So, nu? Are Jews still funny?

Alan Zweig’s documentary ‘When Jews Were Funny’ is one part history lesson, two parts conversation on assimilation

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Howie Mandel is among the funny men and women interviewed. (photo credit: Courtesy Alan Zweig)
Howie Mandel is among the funny men and women interviewed. (photo credit: Courtesy Alan Zweig)

From South Florida to the Upper West Side, America’s Jews are saying kaddish for Kutsher’s, the famed Catskills summer resort that was the final surviving notch in the Borscht Belt vacation spots beloved by New York Jews for decades.

Kutsher’s, which in coming months will be razed to make way for a upscale yoga retreat, was one of the last holdouts of those iconic warm-weather retreats, known for their schmaltzy programming, their feeling of mishpoche and their impressive line-up of schticky comedians, many of whom would go on to worldwide fame.

The stars of the Borscht Belt era, among them Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman, were undoubtedly funny. So funny, in fact, that when Alan Zweig set out to make his documentary “When Jews Were Funny” (available for digital downloads and private screenings), chronicling the golden years of Jewish humor and side-splitting spiel, he found himself exploring a much deeper issue of assimilation, modernization, and the mighty serious link between successful humor and outsider status.

“My entire life I always felt a tiny bit separate from everyone in the non-Jewish world,” says Zweig, a Toronto-based documentarian with a string of moderately successful films in his portfolio. “That’s really what the film was about. I just used the subject of humor to talk about being Jewish.”

Zweig, who grew up in Canada as a conservative Jew and became more secular after leaving home, had always felt that humor and Judaism went together as well as corned beef and rye. The Jewish humor of his parents’ generation was as much self-effacing as self-affirming, he thought, so he gathered some of the best Jewish comedians of the modern age together to question them about the concept on camera.

Unsurprisingly, the film shows as many opinions on the topic as there are interview subjects.

Some of the older comedians he questions flat-out refuse to acknowledge Zweig’s thesis. Shecky Greene and Shelly Berman are both unimpressed by Zweig’s idea that Jewish humor is its own distinct brand. Bob Einstein gets so worked up he looks as if he might sucker punch the unseen Zweig while the camera rolls.

Zweig is no ordinary documentarian. He inserts himself straight into the action, arguing on camera with his subjects and refusing to leave out potentially embarrassing scenes – the result being a film that shows one elderly comic after another shooting down the director and insisting that when they made their audiences chuckle, religion had nothing to do with it.

Alan Zweig, left, with comedian Marc Maron. (photo credit: Courtesy Alan Zweig)
Alan Zweig, left, with comedian Marc Maron. (photo credit: Courtesy Alan Zweig)

Zweig, no stranger to controversy, refuses to back down. He has more success when querying younger comics, those who were born into a generation in which Judaism was a less obvious label and racially charged humor was not only uncommon, it was downright taboo.

“Jews owned humor,” David Steinberg admits, while Howie Mandel generously offers the idea that not only have Jews always been funny, they still are.

As the film tumbles through its talking-head interviews, offering its viewers a striking, if slightly repetitive cross-section of this century’s greatest Jewish jokers, it becomes clear that Zweig is pressing his issue not so much to learn about the stars on screen but rather to learn about himself.

“When Jews were funny is a film about me,” says the 60-something Zweig, who is as curmudgeonly on the phone in an interview from his home in Toronto as he is while speaking off-screen in his film. “That’s why I’m in it … I was born in the 1950s and told directly, as I was brought up, that we were outsiders, that through most of history they have hated us.”

To be Jewish is to live in inescapable exile, and humor, Zweig says, is just another way to talk about it. It’s a signifier of something much larger and complicated that comes with the territory of our ever-complicated religion, and for the now-secular director the filmmaking process was particularly thorny and nostalgic.

“One thing I learned during filming is I like being around Jews way more than I ever would have acknowledged,” he says. “To be around people who understood what I was talking about, how I grew up – I can’t deny it gives me a very warm feeling.”

Zweig’s film offers the viewer no easy answers on the status of Jewish humor, or the strength of the link between one’s religion and one’s ability to crack a good joke. But it does make one thing quite clear: For the 70- and 80-year-old veterans of the Borscht Belt era, defining their humor by their Judaism still induces denials and squirms.

Whether comedy’s Jewish alter kakers want to admit it or not, the film seems to be telling us, there’s something distinct about Jewish humor, and even among the most assimilated Tribe members, it’s easy to spot.

“Laughter is part of the Jewish dialect,” Mandel tells Zweig in one of the more light-hearted interviews of the film.

When Zweig responds, “I don’t know where to get my hit of Jewishness because I don’t feel it from my generation,” Mandel responds by basically telling him to look more closely.

“It’s still there. We just have different accents,” he says. “Everybody that I know, they kvetch. We still kvetch, we just don’t say that word. We’re the same people. We complain, we eat, and we’re funny. Those are the three life forces of Judaism.”

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