Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2013's When Jews Were Funny, directed by Alan Zweig.
Jason Sacks: So there was a problem with an infestation of mice in a synagogue. The place was teeming with the rodents and it was difficult to clean it up. In despair, the maintenance man went to the rebbe. "How can we get rid of the mice, rebbe?" "It's easy," the holy man replied. "Give the mice yamukles and then give them bar mitzvehs. Then we'll never see them back at Temple again."
Elkin, I don't know much about your upbringing but mine is a very typical Jewish story. My grandparents on my father's side of the family moved to America in the 1920s, one from Poland and the other from what then was called Palestine (my paternal grandfather Saul fought against the British in a Palestinian Jew liberation group). On my mother's side, her great-grandparents migrated to America from Russia and Poland.
Both sides of the family settled in East New York, in what then was a boiling soup of ethnic kids – Italian and Jewish, mostly, with some Irish and German mixed in. The grandparents all spoke Yiddish, and my parents did too (they often spoke Yiddish in front of my sister and me when they didn't want me to understand them). My maternal grandfather was apparently a runner for the Jewish Mafia before I was born. I wish I'd been able to hear his stories, but he tragically passed away, a decade before I was born, of a heart attack.
My parents had a classic ethnic upbringing, but in the years before I was born, the old ways shifted and the Jews of East New York started moving up. Some of the family moved to New Jersey and to Brooklyn; we moved to nearly-suburban Rosedale, Queens, before we moved to various different suburban communities around the country (my dad had a bit of wanderlust). We were raised ethnically Jewish, but also with secular values. We seldom celebrated Passover or Yom Kippur and sometimes traded presents on Christmas. And like with many Jewish families, the Jewish side of the bloodline ended with the third generation son, namely me, who married a shiksa and had kids with her. Though my sister now practices her religion, I grew up and remained secular.
In many ways When Jews Were Funny was all about me, or at least my family and the stories and laughs that we shared growing up. A compilation mainly of interviews with great Jewish comedians (and a few vintage performances), Alan Zweig's documentary is a kind of elegy for lost Jewishness in the entertainment industry.
This documentary celebrates the elements that made Jewish comedy special through interviews with an all-star group of comedians: Shelley Berman, Gilbert Gottfried, Shecky Green, Howie Mandel, Bob Einstein (a.k.a. Super Dave Obsborne), Judy Gold, Marc Maron and many others. Each interview partner tied their hardest to help decide what makes Jewish humor special. Some of the interview subjects are insightful (I'm now a fan of Osborne) and some are funny (I loved Shelley Berman's confusion) but all struggle with the core question of the documentary.
Elkin, I wanted very much to enjoy this film because I had hoped it would bring me closer to my heritage and bring me closer to the wonderful world of Jewish humor that my dad especially loved so much. But this film is so focused on talking heads – entertaining talking heads but talking heads nonetheless – and his attempts to get good answers to his undefined question that I was more bored than entertained. And that's a bit unforgivable in a film with these sorts of hilarious people involved with it.
Elkin: I, too, wanted to like this film for many of the same reasons you mentioned above, Sacks, but I think it fell short for different reasons than you. I'll get into that into a moment.
First, though, I just wanted to acknowledge that my ancestors came from the Russian/Polish axis, like yours, and they too (because that's what they did, I guess), settled into the Bronx and Queens areas of New York. They were hard working folk who dreamed of a better life for their children and, I'm sure, died happily that this legacy came true. Their children then started moving out a bit, into Long Island or an ill-fated run at a chicken farm. Then their children, my parents, cast astray even further as the roots spread wide across the country. I was raised in Dallas, Texas and my Jewishness was confined to a hearty dose of bar mitzvah augmented with begrudgingly sharp smatterings of Yom Kippurs, Rosh Hashanas, Passovers, and the occasional Sukkot. As I grew older, my relationship with my Jewishness waned, and, as I embraced philosophy, literature, and pop culture, dissipated pretty much entirely. The last time I was in a Temple was for my niece's bat mitzvah, and the whole thing weirded me out.
