I initially saw When Jews Were Funny at TIFF, and wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. On the outside it looked like a failed documentary: one that doesn’t seem to ask the questions it wants to, and winds up bumbling about, mildly aggravating some of its subjects. Many discussions ensued with fellow Jews who had seen the film, both religious and secular. Opinions varied wildly, but the consensus, and my personal opinion, is that this film does something very special. What began as a look at the history of Jewish comedians and Jewish humour, quickly transforms into a dialogue on contemporary Judaism. Writer and director Alan Zweig has made a film about what it means to be Jewish now, and how drastically that definition has shifted over decades.
Zweig interviews some legends in the industry. From Shelley Berman and Shecky Green to Judy Gold and Gilbert Gottfried, he covers a broad spectrum of generations. Speaking eloquently and at times defensively on Judaism, Jewish humour, and humour in general, we’re given a wide array of opinions. The older generations shy away from labeling their comedy as Jewish, while, as the generations grow younger, they seem to wear their Judaism on their sleeve.
It’s about an identity we haven’t quite yet grown into. One of the fundamental rules of comedy, which is discussed prominently in the film, is that humour is born from oppression. With assimilation and comfort comes its death knell. This is at the root of the shift away from classic Jewish humour. It’s also at the heart of much of Zweigs seemingly vague thesis. We’re no longer oppressed in the same way that birthed much of our cultural identity as Jews. As a result, our humour is changing, and with it, that identity.
It’s here that When Jews Were Funny shifts from documentary to more heart-felt, personal exploration. Zweig, who remains off screen asking his stumbling questions, is in his 60’s, married to a non-Jewish woman, with whom he’s recently had his first child. His questions progressively shift from the simplistic “is your comedy Jewish?” to the more complex problems of what will make us Jewish when our humour is lost? How should he raise his daughter, and is he coping with some latent guilt over not marrying a fellow Jew?
His questions can’t possibly be answered by the comedians he interviews, and to an extent he’s aware of this. That’s not the point. The end goal seems to be to paint a picture of the shifting definition of the culture of Judaism, not the religion. How do we define ourselves now that the Old Jews no longer exist? If our humour dissipates, will we lose the most integral parts of our identity? These are all valid and surprisingly profound questions and fears, some of which are felt quite strongly by younger generations.
We are struggling to cope with a shift in our cultural identity, and Zweig has his finger on that pulse. When Jews Were Funny, as a result, is a very niche film. But, in spite of this, it serves as an ode to Jewish humour, and a somber nod to a nearly extinct art form.When Jews Were Funny starts its theatrical run at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema tonight, Friday, November 15th at 6:30pm. Visit their website for select dates until December 1st.