"When Jews were funny" is a new documentary by Alan Zweig
that describes itself as a history of Jewish comedy. I wanted to watch it
because the protagonist of my soon-to-be-published novel, The Violet Crow, uses
a lot of Jewish shtick. You see, my character, Bruno X, is a psychic detective.
For this he takes a lot of grief: "How do you do it?" "Are you a fake?" "You
must have committed these crimes yourself…" To keep his critics off balance, Bruno
adopts a persona that relies on Mad Magazine Yiddish and recycled Borsht Belt
routines. As a detective, he’s soft-boiled at best. But somehow–luck?
intuition? a little bit of magic?–Bruno gets the job done.

Not surprisingly then, I loved "When Jews were funny." Don’t
be scared by the word history. It’s not history. It’s a series of interviews
with dozens of Jewish comedians. Some of them are old. Like Shelly Berman and
Shecky Green. And they remember stuff from the old days. Some of them got to be
so old, they are no longer with us. So we see "historical" videotapes of Jackie
Mason and Henny Youngman performing classic bits.

Alan Zweig plays the straight man as interviewer. Either
that, or he’s naturally a shlimazl. (The shlimazl is the guy the shlemiel
spills the soup on). He asks the comics really stupid questions: "Is Jewish
comedy dead?" And they react.

Or, he tells them why he’s making the movie. It seems Mr.
Zweig is now in his early sixties and he’s worried about his daughter…

"What is she in college?"

"No, she’s two."

"Two! So what’s the problem?"

"Well, I’m afraid the old Jewish comedy won’t be there for
her when she’s older…"

You can see the different comics’ faces contort as they try
to figure out just what kind of meshugge they’re dealing with. They ask
questions: "Do you take her to synagogue?" No."Jewish camp?" No. Then finally, "Is
your wife Jewish?"

"No. She’s 34. From Croatia…"

More facial contortions. And then…they tell him a joke.

Shelly Berman even sang him a song. In Yiddish.

Brilliant. Entertaining. Not violent.

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