Like you, I married a shiksa and that union spawned a child so bereft of any connection with Judaism that there are times where I wonder if he's anti-Semitic.
Lately, though, due to some health problems, the passing of my maternal grandmother, and the fact that I'm that much closer to 50 years old than 40, my mind has cast around looking for certain truths that I can hold on to. Religion and heritage play into that thinking. Where have I come from? Where have I been? On a whim, I recently reread Michael Chabon's collection of short essays called Manhood for Amateurs. At the end, in a piece called “Daughter of the Commandment”, Chabon is reflecting on his own daughter's bat mitzvah and writes the following:
Now, everyone knows – sorry, Maimonides – that there really is only one Commandment and that, sooner or later, we all obey it. Toward the end of every Sabbath service, those in mourning or observing the anniversary of a parent's death rise for the ancient Kaddish, and as the parent of that day's bar or bat mitzvah, you can sit there beaming, proud, filled with love and knowing – knowing – that if you have done your job properly, it will not be long before your child will be getting up from a pew somewhere to take note in Aramaic of your own utter absence from the world.
I quote Chabon here because I think this is what When Jews Were Funny devolved into by the end of it. What started as a film trying to untie the thesis, “Are Jews naturally funny” or “Is American humor really Jewish humor” by the end waves its arms in the classic “I'm drowning “ sign and turns into Alan Zweig questioning various Jewish comedians about how he should raise his daughter – he being sixty and she being four years old and born from a non-Jewish mother.
The film turns from a universal construct to a personal plea for validation and, in that turn, turned me off. It's like I tell my students all the time as they prepare to write their essays. A finished essay is one in which the thought is complete, the argument sound, and the reasoning supported. I don't want to see discovery in your writing, your thinking is done by the time you begin.
When Jews Were Funny has no center because Zweig doesn't know what he's after. It is only when he is done that he thinks he has hit upon his question, and this makes for too bumpy of a ride. Instead of being a film in which Zweig is documenting how Jewishness has infused American humor, it turns into a highly personal plea that could only appeal to a very small segment of the audience (which, ironically, the two of us are part of). Had the film taken as its guiding question one or the other, then it would have been a satisfying viewing, by falling apart as it did it lost me entirely.
Being Jewish is all about guilt and internalization and transfer. It used to infuse our daily lives, as well as our humor. I still hear in the back of my mind, whenever the temperature drops, my grandmother saying, “I'm cold. Put on a sweater.”
That's it in a nutshell. When Jews Were Funny only scratches at this, then abandons it altogether to its detriment.
Still, it was nice to see some of the old comedians and hear one of my favorite jokes:
A Jewish lady's grandson is playing in the ocean while she is standing on the beach not wanting to get her feet wet when all of a sudden a huge wave appears from nowhere and crashes directly over the spot where the boy is playing. The water recedes and the boy is no longer there. He simply vanished. She holds her hands to the sky, screams and cries,"Lord, how could you? Have I not been a wonderful grandmother? Have I not been a wonderful mother? Have I not given to Bnai Brith? Have I not given to Haddasah? Have I not lit candles every Friday night at sunset? Have I not tried my very best to live a life that you would be proud of?”
A loud voice booms from the sky, "OKAY, OKAY!" A few seconds later another huge wave appears out of nowhere and crashes on the beach. As the water recedes, the boy is standing there, smiling, splashing around as if nothing had ever happened. The loud voice booms again "I HAVE RETURNED YOUR GRANDSON. ARE YOU SATISFIED NOW?”
She responds, "He had a hat."
Sacks: Yeshiva University decided to create a crew team. Unfortunately, they lost every race. Each day they practiced for hours but always came in dead last. Finally they sent Yankel to spy on the Harvard team. Yankel shlepped off to Cambridge and hid in the bushes off the Charles River from where he secretly watched the Harvard team practice. After two days, he returned, satisfied.
