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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

DVD Review: When Jews Were Funny



It always seemed to me that most of the best comedians were Jewish. I used to wonder why that was, and figured it’s because the best comedy comes from pain and troubles. When Jews Were Funny is an odd documentary investigating the question of whether Jews have lost their position at the top of the comedy game. The film opens with a quote from Lenny Bruce: “Who can be glad they’re a Jew? You can say…I’ve made a good adjustment but that’s all.”

This film is basically a series of interviews with Jewish comics and writers. There is a bit of old stand-up footage thrown into the mix to break it up, but really the film is a series of interviews. That might not sound like much, but this is an enjoyable documentary, mainly because those people who are interviewed are extremely funny.

Folks interviewed in this documentary include Shecky Greene, Norm Crosby, Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, David Steinberg, David Brenner, Bob Einstein, Gilbert Gottfried, Andy Kindler, Ed Crasnick, Mark Breslin, Howie Mandel, Judy Gold, Eugene Mirman, Cory Kahaney and John Silverstein (and several others).

Mark Breslin, co-founder of Yuk Yuk’s, says: “I’ve always thought that comedy was Jewish jazz. It was our people’s way of expressing our powerlessness and our intelligence at the same time. All comedy, I think, comes from frustration.” And Howie Mandel says, “I think that comedy ultimately comes from darkness…because that sense of humor is a great conduit to survival.”

David Steinberg says that immigrants who came from Russia had nothing. “They had each other, and they had humor.” He thinks that Jews are no longer the masters of comedy. “The thing that helps humor is oppression. The thing that kills humor is assimilation.”

David Brenner says that his father taught him there’s something funny in everything. That’s actually an idea that is echoed by several of the people interviewed. I’ve always said there is no subject that is devoid of humor, and it’s nice to hear that sentiment expressed by some of the best comedians in the business.

All of the stand-up footage in this film is television footage from the 1960s, and includes performances by Alan King (from 1967), Rodney Dangerfield (from 1969), Harvey Stone (from 1964), Henny Youngman (from 1963), and Jackie Mason (from 1962). Perhaps my favorite is Jackie Mason’s great bit about not wanting to go to war.

The filmmaker, though never seen (except for his hand, which ends up in frame occasionally as he’s gesturing), plays a big part in this film. Not only do we often hear his questions, but he also interacts with the comics. It’s more of a conversation, and is often about his own life and his own questions. It’s almost like therapy for him. It’s interesting, because even when he’s talking about himself, what we see on screen is the person who is being interviewed, so often what we’re seeing are reaction shots. At one point, Elon Gold asks the director what is the thesis of his film, and Alan Zweig talks about why he’s making the film.

Bonus Material

The DVD includes some bonus footage – five scenes totaling approximately sixteen minutes. This includes more with Shecky Greene and Jack Carter. My favorite of these scenes is “Jewish Joke Medley,” which includes some seriously funny material. Also in “Name That Tune,” there is a great anecdote.

When Jews Were Funny was directed by Alan Zweig, and was released on DVD on April 1, 2014 through First Run Features.

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