Alan Zweig’s latest documentary When Jews Were Funny sees the aforementioned director interviewing a number of Jewish comics with a particular interest in their opinions on Judaism and its intrinsic ties to humour. Since When Jews Were Funny won the award for Best Canadian Film at 2013’s TIFF (beating out my current pick of the year Enemy) I was, naturally, quite excited for this documentary and as a large fan of stand-up comedy, I was looking forward to an exploration of how the role of Jewish comedians in 20th century America has morphed and developed over the century. Instead, I was presented with a vanity piece about a 60 year old man trying to come to terms with his Jewishness in light of the birth of his first child that just didn’t quite hit home for me, falling far short of my expectations.
The documentary, which features a number of famous Jewish comedians from the Borscht Belt to the present day including Shecky Greene, Judy Gold, Howie Mandel, Andy Kindler, and Eugene Mirman (to name a few), combines a number of question and answer style interviews (we usually only get the responses with the questions hidden from the audience, where possible) with a few classic comedy routines from some older Jewish comics – this structure feels a little scattershot and formless, especially when the film moves away from its stated thesis and more towards the exploration of Zweig’s internal conflicts (the included Rodney Dangerfield routine bears no relevance to Zweig’s struggle with fatherhood, for instance). The film strays away from conversation; Zweig focuses on long form answers in an attempt to offer insight to the Jewish condition and the root of Jewish humour.
Unfortunately, as it is presented, the premise lacks direction; Zweig fails to effectively prove or disprove the film’s stated hypothesis – that the older generation of Jews are funnier than the younger generation – by falling short of asking the important questions that would bring some clarity to the situation. Zweig opts to instead meander around, spending time on questions like ‘what is your favourite Jewish joke’ something that would be a little more forgivable if these sorts of queries weren’t competing with more pressing and relevant questions for screen time over the film’s limited 88 or so minute duration (which felt a fair bit longer as the content Zweig culled from his interviews isn’t particularly tight). In my eyes, the film’s biggest flaw is that it fast becomes much less of an exploration of the history and roots of American Jewish humour and more of an exploration of Zweig’s own anxieties and personal situation, something that I had no investment in whatsoever – although I’m sure could work for others.
It would be disingenuous to suggest the film is bad or unfunny, it isn’t. Structurally it’s sound and there are a few standout moments; footage of a few comedians (particular Bob Einstein) becoming increasingly frustrated with Zweig’s interviewing techniques was utilized to hilarious effect, it was endearing to see Marc Maron snap to full attention when the recent birth of the 61 year old director’s child was mentioned (his considerably younger girlfriend’s desire to have children is a constant internal struggle for Maron), and the credits footage is pretty special. Unfortunately, When Jews Were Funny just isn’t as good as it should be. There’s a cavalcade of great names here, some of them with very interesting things to say, but when the legendary Gilbert Gottfried fails to sneak even a little chuckle out of me the warning lights go off.
Some of you will like this; a few people I’ve spoken to enjoyed the film and the misdirection of the premise. For me, this failed to hit home – all I found was a lot of very funny people being not particularly funny, and footage that retread the same ground over and over again, wrapped up in a vanity project that did little to capture my interest or involve me in the director’s personal journey. Maybe it was because I was expecting something different – I’d probably have a little more time for this on the rewatch – unfortunately When Jews Were Funny (although admittedly structurally sound) just didn’t do it for me.
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