The Arty Semite

Some Jews Are Funnier Than Others

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

A popular form of entertainment is watching comics analyzing comedy — a subject that doesn’t easily lend itself to analysis. Simply: What’s funny is what makes the lady in the third row laugh. You cannot tell her she’s wrong; if she doesn’t laugh it isn’t funny, she does and it is. End of story.

Still, shows like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” David Steinberg’s “Inside Comedy” on Showtime and the DVD “When Comedy Went To School” (about the Catskills) are all the rage.

I suspect the DVD release of Alan Zweig’s documentary, “When Jews Were Funny” will swiftly put an end to that. Zweig interviews about 25 comics of various ages and levels of success: Howie Mandel, Shecky Greene and the late David Brenner, among others in the top tier, and numerous others I’d never heard of before.

Part of the documentary’s problem is visual. Even under the best of circumstances, a film made up almost entirely of talking heads lacks tempo. It simply moves from one face to another, in this case with each face saying almost the same thing we’ve heard over and over again: Comedy comes from suffering and who has suffered more than Jews?

Rarely, someone provides a variation on that theme. Ed Crasnick, ironically one of the comics I had to look up, gave what I consider the most original answer. It’s all about the rhythm, and “comedy was Jewish jazz.” But for the most part, it’s the same old, same old.

Zweig occasionally shows black and white performances from the Ed Sullivan Show — Jackie Mason and Rodney Dangerfield among them — but in a decision that boggles my mind, the cuts have little to do with anything being said at the moment. Could he not get access to more appropriate material? Probably not.

Complicating matters further is that Zweig is a terrible interviewer. His first subject is Shelly Berman, whom he asks about being a Jewish comedian. Berman replies he isn’t one; he’s a comedian who just happens to be Jewish. Clearly, Zweig wasn’t expecting that answer and stuttered while he tried to come up with a follow-up question. This wasn’t the only time that happened.

In fact, at one point he perplexes comedian Bob Einstein so much he gets angry. “I really don’t know what you’re saying,” Einstein says. Being interviewed by Zweig is like “being on a bad balloon trip over Italy and you’re the one person I’m with and I didn’t know you. I really liked you… and now you made no sense.”

Which brings us to the crux of the problem. Zweig framed the film incorrectly. Jews are still very funny. Young comics such as Marc Maron and Jon Stewart (who is not included here) are as hilarious as their forbearers. As it turns out, Zweig wasn’t searching for Jewish funny. He was searching for Jewish identity: Jewish Big City life before the second diaspora into the suburbs, the delis, the pastrami sandwiches, the Yiddishkeit.

Specifically, he was looking for his own identity. In his early 60s he married a younger Christian woman from Eastern Europe and is now the father of a young child who apparently will not be raised Jewish. So, he is effectively searching for an identity he discarded.

The best part of the film comes when comedian Cory Kahaney calls him on it: “You’ve made a film because you feel guilty. You married a gentile. You didn’t raise your daughter Jewish, you didn’t give her a bat mitzvah. I don’t know that we can solve all your problems.”

Props to Kahaney, too, for telling the funniest joke ion the DVD:

A young man finally comes out to his mother.
“You mean you take another man’s private parts in your mouth?’
Yes, her son admitted.
“You take another man’s private parts in your mouth and you won’t try my kishka?”

Now that’s a Jewish joke.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: When Jews Were Funny, Film, Documentaries, Comedy, Alan Zweig

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.