The Arty Semite

'The Jews Are Coming!' (After a Yearlong Controversy)

By Esther D. Kustanowitz

Last year, a single promo clip — a total of 19 seconds in length — provoked a controversy over the content of the show it had been created to promote. What followed was a yearlong saga of politics, professional restructuring and grassroots marketing, as the show — an Israeli sketch comedy show called “HaYehudim Ba’im” (“The Jews Are Coming”) — languished in TV purgatory.

After the controversial promo launched online, Channel 1, the public station, had a problem. The show had already been produced, using taxpayer money; despite the controversy, it represented an investment of public funding that couldn’t be easily discarded. Channel 1 was undergoing restructuring, and the Knesset had to approve the network’s programming slate before it could air. With all these obstacles, it seemed that “The Jews Are Coming” show would never get to live up to its name.

The promo also provoked MK Ayelet Shaked (from the religious Habayit Hayehudi party) to speak out against “HaYehudim Ba’im,” pressuring Channel 1 to air a right-wing satire (a show called “Latma”) to balance it, show co-creator and writer Natalie Marcus recalls. “The presence of a satire can’t balance the presence of another satire; satire balances reality,” she said.

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Waiting on Tables, and for a Break

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Ken Jacques

The tiny Triad nightclub in the Upper West Side of Manhattan was filled by a crowd sufficiently large to give a fire marshal palpitations. That was probably due to the fact that the night’s attraction, Brad Zimmerman, grew up across the Hudson, just a hop, skip and $14 George Washington Bridge toll away.

The truth of the matter is that it wasn’t the fire marshal who should have been worried, but the building inspector. Because the moment he began his show, “My Son the Waiter, a Jewish Tragedy,” Zimmerman had the place and pretty much everyone’s belly shaking.

“My Son the Waiter” is a one-man show, an autobiographical retelling of a life at once sad and funny. Growing up, Zimmerman had a great deal going for him. He was the best athlete in his bunk at Camp Akiba, hit a home run on the first pitch in his first Little League at-bat and, of the three colleges he applied to, decided to attend the one that accepted him.

He graduated with a degree in theater, but spent the next 29 years of his life as a waiter in restaurants, but working with a Jewish deli waiter attitude. A customer starts to flag him as he is walking to the table. When Zimmerman comes over, the customer says, “I’m in a hurry.” Zimmerman tells him, “So, go.”

Waiting on tables was a humbling experience for the college grad — and his mom. When her friends told her about their sons’ successes and giant mansions, all Zimmerman’s mother could brag about was, “If all goes well, I think Brad is gonna buy a book case.”

Zimmerman’s problem wasn’t that he went out on auditions and was turned down. It was that he didn’t even try.

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Why Judd Hirsch Almost Turned Down ‘Taxi’

By Curt Schleier

Judd Hirsch has packed a lot of success into his 79 years on the planet. He is of course known as Alex Rieger, cabbie extraordinaire in the long-running television sitcom “Taxi.” The role earned him four Emmy nominations and two wins.

He’s also starred in a number of other successful series, including “Dear John” and, more recently, “Numb3rs.”

That’s only television. He’s appeared in 20 feature films, ranging from his role as a psychologist in “Ordinary People” (Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor) to playing himself in “The Muppets,” which garnered him no awards but the affection of thousands of young people.

Then there is his true love, theater. He’s appeared in three Broadway productions, was nominated for three Tony Awards as best actor in a play and won two — for “I’m Not Rappaport” and “Conversations With My Father.”

Hirsch spoke to the Forward about his latest project, the new ABC series “Forever,” how he almost didn’t want to take “Taxi” and why he’s still doing the grind of a TV show at age 79.

Curt Schleier: Getting ready for this interview, I was taken aback by how much you’d done and how much I’d forgotten. What a career! What’s your reaction to my ignorance?

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'Yidlife Crisis,' the First Yiddish Sitcom

By Leyzer Burko

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

“Yidlife Crisis” has been a long time coming.

