Insightful and often hilarious, the latest from documentary filmmaker Alan Zweig surveys the history of Jewish comedy, from the early days of Borsht belt to the present, ultimately exploring not just ethnicity in the entertainment industry, but also the entire unruly question of what it means to be Jewish.
When Jews Were Funny
Acclaimed documentary maker Alan Zweig's When Jews Were Funny begins with a question: Why were so many of the comedians Zweig watched on television in the 1950s and 1960s Jewish? From the Borscht Belt scene through to present day, Zweig presents a casual, first-person history of Jewish stand-up, unearthing some amazing archival footage (there's a phenomenal bit by the legendary Jackie Mason) and interviewing some of America's most successful and influential comics, including Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene, David Steinberg, and Super Dave Osborne. (Really, who knew?) The conversations are at times hilariously combative, most notably the stuff with Bob Einstein (a.k.a. Super Dave) where Zweig as interviewer plays semi-reluctant straight man. Along the way, the film tackles several key themes: Did Jewish comics essentially create modern American humour? What was the link between the comics and the average Jewish immigrant? Is there still an element of the Eastern European experience in Jewish comedy today?
The answers are surprising. Veterans of the 1940s and 1950s, an age when assimilation was a goal, deny, sometimes vehemently, that their comedy reflected anything of Jewish culture. For several of the younger comics, their biggest influences are family members, fathers, aunts, yentas. Many bemoan the loss of Yiddish, while arguing about the quintessential Jewish joke.
As Zweig and his subjects shuttle from
the universal to the particular and back
again, the movie's real subject isn't so much
comedy but what it means to be Jewish.
It's an impossible question to answer, of
course. But it's also one well worth exploring,
especially in a movie as funny and
heartfelt as this one.