Interview: Comedian Rob Tannenbaum of Good for the Jews

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Rob Tannenbaum and David Fagin are Good for the Jews
The holidays seem to start earlier and earlier with each passing year. Soon after the Halloween decorations are taken down, cities become wrapped in tinsel and holiday music takes over the airwaves. However, amidst the grand seasonal spectacle, sometimes Hanukkah receives only a token decoration or the occasional play of the "The Dreidel Song." It is for that reason that Rob Tannenbaum and David Fagin formed Good for the Jews, a musical comedy group determined to "put the Ha! in Hanukkah."

Their show is a hilarious, edgy celebration of all things Jewish, and this Wednesday, Good for the Jews will perform at Largo at the Coronet. Last week, LAist spoke with Tannenbaum—who is also a well-known music journalist—to discuss Jewish music, how he "converted" Moby, and the special guests scheduled to appear on Wednesday night.

Your show can be described in so many ways, and the term "lovingly irreverent" often pops up in one form or another. What's your favorite way to describe it?

I like to say that we make Jewish music for people who don't like Jewish music. Which really describes my experience. A lot of people think that the "Jewish music" you hear in Hebrew school is all there is to it, which is a shame. In the broader sense, Jewish music is rock 'n' roll. It is essentially the history of 20th century music—whether it's Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Oscar Hammerstein, the Brill Building, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen or Joey Ramone. I consider all of that to be Jewish music, including Mel Brooks, who is one of the great Jewish songwriters.

Your songs cover so many different styles—from Sinatra-esque to rock. At what point do you decide which direction to go style-wise?

It's nice for us to be able to show a real diversity of styles. I think that comes from us not wanting to write the same song over and over again, because that would be boring. That only works if you're the Ramones and that one song is so fantastic that it doesn't matter how many times you play it.

But David and I both have pretty broad musical tastes. We haven't yet gotten around to writing a Jewish country song, but I want to do that. And I really want to write a Jewish Gospel song and get the choir from, say, the Brooklyn Baptist Church, and even have them sing a little bit in Yiddish.

When you're writing a song, does it usually start with a general idea, a line, or the melody?

It's usually a theme and a hook. We have a song about bar mitzvahs and it started with the opening couplet, which I just came up with one day: "I've got two pubic hairs and a three-piece suit. Today I am a man..." There's a song that we have about Bernie Madoff, which started with the chorus. It would seem like a small topic to write about, but we had a lot to work with. Even if we did nothing but write songs about Jewish women we lust after—a Natalie Portman song, a Sarah Silverman song, a Scarlett Johansson song—we could release a double concept album!

You perform throughout the year, but it seems like your schedule is pretty packed right now. Is December your busiest month?

Definitely. We're sort of like Mannheim Steamroller with a smaller budget. We do stuff throughout the year, but the holiday season is when we're busiest. It's also the time when Jews need the most cheering up. December can be a really crappy month if you're a Jew, because you're constantly being pelted with Christmas.

You've previously talked about how many Jews have "Christmas envy" because you seem to be surrounded by the holiday throughout the month of December. Is it your hope that non-Jews will leave your show with a little "Hanukkah envy"?

Yeah, in fact, during a show in New York, I converted Moby. He was in the audience and I brought him up on stage and said, "I know you had an album, Play, that sold 10 million copies. But if you had tapped into this whole 'Jewish entertainment conspiracy,' you could've sold 20 million. I'm not a rabbi, but would you like to convert?" And he agreed. So technically, I think Moby's now a Jew.

We do get a pretty good number of non-Jews who come to our shows. I would say somewhere between 25-30 percent.

You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate the show.

Yeah, in the same way you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate a pastrami sandwich or to laugh at Jon Stewart. The Jewish mindset is so deeply ingrained in American culture at this point, that what Good for the Jews does on stage is readily understandable by just about anyone.

It's not some weird esoteric stage show. We don't sing in a weird foreign language like Hebrew or Jewish. Everything we do is in the English language and we sprinkle the show with some Yiddish I picked up from my Grandpa Barney and Grandma Tilly. But these are words that have become commonplace in our vocabulary—schmuck, goyim, chutzpah.

You've said in the past that, in your songs, there are some serious undertones about what it means to be an assimilated Jew in the US. What kind of feedback do you receive from secular Jews who have seen your show for the first time—do they thank you for what you're trying to do?

Thankful isn't always people's first response—it's usually more shocked or entertained. There's almost nothing I say on stage that's serious, but there is a serious intent behind the show. And that is to create a sense of community and celebration—even for people who are secular Jews, which is what I am.

