East Bay lawyer gets his yuks from cartooning, writing jokes

In “God and His Friends,” Philip Witte’s recent presentation at Oakland’s Temple Sinai, the cartoonist offered no deep theological insights — it was more about laughs than drash. But Witte believes there is something deeply Jewish about doing a lighthearted shtick on God in his shul.

“Jewish humor can be irreverent at times. You can take a serious subject like God or the afterlife, and a Jewish audience will find it funny,” Witte said, adding that Sinai Rabbi Andrew Strauss encouraged him to give the slideshow and talk at the Reform synagogue.

The levity of his presentation contrasts with Witte’s day job as a lawyer practicing business litigation, which he laughingly described as “not at all funny.” Neverthe-less, the 55-year-old has developed a side career as a humor writer and cartoonist, selling nearly 100,000 copies of his 1999 joke book, “What You Don’t Know About Turning 50.”

Philip Witte

“It’s really fun to be thought of by editors as an artist or a cartoonist,” he said. “I work long hours and earn my reputation as a lawyer, but I have another identity. It’s very gratifying.”

Witte, who lives with his wife and daughter in Piedmont, has been published as a cartoonist or humor writer in a long list of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Barron’s and Business Week.

Most of what he writes and draws is lighthearted, though he also has some politically oriented material (including a 2007 cartoon in j. that criticized insurers for not paying the claims of Holocaust survivors).

Witte’s slideshow last month — his second at Sinai — was attended by more than 50 people.

His cartoons draw from both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and often depict God as an old man — what he called “cartoon God.” Witte said the drawings were deliberately “a little ridiculous.”

“A more sophisticated depiction of God would show God as a life force or energy or something, but I can’t draw that very well,” he said with a laugh. “I’m kind of poking fun at the image of God in cartoons.”

Witte has always enjoyed drawing — he won a contest for young cartoonists at age 15.

When he went off to Princeton University, however, he began writing for a college humor magazine and stopped cartooning. Witte continued to write both satirical pieces and more serious articles (such as a Washington Post piece on refugees in Southeast Asia, written when he was teaching at a university in Bangkok in 1980).

In the mid-1990s, he went to a convention in San Francisco’s Moscone Center with the hopes of selling a children’s story he had written. He struck up a conversation with a publisher who was looking for someone to write a joke book about turning 50, and the publisher asked Witte if he was interested.

“I was in my early 40s at the time and I had never written a joke in my life, so I felt like I wasn’t qualified,” said Witte.

Nonetheless, he wrote a couple of jokes for the publisher, who then offered him the job. Witte signed the contract and then had to come up with enough jokes to be narrowed down to the 101 that would be published.

“I was cranking out jokes, which was something I had never done before,” he recalled. “The first 50 were kind of easy, but after joke 127, it gets hard.”

The book, “What You Don’t Know About Turning 50,” was a hit.

“No bathroom library is complete without one,” joked Witte, who in 2006 published a similar book on turning 60.

The books included an artist’s cartoons, and seeing them inspired Witte to get back into cartooning.

He brushed up on his skills and in 2004 published his first cartoon as an adult. Cartooning provides a useful creative outlet, he said.

“When I’m in lawyer mode I’m completely serious. I don’t crack jokes and I’m not drawing cartoons in my briefs,” he said. “It really helps to have a creative outlet if you do what I do for a living.”

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.