Alan Zweig’s “When Jews Were Funny”

11 mins read

ALAN ZWEIG HAD AN EPIPHANY standing outside Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal.

A family standing in line behind him was nattering away so much like “central-casting Jews that they almost sounded like a sitcom,” he vividly recalled. In fact, their bantering was so entertaining that he stopped thinking of his smoked meat sandwich and dill pickle and instead listened to them like they were a radio play. “I wanted to follow them around all night and listen to them,” he confessed. Zweig concluded that he missed Jews.

Around that time, Zweig was sitting shiva for a friend’s mother. Zweig attended not only the first evening, but also three more, which he normally doesn’t do. Sure, he wanted to see old friends at the shiva, but there was something else that brought him back: “I kind of enjoyed myself at the shiva, because it gave me a chance to be in a house full of Jews, which is something I haven’t done much since I was a kid.”

Flash-forward months later. Zweig is in the middle of editing When Jews Were Funny with his longtime editor, Randy Zimmer. Zweig is searching for his Jewish roots through old-school comedy. His new film provocatively asks American and Canadian comics such as Shelley Berman, Norm Crosby, Shecky Greene, Howie Mandel and Mark Breslin: Why were Jews funny, and why aren’t they funny anymore?

“I don’t relate to today’s Jews as much as my grandparents [and their generation],” Zweig declares. In When Jews Were Funny, Zweig tries to reconnect with his Jewish heritage by exploring his grandparents’ brand of humour. “I wanted to talk to Jews about being Jewish—and to old Jews about my grandparents’ generation,” he explains. He felt the need to explore eastern European Jewish culture, which he found himself missing. Zweig asks in his film: Is the culture they brought with them dead, or if not, what survives? “What is there for me and what can I pass on?”

The last thing he wanted to do was string together a bunch of old TV clips with new interviews and present The History of Jewish Comedy. Instead, When Jews Were Funny includes only a handful of archival clips by stand-up comics and relies mainly on Zweig’s probing interviews with comedians, all anchored in his search for personal identity. “Talking to Jewish comedians was a way to focus the subject on Jewish humour, although I wasn’t setting out to make a film about Jewish humour per se,” Zweig says paradoxically. “I just thought Jewish comedians might be an interesting focus group.”

Nearly a century ago, Jewish comedians dominated vaudeville and motion pictures. “Once upon a time 90 per cent of the comedians in North America were Jewish where now it’s two per cent,” says Zweig with more than a bit of exaggeration, “but, still, humour is a strong Jewish tradition.” Popular theory maintains that Jewish comedians channelled their pain through humour, just like American blacks sang the blues. That pain, suspects Zweig, came from being unwanted immigrants. “Why the Jews became comedians in North America has to do with the fact that Jews are always outsiders, wherever they are. No matter how much they join society, they’re also outsiders to that. They assimilate, but they also don’t assimilate.”

Winnipeg-born comic David Steinberg feels that later generations assimilated into the North American mainstream and so their humour lost its Jewish flavour. In contrast, Gilbert Gottfried feels that Jewish humour endures today, but Jewish characters have been disguised as non-Jewish ones in TV shows like Seinfeld and Golden Girls.

Zweig himself didn’t grow up feeling overtly Jewish. When he left home as a young man, he expected his Jewishness to be merely one influence on his character, along with growing up in the sixties, rock music, filmmaking and living in downtown Toronto. He never felt particular pride towards famous Jews, except Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. “I made no effort in my life—zero, none—to have anything Jewish in life.” Zweig’s wife isn’t Jewish, and he doesn’t go to synagogue except for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

However, comedy reminded him of how Jewish he was in a non-Jewish world. “Sarcasm is very Jewish,” says Zweig. “Sarcasm was something I learned at home. We were all very sarcastic. My father thought it was funny.” Out in the gentile world, Zweig found a different reaction to his inherent sense of humour. “I found a lot of people who’d hear me say, ‘I wish I would just die.’ And they’d go, ‘Really, you want to die?’ It’s like, ‘No, idiot. I was just making a joke.’ I got that a lot, and I noticed that people were backing off from me.”

Today, Zweig notices that he’s inherited some Jewish traits that run deep in his veins. “I was frustrated by my inability to escape these influences, which I thought might have lessened by this point in my life.” These “influences” include a fear that his grandmother had—that if one Jew does something bad, then all Jews will suffer. “Oh, that’s another reason they’re going to hate us,” his grandma would lament. Zweig fears that he’s inherited that anxiety. “On a conscious level I’m not going to believe that my life is going to be made any more difficult because Bernie Madoff is Jewish. But when I read Bernie Madoff stole money, Ah! It gets me right away. I can’t escape it. That shame button is still in me—and I’m surprised.”

Oddly enough, When Jews Were Funny began as a project about Aboriginal identity. “I was surprised how much our Native brothers and sisters see themselves in those terms, like you hear people say they are a quarter-Cherokee. ‘I identify with my Cherokee side.’ I was really intrigued by that phenomenon in our Native community. I thought, ‘Who else does that?’ Then I thought, ‘All Jews!”

Zweig then considered a doc comparing Natives and Jews, but felt it was easier to focus on Jews, while hoping that it would appeal to a wide audience. That may prove to be difficult. Zweig’s previous films have dealt with universal yearnings such as loneliness (Lovable) and, most recently, hope (15 Reasons To Live). But When Jews Were Funny is his first culture-specific film. Certainly, this doc will attract fans of stand-up comedy who will marvel at witnessing Gilbert Gottfried actually being himself on camera and not performing his schtick, and the verbal sparring between a cranky Bob Einstein (aka Super Dave Osborne) and Zweig, but the doc may have a hard time reaching Asian, black and gentile communities unless those individuals have a lot of Jewish friends or in-laws.

Regardless, When Jews Were Funny is something that Zweig has to get off his chest. “It’s the last personal film I’m going to make.”

It may be his most personal, if not affectionate. “There’s something about [Jewish identity] that warms my heart. Being connected to it means something. All of that is a surprise to me, because I wouldn’t have said that most of my life.”

Zweig was particularly touched by a story stand-up comic David Brenner mentions in the film. Brenner recalls he was five when his father took him for a walk around the neighbourhood and asked him to find something funny in the things around them. Young David couldn’t find any humour. His old man answered that there’s something funny in everything.

“I found that lovely to hear,” says Zweig, who’s grateful to his late father for passing his Jewish sense of humour onto him. “The film is about my relationship with my daughter and with my grandparents,” Zweig reveals. After making his film, Zweig feels that “the generation that was going to come after me was more important than I realized.”


When Jews Were Funny screens three times during TIFF 2013:

Tuesday, September 10 – 9:15 PM
Scotiabank 13

Thursday, September 12 – 9:15 PM
The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Sunday, September 15 – 4:45 PM
Scotiabank 9

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