It is, of course, the use of the past tense in the title of Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig’s latest documentary that gives one pause. What, did Jews stop being funny? To echo the mantra of one of the world’s most famous funny Jews, “What’s up with that?” Jerry Seinfeld, sadly, doesn’t turn up in When Jews Were Funny, nor, alas, does Woody Allen, but a hell of a lot of other excellent Jewish comics do. While there’s a handful of archival TV performance clips—featuring the likes of Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield and Henry Goodman—the film is comprised almost entirely of talking heads. Some of those heads belong to Shecky Greene, Shelley Berman, Gilbert Gottfried, Ed Crasnick, Judy Gold, Howie Mandel, Andy Kindler, Super Dave Osborne and Marc Maron, whose addictive WTF podcast regularly features interviews with other comics, many of them of the Jewish persuasion, discussing the history of stand-up comedy. Which makes Maron an ideal subject for When Jews Were Funny, and something of a foil for Zweig, whose voice can often be heard from behind the camera—so often that it almost feels perverse that we never actually see him until the closing credits.
Few of Zweig’s subjects seem to agree with his suspicion that Jewish comedy is an endangered species, its main cause of death being integration—if being a persecuted outsider is essential to the anxiety and frustration that drives Jewish comedy, how could the tradition endure in an age of mainstream acceptance? Mandel, for one, thinks this theory is hogwash. He suggests that Jews are as funny as they ever were; only the accents have changed. The real essence of Jewish comedy is incessant kvetching, and Jews, says Mandel, have a singular talent for complaint that transcends circumstance. To wit: Crasnick tells a hilarious story about an encounter with William Shatner in which the Star Trek star compared afternoon traffic to the Holocaust. Kindler feels Jews are funny whether they want to be or not. Which is not exactly an argument any gentile would want to get behind, but it’s compelling within the context of the film’s cultural debate. When Jews Were Funny is a little unfocused, only half-interested in providing a comprehensive history, and lacking in structure. Still, it’s nothing if not consistently engaging. Especially when the hyper-ornery Super Dave looks like he’s about to leap out of his seat and strangle Zweig.
Zweig’s films, which include Vinyl, Lovable, and I, Curmudgeon, tend to be driven by very personal questions. Besides his nostalgia for the ostensibly evaporating immigrant culture that so influenced his childhood notion of Jewishness, Zweig concedes that he may also be seeking to absolve himself of his guilt regarding his marriage to a goy and decision to raise their daughter without much in the way of Jewish identity. (For the record, Zweig’s daughter is all of two, so there’s still plenty of time to make her aware of her heritage). But Zweig’s passionate questions, not to mention the very existence of this film, would seem to negate concerns over the complete loss of the tradition When Jews Were Funny seeks to memorialize. As Maron puts it to Zweig, “If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe in God. But you clearly believe in Jews.”
Fri, Dec 20 – Thu, Dec 26
Directed by Alan Zweig