About 30 years ago, Bob Alper decided to leave the pulpit. The Reform rabbi, who holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary, planned to focus on counseling. However, a comedy contest announced in a local Jewish newspaper derailed that plan.
“It was serendipitous,” Alper said of the contest that launched his second career. Out of 100 participants, he came in third. More importantly, he had found his new calling. These days, Alper, 69, bills himself as “the world’s only practicing clergyman doing stand-up comedy … intentionally.” He now tours North America and the U.K. performing in solo and group shows at clubs, synagogues, festivals, churches, mosques and everywhere in between.
He will perform Tuesday, Aug. 26 at Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco and on Wednesday, Aug. 27 at Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton.
“I’m entrepreneurial, I enjoy the business side of comedy as well as the comedy itself,” Alper said. He had always used humor in his rabbinate because he thought it helped congregants relate to him. “I always used jokes and funny stories; it’s a talmudic practice from the scholar Rabbah, who used to begin lessons with jokes to relax students, then add in the important lesson.”
Before turning to comedy, Alper, who grew up in Providence, R.I., said his family’s involvement in their Reform synagogue, plus an uncle who was a Reform rabbi, inspired him to follow his uncle’s career path. He served congregations in Buffalo for six years and Philadelphia for eight before making the switch to comedy. He now lives in East Dorset, Vt., with his wife, dog and cats.
The evolution that led him to become a “clean comedian” came naturally. “I think clean humor is better,” Alper said. “I am a defender of the title rabbi.” He also sees an association between clean comedy and smart comedy. “I think Jews are so funny because we love language. Good standup comedy, smart standup comedy is all about playing with language.” That play on language allows him to create new material by observing the funny things that happen to him and those around him throughout their daily lives.
A joke that he recently incorporated into his routine is one he had been toying with for over 10 years. After playing around with the language and phrasing, something just clicked. As Alper tells it: “I got on a plane, and before we took off the pilot said, ‘We have some very special guests on board. Harry and Edna Baxter are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. They’re sitting in seats 3B and 27D.’”
Alper’s routines are repeated daily on Sirius XM/satellite radio. With his live shows, Alper tours on his own and in groups. In 2002 he began doing shows with Muslim comedy partners, starting with comedian Ahmed Ahmed. The two were brought together as part of a publicist’s plan to boost both of their career visibilities.
However, a friendship quickly blossomed between the two comedians, and they started the Laugh In Peace Tour. They brought the Rev. Susan Sparks, a Baptist minister, on board and began touring the country. Their group has since grown to include Azhar Usman and Mo Amer, both Muslim.
“When people laugh together, they can’t hate each other,” Alper said. “We can’t solve the world’s problems, but if we get people laughing, it’s one way to share humanity.”
His latest venture, the Jewish Fathers Comedy Tour, brings light to a group that rarely makes it into comic routines: Jewish dads. The trio is composed of Alper (father of two adults), Alex Barnett (father of a toddler) and Adam Oliensis (father of teenagers).
In addition to a busy standup career, Alper is the author of three books: “Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This,” “A Rabbi Confesses” and “Thanks. I Needed That.” The books merge humor with inspirational stories.
Although he no longer leads a congregation, Alper satisfies his rabbinic appetite by leading High Holy Days services in Philadelphia and doing the occasional wedding. He’s looking forward to returning to the Bay Area for two one-man shows.
Rabbi Bob Alper performs at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26 at Congregation Beth Israel Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way, S.F. $18-$22. (415) 586-8833. Also 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 27 at Congregation Beth Emek, 3400 Nevada Court, Pleasanton. $20. www.tinyurl.com/bob-alper