Although Jewish people represent only 0.2 per cent of the world’s population—according to a Hebrew University of Jerusalem study—they hold a much larger portion of social attention when it comes to comedy. Director Alan Zweig made the documentary When Jews Were Funny to investigate why Jewish people have been so famously humorous throughout the 20th century in the United States. The film does not give any definitive answers, but does offer funny ones, as Zweig interviews various Jewish comedians between the ages of 30 and 80, ranging from Howie Mandel to Bob Einstein.
This documentary feels like an E! channel special where a panel of comedians give their opinion on a celebrity or current event, except it lasts a full hour-and-a-half, and all of the comedians constantly refer to the fact that they are Jewish. By featuring only comedian interviews and short clips from Jewish 60s stand-up acts, the repetitive documentary loses any ability to engage the audience beyond the substance of the interview responses. During the entire film, the camera never moves—it is always the same distance from every comedian’s face. This static approach gets boring well before the 90-minute mark.
However, the film is not meant to be a visual spectacle; it focuses on the content of the dialogue, which ranges over many topics while remaining firmly centred on Jews. The inclusion of two generations of Jewish-American comedians brought some interesting disparities to light. Older comedians don’t see any connection between their Judaism and comedy, while the current generation attributes all of their success to their Jewish upbringing and lifestyle. The comedians’ responses to the same questions vary quite significantly, some making light of dark periods of Jewish history while others express strong outrage at any hint of anti-Semitism. Some do not see any pattern of Jews being funnier than anybody else, while others see humor as fundamental to Jewish life as food.
Due to the documentary’s narrow topic and fairly homogenous cast, it sometimes shifts into awkward territory. The film increasingly makes borderline anti-Semitic Jewish jokes or stereotypes as it progresses, while using the term “we” as if to reassure the viewer. However, these comments made me, a non-Jew, uncomfortable, knowing that if I ever repeated any of these jokes, I would immediately be branded as racist.
Judy Gold, one of the comedians interviewed, says it’s fine to say anything as long as it’s funny—and the comedians are amusing. Obviously their humour is evident while telling jokes, but it also seeps through when they are answering serious questions. Over the course of the film, each comedian tells their favorite “Jewish joke,” which are amusing and help to illustrate the culture this film hopes to explain.
There is no final opinion on what, if anything, makes Jews funnier than any other ethnicities. But there is a deep exploration of the psyches of over a dozen Jewish people in the entertainment business, a format that isn’t necessarily enlightening, but is interesting nonetheless.
When Jews Were Funny does not produce any startling information. Is not particularly well-shot, and offers no surprises. It seems to simply be a film where Jews can talk about being Jewish. For anybody deeply interested in modern Jewish culture or willing to watch a 90-minute film for a dozen good jokes, this film could be worth checking out. Otherwise, it’s flat, repetitive, and frankly, a little bit offensive.
When Jews Were Funny was originally released on Sept. 10 and makes its Montreal debut from Nov. 25 to Dec. 5 at Cinema du Parc (3575 Parc). Student tickets are $8.50.