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?
The cable television universe isn’t necessarily being taken over by female comics, but it seems that way: Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham and now Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, stars of the new Comedy Central series, “Broad City,” an outgrowth of their popular YouTube series.
The two ladies share at least two characteristics with their comedic antecedents. They are Jewish and they push the comedic envelope very much towards the very edge. Push? They kick it over the goal line. In the opening minutes of the first episode, Ilana Skypes Abbi while having sex.
The two slackers’ main ambition seems to be to get money for pot and Li’l Wayne concert tickets. To help raise funds, Ilana places a Craigslist ad that reads: “We’re just 2 Jewesses tryin’ to make a buck.” They’re hired by a gentleman who wants them to clean his home while they are in their underwear — and he’s in diapers.
Abbi (straight hair) and Ilana (curly) spoke to the Forward about summer camp, being a “double Jew,” and having sex on Skype.
Curt Schleier: Can you tell me a little about your Jewish backgrounds?
“When Comedy Went to School,” a new documentary opening in New York and Los Angeles July 31, tries too hard to be both a history of Jewish comedy and the Catskills. It’s a lot of territory to cover, but the producers made at least one right choice: The film’s narrator is Robert Klein, 71, the veteran comedian who’s covered a lot of the same territory himself.
Klein has starred on TV (he had the first-ever HBO comedy special), on Broadway (he’s a Tony nominee for “They’re Playing Our Song”) and of course at stand-up dates at night clubs, college campuses and JCCs. Oh, yes, he headlined at the Concord and Kutcher’s, too.
Klein spoke to The Arty Semite about his nostalgia for the old Catskills, changes in the comedy universe and how he saved Rodney Dangerfield’s life.
Curt Schleier: “When Comedy Went to School” made me sad. There are generations of young people who don’t know anything about the Catskills — a great era in New York Jewish life.
Robert Klein: There’s nothing there anymore. I had a club date there last summer in Loch Sheldrake [once home to many major hotels] and everything is shuttered up. It’s depressing.
You had your first taste of live comedy there, didn’t you?
Jeff Garlin gets jokes.
Garlin is probably best known for his work with Larry David on the HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But he’s also done stand up and will have his own TV show, “The Goldbergs,” this fall on ABC.
The sitcom is about a mid-‘80s, loving Jewish family — a family like any other, just with a lot more yelling. It also stars George Segal as Garlin’s father-in-law, Al (Pops) Solomon.
That would be reason enough for an interview, but Garlin is really promoting “Dealin’ With Idiots,” his second film as writer, director and star. “DWI” is a funny portrayal of parents at their children’s Little League games. It is also at times moving, as Garlin tries to help his son navigate a world where winning is everything and not everyone has the skills to win.
Garlin spoke to The Arty Semite about his movie, his recent arrest, and his Jewish upbringing.
Curt Schleier: You’ve got this film. You have your own TV show in the fall. Are you planning on telling Larry David that you’re sick of his misanthropic attitude and you want nothing more to do with him?
Woody Allen is mulling a return to standup comedy.
Allen’s latest movie, “Blue Jasmine,” comes out next week (stay tuned for my review), and for the occasion Allen did an interview with The New York Times’s Dave Itzikoff, in which he raised the possibility of making a return to the stage. Several of the actors in the film are standup comics — Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K. — prompting Itzikoff to ask if working with comedians ever caused Allen to revisit his own career as a standup. Allen replied:
I was inspired the other night — in the other room here where I play [the Cafe Carlyle at the Carlyle Hotel], I saw Mort Sahl. He flew in from San Francisco, and he worked three late shows and he was wonderful. He’s slowed up a little now because he’s 85. He’s not as rapid as he was when was he was 35. But all the stuff is still there. Watching him, I had the same feeling now, in 2013, as I had when I saw him in 1950-something. Of, “Hey, I’d like to get back onstage and do standup again.” He inspired me then to be a standup comic, and all these years later, I thought of it again because of him. He makes that phenomenon so enticing.
