The bimah is only a few feet above the floor, yet for any mom looking out across the synagogue at the gathered sea of mostly familiar faces, she might as well be Moses addressing the crowd from atop Mount Sinai. While the audience is friendly and the content of her speech concerns matters far less urgent than those of life and death — or the very future of a nation — she is nonetheless anxious and tense. The occasion is her son’s bar mitzvah and she wants her speech to strike just the right chord — a blend of poignant, interesting, relevant, terse and funny.
Her position in the lineup doesn’t make things any easier. The haftarah can be — as they say in show business — a tough act to follow. A longtime Jewish best-seller full of intrigue, conflict and larger-than-life characters, the haftarah also packs some pretty big moral messages. However, it can also be hard to follow for just the opposite reason — it flatlines and leaves an audience bored, listless and on the edge of sleep. Why? For starters, most of the assembled don’t even understand the Hebrew.
The crowd is expectant, the silence is nearly devastating and all eyes are focused on mom. Uncles, aunts, grandparents, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, colleagues — not to mention the rabbi and cantor — all hope for something funny to change the mood, or at least something interesting and perhaps unexpected. In such a situation, humor is the perfect antidote. First of all, it draws in an audience and makes them listen, creating a sense of relevance, inclusion and heightened anticipation. Humor also relieves boredom and, wherever anxiety or tension exists, it breaks the ice. This is not to say that mom wants to deliver a nonstop, wall-to-wall joke fest. A heartfelt speech peppered with some funny, self-effacing, slightly mischievous lines would likely be just right.
Similarly, when the bar or bat mitzvah student has to give his or her general speech or, more specifically, introductions for all of the candle-lighting ceremony participants, he or she certainly does not want to appear nervous, awkward or boring in front of friends and loved ones. This is a weird and difficult enough time as it is, with changing voices, hormones and friends. So what better way to disarm the room than with some punch lines?
Back in the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, turning 13 might have meant moving out into your own tent, taking a spouse, buying a reliable used donkey and farming the land — not exactly laughing matters. But in 2009 America, a 13-year-old is more likely to be crying over eighth-grade math, texting friends about last night’s episode of “Entourage” and battling increased perspiration with the criminally nauseating AXE body spray. Entry to adulthood? More like entry to pre-algebra and the local mall. The life of today’s teenager cries out for some comedic relief.
In addition, we’re talking here about Jews! While just about every ethnic group can appreciate humor and irreverence, for Jews it’s a primal need, a psychological defense mechanism and practically a national sport.
Now, you might be thinking: “OK, funny guy. But how does one write a funny bar mitzvah speech?” It takes a little work, but it is certainly doable for those with the least bit of comedic abilities.
First, you write an honest, heartfelt, “serious” speech, to get all of the mushy, poignant, tear-jerking stuff that needs to be said down on paper. Once that’s done, then it’s time to create and work in the funny parts.
Rules for Comedyin Speech Writing
Try to keep the jokes general rather than too inside or obscure — those things only your family or closest friends would understand. Not everyone has to know every reference, but in most cases it’s important to shoot for recognition by at least 60 percent of the audience.
Jokes have a specific structure — a setup and punch line, not the other way around. Jokes can be as short as one sentence in length, but it’s important that the setup not go on too long; consider that your audience has been sitting in shul for several hours and a long setup might not play well.
Part of comedy comes from specificity, so when “punching” a joke — writing the ending words — “fish” can usually be replaced by “halibut” or “red snapper,” and “car” can usually be replaced by “Prius” or “Buick Skylark.” Some words just sound funny, like “halibut” and “Prius.” Develop your feel for that, and then use words that have a sharp, crisp, funny sound.
Use exaggerated or mixed-metaphor comparisons. For instance, “He’s made more people cry than Simon Cowell.” Or, “Her report cards have seen more A’s than the Oakland Coliseum.”
And it’s OK to get a little edgy or negative with your humor, but do not cross or possibly even get too close to the line. Know your crowd. If they are all pretty salty and irreverent, up and down, you can go a lot farther than if they are primarily prim, proper and socially conservative. You can ruffle feathers, but don’t singe them or rip them out.
The following are some examples of how to deal with specific topics:
If you joke about someone’s personal appearance, it’s important that your subject have a good sense of humor about the topic. Making a public joke about someone’s attractiveness, baldness or obesity can be embarrassing for a family member or friend unless they are open and comfortable with such issues. Does the person regularly joke about these topics upon meeting a total stranger? If so, then it could be fair game.
Is Uncle Joe extremely tall? You could write: “It makes sense that Joe loves living in the Valley, because when he stands up, he’s actually above the smog.” That line combines a gentle dig at a local geographic area with a gentle dig at an attribute — height — which almost no one is going to mind being ribbed about.
Say one of the honorees is an extremely beautiful woman: “Cousin Sally is quite a looker, as everyone knows. It’s almost annoying. At her table, we had to include place settings for three stalkers.”
Will Sally or anyone else mind that you made a joke about her attractiveness? Probably not.
Specific Personal Attributes and Qualities
As with personal appearance, make the jokes about qualities that your subject would take pride in, or that are widely known as safe topics for ribbing. For instance: “Bubbie Nadine acts incredibly youthful, like she’s a fraction of her age. Just last seder she read the Four Questions. But I think she went a little far when she kept the afikomen money.” Or, “Brian is pretty oblivious to Jewish stuff. He thinks ‘Haf-Torah’ means 50 percent of the regular scroll.”
A Person’s Career or Hobby
When writing about someone’s career or hobbies, it’s important to stay away from anything too tragic or embarrassing. You might try: “Herman is quite the surgeon. With my own eyes, I have seen him separate the inferior lateral gluteous from the ventricular pectoralis. And that was just the lox plate.” Or, “Debbie’s a certified public accountant. We better be nice to her, or she’s going to report my savings bonds.”
A Specific Life Incident or Episode
Specific anecdotes are great, but don’t write about painful injury, serious crime, horrendous loss or anything else that may lead to gasps, murmurs and down-turned eyes. This could work: “Everybody knows about the time Samantha bought 10 pounds of candy, carved and lit the jack-o-lantern and stayed home all night waiting for trick-or-treaters ... on October 30. Yesterday, just to be safe, we put a sign on the temple door: ‘Wrong day! Come back tomorrow!’” Or, “Barry’s still living down the time he wore a neck tie with his tuxedo at Bill and Emma’s wedding. We almost made today ‘business casual.’”
Try Out the Jokes
Have fun and get creative with your jokes. But it’s important to try them out on a small inner circle beforehand. This enables you to get a sense of what “hits,” thus providing you with the necessary confidence when it’s time to deliver at the big event. Many people are naturally funny in real life, and some are less so. If you feel somewhat lacking when it comes to a sharply developed funny bone, you can always take some time to study up on the great comedians — watch videos at home or listen to CDs in the car — to absorb some rules of the comedy writing science. Or you can consult with funny people you happen to know. Effective humor often comes from the place where total honesty and believable experience meets playful heightening and even a touch of the absurd. And, if done well, even sarcasm, cynicism, incredulity and envy can be spun into comedy gold in such a speech.
When it comes to the delivery, it doesn’t hurt to recite the whole document at least a few times beforehand, carefully noting the best places for specific word emphasis and dramatic pausing, which you can notate on the page. If need be, watch and listen to some excellent speech-givers or “roasters” for an idea of timing and attitude. Above all, be sure to deliver your speech with a little verve, a touch of attitude ... and a whole lot of love.
Adam Gropman is a professional comedic speechwriter who can be found online at thefunnybiz.biz.