What Do You Get When You Mix Music, Improv, and Judaism?

An Interview with Shalom Collaboration Creators Katie Klein and T.J. Shanoff
March 24, 2021Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Comedians Katie Klein and T.J. Shanoff met when they worked for Chicago’s famous comedy theater The Second City, where they wrote, directed, and performed in custom comedy shows for different groups, including the Union for Reform Judaism 2019 Biennial convention in Chicago.

That event was so personally rewarding for Katie and T.J. that they decided to specialize in creating customized, collaborative, virtual, Jewish inspired improv comedy shows for Jewish organizations, naming their new venture The Shalom Collaboration. Their tagline? "Elevating Jewish community and chutzpah, one laugh at a time."

I caught up with the duo via Zoom to see just how funny they really are.

ReformJudaism.org: I’d like to start by asking…

T.J. Shanoff: In all fairness, we were told that there would be no questions. We prepared an official press release to read you for the next 30 to 40 minutes. Is that okay?

Sure, but first I’d like to know: Is humor in your DNA?

Katie Klein: Absolutely. There was a lot of silliness in my family; we loved to laugh. My paternal grandfather, Pop, was always calling me over to tell me a joke I could use. He thought I did stand-up, and I let him think that because he just loved to laugh at classic jokes.

Shanoff: We had a fair amount of tragedy in our family when I was very young. I think that's when I learned how to be funny, because you can process tragedy one of two ways: Either you let it tear you down or lift you up.

Jews have always used tragedy to create comedy. Mel Brooks was able to turn one of the most tragic times in our people’s history into the brilliant comedy, The Producers. This is a lesson that I've held on to my entire life.

Klein: My dad liked to sum up Jewish history in 10 words: “They tried to kill us, they didn’t succeed, let’s eat.” That turn of phrase is in our DNA.

What does T.J. stand for?

Shanoff: It was the first sign that my parents were headed for a divorce. Dad wanted Todd; Mom wanted Jason. They agreed on T.J., but on little else.

Is having a good sense of humor an essential Jewish attribute?

Shanoff: My mantra is “Beware of non-funny Jews.” I think they must be hiding something.

Humor can be risky and can sometimes backfire. Not everyone reacts the same way. How do you deal with that?

Shanoff: I call my cousin Steve Baron. He’s a great lawyer in Chicago. 

Klein: I think we're very lucky that our craft is improvisation, as opposed to stand-up or sketch comedy, because we are able to go with the flow of the audience. If we sense trouble ahead, we pivot.

Have you found it challenging to perform virtually?

Shanoff: It’s amazing because when there’s no audience, everything is funny and everything works… or least that’s what I tell myself.

Klein: We soon learned that doing shows on Zoom wasn’t that different from live performance. People in the Zoom space felt much more at ease and eager to participate.

In fact, there are even some advantages interfacing on the computer. You can mute yourself. You don't have to show your shoes. Another plus is that T.J. and I, who live in different cities, can develop customized shows remotely and do so in collaboration with people all over the country.

What does a typical Shalom Collaboration event offer?

Klein: Mostly, we put on a show that includes improv scenes and music. T.J. is always set up with his piano, and it's all inspired by audience suggestions. Sometimes it's just T.J. and me; other times the cast is larger.

We hope the audience has had an evening of laughter, participation, and joy. We all deserve a little levity. Our sincere mission is to uplift, energize, and connect Jewish communities during these distanced times.

How do you know when you've really hit it out of the park?

Klein: We don't get to hear applause anymore, which as an actress has broken me. I’m like Tinker Bell;I do need to hear it. Luckily, I have a toddler who claps all the time. I've trained him to clap for my singing.

We know the show is funny when the players are laughing and the chat box is lined with lots of LOLs.

Shanoff: I know a show is funny when people randomly Venmo me afterward!

Learn more about The Shalom Collaboration and book them by visiting TheShalomCollaboration.com.

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