Allen went on to say that he’s now “toying with the idea” of putting together a standup act himself. Hopefully it’ll still be something like this:
Writing about Rick Moranis required that I remind myself what he’s done. After all, his great comic roles in Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs” and the first “Ghostbusters” movie are pushing 30. So I sneaked over to YouTube to watch Moranis order his starship to “ludicrous speed,” and in “Ghostbusters” ask, “Okay, who brought the dog?”
But what has Moranis done lately? Well, in 2005 he released a Grammy Award-nominated comedy song album called “The Agoraphobic Cowboy,” a parody of the freedom-loving cowboys that complain about being fenced in. And now he has an enjoyable new comedy album called “My Mother’s Brisket & Other Love Songs” that will please many in the Jewish community and provoke students of popular culture to wonder if Moranis will be the one to finally reach that frightening land of commercial failure known as “Too Jewish.”
On his website Moranis tells us that’s exactly where he’s headed. “When I first began writing jokes and sketches with various Jewish partners one of us would inevitably stop at some point and announce, ‘Too Jewish!’ Too Jewish for the star, the show, the network, or the audience. The songs on this album are all in that category.”
Yes, they are. And some of them are terrific. In the klezmer-style “Pu-Pu-Pu,” the Toronto-born Moranis pays homage to the sanitary North American version of the Old World spitting that helped ward off the evil eye.
I had the idea to compare Bravo’s “Princesses: Long Island,” the Jewish-tinged reality show about aspiring Real Housewives, to Amy Schumer, the Long Island-born stand-up comic and star of Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer.” The idea was to talk about how misguided these Princesses were, and about how depressing it is that their goal in life is to marry a banker, lawyer, or doctor — it doesn’t really matter which, so long as he can afford to pay for days and days of shopping at the Americana.
The idea was to cast Amy Schumer as their foil: She was the one who got away. Amy was the one who escaped status anxiety and the need to measure her self-worth by how many men she dated and the shiney presents they give her. I would cast her as somewhere between a refugee and a role model. Look past the surface, young Jewesses and Forward readers! Look past the shock value of her humor. Look past the initial parlor trick of hearing a beautiful, polite-seeming blonde woman tell crude jokes about the most unglamorous parts of sex. Realize that Amy is actually a brilliant, hard-working career woman determined to blaze her own path.
But there are two problems with that review. First, “Princesses: Long Island” is a much sadder, darker show than I thought it ever would be. And second, “Inside Amy Schumer” is the most inventive sketch show on television. It throws all formulas out the window. It keeps sketches going. It allows them to twist and turn into something far richer and deeper. It challenges our impressions of women in comedy and then challenges the challenges to those impressions. It’s also an insightful commentary on dating, technology, and the breakdown of etiquette. (No, really.) “Inside Amy Schumer” is not always funny; sometimes it’s painful. But the effect is always exhilarating.
Actor Seth Rogen and writer-producer Evan Goldberg, known for R-rated stoner comedies such as “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express,” make their debut as directors this week with “This Is the End.”
Rogen, 31, and Goldberg, 30, said that they wanted to push the boundaries of comedy by having actors play themselves dealing with an apocalypse in the film, which will be released in North America on Wednesday.
“It always seemed weird for all of us to all be in a movie and not acknowledge that we all somehow know each other, because we’ve been in so many movies together already. To me it was almost distracting that we didn’t play ourselves,” Rogen said.
“We’ve never seen it in a movie done like this, so it was exciting,” he added.
In the film, a group of Hollywood’s top young comedy actors including Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Mindy Kaling, Jason Segel, Michael Cera, Emma Watson and Danny McBride come together at a wild party at James Franco’s house.
The revelers are interrupted by the apocalypse. Fireballs ravage the Hollywood Hills, leaving a trail of destruction and a giant fire pit that swallows up many celebrity guests, including pop singer Rihanna, in front of Franco’s house.
