TIFF 2013 Review: WHEN JEWS WERE FUNNY, A Serious (And Funny) Testament To A Lost Age

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Once upon a time, Jews were funny. You'd turn on Ed Sullivan, and some Ashkenaz from the Lower East Side would be kvetching about his wife (please), or slyly kibitzing about slurping soup in a deli.

Alan Zweig's documentary makes a bold claim, that 20th Century American comedy is Jewish comedy. Born from Yiddish theatre during the vaudeville age, its the almost Talmudic cadence of performance born from Eastern European immigrants that provides an almost musical delivery to standup comedy. Think of the rhythm of an Alan King, a Rodney Dangerfield, or a Seinfeld, and you get a sense of the Jewish DNA in what generations have considered funny.

It's an incredibly Jewish thing to be obsessed about being Jewish (see this for one of many of my own example), and the documentary does serve this kind of metanarative purpose. At its core, it's the story of the 60 year old Zweig trying to find the essence of Jewishness as a kind of love letter to his newborn (and non-Jewish) daughter.

Through a series of talking head interviews and groan worthy, Catskills-era jokes, Zweig amasses an impressive array of Jews to talk about their Jewy-ness. Old cats such as Shecky Greene talk about being funny, but how they never wore their religion on their sleeves. Others, like Bob "Super Dave" Einstein, Howie Mandel or Gilbert Gottfried, are much more open about how whatever they do there's a little of the whiff of Jewishness in what they do.

The greater point of the documentary has less to do with the humour, but the very epistemological foundation for what constitutes this culture. As it pointed out, we're a loud population for only 12 million globally, and it's part of that loudness that has been both a strength and a cause for strife. Comedy impresario Mark Breslin makes the dramatic conclusion that through overcoming various waves of genocide, Jews have been "bred" to intelligence and wit, and this comes out in the form of verbal repartee.

Whether this is factually defensible, it does illustrate well the self-obsession and neurosis of a generation of Jews. It should also be made explicit that the very notion of what Zweig things of as "Jewish" is a very narrow one - these are a series of Sephardic comedians, or the Abyssinian "falasha", or even Israelis. These are a group  of people descended from a small community that immigrated to small areas of New York city, bringing with them their dialects, their cuisine, and their humour.

Zweig's film illustrates that without the struggle of these immigrants as a people it has changed what is is to be Jewish. Zweig is a Jew, and an old man, but he is not the Old Jewish man of his youth, not the slurping stereotype that he seems on a Quixotic quest to find the root of.

Zweig's documentaries are often showcases for him trying to come to terms with something about his own personality, and this kind of autotherapeutic narrative is very much at play here. Behind the more strident or shocking revelations made by some of his participants is a very real sense of how there's no general consensus on either Jewishness or what constitutes the nature of humour.

It's hard to say how this will play to an International, "goyish" audience, but I'd suggest there's more universal meaning here than might be witnessed on first go 'round. First, it provides a genuinely interesting perspective on how these Jews see themselves, how our own self-obsessions are often universal obsessions. The film illustrates overtly both the best and worst qualities usually attributed to Jews as a group, but does so with great kindness and caring. There's a genuine sense of discovery with this film, and while some of it may smack of supremicism, it's not hard to see the background from which some of these claims are made, accurately or no.

I would have liked to have heard from other comedians from that era, heard from a Cosby or Pryor or Foxx whether they felt what they were doing was part of the same Semitic-style conversation. This, alas, is not that movie.  I still think some of the film could have been tightened up, and it sometimes slipped into repetition.

On the whole, I think When Jews Were Funny is a strong testament to a lost age, a kind of elegy to the self-deprecation and introspection that certainly shaped in a major way modern comedy. For such a serious film, it's also extremely funny, with a few jokes that may be as dry and tough as overcooked brisket, but they'll still make you laugh. It's premise is purposely flawed and provocative, but its execution is certainly engaging.

Around the Internet:
  • Nat Kone

    Interesting discussion about Nietzsche. I wish I could make a pun with the word "Gur-nish" in there. (The spell check keeps changing it to "furnish") Anyway I just wanted to thank the reviewer for that last sentence. "the premise is purposely flawed". This is the director of the film. I knew that I'd have a problem with this film, that people would think i'm trying to prove a point or that I have a thesis and not surprisingly all the negative reviews go there. They nail me for a premise that, as you say, was purposely flawed. So thank you.
    Somehow this thing is making me post with an old pseudonym of mine. But this is Alan, not Nat.

  • Guest

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  • WhyOfFry

    -First off: Humans were pushed to rely on their brains to survive.
    This whole "these people are smarter by heritage" is
    something jews probably would not like if stated for Heisenberg,
    Gauß, Kant or Heidegger. (Or Wagner, Nietzsche, Luther)
    -In christian families, not the smartest son was usually sent to
    church, but the second or third. The first was usually the only heir.
    -This idea why jews had to get certain jobs isn't completely
    wrong, but very superficial.
    -The darwin and eugenic arguments could be made by everyone to
    jerk off on their great race.

