The Secret, Untold Story of "Gangsta Dreidel"
We're still smack in the middle of Hanukkah. I know this because Yo La Tengo still has a few of their annual Hanukkah gigs over at Maxwell's to go. And also because people I know on Facebook and Twitter--like they do around this time every year--continue to post this video (typically titled something like "Hanukkah Rap" or "Gangsta Dreidel" and whatnot over on YouTube), usually adding something like "Holy shit, this is the best Hanukkah song of all time!" or citing the immortal opening line: "Back up motherfucker, Hanukkah's here!"
After several years of not knowing who or what the hell was behind this thing, I finally decided to carefully wield the potent powers of the investigative journalisms and figure it out. And figure it out I did. My intensive, 24/7 research (actually, a five-minute Google search and a LinkedIn connection request) eventually led me to Steve Kerper--a 55-year-old Brooklyn-born, Upper West Side-dwelling comedy writer who's one-half of the brains behind this officially unnamed slice of Festival of Lights gold.
"I'm always flattered when people say they found some old bit eight gazillion years later and still think it's funny," says Kerper.
Turns out the clip is from the short-lived-yet-hilarious HBO sketch comedy series Hardcore TV, which ran for one season in 1994 and featured such memorable bits as "Raging Bullwinkle" (which delivered yet another immortal line: "You sucked Mr. Peabody's cock?!") and the brilliantly twisted Bob Ross spoof "Joy of Circumcision" (starring a young Tim Blake Nelson).
Kerper and his former writing partner Dave Kolin were the creators, executive producers, and writers of Hardcore TV--whose cast of actors included future Curb Your Enthusiasm co-star Susie Essman, and which also had Jon Stewart in a behind-the-scenes "punch up the humor" role. Kerper and Kolin had previously created the MTV sketch comedy show Pirate TV, then linked up with famed National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live writer Michael O'Donoghue to develop Hardcore TV for HBO.
One of the show's 15 episodes was a tribute to MTV--Kerper and Kolin had already come up with parodies of The Real World and Cindy Crawford's House of Style, as well as a Zapruder film takeoff with an actress playing Alternative Nation VJ Kennedy. The pair needed another bit, and so this video was born.
THE CONCEPT "I was seeing people taking traditional songs and turning them into hip-hop songs--a riff or a hook or something--and I said, 'Oh, I'd like to do that, but I have to think of a song,'" says Kerper. "I had to think of the one song that nobody else would do, so I came up with this Hanukkah song. I don't think my idea was that revolutionary, people have done it a million times over the last 20 years, but back then it wasn't as common and I think for the time it had some edge to it."
"I pitched it to Dave and he thought it was funny, and because he comes out of radio and he's much more a musical savant than I was, he kinda put together this hip-hop song with Hanukkah lyrics," says Kerper, who told Kolin he wanted to do something like Onyx's "Slam" and "Throw Ya Gunz" videos.
THE EXECUTION Kerper and Kolin put together a basic script--"We just called it 'The Dreidel Song,' that's the kind of provocative title we gave it," laughs Kerper, explaining that they didn't always formally name all of their bits--and tapped director Alan Cohn to helm the video.
"We auditioned a bunch of kids--we went to the casting person and said, 'Bring in some young hip-hop-looking guys and we'll put them all together,'" Kerper recalls. "A couple could rap or sing and a couple couldn't. They were all just sweet kids, none of them had ever been in front of a camera before. The main kid was really charismatic, and it seemed to come naturally for everyone. Some of them wanted to be singers. I never heard of any of them again."
HBO gave the pair a budget of $246,000 for each Hardcore TV episode, so bits like this one were done on the relatively cheap ("It wasn't exactly Game of Thrones," Kerper laughs). The video was shot out at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in less than a day. "Part of it was in one of those real old empty buildings, it was completely desolate and dark in there so it gave it kind of an eerie feeling," says Kerper. "We shot outside by the water, you can even see the Twin Towers in there, which is a little eerie now."
They handed out props like a large menorah, an inflatable dreidel, potato latkes, and fake guns to the actors. "They got the whole 'fish out of water' idea and they knew enough about Hanukkah that they knew the stuff we were giving them were Jewish-y things. We explained it and they got it, but they weren't like, 'Hey, if you guys have some time, I'd love to know the origin of the menorah.'"
Kerper and Kolin also brought in a couple of backup dancers from Club MTV and stylists painted "Happy" and "Hanukkah" on their butt cheeks. "We had worked at MTV so every time we needed girls for a bit we would call them up and say, 'Do you have anybody you think would like to be in this?' and they were like, 'We have 1,000 people!' Those girls loved to be on TV."
Despite the inherent silliness of it all, Kerper says that everyone was instructed to play it straight--to treat it like a real, gritty, hard-hitting, New York-style rap video shoot. "You wanna make it real and not too goofy--to me, things that are not real are not funny," says Kerper. "It doesn't look like a real video if people are joking around too much inside of it, winking at the camera. Like, I love Weird Al, he's amazingly talented and a great guy, but his stuff is goofy. I didn't want our kids to break character. [Cohn] used to describe that what we tried to do in Hardcore was have the world be exactly the same as reality, except just one small thing could change that would hopefully make it funny and absurd."
THE REACTION "I never thought it was something where you'd fall on the floor laughing, but people watched it and really laughed out loud," says Kerper. "The reaction overall was pretty good. Was it, 'Oh my God, we've never seen anything like this before! Stop the presses! We don't need a president anymore--you, Steve, can run the country'? No. But I think it worked."
"I think some people were offended by it. I've heard from some people over the years who've said that, but I don't really know why," he says. "There was no moment where I ever thought, 'This is going to offend some people.' But nothing really offends me. It's a gag. Everybody had a lot of fun doing it, and I'm glad it lives on in some way."
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