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When Jews Were Funny

May 11, 2014 | by Staff

Alan Zweig’s new documentary asks: Why are Jews are funny? Answer: Because we like to kvetch.

Jews are funny because we have developed humor as a coping mechanism to deal with our years of persecution.

Jews are funny because we are outsiders.

Jews are funny because of our Talmudic tradition of questioning and arguing.

Alan Zweig’s new documentary When Jews Were Funny ads another reason to this oft asked question: Jews are funny because we like to kvetch. And according to Zweig, the days of Jewish comedians are likely behind us because the next generation of Jews has lost the ability to really complain. Zweig apparently hasn’t met my kids.

“It never made sense to me until now that complaining, which is negative, is funny.”

Alan Zweig has a host of documentary films to his credit including his 2000 film Vinyl which explores the phenomenon of record collecting; I, Curmudgeon about cantankerous people of which Zweig includes himself, Lovable about finding romance and A Hard Name about the struggles of ex-convicts to adjust to life outside of prison. But it is his most recent film, When Jews Were Funny, which he says has been reviewed at least ten times more than any of his previous films, that has garnered the most attention.

Zweig interviews a range of different comedians including Shecky Green, Shelley Berman, Howie Mandel, Mark Schiff, Gilbert Gottfreid, Bob Einstein (Super Dave Osborne) and others. In his interviews, Zweig explores a few themes, one of which is his theory that the source of Jewish humor comes from our love of kvetching.

“It never made sense to me that complaining, which is negative, is funny,” Zweig said in an interview with Jewlarious. “In the course of filmmaking people explained it to me. If you have an opinion, you are funny. If you say ‘I went to the motor vehicle office and it was a breeze,’ that’s not funny. There’s only funny in complaining. What we identify with as humor, comes from anger, complaining, self deprecation. That’s something Jews come by honestly.”

Zweig pinpoints the moment when he believes the modern Jewish comedian began his ascension. “There’s still in North America, a strain of white, stiff upper lip don’t complain mentality. Jews never had that. We never had a taboo against kvetching. Ever. When the Great Depression came along, the general public took that stiff upper lip approach. But then the Jews came along and said, ‘isn’t this horrible’, and everyone said ‘yes! Thank you for voicing what we’ve been feeling!’”

Another one of the themes Zweig explores is his thesis that the age of Jewish comedians is coming to an end. The argument goes as follows: Jews are funny because of our Jewish natures, which includes of course our love of kvetching. But if Jews assimilate, we will lose that which is unique about us and no longer be funny. In the film, Mark Breslin, owner of the Yuk Yuk’s comedy franchise said it bluntly. ”I’m frequently the only Jew in the room, and I’m the only one who cares. And that’s what’s changed. In the 30’s if my father was the only Jew in the room he’d be looking for the exit…Being Jewish is no longer a matter of survival….the essence of Jewish humor is to kvetch, to complain, and it’s not happening anymore because we don’t have to complain because we’re powerful enough to do what we want and get what we want. That’s the death of humor.”

According to Zweig, in 30 years, there could never be another Seinfeld. “You could have a show like Seinfeld” comments Zweig, “but at some point no one will know where it comes from. My grandchildren may watch Seinfeld reruns but they won’t say that’s a bunch of Jews. Stand up is so connected to Jewish culture. But I am not sure the people practicing it in years from now will have any idea where it came from.”

Zweig’s assumption that Jews will assimilate is examined during an interesting exchange with comedian Mark Schiff (who was also interviewed on Jewlarious here). Schiff said bluntly, “If it wasn’t for the Orthodox, the religion would disappear. They keep the religion going. [Without them] we would just fit in with everyone else and it would be gone. We’d drop a little bit of this and a little of that and the next thing you know, you’re eating white bread and mayonnaise.” Zweig continues and asks Schiff, “Do you feel that Judaism defines you?” To which Schiff responds, “The older I get the more I do, absolutely. It’s my soul.” “That’s a mouthful, you have a Jewish soul?” Zweig says almost incredulously. Again Schiff responds unabashedly, “Well if you believe in a Creator, and They have given you a soul, mine is a Jewish one.”

In his interview with Jewlarious, Zweig admits that throughout his life he has struggled with the type of faith that Mark Schiff has. “When I was a kid, I thought my generation would reject religious Judaism. But I was completely wrong. Judaism is safe. The religion will always be there. The question of the film is: how deep is Jewish culture. Is it shallow like kreplach versus pierogis or is it in your blood?” For Zweig the making of the film created a realization for him and how he viewed Judaism. “All my life I thought Judaism was shallower than it is. But the Jewish culture is so deep in me it is undeniable.”

Finally, to the most important question: what would Zweig’s mother think of his film if she were alive to see it? “My mother had this thing where you don’t talk about being Jewish in front of the goyim so I think she would have been embarrassed by it. I don’t think she would have liked it.” Well there you go – a movie director’s mother who doesn’t like her own son’s films. That’s Jewish humor for you right there.

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