Rabbi performs kosher comedy
By EILEEN SCHULTE
CLEARWATER -- Bob Alper, possibly the nation's only professional standup comic who is also a practicing rabbi, leads a funny life.
"I was doing a show in New Jersey last week when a man in the front row started looking pale," Alper said. "Then he looked gray. Then he keeled over."
After the man came to and walked out of the auditorium with help from paramedics, Alper said to the audience, "I wonder what joke made him sick?"
Could have been the one about the kitty litter.
"I hold up a kitty litter scoop and just read what it says on the side," he said. "Smart Choice Kitty Litter scoop. Extra large, easy to clean, dishwasher safe."
Alper, who will perform at the 200-seat Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center on Sunday afternoon after being invited to the area by Congregation B'nai Emmunah, gets a lot of laughs performing Jewish and secular humor all across the country.
He does 80 shows a year and has appeared on CNN's American Morning with Paula Zahn, Showtime, Comedy Central, Good Morning America and the Hollywood Improv, sharing the billing with Seinfeld's Michael Richards.
He prides himself on performing a clean program that won't make anyone uncomfortable.
"You can't have dirty humor if you're a rabbi," said Alyson Miller, program director for the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center. "It wouldn't sit well."
Alper, 58, lives in a farmhouse on 16 acres of rolling Vermont land with his wife, Sherri, 56, a psychotherapist, their two cats Al Purr and Floyd, and their dog Gideon, a former Hurricane Andrew refugee the couple adopted from a program called Andrew's Angels, which flew displaced dogs all over the country to find new homes after the storm.
"We complement each other," said Alper of his wife. "I make them laugh, she makes them cry."
Born in Providence, R.I., Alper graduated from Lehigh University and was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He said he was the first Jewish person to earn a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary.
After receiving his Ph.D, Alper served congregations in Buffalo and Philadelphia.
The man who memorized Bob Newhart routines as a teen loved to make his congregations laugh.
"Religion and entertainment go hand in hand," Alper said. "In sermons I always use some humor as a way of relating to people."
He said a "function of religion is to help people get through difficult moments of life," and jokes help ease the tension and "reach people."
"If I found a good joke, I said, what kind of service can I build around it?" Alper said.
The liturgical portions of his services, he said, were kept humor-free.
In 1986, after 14 years as a full-time rabbi, Alper decided to leave the 450-member congregation in Philadelphia and open a practice counseling people going through life-cycle events.
One day he saw a small ad in a newspaper.
"Do you think you're funny?" it asked. "Tell us in 50 words or less."
Alper wrote his best stuff, sent it in and became a finalist. Later, at a comedy club, the finalists competed for first place.
Alper didn't quite make it. He came in third behind a chiropractor and a lawyer.
But one of the judges, a host on a local morning TV program, liked his routine and invited him to do the act on her show. After that, he was hooked.
"I loved it," he said.
Although he still conducts High Holiday services and weddings in Philadelphia, he's been doing standup ever since.
"Everything I do is against type," he said. "It's a fast-paced show. If I don't get a laugh in 11 seconds, the joke is out."
-- Eileen Schulte can be reached at 445-4153 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
If you go
Comedian Bob Alper will perform at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center, 2010 Greenbriar Blvd., Clearwater. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door. The show is designed for people of all religions. Age 12 and older only. Call Congregation B'nai Emmunah at 938-9000 or the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center at 736-1494.
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