When Jews Were Funny is an illuminating documentary
Featuring Shelley Berman, David Steinberg, and Bob Einstein. Unrated.
There’s little evidence that Moses, Noah, or any of the Old Testament patriarchs had much sense of humour—although God no doubt had a chuckle when he gave Jonah a whale-belly “time out” for disobeying His orders. Still, a few thousand years of frogs, locusts, random pogroms, and German efficiency will bring out the irony in anybody left standing. And that gives you some idea what Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig set out to explore in this illuminating and, of course, amusing new documentary.
The temporal part of When Jews Were Funny refers to the first wave of Borscht Belt comics who broke away from, and built upon, Yiddish vaudeville and shtetl wit to reach a wider audience via radio, movies, and television. There are some flickery clips of Milton Berle and Henny Youngman to suggest how quickly Jewish humour became America’s comedy. By the time we got to Seinfeld, people hardly knew the difference—even if pre–Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston, as a WASP-y dentist, did convert to Judaism, “for the jokes”.
As the meshuggeneh elephant in the room, Jerry Seinfeld is notably missing from the kvetching heads Zweig assembled to discuss the course of assimilation. The filmmaker’s assertion—or question, yes?—is that the peculiarities of an ethnic sensibility can only survive so much mainstreaming. Middle-aged and more cerebral comics, such as Davids Brenner and Steinberg, note that the portability of Jewish humour, coupled with outsider status and a scholarly tradition, has made it more durable than most. Somewhat younger standups, like Howie Mandel, Marc Maron, and Judy Gold, say this coloration remains through cadence and physical attitude. And gravel-voiced Bob Einstein settles for yelling at Zweig every chance he gets.