Saturday, January 11, 2014

Review of When Jews Were Funny

     Thursday night at the Jewish Film Festival in New York I saw the documentary WHEN JEWS WERE FUNNY , a documentary by Alan Zwieg. It was not at all what I was expecting . I loved it. I had thought it would be like the film WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL   WCWS   is more of a retrospective. WJWF  reads more like a senior thesis. Both are enjoyable . I am fortunate to have seen both.
      WJWF begins with Zweig asking old time Jewish comics such as Shelley Berman,  Shecky Greene, Jack Carter what it was like for them to be Jewish comedians. The funniest part is that they said that they did not think of themselves as Jewish comedians. I'm quite sure my grandparents or any Jewish person of their generation would disagree. For that matter I am sure that any gentile of that generation would disagree. Throughout the film Zweig tries to get them to admit that part of why they were funny was because they are Jewish.
      Zweig the filmmaker is married to a gentile and has a 2 year old daughter .When people have children is often the time when people are forced to evaluate their relationship with religion and what they would like to impart to their children. This seems to be part of why he created this film. It is interesting to see the various comedians discuss their connections to Judaism. The older comedians seemed to want to admit to their Jewish roots affected their comedy  less than the younger ones though the older ones grew up with Eastern European parents, with Yiddish and in mostly Jewish neighborhoods. Then again, the older comedians had to deal with a lot more anti-semitism than the younger ones did.
       I enjoyed listening to comedian David Brenner speak of his father. Apparently his father had wanted to be a comedian, but his father's rabbi urged him not to . It was not a profession where one could maintain Jewish observances. His father did teach his son how to find humor in everything because he believed that there is something funny in every situation.
         Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Cory Kahaney, Marc Maron and Howie Mandel were some of the younger comedians interviewed. Howie Mandel asserted that there will always be Jewish comedians, but society changes and the humor of current Jewish comedians has evolved as well. I agree. The younger Jewish comedians are still very Jewish, but they grew up in different worlds than the older comedians so their comedy is different. They still are funny  comedians because they are Jewish.
         Zweig also found older Jewish people when he grew up to be funny.Perhaps they were funny because they were often immigrants. Like all of us who have lost relatives, he misses those who have passed from the previous generation, He misses their humor, he misses their sensibilities.
        Historically Jewish people changed the face of comedy in the United States. Comedy went from gags to word play. Use of language is very Jewish. We are the people of the book and after all books are filled with words.....
      I think that there will always be Jewish comedians because Jewish people have a different way of looking at things due to our  religious and cultural upbringing. Comedy is one of the few fields where the most secular Jew will explore their Jewishness on stage. From all of the comedy podcasts I have listened to of late I have gleaned that the best comedy comes from the essence  of the comic. This is why I agree that comedy is intrinsically Jewish . Comedy examines life , the Torah forces us to examine life.
      Some of the funniest comedy is served up in this film. It is quite an experience. It will be on netflix in April.
      I included a Q&A  with Alan Zweig that I found on you tube  in my previous post  .

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