Once upon a time, Jews were funny. You'd turn on Ed Sullivan, and some Ashkenaz from the Lower East Side would be kvetching about his wife (please), or slyly kibitzing about slurping soup in a deli.
Alan Zweig's documentary makes a bold claim, that 20th Century American comedy is Jewish comedy. Born from Yiddish theatre during the vaudeville age, its the almost Talmudic cadence of performance born from Eastern European immigrants that provides an almost musical delivery to standup comedy. Think of the rhythm of an Alan King, a Rodney Dangerfield, or a Seinfeld, and you get a sense of the Jewish DNA in what generations have considered funny.
It's an incredibly Jewish thing to be obsessed about being Jewish (see this
for one of many of my own example), and the documentary does serve this kind of metanarative purpose. At its core, it's the story of the 60 year old Zweig trying to find the essence of Jewishness as a kind of love letter to his newborn (and non-Jewish) daughter.
Through a series of talking head interviews and groan worthy, Catskills-era jokes, Zweig amasses an impressive array of Jews to talk about their Jewy-ness. Old cats such as Shecky Greene talk about being funny, but how they never wore their religion on their sleeves. Others, like Bob "Super Dave" Einstein, Howie Mandel or Gilbert Gottfried, are much more open about how whatever they do there's a little of the whiff of Jewishness in what they do.
The greater point of the documentary has less to do with the humour, but the very epistemological foundation for what constitutes this culture. As it pointed out, we're a loud population for only 12 million globally, and it's part of that loudness that has been both a strength and a cause for strife. Comedy impresario Mark Breslin makes the dramatic conclusion that through overcoming various waves of genocide, Jews have been "bred" to intelligence and wit, and this comes out in the form of verbal repartee.
Whether this is factually defensible, it does illustrate well the self-obsession and neurosis of a generation of Jews. It should also be made explicit that the very notion of what Zweig things of as "Jewish" is a very narrow one - these are a series of Sephardic comedians, or the Abyssinian "falasha", or even Israelis. These are a group of people descended from a small community that immigrated to small areas of New York city, bringing with them their dialects, their cuisine, and their humour.
Zweig's film illustrates that without the struggle of these immigrants as a people it has changed what is is to be Jewish. Zweig is a Jew, and an old man, but he is not the Old Jewish man of his youth, not the slurping stereotype that he seems on a Quixotic quest to find the root of.
Zweig's documentaries are often showcases for him trying to come to terms with something about his own personality, and this kind of autotherapeutic narrative is very much at play here. Behind the more strident or shocking revelations made by some of his participants is a very real sense of how there's no general consensus on either Jewishness or what constitutes the nature of humour.
It's hard to say how this will play to an International, "goyish" audience, but I'd suggest there's more universal meaning here than might be witnessed on first go 'round. First, it provides a genuinely interesting perspective on how these Jews see themselves, how our own self-obsessions are often universal obsessions. The film illustrates overtly both the best and worst qualities usually attributed to Jews as a group, but does so with great kindness and caring. There's a genuine sense of discovery with this film, and while some of it may smack of supremicism, it's not hard to see the background from which some of these claims are made, accurately or no.
I would have liked to have heard from other comedians from that era, heard from a Cosby or Pryor or Foxx whether they felt what they were doing was part of the same Semitic-style conversation. This, alas, is not that movie. I still think some of the film could have been tightened up, and it sometimes slipped into repetition.
On the whole, I think When Jews Were Funny
is a strong testament to a lost age, a kind of elegy to the self-deprecation and introspection that certainly shaped in a major way modern comedy. For such a serious film, it's also extremely funny, with a few jokes that may be as dry and tough as overcooked brisket, but they'll still make you laugh. It's premise is purposely flawed and provocative, but its execution is certainly engaging.