With his newest film, When Jews Were Funny, documentarian Alan Zweig’s explores the history of Jewish comedy and its reciprocal relationship with Jewish identity. Married to a non-Jewish wife and with a new child at age 60, Zweig’s motivation is personal – a nagging and troubling sense of the loss of a distinct Jewish identity; that the very things which allowed the great Jewish comedians of old a rise to prominence are fading away due in part to their success and the resulting assimilation of Jewish sensibilities into the greater American culture.
Interviewing both contemporary comics such as Howie Mandel, Marc Maron and Judy Gold as well as remaining old-timers like Bob Einstein and Shelley Berman, Zweig takes the viewer into a world of contradictory and contrasting responses with no clear divide along gender, generational or professional lines. Is there such a thing as “Jewish” comedy? Some say yes, others vehemently no. If yes, is this style disappearing or is it simply dressed a little differently? Again, there is no clear consensus. But that’s no condemnation – these are hard questions and the answers given succeed in conveying this complexity as the conversation broadens to a deeper discussion concerning oppression, comedy and Jewish identity itself.
Including archival footage from past performers like Rodney Dangerfield and Alan King, When Jews Were Funny is at its best as a celebration of a generation of comedians connected by a common heritage. It’s funny, nostalgic and appreciative in a way that can make anyone long for the days of witty one-liners and three-piece suits. The film stutters at times when Zweig gets in his own way, but the subjects, being comedians, make the film worth watching for its off-the-cuff humor and wit, even when meandering.
And although When Jews Were Funny may be short on direct answers, it succeeds in raising the questions in an interesting and engaging light. More than just an amusing watch, which it certainly is, the film is the beginning of a conversation; one deeply personal to some yet relevant to anyone with an interest in the history of American culture.