Back in the good old days — 60 or 70 years ago — there were Yiddish comedy serials on the radio, featuring the same cast of characters week after week. Unlike their English counterparts, however, these shows never made the jump to television. Thus, “Yidlife Crisis” can be considered the first Yiddish sitcom.

The comedy, which had its premiere in August at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, has already had a big impact in the online Yiddish world, at least judging by my own Facebook feed. So far there are four episodes in the series, which can be seen on the show’s website and YouTube channel.

Shortly before the Toronto premiere I talked to the show’s creators, Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, to find out the backstory behind the project.

Elman and Batalion, who wrote the scripts for the show and play the two main characters, Chaimie and Leizer, are no amateurs. Both are professional writers and actors with an impressive list of mainstream film and TV roles to their credit. So what inspired them to make “Yidlife Crisis”?

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Paul Reiser Returns to the Stage

By Curt Schleier

Paul Reiser is coming to Manhattan to make his first New York appearance in over two decades. He’ll be appearing October 2 at Merkin Concert Hall in a benefit for JazzReach, an organization that sends musicians to schools around the country to perform jazz for students.

The comic is most famously the star and creator of the long-running sitcom “Mad About You.” He’s also had important roles in films ranging from “Diner” — his first big break — to the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies. He’s also a talented musician and composer with a bachelor’s degree in music and an album to his credit.

For Reiser, it’s a quick visit to his hometown. “I am flying in Thursday and flying home Friday to commence not eating and getting those pots not cooking so I can not eat,” he said.

“In fact, the peanuts on the plane may be the last thing I eat, so I better enjoy them. Now that Yom Kippur is upon us, I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong this year. I have 48 hours to mess up. I should jump into a life of crime, so I have something to pray about. I have been pristine this year.”

Reiser spoke to the Forward about his return to his standup roots, coping with disappointment, and the pre-bar mitzvah conversation he had last year with his son.

Curt Schleier: What made you return to the grind of standup?

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'Nathan For You' Is the Most Uncomfortable Show on Television

By Eitan Kensky

“Nathan For You” is built on an undercurrent of mundane desperation: most of us will go along with anything if it means 10 minutes of face-time on TV. We’ll serve (artificial!) poo flavored yogurt at our FroYo shop; court lawsuits for the publicity; deceive the public with bogus animal videos; and camp with unknown men in the wilderness. Shove a camera in someone’s face and they are no longer wary of strangers. They’ll go on dates, spill their hearts, betray secrets. It’s as riveting and hilarious as it is uncomfortable. It might be the best half-hour on television this summer.

“Nathan For You,” whose second season began July 1, is a business advice reality show. Nathan Fielder, a comedian who graduated from the University of Victoria with a bachelor’s degree in commerce, advises small businesses on how to grow. It’s like “Kitchen Nightmares” or “Bar Rescue” except Fielder doesn’t have experience and the advice isn’t good. It’s also not terrible advice (not typically, anyway). The advice has to land in the sweet spot of “bad enough to entertain the folks at home; good enough to get the business to try for a day.” It’s not a parody of business advice shows, but it frequently becomes a parody of other reality genres. The show is more confusing to describe than it is to watch.

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David Wain Is Back Again

By Curt Schleier

David Wain is a co-founder of two sketch comedy troupes, The State and Stella. He is executive producer and occasional star of the Emmy-winning Adult Swim series, “Children’s Hospital.” He also has his own online show, “Wainy Days,” about his (mis)adventures with women.

But certainly his greatest claim to fame is his 2001 cult classic, “Wet Hot American Summer.” That is, until now.

Wain’s latest, “They Came Together,” will soon claim top billing. It’s a hilarious spoof on the romantic comedy genre that opens in New York, Los Angeles and other markets June 27.

The film stars Paul Rudd as Joel, the typical romantic comedy lead — i.e. “handsome, but in a non-threatening way; vaguely but not overtly Jewish.”

