When Jews Were Funny is not so much a title as it is a complaint. Alan Zweig’s new documentary, named the Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival, gathers a whole bunch of Jewish comedians together to discuss why Jews aren’t funny anymore. He talked to Shelley Berman, Judy Gold, Gilbert Gottfried, Howie Mandel and Marc Maron, just to name a few. The result is a genuinely hilarious but somewhat nebulous conversation. It doesn’t necessarily help that Zweig himself isn’t entirely sure what the film is about.
He begins with a couple of crucial questions. 1. Did Jewish humor change the essence of North American comedy? And 2. Are Jews essentially funny? Yet as his assembled funnymen (and a couple of funny women) begin to take these apart, it becomes apparent that there’s something more personal going on. At one point someone even says it point blank: “You’re making this film because you feel guilty about marrying a gentile.” Zweig’s anxiety about his own assimilation into mainstream Canadian society could be the most interesting part of When Jews Were Funny. Yet he insists on keeping it beneath the surface (and behind the camera) for much of the film, morphing it from a potential central theme into a frustrating distraction.
The film is made up almost entirely of interviews with comedians, punctuated by the occasional clip of televised stand-up. When Jews Were Funny begins with the elder statesmen, the men who can most vividly recall the glory days of Vaudeville and the Borscht Belt. There aren’t many of them left, and much of their testimony has to do with that simple, mournful fact. “All the great Jews are dead,” one of them bleakly asserts. Zweig then introduces a group of younger comedians, many of whom also mourn the loss of the hilarious archetypal Old Jew, slurping his soup and bickering with his wife.
Much of the conversation is actually pretty standard fare. The comedians explain how Jews were funny because, facing poverty and persecution in Europe, humor was all they had left. It was their only defense, their only coping mechanism. Then the children of immigrants to North America got too comfortable. “Content isn’t funny. Goyim are content.” The bleak humor of complaining and griping that made Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Mason famous is no longer with us.
The problem is that this is not entirely accurate. A number of Zweig’s witnesses make this point, that there are younger comics who have held on to plenty of the style of old Jewish humor. Yes, the Old Jews themselves are almost gone. Yet in a world of Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman and even Seinfeld reruns, can we really argue that we’ve lost it all? And the Jewish ability to see humor in everything, no matter how bleak, holds on in subtler ways. Cory Kahaney and Judy Gold offer some of the more interesting variations on this continuity, trying to pin down what it is that still makes Jewish comedy, and Jews themselves, different. When Jews Were Funny flirts with these deeper questions regarding the still present differences between Jewish and non-Jewish outlook, leading to a few fascinating and rewarding moments.
Unfortunately, Zweig passes on the opportunity to really dive into the more intriguing elements of his interviews. At the end of the day he isn’t really responding to the decline of Jewish comedy, but rather the decline of his own Jewishness. He’s openly concerned about whether his daughter, whose mother is not Jewish, will have any connection to her heritage. He feels guilty about his own assimilation, his own loss of connection to his parents and their lifestyle. He is much quicker to nail Jewish humor into its coffin than any of his interview subjects.
And yet, somehow When Jews Were Funny is worth seeing in spite of its somewhat clueless director. He is, after all, talking to Jews. This is a people known for answering questions with yet more questions. The comedians gathered here are combative, unwilling to let Zweig get away with a simple elegy for what he perceives as a departed culture. Bob Einstein (aka Super Dave Osborne) in particular fights back quite voraciously, pointedly refusing to understand a number of his inept interviewer’s broad assertions. The full tape of this single conversation might be worth a whole film. Instead, Zweig tosses Einstein’s best moments into the end credits. This one editing choice belies the problem with the whole film. When Jews Were Funny has some great jokes, a few neat ideas, and very little holding them all together.