I received an email today from my very longtime friend Jack Moline today. Many people know Jack as the rabbi at Temple Agudas Achim in Alexandria, VA, just outside Washington, D.C. In 2008, Newsweek named him the #3 pulpit rabbi in America (I want to know who the two suck-ups were ahead of him). And last year he was named the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. But I think most people know of Jack Moline as the Sr. VP of Telecommunications for Elisberg Industries. (You can check him out under "About Elisberg Industries" and then Our Corporate Board.
Jack sent me a link to an article called "The Science of Laughter", which you can read here. But what was notable to him was the opening of the article. It begins --
"Denver journalist Joel Warner and his co-author Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, trekked across the world in search of the answer to a seemingly simple question: What makes people laugh?
"Their book, 'The Humor Code,' is at once a lighthearted collection of adventures in the world of humor and a serious-minded inquiry into the mysterious mechanisms of what makes things funny across cultural barriers. Across nine chapters, the duo bothers Louis C.K. in a green room, hangs out with scientists who tickle rats in Tanzania and flies into the Amazon rainforest on a cargo plane full of clowns."
His note was the link and a single sentence: "We were so far ahead of the curve no one would believe it."
And he's right. He's a rabbi, you can believe him.
What Jack was referring to is that when we were at New Trier High School, and doing a comedy radio show together on the school station, WNTH, we decided to do a project one weekend and went into Chicago with our tape recorders and, as a couple of intrepid journalists went around interviewing people on the subject..."What makes people laugh?"
I don't remember much about what we came up with, though I do remember we stumbled on the National Association of Broadcasters convention that was in town that weekend, and actually got two celebrities to participate -- Joan Rivers, and a comedian and TV game show host of the day, Woody Woodbury. (Also, the TV critic for the Chicago Daily News, Dean Geysel.)
(By the way, I'd totally forgotten this, but in tracking down those autographs -- which obviously, and bizarrely, I've saved for all these years, Note to Celebrities who think they sign things that are soon thrown away... -- I noticed that the cover of the NAB program the autographs were in was dated April 1. Not a bad day to do a documentary on "What makes people laugh." April Fool's Day!)
It's worth mentioning too that not only were Jack and I intrigued by this at such a young age and decades ahead of the curve, but when we later were both at Northwestern University and even in the same communications class, taught be a fellow named Irv Rein, who amazingly is still there, we teamed up on a class project and pulled out the golden oldie -- "What makes people laugh." (And no, we didn't just recycle the old material. Remember, I was working with a future rabbi. Honor was at our core.)
What I remember about that college project, which had to be presented in front of the class, is that the big finish of it was when Rabbi Moline hit me with a pie in the face. (Okay, he wasn't quite "Rabbi Moline" yet, but admit it -- it sounds better that way.) The point of the pie-hitting was Jack giving a long explanation, based on sociology and psychology -- most of it actually real, though some of it pseduo -- about why audiences today would no longer laugh at slapstick, being much too sophisticated in the modern world. As he lectured about this with great seriousness, I stood silently next to him, simply looking out at the class...all the while he was slowly filling up a pie tin with shaving cream. (Rule #1 about pie throwing. Use whipped cream, It tastes much better and doesn't sting the eyes. Rule #2 -- use breakaway pie crusts, not metal.)
As Jack was carefully explaining why people today simply will not laugh anymore at slapstick, the titters in the large classroom started to build, no one quite believing that he'd hit someone with a pie in class. As as the foam filled the tin more and more, and he kept proving with scientific certitude why no one would laugh, and I stood there impassive, seemingly uncaring, the tension and uncertain chuckles and disbelief grew until Jack sensed the perfect peak. And at just that moment he finally finished his speech and at last said, "And that is why no one today will laugh at slapstick." Pause. And then longer pause. Disbelieving titters. Still waiting. Will he do it? Won't he do it? Okay, no, he's not go -- And then... WHAM!! He pummeled me with the pie, and the room exploded with laughter.
Timing and set-up. It's everything. And while Jack Moline might be just the #3 pulpit rabbi in the United States, I would bet cash money that he's the #1 rabbi with comic timing.
(It helps that his hero in life is George Burns, and that he wrote a hilarious book for Viking Press, Growing Up Jewish, and that he was the headwriter for our high school music-variety show, Lagniappe. This is what you want in your rabbi. Yes, okay, all that religious knowledge is a good thing, too, and caring and compassion and smart, but if you're going to have to sit through a conservative Yom Kippur service and sermon -- the holiest day of the Jewish year, a day of fasting -- you want a rabbi who will reach under his pulpit (as Jack did one year) and bring out a MacDonalds Big Mac with cheese and bacon (!) and ask his congregation, "What would you people do if I ate this right now?"
And now you know why Rabbi Jack Moline is the Sr. VP of Telecommunications for Elisberg Industry. He and I are just way ahead of the curve. And also, if I ever need a good word put in for me, it never hurts to know a guy...
Besides, he too knows Nell Minow, so between the two of them, I'm covered.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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