REVIEW: When Jews Were Funny

Directed by: Alan Zweig
Featuring: Howie Mandel, Shelly Berman, Bob Einstein, David Steinberg, Norm Crosby, David Brenner, Shecky Green, Mark Breslin, Michael Wex, Judy Gold

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

The great thing about Alan Zweig is that he does take everything personally. The Toronto doc-maker is a true auteur. His first docs may be ostensibly about collecting records (Vinyl) or the tragedy of being solo in a world of couples (Lovable) but they’re really about him and his obsessions. While he did succeed in making a doc that wasn’t about himself— A Hard Name, about ex-cons trying to make it outside of prison cells— his next attempt 15 Reasons to Live seemed oddly bland.

It’s nice to see Zweig back in form with his new doc When Jews Were Funny, which won the best Canadian film prize at TIFF. Once again, we’re on slippery turf where expectations may not match up to reality for viewers unaccustomed to Zweig’s shtick. Some people will go to the film expecting lots of yucks provided by classic Jewish comedians like Shelly Berman and Shecky Green. And, to be fair to Zweig, there are moments of great hilarity, some from archival clips and others from interviews he conducted with grand old standup comedians who can still deliver lines even though they’re way past retirement age.

But the real doc that emerges here is of a middle-aged man confronting his ethnic roots and mortality. Yep, that aging but still vigorous individual is our own Mr. Zweig, dealing with the responsibilities of fatherhood at a slightly advanced age. In earlier episodes in Zweig’s autobiographical “mirror trilogy,” he owned up to his curmudgeonly behaviour and desire to be married and a Dad. Now that he’s attained those goals, he’s sorting out what remains of his younger, saltier self.

Alan Zweig is married to a woman who isn’t Jewish and it becomes clear as the film progresses that he’s trying to figure out how much of his cultural traditions should be imparted to their daughter. Zweig being Zweig, he turns to plausible and certainly astute mentors: comics. Not a religious believer, he still retains a sense of nostalgia—and arguably love—for the old Yiddish characters he knew in his youth. To him, and to many of us, these elderly Jews from Eastern European villages (shtetls) were wonderfully funny when they imparted their wisdom in delightfully broken English peppered with Yiddish, an ethnic language that incorporated German, Polish, Hebrew and Russian (and other lingos).

From those roots sprang a couple of generations of American (and sometimes Canadian) entertainers who could sing, dance and tell jokes: Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, George Burns, Molly Picon and others. Zweig zeroes in on the next generation of comics that followed in the footsteps if those massive talents: Shecky Green, Shelly Berman, Henny Youngman and more recently Howie Mandel and David Steinberg.

Zweig asks them if they found their parents and other Jewish immigrants to be funny. Some opine that they led tough lives; others point out that the humour is based on suffering and a rueful acceptance of fate. Zweig asks them for jokes and they respond reasonably well—though some find it hard to return to a comic mode.

His key question is: what should I tell my daughter about being Jewish? Let’s draw a veil over their collective wisdom on that point—because this is a warm, personal film that should be seen. Once again, Zweig has delivered a fascinating, personal and, yes, funny, doc. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy When Jews Were Funny.

For more on this film, read our profile from the Fall 2013 issue. When Jews Were Funny starts a one-week run at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on November 15, 2013.