Jay Leno's Orthodox Joke Writer
Marvin Silbermintz is FFB: Funny From Birth
How many Orthodox Jews use the term "gadlus" (greatness) to describe the comedy of The Three Stooges?
But then, how many Orthodox Jews write jokes for Jay Leno? Marvin Silbermintz does -- and has been doing so for more than 15 years.
He also performs for Jewish audiences and is the co-author of Backwords: The Secret Language Of Talking Backwards And More Incredible Games, Stunts And Mind-Bending Word Fun!
The Jewish Press recently talked with Silbermintz about life with Leno, playing a rabbi on the "Tonight Show," and what's wrong with the bagels in Hollywood.
The Jewish Press: What's your background?
I was born in 1951 and grew up in the Bronx, where I went to Yeshiva Zichron Moshe. Then we moved to Washington Heights, where I went to Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Breuer's) starting in eighth grade. After that it was Lehman College; I have a bachelor's in art with a minor in education. Then I got a job at a factory in the Bronx making silkscreen souvenirs and T-shirts, and later worked for a toy company, helping design the toys and writing the instructions.
How did the toy job come about?
I was desperate for a better job. One day I saw an ad for the Ideal Toy Company and went in for an interview. They were looking for someone for what they called their "Blue Sky" group - eight people who sat around thinking of ideas out of the clear blue sky. As you might expect, I really wanted that job.
How did you wind up in Hollywood writing jokes for Jay Leno?
I had always done magic shows at yeshivas, Jewish camps, birthday parties, etc., and there was a lot of comedy involved. I learned magic from Professor Abe Hurwitz of Yeshiva University, the father of the original puppeteer of Lamb Chop, Shari Lewis, whose real name was Tziporah Hurwitz.
It may be hard for younger readers to believe, but in those days magic had a certain cachet. But it hasn't exactly been hip for a long time now. In fact, if you want to do a comedic skit about people stuck on a really bad cruise, you show them being entertained by a magician or a ventriloquist. It's like the height of cheesiness, but back in the 50's and 60's the public wasn't as jaded.
Anyway, the toy company was going out of business. At the time, Jay Leno was Johnny Carson's permanent guest host, which is a triple oxymoron, not like industrial park or recorded live, which are conventional oxymorons.
I had first seen Jay on David Letterman's show and said to my wife the next day, "I saw the best comic of our generation and I think I can write for him; I think my humor is similar to his."
So I sent three jokes to Jay in March of 1984 and he called me in New Jersey. Thank God my number was listed. Even though he didn't buy any of those jokes, he encouraged me to send more. Then I sent him another 150 and he was very nice, but it didn't look like it was working out. I said, "Can I keep trying?" He said, "Sure." After more than 300 jokes, he finally bought one for $50.
Later he bought another five jokes. He used to say, "Don't worry about how funny it is. If you get a new idea, I'll make it funny." Jay knew I was often depressed because I was basically unemployed between freelance jobs. He would call to cheer me up -- once when he was appearing on the Letterman show he invited me down to the station as his personal guest.
And then, totally unexpectedly, he phoned me one day in 1986 and asked me to come out to California to work with him and his writers on an upcoming network special he was doing for NBC. The next year we wrote another one, and Jay said if he got the job as the next "Tonight Show" host he'd hire me. He wasn't lying.
Not long after Johnny Carson announced in 1991 that he'd be retiring within a year, Jay called me and said he wanted me to pack up my family and move to Los Angeles.
He wanted me to become a permanent comedy writer for the "Tonight Show," to join the team of writers he was putting together. I think we were out of the house and on the plane before he was even off the phone.
As an Orthodox Jew, what's it like working with Leno?
Well, he's very respectful of religion. Very early on when I was writing for him I said, "Sorry, I have to leave now for Shabbos and I won't be able to work until Saturday night." He said, "Don't apologize, it's your religion."
Another time, on a Friday, the other writers were all talking about their plans for that night - parties, etc. I really felt awkward for a few moments, sort of like an outsider. But Jay broke the tension by making me laugh. He said, "I guess you feel like a nerd here, but I bet that back in your shul you're a wild man!"
How about getting off for the holidays?
He joked about Shavuos. He said " 'sha-what-ous'? Are you making up these holidays?" He once asked me, "Marvin, what Jewish holiday is it today?" I said, "Danny Kaye's birthday. I'll have to leave early."
Jay drives around Los Angeles in a Stanley Steamer. It looks like a teapot; it boils water, which powers it. So he drives these and they're usually open and he's unmistakable, and sometimes my friends drive up next to him and say, "Hey, I know Marvin Silbermintz," and he'll go, "Yeah, was it a Jewish holiday last Thursday?" He'll know.
How else does your Orthodoxy affect what you do?
Jay sometimes introduces me as his rabbi. I've played a rabbi on the show about a dozen times. They got me a yerushalmi chassidishe hat and a bekeshe they had in the props department. The gartel was sewn in the back right in the middle - they probably didn't want to lose it - so that you couldn't put it on like a regular gartel, but I managed.
And then they asked me what sort of tie a very religious chassid would wear. I said, "No tie." They couldn't understand that. So I said, "Get me a bright red tie." They also got me the cleanest tallis I ever saw; I wanted to switch it with my own tallis.