School’s out for Jon Stewart’s summer.
The Daily show host is off until Labor Day to work on his movie, “Rosewater.” He said farewell Thursday night and handed over the desk to Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, who will be filling in. Watch Stewart’s “heartfelt goodbye” below:
Mel Brooks is already a member of the EGOT club, having received Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, but the comedy legend has more prizes coming.
Brooks is scheduled to receive the American Film Institute’s 41st Lifetime Achievement Award tonight, an honor widely considered to be the industry’s most important career-spanning recognition. The award will be presented to Brooks by Martin Scorsese at a ceremony in Los Angeles and will be televised June 15 on TMT.
According to the AFI, the award is given to someone “whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.” Previous recipients of the award include Jimmy Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand.
Asked about the honor by Variety, Brooks said:
I’ve always been recognized as a comedy guy, either as a performer or a comedy writer, but never have I been saluted as a filmmaker. I thought I was finished with AFI because six or seven months ago they gave me a doctorate at a graduation ceremony. I was bitterly disappointed. I was wearing a stethoscope and came to the realization that I wasn’t actually a doctor.
Actress, author, and activist Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of two books — “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up” and “Fired!” — and the e-book single “Autumn Leaves” (available from Zola Books), a chapter from her comedic memoir for Blue Rider imprint at Penguin, to be published in Spring 2014. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Ok, so I hadn’t done time in prison, I’d just spent one day there.
I’d just covered what was believed to be the first Bat Mitzvah in an American women’s prison for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. It was the only time I’d been in a temple where the person sitting next to me was tattooed with the words “Suicidal Freak.” There’s a saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it should amended to, “and in penitentiaries.” If I am ever incarcerated you can bet I’ll be signing up for every form of religious education available as they serve snacks and the non-denominational chapel at Chino is air-conditioned. (In fact, there is a relatively new organization, Atheists in Foxholes, that does great work in the field, not sure about the quality of their snacks, though.) I figured if that rabbi could handle prisoners, he could do just fine with my son whose teenage years were starting to feel like a hostage situation.
Actress, author, and activist Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of three books: “Autumn Leaves,” “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up,” and “Fired!” Her comedic memoir for Blue Rider imprint at Penguin will be published in Spring 2014. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I turned 50. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I do yoga. I moisturize. I still fit into the same jeans I’ve had for the last 15 years, though they do sit differently, but you can’t escape it, no matter how Vitamin D you’re taking (even though some studies say it doesn’t do anything of significance).
As an actress, I always played roles sometimes even a decade younger than myself. This was before IMDB made it impossible to lie about your age. I’d told so many people so many different ages over the years I’d even convinced myself that my driver’s license might not even be accurate.
There is precedence for this in my family. My father’s mother, Rebecca, shaved a few years off when she arrived in Alabama as a teenager around 1919 from Russia — I can only assume to make her self more attractive marriage material—but then she tried to have it corrected to collect her Social Security earlier many years later. We’re Southern, so a bit of Blanche Dubois tends to seep in from time to time.
“Blazing Saddles” is generally regarded as Mel Brooks’s best movie: It was ranked sixth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American comedies and it was nominated for three Academy Awards. “Best,” though, is a relative term. Brooks’s Borscht Belt-meets-absurdism style is so unique and so indelible that what we call the “best” is usually the first of his movies we fell in love with.
It’s safer to say that “Blazing Saddles” was Brooks’s most timely movie, even his most serious movie. And it’s as safe to say that there wouldn’t be a Mel Brooks installment of PBS’s “American Masters” (premiering May 20; check local listings) without “Blazing Saddles.”
The opening scene is terrific and justifiably famous. We see a mix of Chinese and black workers pounding hammers under the desert sun. Their vicious and idiotic white overseers demand they sing spirituals like they did when they were slaves. The workers huddle, break apart, and slowly we hear a sweet, beautiful voice: “I get no kick from champagne.” Almost before we can process the joke, Brooks lays a second one atop the first: the black workers join in, harmonizing with the lead singer. This isn’t one person singing Cole Porter; this is a full, sophisticated a cappella routine. Brooks continues to add inversion after inversion, but the jokes work because the first few bars of that unexpected, anachronistic song say so much about racial ignorance.
