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.
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.