When Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig was a child, his parents told him that Jews were outsiders and that was the way of the world.
However, when he watched The Ed Sullivan Show, he noticed that frequently the comics appearing on that program were Jewish. Zweig wanted to know why Jews were the kings of stand-up comedy in a society unkind to their faith.
“That was a huge paradox,” Zweig said in an interview. “If they hate us, why do they think we’re so hilarious? Why are we dominating this field? I wondered this my whole life.”
Zweig explores these questions with the help of more than a dozen celebrated Jewish comics in his new documentary, When Jews Were Funny, which just screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
In the film, Zweig sits down to interview several Jewish comics of today (notably Judy Gold, Howie Mandel and Marc Maron) and yesterday (like Shelley Berman and Shecky Greene), searching for answers.
He wants to know what made Jews such a potent comic force during his youth, and if that same vitality exists today.
In When Jews Were Funny, the older comics explain that up until the 1970s, it was not “in” to tell Jewish jokes. As strangers in a strange land, they had to adapt to the audience’s needs and assimilate their culture.
Comedy was a tool for Jews to express their powerlessness and intelligence, Yuk Yuk’s founder Mark Breslin says in the film. The alienation of the Jewish experience could spawn jokes where cynicism and sarcasm reeled in big laughs.
When Rodney Dangerfield remarked that he got “no respect,” there was a truth behind it; however, it is also telling that those words were part of his famous shtick.
Zweig uses the subjects of his films as a way to explore his own dilemmas and problems. When Jews Were Funny explores the director’s conflicted relationship with his faith, since he says comedy is what he loved most about growing up as a Jew.
Judaism did not appeal to Zweig much as a child, and he moved away from this heritage as an adult. “I felt coerced by my father [to be a devout Jew]. I don’t blame him. I went to Hebrew school four days a week, two hours after school, and then I went to Jewish summer camp,” he says.
“But it’s not like I don’t connect to it. If I’m at my sister’s seder or if it’s Chanukkah and I bring my daughter and they light the candles, those tunes… that’s all in my head. I still have a feeling for it. Being around Jews, the Jewish attitude toward life, the way Jews talk – what others might consider negativity, the world-weary withering sarcasm – I love all that.”
He also recalls the influence his parents had on his sense of humour. He says he loved watching his father’s favourite comics, Alan King and Buddy Hackett, perform.
Comedy was also a shared pride between Zweig and his mother. “My mother is very old-fashioned compared to my father. My mother and I didn’t share much of the same taste in anything,” Zweig says. “But somebody told me that ‘He had a hat’ joke and I was like, ‘Thank you. I’m going to tell that joke to my mother.’
“The next time I was home, I told my mother that joke. She laughed exactly like I hoped she would and it’s one of my favourite memories of my mother.”
Zweig had a wish list of around 40 Jewish comics he wanted to interview for the film, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman. His top choice was Mel Brooks, whom he cites as “the reason I knew there was such a thing as Jewish humour.”
Although many current stars were unavailable, he says it was still a joy to meet some of his heroes. “Whoever thought they would meet Shecky Greene? I was completely starstruck by [him],” he says. “It was just fun to hang out with Jews and talk about being Jewish.”
The doc is also Zweig’s third film to premiere at TIFF, and his first in 24 years. In 1989, he premiered a fiction short called Stealing Images, which won the festival’s Best Canadian Short Film award.