“I’ve figured out how they do it,” said Yankel to his eager teammates, huddling around him. “They have eight fellows rowing and only one fellow screaming!”
One of the truisms that my late mother (may she rest in peace) used to say was "every adult who doesn't have kids is a little bit crazy." You can amend that to include every adult who has kids very late in life because that seems to apply here as well.
As you said so well, Elkin, this movie loses its thrust. Midway through it starts being about them and starts being aboutme. My insecurities, my confusion, my struggle with being Jewish. In the end it's all about my angst rather than abouttheir angst, their struggles, their insecurities. Zweig veered too far to the personal and too far from the universal. He moved from the objective to the subjective.
In doing so, he ironically moved away from creating a film that would give him the answers that he seeked.
I do believe there are some aspects of Jewishness that are unique to our people and that have been slowly drifting away in our culture as we've become more Americanized. Your experiences and mine are eerily parallel (even down to the angst and search for meaning that we're experiencing these days – though for different reasons (and I hope you never have to deal with mental illness in your family, knock wood). And I was anxious and interested to watch Zweig explore those concepts, to help me gain enlightenment in the truths of my people by consulting a set of virtual Talmudic scholars in a set of wise and hilarious Jewish comedians.
I wanted to hear Shelley Berman's take on Jewishness rather than his befuddlement. I wanted to learn from the masters. This film promised that but in the end didn't deliver. Which is a shame because one of the great Jewish traditions is a dialectic in which people discuss topics deeply and in which nobody wins because there is no win (hey, what are we writing here?).
One last thought, from perhaps our most Jewish filmmaker, Woody Allen, and perhaps his most Jewish film, 1989's brilliant Crimes and Misdemeanors, when he has the suicidal Professor Levy say:
We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.
What's more Jewish than profound love and intense despair mixed together with a call to simplicity?
Elkin: Well, THAT and a nice piece of fish.
So where are we at with this review, Sacks? I think we were both touched by the honesty of the film insomuch as it spoke to our own timely and personal mishegas. At the same time we were both alienated by the incompleteness of this documentary. It's the classic Jewish conundrum wrapped up in the joke: Moishe and Sipka were eating at a restaurant. Moishe turned to Sipka and said, “The food here is really lousy,” to which Sipka replied, “I know, and such small portions.”
So is American comedy infused with a Jewish sensibility? Well, yes. At least it was. When I was growing up, comedians set up jokes. They pointed out the absurdities of existence, commented on inequalities, and deconstructed commonly held beliefs – be they religious, political, or social constructs. While this kind of humor is still around, you see it in things like the Daily Show or Louis or Arrested Development, a new type of humor has really begun to supplant intricacy and go for the sardonic sneer. Facebook, Tumblr, 9GAG, and Cheezburger are awash in visual oddities juxtaposed with a quick ironic commentary that, bereft of context, is as ephemeral as our attention span. We're all about memes and amirites nowadays, and while these sorts of things can make you smile, they hardly ever make you think.
Great comedy, and I'll go so far as to say Jewish comedy, made you laugh for the simple idea of “I laugh because it's true” – nowadays, I don't what you call it.
This past weekend my girlfriend and I watched some of the latest episode of Saturday Night Live and I found myself cringing or staring agape rather than laughing. I just didn't “get it”. I had no relationship to the jokes. Is this because I've grown older and, as an elder I've developed the propensity towards cranky? Have I lost my “cool” cred? Is this that “generation gap” I've heard so much about? What's that Groucho Marx joke? Something like, “I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member.”
Or is there something else at work here?
Unfortunately, When Jews Were Funny barely scrapes this question. In its unfocused spill, it misses so much of what could have made it great.
Still, while it was not what we wanted, I guess you could say, given the 2,500 or so words we've written here, it's what we needed.
Now that's funny.
Trailer for the film:
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