Saturday, March 08, 2014

WJFF ’14: When Jews Were Funny

If 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.

When 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.

However, 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 stereotypes.

If 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.

There 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.