Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Jazz of Melancholy: Alan Zweig's When Jews Were Funny

Norm Crosby and Alan Zweig in When Jews Were Funny
In his book The Haunted Smile, Lawrence J. Epstein talks about Jewish comedy as if it were perched at the edge of an abyss. "Their stage style is tinged with sadness," Epstein writes. "It is haunted by the Jewish past, by the deep strains in American Jewish life to be strained – the desire to be accepted and the concern for a culture disappearing – by the centuries of Jewish life too frequently interrupted by hate, and by the knowledge that too often for Jewish audiences a laugh masked a shudder." In the new documentary When Jews Were Funny, director Alan Zweig gets caught up in his own personal quest for the comic sources of that shudder. By turning to an older generation of Jewish comedians – including Shelley Berman, Norm Crosby, Jack Carter and Sheckey Greene – Zweig seeks to identify what makes their work particularly Jewish in nature.

But if you're at all familiar with Zweig's other documentaries, such as Vinyl and I, Curmudgeon, you know that he isn't drawn dispassionately to compelling subjects such as this one. Zweig brings his own personal obsessions into his work, as well as a scabrous intensity that scratches wounds barely under the surface of the skin of his pictures. Which is why When Jews Were Funny is not only about the dread beneath the gag, it's also about Zweig's own discomfiting search for what made the Jewish comics of his youth so funny; that is, was it their Jewishness, or was it something else? It's about the fears of becoming "an old Jew," someone predominantly characterized by the mask worn to disguise that shudder, to which Zweig (who is now 60 and a recent father) gives grave consideration. Not surprisingly, some comedians, like Howie Mandel and Gilbert Gottfried, jump into the fire that Zweig sets, while others (like Shelley Berman and Bob Einstein) dance uneasily around the tips of the flames.

film director Alan Zweig
When comedian David Steinberg tells Zweig that oppression helps Jewish humour while assimilation hurts it, he's on to something that lies (although not fully explored) at the core of the film. If Jewish success in America, especially in the case of the Hollywood moguls who built what Neal Gabler called "an empire of their own," was predicated on creating a fantasy culture of inclusion, it came with the Jewish guilt of abandoning their heritage (a story acted out in The Jazz Singer and expressed unwittingly by some of Zweig's subjects). But Steinberg seems to be telling us that what better way to take away the pain of that guilt, and even conceal it, than through humour? The comedy of shame, guilt and denial has, of course, taken many forms. For instance, Groucho Marx's daughter was once denied access to a gentile club where she wanted to go swimming. Groucho famously replied that he wouldn't belong to any club that would have someone like him for a member – adding that since his daughter was only half-Jewish, could she not go into the pool up to her waist?

When the young Jewish teenagers in Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights (1999) face a sign barring them from access to a public pool in mid-Fifties Baltimore ("No Jews, dogs or coloreds allowed") they turn it into a gag. One of them questions how the order on the list was arrived at. Why did Jews come first, for example? On what grounds? Another poses a more logical question: What would happen if a dog showed up at the pool? Would he read the sign and then leave? The paranoia of gentile aggression, shared by more contemporary Jewish comedians including Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, aren't of interest to Zweig in When Jews Were Funny. He is drawn to the earlier age of Jewish comics who couched their hostility in gags about their wives, as Catskills comics like Henny Youngman did, or harmlessly joked about getting no respect, like Rodney Dangerfield.

comedian Howie Mandel
Although Alan Zweig doesn't back away from the uneasiness of the material in When Jews Were Funny, he doesn't provide enough illustrations to either illuminate or provide contrast to what his subjects are saying. (The film is terribly short on source material, relying – perhaps due to cost – on only a few archival TV performances. These decisions leave the picture tonally banal with a collection of talking heads occasionally being interrupted by TV footage.) When Howie Mandel talks about how Jews "squeeze pleasure" into their life experience, you want to see examples of how this fits into the comic material of their work. Zweig instead moves on to the next comic. Impresario Mark Breslin describes Jewish comedy as "the jazz of melancholy" and you get hungry for that kind of mordant riffing, only Zweig carries on with his continuous probing. It's also a shame that Zweig has left out a number of notable female Jewish comics like Joan Rivers and Sarah Silverman. It's true that he does include Judy Gold and Cory Kahaney, but when they raise the imposing spectre of the Jewish mother, Zweig doesn't delve very far into why they do, or how she becomes this looming figure for these comics.

When Jews Were Funny has such a rich subject that it's a shame the movie isn't better. Alan Zweig's own personal questions about what it means for him to be Jewish have clearly motivated the film, but he hasn't fully pondered the significance of his questions. Mark Breslin is right when he says that the history of twentieth century comedy is Jewish, and he goes even further when he says that winning that prize has also spelled a crisis for Jewish comedy. In When Jews Were Funny, Alan Zweig is clearly uneasy about the prize that's won. Though he puts his finger on that very crisis in Jewish humour, his film doesn't go far enough in unmasking it.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.                               

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