February 01. 2007 6:59AM

A laugh a minute

Comic, a rabbi, keeps it both clean and funny

Tribune Staff Writer

Comedian Bob Alper doesn't fret over his competition anymore.

The lanky, middle-age man with glasses recalls waiting to go onstage at a comedy club a few years back when the tough-looking act preceding his showed up. Alper eyed the black-T-shirt-clad foe warily.

"Excuse me," Alper finally broke in. "You aren't doing any material about officiating weddings, are you?"

He wasn't. And neither was any other comic that night.

Bob Alper has been doing stand-up comedy for more than 20 years, but he's been a practicing rabbi for 34 -- a side job that renders his act unique. Clean, self-deprecating jokes drive his humor. Insults just aren't his style.

Pat Schlossberg, left, and Bob and Debbie Rosenfeld burst out laughing Sunday afternoon during stand-up comedian Rabbi Bob Alper's set at Temple Beth-El in South Bend when he admitted his foibles in the rabbinate and lamented parenting teenagers. "If Abraham had had to kill Isaac at 13 instead of 12, it wouldn't have been a sacrifice," Alper joked.

That's not to say there weren't a few shocks in his act Sunday afternoon at South Bend's Temple Beth-El, where he performed before a

group of about 50. Sure, Alper appeared in his blazer-and-khakis uniform, smiled warmly at the crowd and kicked things off with a benign joke about the weather, earning sympathetic murmurs. And, for the most part, as the act got under way, Alper was the butt of Alper's jokes.

For example, he said a woman who had been a young girl in his congregation stopped him in the airport. She told him how she'd always watched the way he sermonized and taught.

"Then she said, 'I decided to become a rabbi, anyway,' " Alper said, and the crowd exploded. "Anyway!" cried one woman, jabbing her husband.

That's likely one of the few stories Alper invented in his (mostly) true act, but the rabbi part is completely true. Ordained in 1972, Alper worked in Buffalo, N.Y., and Philadelphia until 1986, when he left to become a counselor.

In a strange turn of events, however, Alper found himself at Philadelphia's Going Bananas club for a comedy contest. He did so well there, he decided to pursue the vocation he'd dreamed of since childhood: stand-up comedy. Now a full-time comedian, Alper does 100 shows a year nationwide. He lives in rural Vermont with his wife, Sherri -- though he still presides over High Holy Day services in Philadelphia.

Comedically, he's come a long way since Going Bananas and boasts a solid act. So while self-deprecation won him some chuckles, more intense laughter rang out later, when he pushed boundaries describing his "typical American family": a girl, a boy and a vasectomy.

"And I know you're not supposed to favor one over the other," he added, "but around the time my kids became teenagers, I grew kind of partial to the vasectomy." (Roars.)

Or his friend's 3-year-old, whose chatter about her recent trip to the "animal zoo" prompted Alper to tell his friend, "Enjoy her while she's stupid." (Wails.)

It's no wonder that after one of his past performances, Alper overheard an elderly woman exclaim, "Why, I laughed so hard I didn't need to put my eyedrops in today!"

Alper was rewarded with equally loud laughs when addressing his adventures as a Jewish man on the road. There was the influx of airplane passengers who flooded his seat on Mexicana Airlines when the stewardess told them to look in the seat pocket "in front of Jew." In a cab in Israel, his unwitting use of ancient Hebrew earned an incredulous look from the driver: "Behold, here I descend."

Edgier was his referral to the building at Bard College (his daughter's alma mater) housing the Hebrew, Russian and German offices as "the department of Semitic and anti-Semitic languages." But Alper finds the joke harmless.

"People know the Nazis spoke German and the Russians spoke Russian and well, they were not nice to the Jewish people," he says. "It's not branding people.

"Listeners just need to relax and enjoy it and not be hypercritical."

Something about Alper's laid-back humor allows them to do just that. And it's not only Jews who delight in his act -- Alper performs in theaters and country clubs, and at business conventions and churches. At a convention in the Southwest, the archbishop of New Mexico was in the audience.

While some might derive pleasure from attending a comedy show, Alper insists performing one is even more satisfying.

"It's the reaction. If a singer sings a song, at the end, people will applaud. If you do a 13-second joke, people will laugh, which is the same thing as applause," he says. Then he pauses. "Wait, no -- it's better than applause. You can fake applause, but you can't fake laughter.

"It's an emotion that's very genuine," he continues. "For 90 minutes, with people continually giving you that kind of approval -- it just gives you a good feeling."