Return to tiff.’s home page

Canadian Film Encyclopedia

Shopping Cart

When Jews were Funny

Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: HDCAM Colour, Black and White
Runtime: 90 min

Director: Alan Zweig
Producer: Jesse Ikeman, Jeff Glickman
Writer: Alan Zweig
Cinematographer: Naomi Wise
Editor: Randy Zimmer
Music: Michael Zweig
With: Howie Mandel, Shelley Berman, Norm Crosby, Shecky Greene, Jack Carter, David Steinberg, Judy Gold, David Brenner, Gilbert Gottfreid
Production Company: Sudden Storm Entertainment

Veteran filmmaker Alan Zweig’s hilarious and touching When Jews Were Funny  -- part exploration of Jewish identity, part a causal, first person history of Jewish stand-up comedy – begins with the central question: why were so many of the comedians Zweig watched on television in the 1950s and 1960s were Jewish. Beginning with the Borscht Belt and Tin Men comedians, he follows the thread through to present day, in the process interviewing some of the most successful and influential  comics in history, including Shelly Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene, David Steinberg,  and Super Dave Osbourne (really, who knew?) – and he throws in some amazing archival footage to boot, including a phenomenal bit by the legendary  Jackie Mason. 

The interviews – some of them hysterically combative (most notably the stuff with Super Dave where Zweig as interviewer plays semi-reluctant straight man) – focus on several key questions: Did Jewish comics essentially create modern American humour? Was there a link between the comics and the average Jewish immigrant ‘s experiences? Is there still an element of the Eastern European experience in the current work?

The answers are surprising and vary significantly between generations.  The older 1940s and 1950s era comics Jack Carter, Shecky Greene and Shelly Berman – veterans of the period when assimilation was a goal – deny that their comedy reflected anything of Jewish culture, sometimes almost vehemently. With the succeeding generations though Jewish culture and experience becomes more and more prominent, something especially reflected in the work of (paradoxically) Mason, and Judy Stone, to name a few. For several of the younger comics, their biggest influences are family members, fathers, aunts, yentas. Many of the comics are amateur historians, bemoaning the loss of Yiddish and arguing about the quintessential Jewish joke.   David Steinberg splits the history in two, contrasting a period dominated by oppression and outsider status with a period of assimilation, with the former ironically fuelling richer work.

As Zweig and his subjects shuttle from the universal to the particular and back again, the movie’s real subject emerges. It isn’t isn’t so much comedy but what it means to be Jewish, both for apostate or inactive practitioners, and the more overtly devout. It’s an unanswerable question of course, but it’s one well worth exploring, especially in a movie as funny and emotionally affecting as this one.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won The City of Toronto and Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film and was later voted on to TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten list.

By: Steve Gravestock