By the way, the props department likes me because I have a real beard; fake beards are very hard to do.
Also, and this is true of all comedy shows, very often if they do a routine about a group, let's say it's Native Americans, they will get real Native Americans to do it. That way, later on if there's criticism they'll say, "Well the people in it weren't offended. They thought it was funny."
What's Leno like on a typical workday?
He's a busy guy -- everything goes through him. He reads the jokes and checks the finalists. If he checks a joke off, it goes to a woman who types it on a card. He carries these cards around, going through them, grouping jokes together and seeing what works, and comparing similar jokes and deciding which one to use.
How many of your jokes does Leno use on a nightly basis?
They call me the sniper because someone will write literally 80 jokes a day and get three in and I'll write 40 and get three in. I'm a little slower but I hope the jokes are a little better. I try to turn a phrase well.
Everyone has a fair percentage. There are 15 writers, so do the math. But a lot of these writers are out in the field producing bits. These bits are like a week's work. But it's Hollywood. So you can call and say "We need a prison set" and they'll bring it over. If you want an airplane, you can get one row of seats, two rows, five rows.
That's why I love Hollywood. You know, there's a place near us where you can buy a can of mace that has water in it for a scene where you spray mace. You can also buy a bag that doesn't crinkle because bags that crinkle in scenes make so much noise next to the microphone. I find this fascinating.
Is it hard to be religious in Hollywood?
Well, if you've got a good boss and good Italians looking out for you, God bless them.
The people here don't know too much about Judaism. The first week at work, I told the people in the office, "It's Friday, I have to leave early." And then the next week on Friday afternoon I said, "I have to leave, it's Shabbos." They go, "Again?"
But we have a nice community there, thank God. My supermarket a block away has a kosher section with meat; we also have lots of restaurants.
In terms of "Jewish" food, the people here don't know the word seltzer; they go, "Oh, soda water." But it's very weak; you can't get a grebtz out of it. The corned beef is getting better. The bagels are rolls with a hole in them. To a topologist, they're bagels.
What would you tell aspiring young Jews interested in writing for the entertainment industry?
Aspiring young Jews? Take a shower.
Let me tell you, it's really a fluke that I got this far. Most sitcoms tape on Friday nights and they want the writers to be there.
I wouldn't want to be in a position to have to sue somebody. You might win the case, but I don't think it's right. If you can't work Friday, you can't expect them to compensate for that; it's just not the nature of the business.
And if you want to write movie scripts, they're very hard to sell. So my advice would be to get a steady job, as my father told me: computer programming, nursing, etc.
Also, you have to be part of the chevrah and hang out with them. Some groups have a party after every show. I don't know how much a frum guy can do that. Everyone's eating, going to restaurants. Our group doesn't have time to party because there's always a new show the next day.
What's your take on the claim that American humor is Jewish humor?
It certainly has been. Probably because the Jews were in New York at the birth of mass media: radio, movies, TV.
Another factor: I grew up teitching -- translating from Hebrew to Yiddish to English. So naturally you have to become good with words if you're juggling three languages and seeing a concept three ways.
And all these Jewish comedians and actors grew up in Europe or were yeshiva boys when they first started. Even if they weren't frum, they were living in a Yiddish community. Woody Allen says in a documentary that he wasted his time in cheder. The point, though, is that he went to cheder.
Another thing: humor is anti-authoritarian, and there's nothing like some of those old-time cheders for making you that way. I mean, if you're learning Gemara like I was, at 11 years old for hours a day in the Bronx with no air conditioning.
They used to say, "Silbermintz, did you work for a soda company? Because you're always bottling [Yiddish for wasting time]."
Finally, there's something about Yiddish. It's more down to earth; it strips away the masks, the facades. Like, "What are you shlepping there?"
What other memories do you have of your school days?
They used to get mad at us for watching shows like "Zorro." One rebbe used to say, "You should only watch 15 minutes of TV a night." He didn't seem to know that the shows were a half hour at least.
Then the Beatles came along and our teachers said, playing on the Hebrew phrase for wasting time, "Beatle z'man, Beatle Torah." They hated the long hair because it was a symbol of defiance. They'd grab your hair and say, "What's this chup, Silbermintz?" You'd tell your mother to get you a haircut so the rebbe couldn't grab it.
The teachers had ten different words for hitting you, just like they say the Eskimos have 40 different words for snow, which is probably not true, by the way. You got a potch, a knip, a frask, such a potch, such a potch you won't know where it came from. And they'd also throw chalk, but they weren't very accurate.
How do you come up with ideas for your jokes?
Pop culture flows like a huge river, and we go down and fish in that river. Every day there's a new diet, a celebrity whose life is out of control, another celebrity who's become an expert on a certain subject, like Dr. Phil, who in the blink of an eye became the nation's psychologist.
Then there are the fads. All of a sudden pirates are popular. Let me tell you, for 30 years no one made a pirate movie. Now all of a sudden it's back again.
The environment and politics are also subjects of entertainment.
Which people inspire your humor?
Well, I know I should say Moliere, Mark Twain, etc. But actually, good old-fashioned jokes from Henry Youngman. Also Garry Moore, Danny Kaye and Bob Hope.
If anyone wants to keep up with me or inquire about my appearances, I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To watch Marvin Silbermintz perform click here.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Press.