“When Jews Were Funny”
The Early Jewish American Comedians
Alan Zweig, the director of this documentary, does not find Jewish comedians as funny as the ones who came before them. This is a problem for me as I know pretty funny Jewish comedians. Time causes change and that also happens in comedy. I would be willing to bet that many of the older generation do not find today’s humor to be funny simply because they do not identify with it and it is not relevant to them. (How many old times love Perry Como or the singing Eddie Fisher but get nothing out of Metallica or Elton John?). Tastes differ and this was what brings about change.
There is another problem with this film—it is not so much about comedians as it is about director Alan Zweig. Now I know nothing about Zweig (at least I didn’t until I see this movie) but what I see here, at first, left me cold. He might be a good guy but I found his omniscient presence to be bothersome.
Zweig interviews many comedians— Shelley Berman, Shecky Greene, Norm Crosby, Jack Carter, David Brenner, David Steinberg, Alan King, Bob (Super Dave Osborne) Einstein, Gilbert Gottfried, Andy Kindler, Mark Breslin, Howie Mandel, Marc Maron, Judy Gold, Howard Busgang, Eugene Mirman, and Cory Kahaney. However we hear more from Zweig than we do from them. Several comics reject Zweig’s agenda. Shelley Berman says “I will not join you in that special acceptance of Jews as the comedians,” while another says “I have no comment here. I don’t even know what you’re asking.”
The film mixes humor and serious thoughts but it is neither funny nor intelligent. One of the ideas put forth is that humor comes out of oppression and tragedy and when people find comfort they lose humor. If that were true there would be an explanation as to why there are not so many female comedians.
But on the other hand, there is food for thought here—the interactions with the comics is entertaining and their connections to Judaism are interesting. Old school comics like Shelley Berman and Jack Carter seem put-off by broaching the subject. Bob “Super Dave” Einstein is passionate, but uncomfortably ornery to watch. Newer comics like Marc Maron and still working pros David Steinberg and Mark Breslin offer the best and most prescient insights by willing to get personal.
Zweig feels that the first comics on the Borscht Belt and those who built their humor on vaudeville and shtetl wit were funny and many of them went on to gain a wider audience through movies, radio and television.
Milton Berle and Henny Youngman suggest how quickly Jewish humor became America’s comedy. By the time we got to Seinfeld, people hardly knew the difference”.
“Jerry Seinfeld is notably missing from the kvetching heads Zweig assembled to discuss the course of assimilation. The filmmaker’s assertion—or question, yes?—is that the peculiarities of an ethnic sensibility can only survive so much mainstreaming. Middle-aged and more cerebral comics, such as Davids Brenner and Steinberg, note that the portability of Jewish humor, coupled with outsider status and a scholarly tradition, has made it more durable than most. Somewhat younger stand-ups, like Howie Mandel, Marc Maron, and Judy Gold, say this coloration remains through cadence and physical attitude. And gravel-voiced Bob Einstein settles for yelling at Zweig every chance he gets”.
The title of the film is actually a complaint and basically is a nebulous yet very funny conversation with comics. Zweig begins with two questions:
Did Jewish humor change the essence of North American comedy and are Jews essentially funny? Yet as his assembled funnymen (and a couple of funny women) begin to take these apart, it becomes apparent that there’s something more personal going on. At one point someone even says it point blank: “You’re making this film because you feel guilty about marrying a gentile.” Zweig’s anxiety about his own assimilation into mainstream Canadian society could be the most interesting part of the film. But he keeps that aspect of his life somewhat quiet. The film is made up almost entirely of interviews with comedians, punctuated by the occasional clip of televised stand-up. It begins with the older comedians, the men who can most vividly represent the glory days of Vaudeville and the Borscht Belt. There aren’t many of them left, and much of their testimony has to do with that simple, mournful fact. “All the great Jews are dead,” one of them says. Zweig then introduces a group of younger comedians, many of whom also mourn the loss of the hilarious archetypal Old Jew.
Much of the conversation is actually pretty standard fare. The comedians explain how Jews were funny because, facing poverty and persecution in Europe, humor was all they had left. It was their only defense, their only coping mechanism. Then the children of immigrants to North America got too comfortable. “Content isn’t funny. Goyim are content.” The black and bleak humor of complaining and griping that made Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Mason famous is no longer with us.
While this is, at times, very funny it could have been even more so. I wanted to know so much more but it didn’t happen.