Yeshiva University Student and Comic Finds the Humor in Life
Meet Eitan Levine.
At 22, the Yeshiva College senior has already performed at a host of comedy clubs throughout the tristate area, including Caroline’s, the Stress Factory and the People’s Improv Theater. He’s opened for Daryl Hammond of “Saturday Night Live” and has performed with comedic super-stars Louis CK, Judah Friedlander and Jim Gaffigan. He hosts “Prolaffs!” on WYUR and is a staff writer for The Quipster. A comic book enthusiast, Levine serves as head announcer of the International Quidditch Association and is a noted Yeshiva University roller hockey intramurals commissioner.
Oh, and he plays the ukulele.
Levine, a native of Springfield, NJ, discovered his passion for comedy at an early age—but not how you’d expect.
At 10, Levine was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma of the tibia, an illness that landed him in and out of hospitals as a child. “I had a journal that just ended up becoming a joke book,” said Levine. “I was kidding around with a doctor one day and he was like, ‘You should go into this.’ And for the first time I thought to myself, ‘Hey, maybe I can be good at comedy.’ ”
Thus a career was born. At 15, with an arsenal of written jokes at his disposal, Levine took part in his first open mike at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, NJ. “My dad was worried I’d embarrass the family,” he laughed. “I was on crutches at the time and I was so nervous.” His first joke bombed. His second joke did pretty well. His third joke set him on a roll that would culminate in a standing ovation as he left the stage.
Levine was hooked.
As he finished high school, Levine hit more and more open mikes across New Jersey, working himself into the comedic milieu and honing his jokes. He went on to attend Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah in Israel, where he also competed in, and won, the Israel Last Comic Standing contest. But Levine wanted to expand his range. While pursuing a marketing major and film minor at Yeshiva College, he enrolled in improv studies at the Upright Citizens’ Brigade and the People’s Improv Theater (PIT), where he currently hosts his own regular show. “It’s like a funny Jeopardy-esque trivia show,” said Levine. He also performs every other week with DeWolf Hopper, an improv team.
“It’s been great having Eitan around the PIT,” said Chris Griggs, an improv instructor at the theater. “He truly loves improvisation and comedy. He immediately seemed to bond with everyone and now is really a part of the theater’s fabric.”
At YU, Levine has found a unique home base for his comedic career. “There are a lot of big advantages to being a comedian here,” said Levine. “You get the benefits of living in a Jewish community, where if I want a mincha, I can get a mincha without walking halfway across campus to the Hillel. But you’re also in New York… This is where comedy is really happening and I’ve been able to perform on a fairly regular basis as a student here.”
Levine is proud of his identity as a religious comic and is especially careful with the way he presents himself to audiences. “People look at me as an Orthodox Jew and I don’t want them to think that I’m only religious when it’s convenient,” he said. “I do this because I believe it’s the right thing. The comedians I work with understand and respect that about me and they are very accommodating.”
Still, Levine felt, “religious comics can be few and far between.” He noticed a lack of humor that felt relatable to young Orthodox audiences. Last year, he organized the Kosher College Comedy Tour, a traveling band of Jewish comics that has performed at more than a dozen Northeastern universities. The intent: to create a unique synthesis of young, religious humor that would speak directly to the Jewish college crowd.
“For years, getting a stand-up comic for a college Hillel or Chabad was tough because all the clean comics were these ‘My wife! Take her!’ types who were better suited to entertain at a nursing home than comedy night at the University of Maryland Hillel House,” Levine said. “It was really fun to go to the Hillel houses of different colleges and see the diverse Jewish crowds.”
Levine’s shows have also raised money for several charities, including the Hebrew Academy for Special Children, Camp Simcha and the YU QUEST comedy fundraiser. Charities are important to him, because as child, humor gave him the tools to fight through tough times during his own illness. He sees a basic life lesson in comedy. “I think a lot of our problems as a society could be solved if people lightened up a little bit, took a step back from whatever situation they’re in, and laughed… People need to calm down and get that minute to laugh.”
Levine has made it a point to give people that minute at YU. As a staff writer at The Quipster, a satirical online news site produced by YU students, his articles gently mock current events and trends in the YU world. “We’re there to keep everybody grounded,” said Levine. The radio show he co-hosts with Moshe Press, a senior at Yeshiva College, is similar in tone. While a good portion of the show is devoted to comic books (“We’re huge comic book guys”), Levine and Press are not afraid to tackle heavier items on the news circuit.
“We do satire and comedy,” said Levine. “When something serious comes up, we switch our hats and our jokes become more geared toward what’s going on and what our opinion about it is.”
Currently Levine is applying to the NBC Universal Page program, a 12-month, post-graduation program that places participants in the news, entertainment and production world. Levine also hopes to study screenwriting next year and eventually become a sitcom writer. He’s working on a spec script to show potential employers—a project he is getting some help with from Erik Mintz, adjunct instructor in English at Stern College for Women and a former sitcom writer for “The Nanny” and “Mad About You,” among others.
“My professors here have been incredibly supportive and have always taken the time to watch my work and offer feedback,” said Levine.
“Eitan is a highly creative force at Yeshiva College and someone about whom I expect to hear a great deal of good stuff in the months and years to come,” said Dr. Eric Goldman, adjunct associate professor of cinema at YU, who has worked with Levine in several film studies courses. “He has that gift where he can simply look at the camera and make you laugh. It’s quite special.”