Have you heard the one about the rabbi and the ... ?
Michael Danzinger has, no doubt.
Danzinger is a rabbi-in-training at Hebrew Union College in Cincinatti and has served the Synagogue of the Black Hills as its student rabbi for the past eight months.
But he's heard, and told, a lot of rabbi jokes because he is also 'Ziggy' Danziger, a talented stand-up comic and the winner of several comedy club crowns, including "Funniest Jew in the Deep South."
And he's not joking about that one.
On Saturday, Danziger will be the "mirth" part of Melody & Mirth when he serves as the master of ceremonies at a fundraising event for the Rapid City domestic violence shelter Working Against Violence, Inc.
"I think they knew from the get-go that I was supposed to be some sort of funny guy," said Danziger of his congregation's decision to sponsor a "comedy for a cause" event as part of its social action outreach ministry. In addition to his comedy, musicians Jami Lynn & Dylan James, the Deadwood Express, Hangman Hill and others will provide a variety of bluegrass and acoustic music at the Dahl Arts Center at 7 p.m.
The 37-year-old Danziger comes out of a rich, colorful history of Jewish comedians: From Henny Youngman and Lenny Bruce to Billy Crystal and Sarah Silverman. The list of funny Jews is long and legendary and one that is sometimes attributed to the belief that humor is a genetic response to his people's tragic religious and cultural history. Danziger suspects that's an overstatement. "That may be partly it, but I don't think all of Jewish comedy is born out of tragedy and suffering," he said. "A simpler explanation is that we may just be talkers. And we have lots of opinions."
He's been making people laugh since he was 4 and began doing impressions of his elderly relatives. He "loved" "Saturday Night Live" and, as the youngest of three sons, he used humor to get his way. "I had to be funny to get to hang out with my older brothers and their friends," he said.
As a teenager, he memorized a lot of Eddie Murphy's material, but the self-described "clean comic" promises that won't be part of the family-friendly event on March 16.
"It is possible to be funny without being dirty," says Danziger said. "I've tried hard to stay appropriate, even before the rabbi thing."
Two of his favorite stand-up comics are Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres, comedians who personify his belief that smart social commentary is funnier than off-color material. Seinfeld, especially his stand-up act, is like a "scientist" of comedy, he said.
Danziger's comedy act varies, depending on the venue. He's got material for comedy clubs where the fact that he is the son of a rabbi who is studying to become a rabbi doesn't even show up. But he also performs for corporations, congregations and organizational fundraisers where his religion is part of the routine.
"I have some jokes about being a rabbi's kid. And now, I've got some new material abut the fact that I will be, too," he said.
For Saturday, he's working on some Rapid City-specific material. "I'll have to do some Stan humor," he said, a reference to "everybody's favorite state senator" and synagogue member Sen. Stan Adelstein, R-Rapid City. "I won't roast him too hard."
Danziger grew up in Memphis and came late to both professional comedy and rabbinical studies. It took him a while to figure both things out, he said, but now in the second year of a five-year rabbinical seminary, he's clear about his future.
"I think I'll be a rabbi who does comedy — whether it's for a comedy club or for a sermon," he said.
Danziger finds many parallels between the two careers. Humor is welcome in houses of worship, too, he said. "It makes people feel good to laugh ... and find the funny in things. I think a faith community should provide comfort and uplift, so I think there's some parallels," he said. "Part of doing comedy is being able to get your point across. Setting up a punchline is about getting everybody thinking in the same direction ... and being able to do that helps in getting other messages across, too. Even if what I'm saying isn't funny, the skills that make comedy work are skills that transfer to religion, to spirituality, to communal leadership."