A Jewish gag’s journey to the ‘Tonight Show’

Dancers perform on "The Tonight Show" to a song for Mormons set to the tune of "I Have A Little Dreidel," Dec. 14, 2009. (NBC.com)

Dancers perform on “The Tonight Show” to a song for Mormons set to the tune of “I Have A Little Dreidel,” Dec. 14, 2009. (NBC.com)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Late-night television audiences have come to expect zany song-and-dance numbers from Conan O’Brien’s “The Tonight Show,” but the show’s recent Mormon Christmas send-up actually had its roots in an unusual place: an offline brainstorming session among progressive Jewish bloggers.

The backstory started earlier this month when Tablet magazine published a story on a Chanukah song written by Orrin Hatch, a Mormon Republican senator from Utah. In response, blogger Larry Yudelson posted a query to his fellow Jewschool.com contributors wondering if “there are any special Mormon holidays for which we can return the favor?”

In response, Jewschool managing editor Alana Suskin mused, “Wouldn’t it be off the charts funny to do a [Jewschool] holiday song for Mormons?”

Trouble was, they couldn’t think of any special Mormon celebrations.

What next?

“We were geeky,” Yudelson said. “We did some research.”

Suskin said that various holiday ideas were bounced around, including Pioneer Day, a July commemoration of the westward journey of the Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley.

In the end, she said, it was decided that the Dec. 23 birthday of Mormon founder and prophet Joseph Smith lent perfect seasonal timing to the idea of a holiday-themed song.

Lyrics were volleyed back and forth, and the Jewschool ditty — still in search of a recording studio, according to Suskin — was put to the tune of “O Chanukah.”

The first verse goes like this:

Oh Joseph Smith, Oh Joseph Smith
The prophet of the Mormons
On Dec. 23 we toast your birth
(Though not with coke or tea or bourbon)

Occasional Jewschool contributor and full-time “Tonight Show” writer Rob Kutner recognized a funny idea when he saw one. He asked Suskin and was granted  permission to pitch the Mormon holiday song idea to the staff of the NBC show.

For their song, Kutner and fellow “Tonight Show” writer Todd Levin went with the simple premise of the average American’s lack of knowledge about Mormonism. Their lyrics absurdly cited Ms. Pac-Man and the Amish as representatives of the faith (they are not).

Kutner told JTA that the gag was structured as a vehicle for band leader Max “The Tonight Show’s Only Jew” Weinberg, to more fittingly “gift” the song to the Mormons akin to Hatch’s Chanukah song for the Jews.

The final lyrics underwent four revisions — references to Smith’s polygamy and Tiger Woods’ mistresses were scrapped — before finally passing the scrutiny of NBC’s Standards & Practices department. It was set to the tune of “I Have A Little Dreidel” over “Maoz Tsur,” he said, because it was deemed more universally known than the original Jewschool choice for music.

To liven up the number, Kutner also suggested introducing a dancing Mormon “Tapper-nacle” Choir, a riff on the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Choreographers, graphic elements and video clips were assembled, and from start to finish it was ready to go in about a day, he said.

Originally slated to air Dec. 11, in time for the first night of Chanukah, the skit was bumped until the following Monday night due to technical problems. Fortunately, Kutner said, “The true miracle of Chanukah is that it lasts eight days and there was time to still do the joke!”

He also noted that one of the “Tapper-nacle” dancers was Jewish and had donned a straight, brown wig to look more “Mormon.” And the real choir, he said, already has been in touch with the show to collaborate on a future segment.

“It’s definitely an interesting moment,” Kutner wrote on Jewschool shortly after the number aired, “when Jewish culture is mainstream enough to provide a window on another minority religion’s relative marginalization.”

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