When Jews Were Funny

… is a documentary just put up on Netflix Streaming. It’s very entertaining, rather bizarre and even slightly creepy at times. It’s an exploration into the relationship between Jews and comedy going back to Vaudeville and the resorts in the Catskills.

What makes it uncomfortable at times is the director’s interactions with his interview subjects, in particular many of the older of the comedians. Clearly many of them did not understand what he wanted from them, and he was fuzzy about it himself. In particular Shelly Berman pretty much rejected the whole concept of the film, as did Super Dave Osborn. The first minutes of the film, spent mostly with the elders, were full of denials that they were “Jewish comedians” – no, they were comedians who happened to be Jewish. And ethnic or religious humor was not part of their act, at least not explicitly.

And as the film progresses, the narrator/interviewer becomes more and more a participant of the film because the subjects challenge his ideas, reject them or can’t even understand them as initially stated.

The other area of discomfort is about the nature of Jewishness. There are lots of “us and them” comments that skirt and IMO occasionally cross the line into bigotry.

What saved it for me was that there are so many really funny people and really funny comments and jokes throughout. Also, there’s this wonderful moment of revelation for Shelly Berman, and perhaps for the director as well, where they finally get to the heart of what the point of the film is, and Shelly’s demeanor suddenly changes from confused and defensive to relaxed and smiling. And an equally great moment with Super Dave, who never warms to the subject or the director, but nevertheless recognizes the perfect closing scene for the film.

I’d never heard of this until I stumbled across it this evening, so I don’t know how many of you may have seen it, but I’d love to hear some other impressions.

“they finally get to the heart of what the point of the film is”

Which was?

Does the documentary go on about why it’s phrased in the past tense?

I liked hearing the old classic jokes. “He had a hat…”

Billy Crystal has made a career out of mimicking the old time Catskills comedians. He does other stuff too, but I really like his impressions of those older guys. Most of them had a very distinctive way of speaking.

Totally different from Jewish comedians like Moe,Shemp, and Curly Howard. Moe said in his book they were raised in an Orthodox home. Larry Fine came from a similar home background. You’d never know it hearing them speak. I didn’t know anything about their background until I read Moe’s book.

The phrase “It will mean different things to different people” comes to mind. Personally, I don’t think it much of a point, except maybe it was the director struggling to come to terms with his roots.

Because it’s largely nostalgic.

There’s a very funny bit about “Jewish rhythm” and William Shatner … and the Holocaust.

This sounds like a good companion piece to Kike Like Me (2007). I found it a little interesting, but I might need to watch it again. I thought it had a lot of potential, but the director just came off annoying.

I’ve broken the link since it contains a brief artistic shot of a woman’s bare torso. url=http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1122593/combined

I haven’t seen the film, but you’ve said most of these are very old comedians. Back in the 50s and 60s, and before, there was definitely an “us and them” attitude, but it wasn’t started by the Jews: Jews were barred from country clubs, from certain professions, from fraternal organizations, etc. One reason so many Jews went into the new entertainment industry was that it was looked down on, “nice” people didn’t do that sort of thing.

When you’re faced with bigotry, there tends to be a reaction of solidarity, and I think that’s probably what you’re sensing.

Also, of course, there was the simple bits of language, rituals, foods, etc that separate any ethnicity, and the Jewish comedians could make a joke with a Yiddish phrase that the non-Jewish population wouldn’t get.

I think this is a reasonable assessment. And the film is worth a view if you’ve got Netflix Streaming.