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Documentarian discovers assimilation has taken oppression-fuelled heart out of Jewish comedy

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David Brenner in Alan Zweig's documentary 'When Jews Were Funny.'

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David Brenner in Alan Zweig's documentary 'When Jews Were Funny.'

Kvetch: to grumble and complain about things all the time.

Somebody incessantly complaining. Via Yiddish Kvetsh (noun) and kvetshn (verb)

-- Encarta World English Dictionary


Not to put too fine a point on it, but Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig is a kvetch. He even made a documentary about this tendency back in 2004: I, Curmudgeon, which featured interviews with superstar complainers including Andy Rooney, Harvey Pekar and Fran Lebowitz.

For some reason, he says, his complaining has always been a great source of amusement.

"I never quite understood why people laughed when I complained," Zweig says on the phone from Toronto. "I accepted it because it happened so often. But every time it happened, I'd say: 'Why are you laughing? Why is this funny? I'm sincerely complaining.'

"So the idea that you could complain about your life and that was funny, that only really became clear to me during the making of this film."

"This film" is When Jews Were Funny, Zweig's sixth feature doc. On one level, it examines the specifically kvetch-y roots of Jewish comedy as it pertained to Zweig's youth in the mid-20th century, when the TV airwaves were filled with a populace of mostly Jewish comics including Alan King, Shecky Greene, Shelley Berman, Norm Crosby, Jack Carter, David Steinberg and David Brenner.

But because it's helmed by the introspective Zweig, the film has a more personal undercurrent. Three years ago, while in his early 60s, Zweig became the father of a little girl, and he became distressed that his daughter will miss out on the Jewish legacy of humour that, for him, is slowly disappearing.

To examine the cultural roots of Jewish comedy, Zweig interviewed a host of comics, including Berman, Crosby and Carter (all of whom resist Zweig's premise that their comedy was rooted in their Jewishness) and more contemporary practitioners such as Howie Mandel, Marc Maron, Gilbert Gottfried and Elon Gold, who prove more sympathetic to Zweig's thesis.

"Shelley Berman and Jack Carter were some of the first people I interviewed and those were the two who really pushed back hard," Zweig says. "But I wasn't rattled. Jack Carter disagreed with the idea that his humour was Jewish, and as he disagreed with it, his denial was so Jewish, that's all I cared about.

"It was a demonstration of Jewish humour, Jewish character, Jewish culture, and I cared more about that than whether people agreed with me," he says.

It should not be surprising that many of the film's interviewees are smart and well-spoken. (Comedians are almost invariably the best interview subjects.) But some of the film's unexpected delights are in seeing guys like Mandel, Crosby and Gottfried speaking so sensitively and articulately outside the comfort zone of their oft-abrasive shtick.

"I was star-struck by Gilbert Gottfried," Zweig says of the comic known for his explosive, squawking delivery. "He doesn't actually talk like that in his normal voice and I was surprised when the cameras started to roll and he started talking in that way, it threw me off."

"As for Howie Mandel, he obviously made a decision in his comedy career by not being himself," Zweig says. "He went for something he constructed, probably to his credit, because it made him more popular. But as a result, many people are struck by how funny he is being himself," Zweig says. "I've never seen him be funnier and I'm not the only one who thought that."

In the doc, it is Winnipeg-born comedian David Steinberg who nails the reason Jewish humour has declined since its blossoming in the mid-20th century: "The thing that helps humour is oppression and the thing that kills humour is assimilation."

Zweig agrees with that win-lose assessment.

"What was won was that the suffering that my grandparents experienced, that was over. We beat the anti-Semites and we made it into every facet of society, not just moneylenders but as politicians, mayors, etc. We won. We assimilated successfully.

"The problem is I still want to experience the culture of my grandparents, but they just wanted to assimilate," Zweig says. "If they could see me now, they'd think: That's the greatest. No one cares if you're Jewish. You don't have to hide that you're Jewish. You don't have to change your name.

"And I look at them and say: 'Yeah, but you've had a culture. What do we have?"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2014 C1


Updated on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 6:38 AM CST: Changes headline, replaces photo

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