Marc Maron is a great talker. That’s true of most comics, but Maron doesn’t even have to be funny to be good. He’s got a sharp baritone voice with just a touch of a slur, and a talk radio delivery that grabs and holds your attention. It hardly matters whether he’s describing a fight with his girlfriend, musing over the health of his cat, or shilling for stamps.com. Maron is one of those people who’s just a pleasure to listen to.
Like a lot of fans, I know Maron through his podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron.” Since it started in 2009 it’s achieved enormous popularity and regularly features top shelf guests. Success breeds opportunity, and now Maron has a book, “Attempting Normal,” and a sitcom, “Maron,” which premiered May 3 on IFC. Because his on-air persona is so charming, I genuinely want it to do well and, of course, to be good. Unfortunately, at least as far as the TV show goes, it’s a little ill-conceived.
The premise of “Maron,” as Maron recently explained on Jimmy Fallon, is “a comic whose career just craps out, and he’s got no hope, and he starts interviewing people in his garage.” In other words, Marc Maron doing “WTF With Marc Maron.” Theoretically, it’s supposed to be a kind of podcast equivalent of “The Larry Sanders Show,” Gary Shandling’s neurosis-ridden ’90s comedy about a late night talk show host. But where “Larry Sanders” was structured as an office sitcom (albeit a transcendentally great one), Maron’s workplace is a garage outfitted with professional recording equipment. So what fills the time when he’s away from the mike?
1. “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”
There’s something strange about Joan River’s Internet talk show, “In Bed with Joan.” Maybe it’s strange that the show exists, or maybe it’s strange how seriously Joan takes the web series — that she earnestly seems to believe it will lead to a new period of fame and critical acceptance. As if we aren’t already living in that new period, and that “In Bed with Joan” is only possible because she’s back on top as a comic legend, even a national treasure. Or maybe it’s just the wallpaper and duvet.
“In Bed with Joan” is filmed in a basement bedroom of Melissa Rivers’s house in Malibu. The laundry room doubles as a green room. Joan introduces her guests by asking them to come out of her closet, then invites them to lie down next to her on her full-size bed.
But they also lie under a reddish-orange sign that reads “In Bed with Joan,” next to french doors with a nighttime “view” of the New York skyline. In the second episode, Nick Kroll asked if the view is of the South Street Seaport, which would place the “studio” somewhere in the New York harbor.
On the first episode, Sarah Silverman repeatedly insulted the set, saying how depressing it was to be there and to discover that hosting an Internet talk show in your daughter’s basement was “making it.” You can’t quite decide if Silverman is joking, maybe because Silverman can’t decide if Joan is joking, if the aesthetics of the show — the weird incongruity between the actual bed, the massive sign, the fake New York skyline, and the audience of three-to-four people perched on the steps — are all one big joke. As Melissa Rivers put it, “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”
Everything that’s strange about “In Bed with Joan,” starts with that room. Joan Rivers has decided to make a low-budget online talk show, but Joan Rivers cannot make a low-budget online talk show. She cannot admit that the show is filmed in a Malibu basement; she has to pretend that it’s produced in glamorous New York City. She isn’t content to film conversations with friends or comics, like Jerry Seinfeld does on his web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Joan Rivers needs to have a team of writers help her compose jokes and formal interview questions. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be something larger than it really is. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be a full-size Talk Show, maybe to continue making up for a creative failure that she’s long since made-up for, one that few people remember. Maybe she does it because few people remember.
