The Hebrew Hammer Returns to Fight Hitler -- and Americans' 'Cuddly Racism'
As he gears up for a sequel to his cult hit comedy, Adam Goldberg talks to THR about antisemitism, Woody Allen, his own struggles and a messy lawsuit over "2 Days in Paris."
Here's one final, belated Hanukkah present: The Hebrew Hammer is making a comeback.
The coming year is already set to host some long-awaited cult comedy rebirths and sequels, from Arrested Development to Anchorman. Now, with the help of crowd-sourced fundraising, a second chapter of writer-director Jonathan Kesselman's 2003 Jewish-themed blaxploitation-type spoof is aiming to begin production this spring.
The sequel will return Adam Goldberg as Mordechai Jefferson Carver, the Shaft of Orthodox Jews, who operates as a private investigator under the moniker from which the film gets its name. In the first movie, he saved the fate of Hanukkah by taking out an evil, trigger-happy Santa Claus played by Andy Dick; his globe-spanning mission required teaming up with the head of the Kwanzaa Liberation League, Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim, as well as Esther Bloomenbergensteinenthal, who was played by Judy Greer. Now, part two will raise the stakes even further for the future of the Jewish people.
"It didn’t seem the sort of franchise where you would want to see him take on one Jewish holiday after another," Goldberg told The Hollywood Reporter late last week. "You want to see him go after the big one. Who’s the Jewish Joker? Hitler. It’s implicit that if we are going to take on Hitler, there’s a time-travel element, so once that widened the scope infinitely, I thought it was important that we hook up with the other big Jew in history: Jesus."
And so, The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler will see Mordechai Jefferson Carver -- having retired and ceded his place as badass mensch to the young hipster hero Semitic Jewishman -- forced to travel back in time to take down the Nazi leader, with Jesus as his history-correcting sidekick. Greer, as Esther, will return as Hammer's wife.
The first film, which aired exclusively on Comedy Central for five years after its theatrical release, was filled to the brim of its large black hat with exploitation of Jewish stereotypes, from crazy mothers and thriftiness to guilty consciences and lack of athletic ability. Goldberg -- who is half Jewish on his father's side (his mother is a "lapsed Catholic") and does not actively practice any religion -- said that despite hearing some complaints about the easy target humor, both he and Kesselman believed that playing with those deeply held comedy bromides helped point out their lunacy (though, he'll admit, some of them worked in comedy because they were, at least partially, true).
No film that features a major battle between Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ can be entirely serious, but comedy often has the sharpest edge. Goldberg says he wants to add more satirical, Lenny Bruce-style observations to the action. It will be another assault on the conventions of Jewish humor, which, he says, has fallen into a "cultural complacency."
"The Jew we’ve come to feel comfortable with is very cuddly," Goldberg, who boasts several tattoos across his upper body, contends. As an example, he cites a conversation he had over Twitter with a friend and fellow Jewish actor.
"He had tweeted how he was referred to in a review of his television show as a token Jew. Now I don’t know if the writer was Jewish, I can guess that the writer was, which to me is still part of the problem," Goldberg explained. "You know how there are certain black people who get upset when black people use the n-word, they say just because you’re black, you shouldn’t use that word, you should retire the word, while others say no, we’re owning it? There’s a more pathetic version of that in Jewish culture, where people feel like they can take the piss out of other Jews because there is a built-in sort of self-loathing or self-effacement at best I think Jewish people feel, and they can say things like ‘nice Jewish boy’ without it seeming derisive, but I happen to find those things derisive."
Goldberg, who is now 42 and grew up in Los Angeles, admits to having participated in what he labels a problematic culture, from an early age.
"When I was a kid, and I began to get anxiety attacks and I had to go see a shrink and I was lying to my friends and classmates and said I was going to the dentist -- three times a week or whatever it was -- but once I started watching Woody Allen movies more, I always watched them since I was a little kid, but I remember specifically thinking, ‘This is OK,’ and I embraced the neuroses," he remembered. "And looking back, I think there’s a very fine line between embracing the neuroses and letting it overtake you."
Allen, of course, is along with Mel Brooks the true patron saint of Jewish comedy (irony of the term noted), a small, nebbish and neurotic intellectual who gets by on wry observations and sheer willpower. He has spawned generations of imitators, with whom Goldberg has been grouped, especially for his role as Julie Delpy's boyfriend in 2 Days in Paris.
"I do think then that you go into that simulacrum world, where everybody is a Woody of a Woody of a Woody of a Woody. And I’ve been called that and I understand that," he said. "For instance, 2 Days in Paris, though those were a very autobiographical roles and it was very collaborative process to bring that to fruition, the one thing I was always arguing against is that we don’t play up my hypochondria. Julie really wanted to play up this aspect of my personality that I really didn’t want to play up, because I thought at the very least, we’ve seen it before, and I didn’t see the point of showing that again."
The Delpy subject is still a sore spot for Goldberg; he and the French actress, who wrote and directed that dialogue-heavy relationship romp through the City of Lights, had dated years before going into production, and reunited for the film before falling out of touch again. In 2012, Delpy came out with a sequel, called 2 Days in New York, but her boyfriend in the Big Apple-set flick was played by Chris Rock. Given the message of the first film -- learn to accept and embrace the faults and quirks of the person you love -- did he find it strange that they'd make a sequel without him?
"Well I can’t speak to it because I haven’t spoken to her since that movie came out, or she hasn’t spoken to me, we stopped speaking, so I have no idea whether or not, had we had been speaking, we’d have made another film," Goldberg said, with not a small amount of annoyance. "I also have no problem saying that I’ve been suing -- it’s been so long that I’ve been suing them so I can’t imagine it hurting to announce -- that I’ve been suing them because they owe me money. The whole thing turned into a fairly acrimonious affair, which is too bad because it really began in earnest. We were ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, it was a disaster waiting to happen. And the money thing has nothing to do with her. The production company refuses to admit it made more than eight dollars. ... They’re simply saying it made an eighth of what it obviously made, because otherwise they wouldn’t have made a sequel."
That Goldberg often gets typecast as the neurotic Jew is a frustration not because he does not think he possesses some of the characteristics that are abundant among that crowd, but because in his case, they come from his Catholic mother. "If you met both sides of the family, I think it would become fairly clear to you who I inherited what from. It’s a fight I have to let go of on a personal level," he said, a bit exasperated. And so he takes on the mantle of pushing back at stereotypes more than any personal misidentification, as he believes the "cuddly racism" he sees so prevalent in America can lead to a darker place.
Earlier in his career, before the internet was saturated with every spare thought and piece of information in the universe, Goldberg said he Googled himself, and found a link to a skinhead website that was complaining that he and Sarah Silverman did not have stage names.
"It was funny in a dark way. They were saying that at least Jewish performers in the past had the common sense, or the sense of shame really, to change their last name," Goldberg remembered. "But now Hollywood Jews are so proud of their semitism that they really own their last name. Which I think is very funny because I almost changed my name but I didn’t get around to it before Dazed and Confused. But it was, the Jewish performer of today is a more insidious Jew because he’s so proud of his Jewishness."
At that, he laughed. It was, if nothing else, a good case for the Hebrew Hammer.