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Tipsy Torah? Fighting Fragmentation With Jews' Funniest Videos

Posted on Thursday, April 20, 2017 by Scott Stone

I have been a TV producer for nearly 40 years.  When my career began there were three networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. The only way to watch them was on a TV set, in your house, and if you missed a show you were out of luck.  Those days are long gone.

Today, TV arrives how you like it, when you like it and on any device you want to watch it, including your phone, which is no longer attached to the wall by a cord that was always tangled!  There are literally hundreds of TV networks, plus stand-alone program services like Netflix and Amazon, allowing tens of thousands of TV shows to live on forever through YouTube and streaming services.  There is more TV to watch now, instantly, than any human could possibly watch in a lifetime.  So it’s no wonder that the TV audience is fragmented.

For producers and TV networks, trying to aggregate enough eyeballs to make a new show profitable is a major challenge.  On air promotion and paid advertising only go so far because people no longer hear about new TV shows that way, they hear about them on Facebook or Instagram; that kind of viral buzz can’t be bought.  So TV networks now look for shows that are so loud and noisy they literally “promote themselves.”

Judaism is in the same boat as TV. Young Jews no longer go to one place to get their dose of Judaism.  They get it instantly, 24/7, on demand, live-streamed, or podcasted anywhere in the world. There is no brand loyalty to any synagogue when you can hit up a good Friday night service with one congregation, slip in Saturday “Coffee & Torah” with a small group of friends and follow that up by a scotch-tasting at Chabad for Havdalah.  The Jewish community has moved beyond buildings to a virtual and movable collage of resources.  We go where friends and social media tell us it’s cool, almost like the hottest food truck.

Young Jews are telling us that to make Judaism work in this environment, Judaism has to promote itself.  Enter Tipsy Torah, a Jewish parody of the hit Comedy Central and Funny or Die series Drunk History.

When I first heard about Tipsy Torah I was skeptical.  Drunk History is the kind of comedy that is hard to pull off.  The comedy has to come from actual historical events and it has to meld seamlessly with alcohol and irreverence.  But Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Associate Rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, and her nascent 6-year-old YoPro (Young Professional) group, have managed to make something very funny, while maintaining a deep engagement with ancient texts.  It is both entertaining and viral.  Take a look by clicking here. 

 What Rabbi Bassin has created is a win/win for Jewish engagement, because Tipsy Torah is not just about the videos themselves. It’s about the process of making them that is integral to the experience.  Every person involved with the video is a member of YoPro, a group of as many as 350 young Jews aged 25-35.  (They purposely don’t count members, but keep tabs on them all via email and social media)

Before each video shoot, the on-camera storyteller/host spends about a month learning the real story inside and out.  In the case of the link above, it’s Purim and the Book of Esther.  Additional Tipsy Torah episodes have told the stories of Hanukkah and Jonah.  The twenty or so cast members, most with no professional acting experience, spend two days reenacting the story as told by the now drunken host.

Hundreds of people have attended the red carpet premieres, and thousands more have seen the videos online.  Rabbi Bassin is most proud of the fact that along with the comedy, each story manages to pack in more history, nuance and detail than a weekly sermon.  Viewers who grew up in Jewish schools their whole lives say even they learned things they didn’t know.  They even use the clips to explain the holidays to their non-Jewish friends and partners.

Temple Emanuel is not the only synagogue using self-produced comedy videos as a way to engage their community.  Temple Sholom in Cincinnati made this excellent fake news report titled “Someone Else” to help focus their congregation on volunteering.

Of course, Jews have always used comedy as a way to tell our stories, but in this time when Jewish engagement has so many entry points, it’s good to know we have the skill set to be a little loud and outrageous (and go viral).  It might just be the kind of message we need right now.

WHP alum Scott Stone (Los Angeles 05) is a long-time television producer and the Principal at Stone & Company Entertainment.  Ever the programmer, Scott enjoys a busy extracurricular life.  He advises and lectures at his alma mater, the University of Southern California’s esteemed School of Cinematic Arts, and sits on many civic and organizational boards including Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.  A native of Indianapolis, Scott and his partner, artist Gary Brown, share an interest in architecture and design.  Their best productions are named Harrison and Ethan, their two young sons.