Jewish comedy doc short on laughs

When Jews Were Funny earns its past-tense title

It’s really quite the feat that a feature-length documentary about Jewish comedy can turn out so dreadfully dry.

When Jews Were Funny could’ve perhaps even should’ve been a film with guaranteed entertainment value. Think of all the stellar Jewish comics from the last two decades alone: Andy Samberg Sarah Silverman Jon Stewart Chelsea Handler Sacha Baron Cohen Seth Green Jonah Hill Adam Sandler and of course Jerry Seinfeld.

But no such names were interviewed — let alone depicted — in the film. Instead When Jews Were Funny features the filmmaker Alan Zweig interviewing an assortment of mostly middle-aged and almost exclusively male comics about how their Jewish heritage once informed their craft. But few were shown actually performing comedy. Instead they talked about it. And talked and talked.

That omission alone could render When Jews Were Funny almost entirely skippable. Comedy can be hilarious in the moment but not so much in the analysis. What makes the film even more painful however is the fact that it simply doesn’t have a thesis; it appears that Zweig didn’t figure out what the intent of the project was.

Interview subjects realize that and call him on it from the opening credits. Shelley Berman — a Chicago-born now-88-year-old comic — quickly questions the point of the conversation noting that he doesn’t do Jewish comedy as it’s too restricting. “I cannot I will not join you in that special acceptance of Jews as the comedians” he says. Warning sign right? Nope.

Just a few minutes prior Jack Carter — the legendary comedian featured on the Ed Sullivan Show during the ’60s and ’70s — notes that “this whole interview is about Jewishness I have nothing to contribute” later clarifying the absurdity of the whole endeavour with the nightmarish comment “I have no comment here I don’t even know what you’re asking.”

Such comments are emblematic of When Jews Were Funny . There is no point to the film. The very subjects deny a coherent explanation. Granted despite a dearth of big names Zweig does a decent job of wrangling together interesting people. Still all the interviews — with the exception of the relatively interesting Mark Breslin the founder of Yuk Yuk’s — are filmed with drab backdrops in living rooms and home offices.

Interviews carry on far longer than they should. There’s no B-roll to overlay the clips or relevant archival footage to serve as a segue to the next subject. Instead we’re treated to the worst kind of talking-head film. Jokes are occasionally told by the interviewees although there’s no one except Zweig to laugh at them.

To be sure there are a few intriguing comments made. Good comedy is formed by oppressive painful circumstances says one subject. But with the accumulation of relative wealth and the diaspora of the once-tight community spread into far-flung suburbs the uniqueness of the comedy became lost argues another.

But such observations simply don’t make up for the remainder of When Jews Were Funny . This film is a product of awkwardness poor interviewing and aimlessness an endeavour that should’ve been shot down by a producer far sooner in the process. Many more parties than the audience were asleep for this one.

WHEN JEWS WERE FUNNY directed by Alan Zweig opens on Friday December 27.