you take the comic out of the Catskills, do you take the Catskills out of the
comedy? That is sort of the question Alan Zweig will ask several generations of
Jewish comedians. Opinions will vary in documentarian Zweig’s When Jews Were Funny (trailer here), which screens
today and tomorrow at the 2014 Washington Jewish Film Festival.
Ed Sullivan ruled the airwaves, all the best comics were Jewish—or at least
that is how Zweig remembers it. Essentially, he proceeds to prompt a number of
comedians to confirm his presumptions that there is something about the Jewish
experience that makes those of their shared faith more apt to embrace comedy as
a means of dealing with personal and collective adversity. Yet, that particularly
Jewish brand of humor has largely shaped the comedy of the mass media age.
senior comedians like Shelley Berman and Jack Carter have no idea what Zweig is
talking about. They just happened to be comedians who were Jewish and spoke
Yiddish fluently. In contrast, comedians from Zweig’s generation, like David
Steinberg and David Brenner, are completely on his wavelength. The various younger generations line-up all
over the place, such as Marc Maron, who basically argues Zweig is fetishizing Jewish
that sounds awkward, it is nothing compared to Zweig’s “interview” with Alan “Super
Dave Osbourne” Einstein, who appears to be on the verge of coming to blows with
the filmmaker (if it’s a bit, he sells it brilliantly). In fact, part of the charm of WJWF is listening to Zweig break every
possible rule of documentary filmmaking. His questions are often vague and repetitive,
his preparation is dubious, and he personalizes everything, all of which is
rather conducive to comedy.
are a few archival clips here and there, but Zweig mainly trusts his interview
subjects to keep things interesting, which is ironic considering how little
faith many of them have in his concept. Yet, despite or because of all that, WJWF is consistently funny and highly
watchable, especially by talking head standards.
As an authoritative study of the
cultural-religious roots of comedy, WJWF is
a train wreck, but it is a highly entertaining and appealingly messy catalyst
for a lot of riffing and joke-telling. Even Howie Mandel is funny at times. Recommended
for those who appreciate an old school comedy fix, When Jews Were Funny screens tonight (3/8) and tomorrow (3/9) as
part of the2014 WJFF.
Labels: Alan Zweig, Canadian Cinema, Documentary, WJFF '14