When Jews Were Funny: Toronto Review

When Jews Were Funny Still - H 2013
Courtesy of TIFF
Doc offers many funny moments but has difficulty with coherence.

Director Alan Zweig talks to Jewish comedians young and old.

TORONTO — A comedy-nerd doc whose maker sticks with his preconceptions no matter what his interviewees say, When Jews Were Funny finds Alan Zweig kvetching about a comic sensibility he believes is nearly extinct. Though more polished and enjoyable than When Comedy Went to School, which recently covered similar ground, the doc revolves around Zweig's personality in a way that limits both its informational value and commercial appeal.

Seeming at first to be a history of Jewish comedians, the film sits down with vets including Shecky Greene and Shelley Berman. Trouble is, none of them buys his premise. "There were no Jewish comedians per se," one argues, though they will allow that Jewish audiences steered the content of the comedy presented to them: Greene claims a Jew would never laugh at that old comic staple, the man slipping on a banana.

Not getting the response he wants there, Zweig moves on to performers of his own age and younger. Here, he gets some of the answers he expects: "Jews owned humor," says David Steinberg; elsewhere we hear that "the history of 20th-century humor is Jewish. Period." Perhaps the Talmud defines centuries in some novel way, stopping the 20th midway through the 1970s and the ascendance of Richard Pryor.

As Zweig's offscreen questioning grows more off-putting and self-centered -- even younger interviewees chide him, as when Elon Gold asks, "What's the thesis of this whole piece?!" -- the film becomes more a free-form ramble about the nature of immigrant personalities, common reference points borne of shared experience, and the sound of old men slurping soup. Along the way some very funny people tell some great jokes and make good points, but any promise of a comprehensive picture of how Jews invented stand-up evaporates.

When he's ready to wrap up, Zweig returns to his Shelley Berman interview, where -- after visibly bristling at a line of questioning Zweig won't give up -- Berman unexpectedly sings a beautiful, mournful Yiddish song. It's not funny at all, but it certainly speaks to the film's theme of a culture that has almost receded into history.

Production Company: Sudden Storm Entertainment

Director-Screenwriter: Alan Zweig

Producers: Jesse Ikeman, Jeff Glickman

Executive producers: Perry Rosemond, Ted Fass

Director of photography: Naomi Wise

Music: Michael Zweig

Editor: Randy Zimmer

Sales: The Film Sales Company

No rating, 88 minutes