Canadian documentary filmmaker Alan Zweig has a thesis, and he sets out to prove it in his latest film, “When Jews Were Funny.”
The title gives it away: Zweig believes that once Jews were funny.
Now, not so much.
To prove his point, he interviews many Jewish comedians, from stars of several generations back such as Shecky Green, Jack Carter, and Shelly Berman to more contemporary comics, including Judy Gold, Marc Maron, and Gilbert Gottfried.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Most of the comedians don’t agree with him. The older ones refuse to acknowledge that there even is such a thing as Jewish humor. They weren’t Jewish comedians, they insist; they just happened to perform for Jewish audiences. The younger ones are more wishy-washy. Some, like David Steinberg, agree that a Jewish sensibility formed the North American sense of humor in the 20th century. Others posit that it was a passing thing. Humor arises from adversity, they point out, and when another group came along with more to kvetch about, the Jews stopped being so funny.
Mr. Zweig is known for injecting himself into his films. (“Vinyl” explored his obsession with records; “I, Curmudgeon” investigated grumps, a group in which he included himself.) He is a overshadowing although unseen presence in “When Jews Were Funny.” We hear him asking questions, rephrasing when he doesn’t get the answer he wants, and sharing details of his own life. Famed podcast interviewer and comedian Marc Maron pins Mr. Zweig to the wall. It’s his nostalgia for the old Jews of his youth that’s driving his film project, Mr. Maron points out, not any objective interest in Jewish humor. To Mr. Zweig’s insistence that the old Jews he knew were all funny, Mr. Maron responds that his emotional ties made them seem funny. They weren’t trying to be funny, were they? he asks.
Mr. Zweig’s nostalgia for what seemed quintessentially Jewish is broadly shared, and many of the interviews in “When Jews Were Funny” are entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking. The older comedians’ resistance to being labeled is a reminder of how much more self-confident Jews have become since the Borscht Belt days, how much we have grown into full citizens of the American multicultural mix. Just watching these old men is a poignant experience for anyone who remembers their vigorous, rambunctious younger selves.
Mr. Zweig’s anxiety about his young daughter’s Jewish identity will also strike a chord – his wife is not Jewish – and those two opposing notes – nostalgia for the past, fear for the future make – “When Jews Were Funny” resonate for a large segment of American Jewry. One of the female comedians suggests that Mr. Zweig’s guilt about his abandonment of his heritage is what is driving his film.
One thing hasn’t changed. Of the dozen or more comedians Mr. Zweig talked to, only two are women.
Interestingly, the most Jewish part of Mr. Zweig’s film is his including all these dissenting opinions. The arguments and disagreements are almost talmudic, and the lack of consensus on the issue has made “When Jews Were Funny” a profoundly Jewish undertaking, far more than the question at its core.
Most people would agree that Jews are funny, but funnier than everyone else? That remains unresolved. It is the back and forth that matters, and that gives the film its “tam.”
“When Jews Were Funny” was named Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto Film Festival, and it has been making the rounds of Jewish film festivals. It is also available for download on whenjewswerefunny.com