When Jews Were Funny: Alan Zweig

The premise is that Jews are no longer funny. Alan Zweig, a documentary filmmaker from Toronto, argues that there was once a golden age of Jewish humour but, as American comedian, Jack Carter, who is interviewed in the film, puts it: “All the great Jewish comedians have died. Jewish humour is dead.”

This is because, as many of the comedians Zweig chose to interview testify, Jewish humour lies in Yiddish rhythms and pronunciation, immigration, alienation, testiness, frustration, pain, and darkness. Thus Jews today have become far too comfortable, far too wealthy, and far too assimilated to be funny. As one of them says: “Content isn’t funny. Goyim are content. Goyim aren’t funny.” “We won”, another sadly informs us – and that is the problem. Suburbanisation has drained our acerbity.

I had many problems with this film. Let me begin with the name of the documentary. When Zweig uses the term “Jews” in his title what he really means is: elderly Ashkenazi male Americans, most likely dead ones. Indeed, this seems to be a key criterion for being funny. His documentary is suffused with nostalgia for a long dead past. This blinds Zweig to the range of Jewish comedians in the world today. Most glaringly, where are the Jewish women? Jewish mothers and wives are briefly discussed both as a cause and subject of Jewish humour but the documentary includes only two female interviewees – Judy Gold and Cory Kahaney – two comediennes with which this audience is likely to be unfamiliar. But what about Sarah Silverman, Susie Essman, Norah Ephron, Joan Rivers, Ruby Wax and Gertrude Berg?

On the subject of Lenny Bruce, it is a shade, a major, almost criminal, oversight that although he is quoted at the outset, he is nowhere discussed in any depth. How can the history of Jewish comedy be told without referring to the one stand-up comedian who probably did more than anyone else to take Jewish comedy out of the safe environment of the Borscht Belt and Catskills in which it had been comfortably ensconced in the 1940s and 1950s and into the American mainstream in the 1960s? Bruce’s taxonomy of what is Jewish and what is Goyish, which I briefly quoted above, is a key defining routine of Jewish identity in the twentieth century.

Zweig fails to really acknowledge that Jewish comedy is not just restricted to the stand-up circuit, whether of the Borscht Belt, nightclub or television variety. What about Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, David Schwimmer, Ben Stiller, Jason Biggs or those Jewish actors who form the rap ensemble known as the “Jew Tang Clan”? It seems shocking that Woody Allen nowhere received a mention. On this vein, what about other film directors, actors and writers such as Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder or Judd Apatow? How can you survey the history of Jewish comedy without mentioning Blazing Saddles (1974) or The Producers (1967)? Jewish comedy was also disseminated through the printed word. Mad Magazine pioneered the film spoof long before David Zucker and Jim Abrahams made Airplane! (1980). What about cartoonist Jules Feiffer or novelist Joseph Heller or even the comedy of Stanley Kubrick in his Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)? While a documentary cannot be hope to either comprehensive or exhaustive, a simple nod to the range of Jewish comedy would have been welcomed at the very least.

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