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TIFF 2013: Director Alan Zweig Talks New Documentary, ‘When Jews Were Funny’

‘When Jews Were Funny’, which debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival, explores the history of Jewish comedy, and ultimately what it means to be Jewish in the present day.

By: Anthony Marcusa
Published: September 6th, 2013 in Culture » Film » Interviews
Alan Zweig

Alan Zweig is concerned. He’s worried that his daughter won’t have the same Jewish experience and upbringing that he had, and it’s not for the sake of trying – it’s just gone.

That is not his only troubling notion though – Zweig is bothered that perhaps Jewish comedic identity is fading. His documentary, When Jews Were Funny, which is making its debut at The Toronto International Film Festival, asks the questions, sometimes confusingly, why were so many comedians of the 50’s and 60’s Jewish?

“I had no answer to that, and I was curious. I wondered if that was coincidence or if there was really an explanation that made sense,” said Zweig during a phone interview ahead of the festival. “I don’t know if it started with one question or multiple questions, but it was basically, all the comedians seemed to be Jewish when I was a kid, so what’s that got to do with me.”

A documentarian known for often making his work personal and relating the topic to himself, sought out answers to what it means to be a Jewish comedian, and whether or not what took place decades ago could still happen today. The answers he got varied greatly, with different generations offering some very different answers.

Zweig interviews comics from the 50’s and 60’s, and they all, especially Shelley Berman, deny that there was a Jewish identity to their work. Younger comedians that Zweig talks to, however, have a much different perspective.


Howie Mandel in 'When Jews Were Funny'

“They had no idea what I was talking about, they didn’t want to talk about being Jewish,” said Zweig of Berman, Shecky Greene, and Jack Carter, among others, who were the first Zweig talked to. “They changed the film a bit to be more about, am I crazy for making this film and thinking what I was thinking? Am I clutching at straws?”

These interviews are especially illuminating, as are the ones with Bob Einstein and Howie Mandell, the former of which challenges Zweig as to exactly what he is trying to figure out. Several others do the same, turning the film towards Zweig, who is clearly on a more personal journey than it seems.

“It was the people I was interviewing that noticed I kept bringing up my daughter,” explained Zweig. “I thought I could make this film without rooting it in something personal, but I concluded that wouldn’t have been the best way to tell a story.”

Zweig attended Hebrew school four days a week as a child, living in a neighbourhood where everyone was Jewish, referring to himself as having been ‘thoroughly marinated’ in Jewish life and culture. Too, he had lots of Jewish comics to influence him, whether or not they declared outright their Judaism. “When Bob [Einstein] says that Super Dave Osborne is Jewish, it’s like, exactly! Just because Super Dave isn’t Jewish doesn’t mean to me that he wasn’t born from a Jewish sensibility. He’s a schlemiel!”

What, however, will come of his daughter, only a toddler now, growing up in a far more diverse culture, one where she likely won’t hear Yiddish and have the same schooling? Zweig wonders if there is something being lost from generation to generation, perhaps due to the fact that there is less hardship today than there was 50 years ago.

As a filmmaker, Zweig is very satisfied with the results, creating an interesting, insightful, and of course humorous documentary filled with some notable Jewish comedians. While he would have liked to have had certain guests that could not make it, such as Mel Brooks and Sarah Silverman for example, the answers he got were diverse, and most everyone offers up their version of the typical Jewish joke.

As a Jewish man and father, though, he may not have quite the same satisfaction. “The thing I wanted is going away; the answers I got were, it’s going away, and here is why,” says Zweig of this sort of Jewish identity and culture he grew up with. “My parents are gone, my grandparents are gone, but they tell me there are remnants here and there and you can still connect to that to some degree.”

In fact, by delving into the past, Zweig got to experience the Jewish jokes and sensibilities he so wants back. While things change, Zweig, and others, had this chance to look back and reflect on humor bred from despair and hardship, and jokes that are timeless and hysterical.

When Jews Were Funny premieres on September 9th at 9:15pm at Scotiabank Theatre.

Find out more about When Jews Were Funny at www.whenjewswerefunny.com or on Twitter @FunnyJewsDoc.

Related articles: TIFF, Toronto International Film Festival, Alan Zweig, When Jews Were Funny, Howie Mandel, Debut, Documentary
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