Rob Kutner is kind of the real-life, modern-day equivalent of Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyck show. He is an Emmy-winning writer who was on staff at CONAN and previously “The Daily Show” and “Dennis Miller Live.” He is also the author of Apocalyse How: Turn The End of Times Into the Best of Times, The Future According to Me, and the graphic novel Shrinkage (Farrago Comics). He tweets at @ApocalypseHow, and – when off his meds – at birds whom he thinks can understand him.
In honor of Purim, Rob shares how he became a comedy writer and what it’s like to be an observant Jew in Hollywood.
I grew up in Atlanta and attended a Presbyterian private school K-12. I think it, paradoxically, made me turn more Jewish because in high school, I needed something to rebel against. I was always the class clown – but to an audience of exactly “me.” Everyone else found me annoying. But like “The Matrix,” I would just perceive the funny things in the ether no one else did – and laugh accordingly. I did Lincoln-Douglas debate and attempted to get into plays, usually landing a plum “one-line” role. But I had no idea about comedy being a career — just an affliction for everyone around me.
I entered Princeton as a very funny but also earnest freshman, majoring in Anthropology and Russian Studies and vaguely entertaining a career in politics or activism. However, around junior year, I looked around and realized that all my extracurriculars — running the humor magazine, writing for the musical theater troupe, improv — were related to comedy. That was my “Ha-Ha” moment.
I began as a writers’ assistant to Dennis Miller’s HBO show, back in his more “libertarian” days.” But I was allowed to submit jokes over the transom, and the first week I got on one the air! Since this is a Texas-based family publication, all I’m going to say is that it was about George W. Bush dropping a four-letter delight. From that show I networked and applied my way onto “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Then, later, to “Conan” as he was preparing to move to LA for his “Tonight Show.” I survived the demise of that show (and some would say, caused?), and stayed on his staff for nine years at TBS.
Late night comedy shows have very different schedules. “The Daily Show” was like a newsroom, in that everyone met at a morning editorial meeting, tossed out ideas, then got assigned to pieces throughout the day. Whereas at “Conan,” I was on the Monologue team, so we started every day with topical stories of the day — then threw tons of jokes at the relentless maw until we got 10 or so that he thought solid enough to put in his mouth.
With the exception of “Dennis Miller Live,” I have been fortunate enough to work for late-night shows which don’t tape on Friday. So, I get home for Shabbat. But I admit, when I first started out, it was so hard to get a foot in the door in this uber-competitive business that I let it slide a little.
Or maybe I would just be less funny. As I tell my kids when they groan at a joke I make on Shabbat, “I’m off the clock.
I’m Conservative, so on Sukkot and Peaach, I’ll take off the major, first days but still daven and go to work on the later ones. My best “weird Jew” moment was when Sukkot was coming, and I didn’t have time to pick up my lulav and etrog, so I ordered them delivered from Eichler’s in midtown Manhattan to my office at the Daily Show.
I got a message from the non-Jewish receptionist, saying, “Uh Rob, your… weird baseball and bat are here.”
I belong to a 20-year-old DIY conservadox (we call ourselves “Hasidic-Egal” because we do full everything but egal, and to Carlebach tunes) called the Shtibl Minyan. As far as Jews in Hollywood, I am actually friendly with Mayim Bialik and Joshua Malina, but surprisingly, more through professional reasons – they both did voices on an audio series I made for Howl.fm called “Runaway Brains.” Coincidentally, I also said kaddish for my Dad in a morning minyan with Josh’s dad for a year.
My father, Dr. Stephen Kutner z”l, passed away when I was with CONAN at Comic-Con, writing jokes about superheroes. Nothing could be more surreal.
Fortunately (if one can say that in the context of a parent’s death), it happened right before a three-week break from work. Meaning that my family and I travelled to Atlanta for shiva, then continued on a three-week family East Coast trip we had already planned. During that time, I had to track down minyanim in each of the many cities we passed through. I feel like that process was itself extremely helpful, as it supercharged the already-powerful Jewish tradition of being embraced by strangers in mid-mourning to a higher level.
I learn Daf Yomi (study a page of Talmud) every day, so, in effect, that became integrated into my morning kaddish (and yes, I did miss a minyan, but not many!). I would lug my big Steinsaltz volume to shul and get some learning in while the slowpokes were still on the repetition of the Amidah.
We always have the Friday nights, some more, ahem “peaceful” than others. We say blessings and we have our own tradition of sharing “Appreciations” for the week. We’re Conservative, so sometimes on Shabbat morning we drive to the Shtibl, but often we walk, and also we walk to the shul just across the street from where my kids also happen to go to Day School.
I think people are generally respectful of my religious observance, but it’s a little harder and weirder when you’re surrounded by highly unaffiliated Jews (which there are many of in Hollywood), and there’s an underlying sense of them judging you for holding onto something they have no interest in or have abandoned. And more to the point, there’s a certain fashionability to being “anti-organized religion,” which I don’t feel the need to debate anymore, because clearly, there’s no one monolithic thing called “organized religion” – rather, an infinity of different approaches to religiosity.
I think it’s absolutely essential to have a life outside of work, not just friends and family but a community of peers with whom you share entirely different values (and one might say, deeper ones) than the ones that the world of work judges you by. In Hollywood this is existentially critical because you can let yourself be crushed by the overwhelming indifference and rejection that will surround you. It’s been so balancing having a gang of hippie rabbis and educators who “Don’t own a TV” to help me keep it real.
I tried my hand at standup while writing for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” but those New York open mics are harsh, cold places. Or for New York City, “on brand.” Now, I’ve left late night and am trying to make my own shows. I’m developing an animated show, and am working on two book projects: one, an anthology, and a graphic novel for kids. I prefer to remain behind the camera. The only time I perform is in my shul’s Purim Spiel, and that’s because I co-write and direct it, so I get to cast myself!
Why do you think Jews are so funny?
The conventional explanation is that we’ve historically had an “outsider” perspective on mainstream society, a classic filter through which humor arises. Given my daf yomi experience, I’d add that our ability to laser in on the minutiae of life forms a straight line from Talmud to “Seinfeld.”
Humor is also a survival strategy, for a people who have undergone countless forms of oppression and tragedy. I think not having full roots anywhere has enabled us to keep an iconoclastic, long view of the world and its institutions and “idols.” The Tevye POV.
On Purim, this really comes to the fore. On its face, it’s an unbelievably horrific premise – one guy gets the Emperor’s ear, and comes this close to enacting Jewish genocide in the tens of thousands! However, Megillat Esther doesn’t tell this story as a solemn tragedy, but rather as a heightened farce. And as a ritual, we pick up that baton and make it a festival of costumes, drunkenness, and subversion — in other words, a celebration of life!
What was your best Purim costume or shtick of all time?
Believe it or not, I don’t dress up on Purim! For the past 20 years, I’ve been running or helping run spiels, and that, to me, is enough of a veil between me and the world.
If you could write a Purim shpiel and cast it with anyone from any time or place, what would it be about and who would be in it?
Too many choices! But to stick to the Purim story, I’d cast Sigmund Freud as Haman – not because he’s villainous, but because they share a similar obsession with mankind’s highest and basest impulses. Mordechai would be Theodor Herzl, the Jew who is roused out of complacency into seeing the bigger picture of Jewish history. And for Esther, let’s leave the 20th century behind and go all the way back to Lilith, the midrashic, ahem, “free-spirited” other wife of Adam. Lilith and Esther play with the formidable powers of feminine seduction but also stand up and demand their status as equals.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To avoid the shul it wouldn’t set foot in.