured contemporary political nemeses
like Castro and Saddam Hussein as characters.
And it was in a traditional (though not particularly rigid) setting that Purim
and I first found each other. In 1994-95, I spent the year in Jerusalem
studying at the Pardes Institute, a progressive Orthodox yeshiva. Though
planning to move to Los Angeles and try to break into comedy, I had promised
myself a year in Israel first. I was probably the only person in history simultaneously
studying Mishnah and working on a spec script of Frasier.
I made no secret of my comedy aspirations. So when Purim appeared on the
horizon, I was volunteered to run the Spiel. My fellow students and I put on a
four-hour show encompassing everything from "The Disco Rebbe" (a
Chasid who dispenses all his wisdom through 70s songs) to the Artscroll
translation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover
(as Artscroll actually does in its infamous translation of “Song of Songs,” all
love and romantic imagery is transmuted into clunky metaphors about God’s
covenant with Israel) to a Star Trek
parody in which the Enterprise comes upon a treyf
spaceship and has to use what we had learned in our Halacha class to successfully kasher
Nerdy? Yes. Incredibly. And one of the best experiences of my life. That night
was so inspiring and energizing, that I honestly believe the good vibes it
generated helped propel me through some of the bleakest years of Hollywood
rejection. And many years later, when I ran into my Halacha teacher, he didn’t remember me—but he remembered the Star Trek sketch!
When my wife and I moved to LA, I ended up running the spiel at our minyan for
many years. And when I moved to New York for the Daily Show job, I found myself missing the Jewish community I’d
been part of in LA—and not as readily able to find one that I fit in. So I
ended up forming a unique one of my own, by creating a Purim spiel.
It started out with a simple notion: A professional-grade Purim spiel, written
and performed by professional writers and actors. The format that appealed to
my ADHD/pop-culture sensibility: a fake TV network (The Shushan Channel)
"broadcasting" spoofs of current TV shows, each of which told a piece
of the Purim story. For example, an Apprentice
sketch depicting King Ahashverosh’s pageant to find a new Queen. A spoof of The Biggest Loser, in which Esther and
Mordechai competitively fast to save their people. You get the idea.
I went to friends and colleagues for sketches, and asked around for actors.
Soon I had a great repertory company and a show. I offered it to a synagogue I
went to sometimes, and now we had a venue. We were a hit! Insanely, I tried to
do it all: writing, producing, directing, narrating, and reading Megillah. It pretty much turned my head into
The next year, I was slightly more organized and better at delegating. I got
help from my producing partner Stephen, as well as from the Jewish
environmental organization Hazon, for whom the show was a benefit. We sold out the
social hall of Shaare Zedek again, and again the next year, and the following
years, we moved onto bigger venues.
We also started promoting the show with an annual Web video: Jewish Girls Gone Wild, which
almost got us sued by Camp Sabra; Tuchass; last year’s Jewno; and this year’s effort, Meshugene Men.
I’d like to think of these as our answer to that 16th-century
Venetian Purim poem, with a better soundtrack. We also now sell our sketches to synagogues,
Hillels, and community centers in the U.S. and abroad.
Of course such a massive annual undertaking naturally intersects with my day
job. Every year around Adar, my colleagues notice me being a little less
“available” to stay late and watch presidential speeches. Our props and
wardrobe people annually get a crazy list of requests from me (How fortunate
that the show happens to own a beautiful Haman-hanging noose!). And every year,
one or two Daily Show correspondents
has been kind enough to star in my show, whether it was Aasif Mandvi doing his
astonishing John McCain impression, Lewis Black ranting about the five things
he hates about Purim, or Stephen Colbert praising Haman and tearing Mordechai a
In fact, perhaps my interest in Purim spiels has something in common with my
work. The Spiel is a unique way to comment on topical matters in an irreverent
fashion and often surprising juxtapositions. That, and the fact that I come
into work every day dressed as Queen Esther and get so drunk, I can’t tell work