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Insightful and often hilarious, the latest from documentary filmmaker Alan Zweig surveys the history of Jewish comedy, from the early days of Borsht belt to the present, ultimately exploring not just ethnicity in the entertainment industry, but also the entire unruly question of what it means to be Jewish.
Acclaimed documentary maker Alan
Zweig's When Jews Were Funny begins
with a question: Why were so many of the
comedians Zweig watched on television
in the 1950s and 1960s Jewish? From the
Borscht Belt scene through to present day,
Zweig presents a casual, first-person history
of Jewish stand-up, unearthing some
amazing archival footage (there's a phenomenal
bit by the legendary Jackie Mason)
and interviewing some of America's most
successful and influential comics, including
Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky
Greene, David Steinberg, and Super Dave
Osborne. (Really, who knew?) The conversations
are at times hilariously combative,
most notably the stuff with Bob Einstein
(a.k.a. Super Dave) where Zweig as interviewer
plays semi-reluctant straight man.
Along the way, the film tackles several key
themes: Did Jewish comics essentially
create modern American humour? What
was the link between the comics and the
average Jewish immigrant? Is there still an
element of the Eastern European experience
in Jewish comedy today?
The answers are surprising. Veterans
of the 1940s and 1950s, an age when
assimilation was a goal, deny, sometimes
vehemently, that their comedy reflected anything of Jewish culture. For several of
the younger comics, their biggest influences
are family members, fathers, aunts,
yentas. Many bemoan the loss of Yiddish,
while arguing about the quintessential
As Zweig and his subjects shuttle from
the universal to the particular and back
again, the movie's real subject isn't so much
comedy but what it means to be Jewish.
It's an impossible question to answer, of
course. But it's also one well worth exploring,
especially in a movie as funny and
heartfelt as this one.
- Alan Zweig
- Alan Zweig was born and educated
in Toronto. After working in the film
industry as a writer, producer, director
and actor for twenty-five years, he
found his niche directing documentaries.
His films include Vinyl (00);
Family Secrets (03); I, Curmudgeon
(04); Lovable (07); A Hard Name
(09); which won the Genie Award for
Best Documentary; and When Jews
Were Funny (13).