Film: When Jews Were Funny (2013)

February 20, 2014 | By

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Film: Very Good / DVD Transfer:  n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Documentary

Synopsis: Alan Zweig examines the possible loss of culture between aging Jewish comedians and their younger counterparts in this sometimes hysterically funny documentary.

Special Features: n/a




Documentarian Alan Zweig (Vinyl, I, Curmudgeon) tackles the subject of humour from a highly personal vantage using three key questions: Is there a distinction between the humour from Jewish and non-Jewish comedians? Is there something unique and special about being Jewish which has heavily shaped the qualities of comedy in popular North American entertainment since the twenties? And as older generations of comedians pass away, are both humour and Jewish culture being drained of their vitality?

The answers he receives from a bevy of veteran and contemporary comedians may have been more varied than expected, and perhaps more critical of his stance: an older generation may tangibly lament a sense of diminishing cultural elements – food, language, extended family relationships – but others argue these have been differently absorbed and adapted by younger comedians.

Jack Carter (who’s still working at 90) dismisses himself as a being Jewish comedian, emphasizing that regardless of what cultural aspects may have been present in his humour, in the WASP America of the 1950s, jokes had to be broad. Fellow contemporary Shelley Berman similarly weighs Zweig’s view before kind of accepting that there may be a slight relationship between humour and culture, whereas Yuk Yuk’s Mark Breslin feels humour comes from tension and struggle – European Jews who rebuilt their lives after emigrating to America and Canada – but human and social struggle alone aren’t specific to any one culture or generation.

Zweig’s interview subjects span several generations, and they’re all sharp social commentators, and while the director sometimes strains to extract some schadenfreude from his subjects, not everyone gives in to a little sadness. Howie Mandel’s view, for example, is one of celebration and pride, and how the shifting nature of culture can never remain fixed in a time period.

The gallery of subjects is sometimes mind-boggling – When Jews Were Funny is filled with some major comedy legends – but even with so many luminaries Zweig’s film runs far too long, and the placement of some interviews within the film’s narrative is uneven. Thematically, it’s a well-structured film, but by the hour mark everything that should’ve been discussed is done, and the final twenty minutes lag.

As a cultural examination, Zweig’s subjects offer articulate, ground-level views that are edifying and undoubtedly heartwarming to certain generations, and unsurprisingly, the quirks of human behaviour are funny because they’re not exclusive to any single culture. Zweig’s doc, though, proves how Jewish comedians have enriched the way we view the ridiculous, the absurd and the annoying, and manage to survive with a smile.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan


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