But just because I'm an unobservant Jew, doesn't mean I can't celebrate being a Jew. I want to be Jewish; I just don't want to have to go to synagogue at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. You know, maybe if they moved it until later in the day, I'd go. There's a reason we're only two percent of the population—very poor marketing and planning. If you want people to attend your services, don't hold them at 9 a.m. We need to move them later in the day like the Christians do. Start at 11 and end at 12:30.

So I like to think of our performances as the equivalent of a synagogue service. We're surrounded by people from our community. We're singing and we're celebrating what it means to be Jewish and Jewish tradition, but the difference is that we serve alcohol. They don't serve alcohol in synagogue. I guess I'm kind of like a rabbi who wants you to get drunk.

It's interesting though, because even though you're a secular Jew, throughout the process of creating this music and forming this group, you've really become an expert in Jewish history. Is it a bit surreal?

It's true that I have learned a lot about Jewish history and tradition while doing the show, and it threatens my very proud status as an ignorant Jew. I'm now in danger of actually having to admit that I know things.

For instance, we have a song called, "They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Let's Eat," which is a deliberately false retelling of the story of Passover. The premise of the joke is that secular Jews grow up pretty ignorant about their history. Passover services in my house were a race to the finish. The food was ready. We were all hungry. We'd heard the story a year ago and it's not like it ever changes. So the story was rushed, details were skipped, and the goal was to get it over with as quickly as possible without infuriating my mother.

How did your parents react when they first heard your music?

I remember when I first sent them a CD when they were living in Florida. My father was playing it in the living room on his stereo. After one of the songs ended—I think it was "Hot Jewish Chicks"—my mother said, "I couldn't make out those lyrics," to which my father responded, "Honey, it's just as well."

According to my calculations, as of this month, you've been doing the Jewish music and comedy thing for a decade now. How has your show evolved over the years?

Well, I think that the biggest change is that, when I first started writing Jewish songs, hardly anyone else was doing something like this. At the time, JDub Records, Heeb Magazine, and Jewcy.com didn't exist, and Matisyahu was still eating bacon burgers.

When I started doing this, it was very difficult to get a gig. Club owners would say, "I don't know who's going to come to see that." The first show I ever did with the Jewish music was at a club in New York on Christmas Eve. And it sold out. The next year, they gave us two shows on Christmas Eve, and both sold out. The year after that, we got two on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day, and all three sold out. But since then, a lot more people have started creating alternative Jewish culture to the point where on Christmas Eve in New York, there are six or seven different Jewish events going on.

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Good for the Jews

You've played everywhere from clubs to synagogues. What are some of the most memorable gigs you've played over the last decade?

A couple things come to mind. The first is a gig we played at a comedy club in Boca Raton, Florida—and you have to understand that when a Jew says "The Holy Land," they're referring to either Israel or Boca. This was a show we'd scheduled so that David and I could perform in front of our parents, who had never seen our act.

That was very meaningful. David's mother was—and still is—a professional singer. She had an enduring career in the Catskills, and she performed with every great Jewish comedian of the 50s, 60s and 70s. And David's father was her manager. As we came offstage, he was right there trying to give us notes on our act. It was a very sweet and fulfilling night.

I think the other extreme when it comes to memorable gigs was when we did a show in San Francisco. We were doing the sound check and one of the guys at the Great American Music Hall came in and said, "You've got a little problem outside." And it turns out we had a Nazi protester.

That's frightening! Did he go away before the show?

No, he knew what his rights were—and he didn't block the entrance—but he was not a shy Nazi. You'd think that if you were a Nazi, you'd be in the closet! But it was interesting to see that our assertion of pride and joy in being Jewish merited a protest by a self-described Nazi. (Read the full story on Jewcy.com.)

In addition to your music/comedy career, you're also a well-known music journalist and your article last summer about Third Eye Blind was brilliant in its tone. Fans of the group loved the piece because they thought you were praising the band, and haters loved it because they saw it as tongue in cheek. Were you surprised by the comments?

It's kind of what I was aiming for. I wanted it to be oblique. One of my favorite comments said that the tone was reminiscent of Patrick Bateman in Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho—the part where he talks about his love of the band Genesis. That made me very happy to think that I had written a Patrick Bateman-esque essay.

In general, do you think the perception of tone is the key to an audience member's comedy experience—finding something hilarious vs. sitting there with their arms crossed?

Wow. I do have some thoughts about that, but nothing I'd say would be funny, which is one of the problems—a discussion of comedy is never funny. I will say that we have never upset or offended anyone who didn't arrive ready to be upset or offended.

We did a show earlier this year in Westchester County and there was a woman in the second row who was clearly upset. I asked her what her objection was and she began explaining that our jokes were inappropriate. Then she revealed that she isn't even Jewish—yet she was trying to tell me what's inappropriate for a Jew to say about his religion. All sorts of strange things happen to us. I don't think these things ever happen to [Third Eye Blind's] Stephan Jenkins!