Amy Poehler is Molly the klutzy but cute potential girlfriend. They meet in a bookstore where they discover that they both like — wait for it — “fiction books.” But problems ensue when she discovers he works for Candy Systems and Research, the company hoping to put her little store, Upper Sweet Side, out of business.

Still, they fall in love. They fall out of love. There are complications, but — spoiler alert — there is a happy ending, with shout-outs to everything from “You’ve Got Mail” to “Crossing Delancey.”

“They Came Together” is so funny you don’t need an entire funny bone to find laughs here. A few funny cells are more than enough to see the humor.

Wain spoke to the Forward about his complete lack of preparation for this interview, the low brow-ness of his jokes and how he’s not Pagliacci.

Curt Schleier: Have you prepared enough one-liners to make me look creative and funny to the readers of The Forward?

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Eugene Mirman Brings Comedy Fest to Boston and Brooklyn

By Matt Robinson

While many comedians make other people laugh while fretting about their ability to do so, Eugene Mirman has always had a unique perspective on comedy.

“I wanted to be a professional comedian,” the Russian-born, Brooklyn-based comedian explains, “whatever that entailed.”

To hear him tell it, this attitude may not actually be so rare. In fact, Mirman has a great number of stand-up friends who truly seem to be in it for the laughs. For the past few years, Mirman has been assembling some of his comic comrades in an eponymous festival. The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival will run in Boston May 1-4 and in Brooklyn September 18-21. Both festivals will feature such stars as Nick Thune, John Hodgman, Daniel Kitson (with whom Mirman is touring May 4-9 as part of the ongoing “Pretty Good Friends” show), H. Jon Benjamin (who also appears with Mirman as a character voice in the hit Fox cartoon “Bob’s Burgers”) and even Bill Nye the Science Guy.

“It started as a joke,” Mirman admits when asked what gave him the idea to put his name on a festival. “And then was fun to do so we just started doing it.”

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Celebrate the Marx Brothers With 'Marxfest'

By Curt Schleier

It’s been 100 years since four brothers — Leonard, Arthur, Julius and Milton — sat down at a table and, with the assistance of a fellow vaudevillian, reinvented themselves as Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo. The centennial anniversary of that comic rebirth will be celebrated with Marxfest, a month-long series of screenings and discussions taking place in May.

Noah Diamond is one of six committee members running the events. They are “mostly New York theater people and media people who were sort of passionate about the Marx Brothers,” he said.

Why this obsession for comics long gone? “I think the simple answer is that they were so funny. If you watch their films today, they are still so surprising and so fresh.”

Diamond, an actor and writer who has performed as Groucho, noted that many of the events are free and others are moderately priced. “Hopefully if we sell a reasonable amount of tickets we won’t lose money.”

The brothers were Jewish, though not observant. Diamond says that in “The Cocoanuts,” Groucho is credited with being the first actor to speak in a natural New York/Jewish accent rather than the sort of high-tone faux British accent typical of the time. Harpo donated his harp to the State of Israel.

More information about events is available at marxfest.com

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Some Jews Are Funnier Than Others

By Curt Schleier

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?

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Meet the Broads of 'Broad City'

By Curt Schleier

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?

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How Robert Klein Saved Rodney Dangerfield's Life

By Curt Schleier

“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.

Phil Konstantin/Wikimedia Commons

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?

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Jeff Garlin Talks Little League and Arrest

By Curt Schleier

Jeff Garlin gets jokes.

Aaron Epstein

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?

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Will Woody Allen Return to Standup?

By Forward Staff

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:

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Is Rick Moranis 'Too Jewish'?

By Mark Cohen

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.

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Amy Schumer vs. 'Princesses: Long Island'

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy of Bravo

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.

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Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg Kill Their Friends

By Piya Sinha-Roy (Reuters)

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.

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Jon Stewart Peaces Out

By Forward Staff

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:

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Mel Brooks Honored for Lifetime of Funny

By Forward Staff

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.

Getty Images

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.

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When 50 Happens to Good People: Part Two

By Annabelle Gurwitch

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.

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