What do a medieval trebuchet flinging projectile turkeys, an alien puppet and a horrifying fish tree have in common?
Maybe not much to someone unfamiliar with the work of Shmideo, three local Chasidic guys who The Huffington Post has compared to Monty Python.
But anyone who has viewed the quirky videos produced by Shmideo’s consummate creative team knows that eccentrically random concepts such as catapulted fowl and “Blair Witch”-type logs growing from planted mackerel do, in fact, have a commonality: They all had their genesis in the collective imaginations of DovBer Naiditch, Dovid Taub and Sruli Broocker.
If there were only two of them and they were siblings, and they weren’t Chassidic, they might be the Coen Brothers.
Shmideo shot to fame like a turkey in a trebuchet last November with the release of a two-minute video called “The Story of Thanksgivukkah.” The hysterical send-up of Pilgrims discussing the origins of the rare convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah went viral and drew the attention of media outlets such as The Huffington Post and the Forward.
While the Thanksgivukkah video gave the world a taste of Shmideo’s talents, it was, in fact, only a taste. It turns out there is a whole smorgasbord of video content — and possibilities — being churned out in Shmideo’s modest headquarters located upstairs at B’nai Emunah Chabad in Greenfield.
Their offices are cluttered with papers and computers and puppet parts that somehow eventually collide to produce everything from episodes of “Space Rabbi” to atypical videos commissioned by mainstream organizations such as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Yeshiva Schools.
There is a palpable chemistry between these guys: Naiditch, who holds an M.F.A. in creative writing and whose short stories have been published in such literary journals as “Prairie Schooner”; Taub, the self-taught puppeteer whose creations were compared by the Forward to those of Jim Henson; and Broocker, an animator, illustrator, producer and director.
About a year ago, the three realized they could make a great team.
It all started when Taub, who had been working solo in an office for Chabad.org making puppet and animation videos, recognized that all that alone time might not be so great for his mental health.
“I was sitting in an office all day alone, like I was in solitary confinement,” he recalled. “I thought I was getting kind of weird. So I called Dov, who I knew from Kesser Torah — we would daven there between our schmoozing — and I asked for a man date.”
Naiditch had just finished his graduate degree and was “mommying” his children while his wife worked as a nurse.
“As we went on our man date at our candlelight dinner, Dovid said he thought he had a couple initial gigs for us for Chabad.org,” Naiditch said.
“I wanted to play with robots,” Taub interrupted.
And such was the dawn of a Web-based series originally created for Chabad called “Space Rabbi,” starring Naiditch in the title role of a rabbi lost in space with some malfunctioning robots. Space Rabbi’s role is to help the robots correct their personality flaws. Episodes can be found on Shmideo.com.
But Chabad ultimately decided to “go in a different direction,” Taub said.
The idea of a rabbi wandering through space was a natural byproduct of Naiditch and Taub’s affinity for all things science fiction, Broocker was quick to point out.
And that affinity often leads to hypothetical premises and questions that keep Shmideo busy between brainstorming project concepts.
Case in point: “One day, Dov was trying to figure out how long it would take him to eat a clone of himself,” Taub said.
“And, just the ethics of it,” Broocker added.
“I’m a nervous eater,” Naiditch chimed in. “The only way I could stop would be to eat more of myself. It would be a vicious cycle.”
Soon after the initial collaboration between Naiditch and Taub, Broocker came on board to help produce a short animation piece about Passover for the Meaningful Life Center.
“It was trial by fire,” said Naiditch. “We had one month to do a two-minute fully animated piece, which is totally not enough time to do something like that.”
The three had their creative differences but were able to see past them and produce the piece on time, according to Naiditch.
“There was a lot of fighting,” Taub acknowledged. “But right after Pesach, we said, ‘Let’s move into an office together.”
So, when the space above B’nai Emunah became available, they moved in as a team with a two-pronged purpose: to create a website with offbeat but inspiring Jewish content and to find paying clients from whom to commission new work.
“Like people go to ‘The Daily Show’ for news, we wanted people to go to Shmideo for Jewish content,” Broocker said.
Starting with only 78 cents, according to their Indiegogo pitch video, Shmideo was able to raise more that $15,000 through crowdsourcing to get started.
Now they are looking for paying gigs and have begun to establish themselves as the go-to guys for innovative video presentations.
A video they did for Yeshiva Schools’ annual dinner, narrated by the organization’s logo of stick figures, was a definite hit and led to jobs for the Federation and Hillel Academy.
The team was approached by the Federation to create a video for its Pacesetters event last month and was charged with producing something that was “bearable,” and not dry, Taub said.
But they were admonished not to use puppets.
So, Shmideo came back to the Federation with five ideas, including one that demonstrated the reach of the organization by launching a fake turkey with a trebuchet. Another idea used an alien puppet.
The Federation ultimately opted for the puppet alternative.
“It was really cool of the Federation to choose the puppet idea,” Naiditch said. “It was really cool to watch these members of the community — who have done so much and are pillars — sitting down to talk to a puppet.”
But make no mistake; the guys are still keen on the turkey in the trebuchet.
“From now on, that will be a universal option,” Broocker said. “But I think we may have to give a discount for someone choosing the trebuchet.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)