In your career as a journalist, have you ever gotten advice from people you've interviewed, or taken something they've said, and applied it to what you're doing with Good for the Jews?

I've been writing a piece about John Mayer, and he was talking about songwriting—specifically about songwriters who have trouble finishing their songs. He said, "If you don't finish your songs, you're not even a bad songwriter." It was a great statement, because you aren't a songwriter—even a bad one—if you don't finish your songs. And that really motivated me to work on finishing some songs I've been halfway through, and was halfway through six months ago.

From what I've seen, it appears that you've interviewed nearly everyone in the music industry. Do you have an all-time favorite?

One of my favorites was Brian Eno, because his music changed my life and he's an incredibly articulate and committed interview subject. He doesn't want to tell you the same stories over and over, which many people want to do. Sometimes when I'm interviewing people, I might ask a question about, I don't know, what their favorite biscuit is, and they reply by telling me what their father did for a living. And I think, "Oh, OK, that's your thing. You're the 'son of an auto mechanic' guy."

You often include special guests when you play Los Angeles and New York. Who have some of your past guests been?

We've had Dave Attell, Elon Gold, Morgan Murphy, Jessi Klein, Lisa Loeb, Jill Sobule…

Moby!

Yeah, definitely Moby.

What's been one of your favorite moments featuring a special guest?

One time Lisa Loeb did a show with us in New York, and while we were sound checking, she got behind the drum kit and started playing along. She said, "Man, I've played the drums at rehearsals, but I've never played them on stage during a show."

So that night, when we started that song, I called her out on stage and she played drums behind us and it was fun as hell. The crowd went crazy. There's nothing we could've done that the crowd would've loved more than Lisa Loeb making her debut as a drummer.

That sounds like so much fun! Who will your special guests be during your show at Largo at the Coronet this Wednesday?

We'll have Marc Maron and Andrew Goldenhersh. Maron I met through a mutual friend and I went to see his new show, "Scorching the Earth," and was really knocked out by it. Maron is one of those guys who could do a 15 minute set, and even if he never uses the word "Jew," he'll walk offstage and you'll say to yourself, "That Jew was funny."

Andrew Goldenhersh is a magician. I've never met him, but Lisa Loeb and Marc Maron raved about him. Then I found out that Morgan Murphy loves his work, too. At that point I realized, "This is a guy who is beloved by performers whose first and last names start with the same letter! What a niche!"

Is there anything else you'd like to add about the Largo show?

Just a pathetic ploy to get Sarah Silverman to come see us at Largo. A few months ago she said something that was widely quoted: "I am good for the Jews." But that's not quite true because we are Good for the Jews. And if she wants to be good for the Jews, she can come see Good for the Jews, and maybe she'll like our dirty little songs.

What are some of your favorite things to do or places to hang out when you're in LA?

I hang out a lot on friends' couches. I also like to pretend that I'm a valet in the parking lot of Canter's. I ask, "May I park your car, sir?" Then they go inside for some bagels and I've got a car for the day.

I have a casual friendship with Jonathan Gold, so a lot of times when I come to LA, I'll e-mail him and ask where I should eat. The last time I was in LA, he sent me to Jitlada, the Thai place on Sunset. It's wonderful.

Let's see, what else…there are a couple of vintage stores I really like on Melrose. And I like to drive out to the beach to Shutters and steal some towels, soap and a bath cap, and bring them back to our $39/night hotel.

The bath cap is key.

Yeah, and then David and I take turns wearing the bath cap. On our budget, we're usually staying in a room with one single bed, so one of us sleeps for three hours while the other one stands, and then we trade off.

I know our time is coming to an end, but is it true there will be a charity tie-in at your Largo show?

Yes. There's a Hebrew word "tzedakah" and the closest English word is "charity." The idea is that with anything we're doing, we should be thinking about people who are less fortunate.

Currently, we're working with the Jewish Federation's hunger initiative (Fed Up With Hunger), so we're asking people who come to our show on Wednesday night to bring a can of food. All the food collected at the event will be given to people in Los Angeles who are hungry this holiday season.

Thank you for speaking with LAist, Rob!

Don't miss Good for the Jews at Largo at the Coronet this Wednesday night (Dec. 9) at 8:30 p.m. As an LAist reader, you can get a special discount if you purchase tickets via the Largo box office (310-855-0350) before 2 p.m. on Wednesday. Just mention the code "GFTJ" and receive $7 off the $25 ticket price. Regular-priced tickets will also be available at the door on the night of the event.

To learn more about Good for the Jews and Rob Tannenbaum, visit www.goodforthejews.net.