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Jewish Comedians: End of an Era?

As a boy, Alan Zweig, 60, wondered why virtually every comedian he watched on television, from George Burns to Jack Benny, seemed to be Jewish. It has taken him a long time to figure out the riddle, but now he thinks he has the answer.

In his documentary, When Jews Were Funny, whose world premiere took place at the Toronto International Film Festival, Zweig examines this intriguing cultural phenomenon.

George Burns
George Burns

He interviews comedians ranging from Jack Carter and David Steinberg to Mark Breslin and Howie Mandel, all of whom are Jewish. He also inserts archival clips of classic Jewish comedians – Alan King and Jackie Mason, to cite but two – in high performance mode.

As Zweig delves deeper into the topic, his film becomes more than just an examination of Jewish comedians in the United States and Canada. It turns into a meditation, if you will, on the importance of roots and the nature of Jewish identity.

Interestingly enough, the oldest comedians emphasize that they downplayed their Jewish background when they first started out in the business. “I didn’t consider myself a Jewish comedian per se,” says Norm Crosby. “We didn’t do that then.”

One of his colleagues concurs: “I prefer not to be thought of as a Jewish comedian.”

According to Carter, Yiddish gave Jewish humor a “special slant.” Ed Crasnick believes that this brand of humor is really all about rhythm of speech. To Judy Gold, however, stereotypical Jewish mothers are at its core.

Steinberg claims that Jews have a knack for finding humor in the “worst situation imaginable.” ┬áTaking Steinberg’s comment a step further, David Brenner recalls a piece of sage advice his father once gave him: there is something funny in everything.

In an apt observation, Steinberg adds that oppression is the incubator of Jewish humor, while assimilation is its death knell. Breslin argues that Jewsish humor springs from powerlessness and alienation. Mandel agrees, saying it’s derived from darkness, pain and, he points out, a proclivity for questioning the status quo.

All in all, a viewer is left with the impression that the golden age of Jewish comedy may already have passed us by.

When Jews Were Funny is a credible contribution to our understanding of a niche sub-group in the world of entertainment. But Zweig’s film lacks historical context and is somewhat too long. The services of a ruthless editor would have helped.