Jerry Seinfeld is really working the late-night talk show circuit these days. First he went on Letterman to talk about things that are annoying. And last night he went on Leno to talk about fat people on TV and what breakfast was like in the ’60s. Check it out:
Billy Eichner is tall, gay, Jewish, from Queens, with a hairline somewhere between receding and disappearing. All of these qualities fuel his comedy. They also make the act of watching him run around the streets of New York, offering ordinary people $1 to answer questions like, “Who’s better, Meryl Streep or Glenn Close?” (and then erupting into a heated and irrational fury when the answer is Glenn Close “by far,” to which he yells back, neck veins bulging cartoonishly, “No, that is not the truth!”) one of the most exhilarating comic experiences there is. These moments, when Billy turns on his “contestant,” almost make you believe that the game show was invented just so Billy could savage it. You at least want to believe it.
Structurally, “Billy on the Street,” which just ended its second season on Fuse, is an ordinary game show: Billy asks trivia questions, and contestants win money for answering them correctly. There are obstacle courses for people to complete, lightning rounds and special games where you have to give a certain number of answers in a limited amount of time.
But structure is where the resemblances between this and any other game show end. The third round of the main trivia game, “Quizzed in the Face,” is entirely subjective. In order to win, the contestant has to share Billy’s opinion. Lightning rounds devolve into Billy frantically shouting shards of language. “Miss,” he stops a woman, “Judd Apatow?” Her face can barely contain her scornful indifference and he dashes down the street, his voice trailing “Judd Apatoooowwwww????” Or, in Tel Aviv, on his way to see Madonna open her world tour, the question, “Miss, do you love a gay dancer?” hangs in the air unanswered just long enough for Billy to run to the next person and then the next, shouting “Gay dancers! Gay dancers!” all while offering people around him his microphone to respond. No one seems to know whether or not to take “Gay dancers” as an ominous warning or as a joke.
Comedian Sarah Silverman has launched a new YouTube channel called “JASH,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The channel was launched March 10 at the South by Southwest festival and is a collaboration between Silverman and fellow comics Michael Cera, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and Reggie Watts. The name stands for “Just Attitude So Hey.”
“Literally, we were at a restaurant, and Tim said, ‘Just attitude!’ Which is so Tim,” Silverman told the Reporter. “And then Michael Cera said, ‘So … hey?’ Which is so Michael Cera.”
The group of comedians decided to launch the channel after being approached by Google about creating web-only experimental comedy. Each of the participants will have their own page on the channel to create and curate content. JASH is one of 60 new YouTube channels featuring established entertainers.
Watch the introduction to JASH:
“I’m Joan Rivers — let’s see who’s coming out of my closet tonight!”
That’s the beginning of Joan Rivers’s new web series, “In Bed With Joan.”
The answer, for the first episode, is Sarah Silverman, who craws right in for the “full mommy experience.”
During the episode the two comedians talk about what Jews keep in their pockets (crumpled up tissues, loose mints), whether it’s harder to be a woman in comedy, and whether Silverman would rather date Jimmy Fallon, Montel Williams or Oprah. It also doesn’t hurt that the theme song sounds a lot like Mordechai Ben David’s “Yidden” (also, like “Dschinghis Khan” by Dschinghis Khan).
Check out the episode below:
Ask David Brenner what’s funny, and his answer is simple: “If people laugh, it’s funny. That’s the only way you can tell.” Take one of Brenner’s classic jokes. He first told it as he was setting up his microphone at a show one evening. He thought it was weird, not necessarily funny. Yet many people tell me it’s their favorite Brenner line.
“I was on the subway, sitting on a newspaper, and a man came over and asked me if I was reading it. I looked at him. What was I going to say? ‘I’m nearsighted?’ Two weeks later it happened again. Someone came over. Asked if I was reading the paper. I just said yes, got up, turned the page and sat down again.”
Brenner is currently on a national tour, with a March 16 appearance at the Mill Theater, in Millburn, N.J., He spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about the rabbis and crooks in his family tree, his youthful looks and how it’s getting tougher to get laughs.
Curt Schleier: You are 77 years old. What keeps you going?