  • Again, you point out why the argument can be dismissed by some as self-serving and specious. But the fact that a documentary on comedy is addressing some of these motifs indicates I think the level at which it's attempting to grapple with the issue... In other words, the seriousness of being funny.

  • Guest

    .

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    I am not sure you're saying it, but Nietzsche was far from an anti-semite. I'm pretty sure his sister is mostly to blame for that association.

  • Yeah, it's a complicated one, especially as his sister really was within the inner circle of the Reich. At best he was ambivalent about German anti-semitism, as worst he didn't explicitly challenge it.

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    I am not sure I'd agree he was ambivalent. Granted it's been about 20 years since I've read about this, but my recollection is that among the many reasons he had a falling out with Wagner for instance was man's very strong anti-semitic statements and ideas. Granted Nietzsche never came out and named anti-semites or tried to shame anyone specifically, but we have to remember he was a man that was hardly a blip on the radar at the time, and he seemed to be more concerned with using that very small readership to express his ideas about things he probably considered more fundamental to the human experience (He also never addressed slavery or class issues in his public writing to my recollection). He also was what might be a called a troll now. He loved to argue both sides of a polemic, or say things that would shock readers. Which, with some selected reading and a little cut and paste made him a viable philosopher for use by the Reich. But really it only worked without the context of his full work. Shit, this was too long.

  • WhyOfFry

    Concerning Nietzsche: I didn't try to make a list of anti-semites, but I remembered that some have resentments when it comes to Nietzsche.
    I know too little about his work to judge and as you have pointed out, his opinions changed and not everything he wrote represented his opinion, but he was angainst religion and some of his Übermensch-stuff tendet towards eugenics. But I don't know.

    It's a shame that the OP deleted his comment. I didn't mean to bully him..

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    I wouldn't take the Eugenics thing too seriously. My memory is that most of the Overman stuff shows up in "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" which had it's first section published in 1882 or 83. Eugenics I don't think even existed as a word till that same year, and Nietzsche would physically collapse in public not too long after this and basically be catatonic till he died. TSZ is a book that mostly seems to critique Christianity (pretty sure it ruined his professor career) and the overman is something that kind of exists like Marx's ideas about a communist future, a theoretical pie in the sky social evolution. Twenty-Thirty years later Eugenics as an idea is gigantic, both among academics and governments. This is around the time when forced sterilization and such really takes off. Now, Nietzsche was very well read, and it's quite possible he read some of Gaston's (sp?) work on Eugenics, but I don't think it really makes it's way into his philosophy, and what it was as an idea in 1883 vs 1930's policy is a huge.

  • heh, I never even saw the original post... My bg is in Philosophy (that's why I make the big bucks doing film writing! *cough*), and always found Neitzche lovely to read, it's so darkly comic if you take it on that level.

    There are loads of books trying to tie him more explicitly to anti-semitism, or pro-Judaism, but as Hiroaki points out (and I tried to suggest with "ambivalence") his writing was so scattershot on the subject that it's almost liturgical, allowing near biblical interpretation of it to get out exactly what you want from it.

    And, yeah, with Wagner it was a wee bit more explicit. :)

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    I hope my response didn't come off as prickly. Certainly not intended that way.

  • WhyOfFry

    It didn't. As I've said I have little knowledge, so I found it informative (:

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    Personally I've always thought it has the most to do with knowing at LEAST two languages. It physically primes the brain for learning and expression of ideas. Where as other immigrant groups had to bring it to get work as well, Jewish immigrants seemed to maintain a higher group pressure on learning their "native" language.

    I've run into plenty of religious/culture related supremacist sentiments too, and that stuff is abhorrent.

  • Right, and worries about that abhorrence might me too quick to dismiss these sentiments in the film. They, like the humour, come from a very specific historical place, as articulated above. It'd be a shame (shonde?) if that stuff overshadowed some of the less controversial statements made in the film, but it's at least worth pointing out that some may find them, well, startling.

  • Yup, that's the argument... :)

    The issue comes into whether intelligence is hereditary or not, far outside the scope of this article (or film). Simply stating it as settled fact I think might rankle some - after all, Jews are more than many should likely be skeptical about those that ascribe attributes to a people based on strictly birthlines, whether self-serving or no.

  • Guest

    if I seemed to state the obvious, it was only because the line "Mark Breslin makes the dramatic conclusion", was stated in such a way as if the "dramatic" notion was a new one.
    though I've never knew there was an issue with the hereditary of intelligence. I guess I always thought of the basic potential of the brain as a given attribute, just as the bones have a specific potential of growth encoded to the genes.
    anyway, I ain't no doctor...

  • Yeah, my argument isn't even against the claim, I'm merely pointing out that the claim is allowed to be made without it being challengedm, which may irk some.

    Fundamentally, the film works in how it's constantly questioning its very reason for being. Which, again, is kinda Jewy. :)

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