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With the docs When Jews Were Funny and AKA Doc Pomus, Cinematheque offers a double bill about the impact of a few Jews had on mid-20th-century pop culture.

Toronto's Alan Zweig, the grumbly Gus who gave us personal docs Vinyl and I, Curmudgeon, addresses Jewish comedy in When Jews Were Funny.

But Zweig's films represent personal journeys as well. Even with a stellar cast of some of the mid-20th century's most recognizable comedians -- Shecky Greene, Shelley Berman, Norm Crosby, Jack Carter, David Steinberg and David Brenner -- Zweig doggedly pursues a line of questioning that has less to do with comedy and more to do with his own aching nostalgia for days when Jewish suffering yielded hilarity, whether on the Vegas stage or in the delicatessens and dining rooms of his cherished memories.

This is no simple showbiz doc celebrating Jewish achievement. Sparks fly. Berman and Carter, both ancient but still sharp, deny there was ever any intrinsic Jewishness in their old routines. A prickly Bob Einstein (better known as disaster-prone stuntman Super Dave Osborne) seems downright affronted by the implicit narcissism of the project. (It doesn't help that a rattled Zweig seems to lose his train of thought while interviewing Einstein, a scene Zweig admirably leaves in.)

Fortunately, Zweig gets some help from the likes of Brenner -- who offers a tender remembrance of his own funny father -- and Winnipeg-born Steinberg, who succinctly summarizes the ironic cause of the decline in Jewish humour: "The thing that helps humour is oppression and the thing that kills humour is assimilation."

Among younger and hipper comics, including Marc Maron and Elon Gold, Zweig finds more sympathetic subjects to his thesis. One of the film's most unexpected delights is seeing both Gilbert Gottfried and Howie Mandel abandoning their typically abrasive onstage personas to give thoughtful, intelligent and sensitive responses to Zweig's atypical interview questions.

If the director's approach to the subject is a tad self-serving -- and one should expect nothing less from an Alan Zweig documentary -- the film is also consistently funny, surprising and insightful. Again, one should expect nothing less from an Alan Zweig doc.

-- -- --

Save the Last Dance for Me is a pop standard that's been recorded by everyone from Ben. E. King to Dolly Parton to Michael Bublé.

But the story behind the song is revelatory, and is the emotional centrepiece of the entertaining biographical documentary AKA Doc Pomus by former Winnipegger William Hechter and Peter Miller.

The song's lyricist, Doc Pomus, born Jerome Felder in 1925, was a boy who never seemed to stop running and playing when he was growing up in Brooklyn. But a bout with polio left him on crutches and frustrated -- until he started taking solace in blues music, a diversion that led to a brief career as a blues singer.

Eventually, Felder realized there was a more solid livelihood in songwriting. Partnered with Mort Shuman, he began a string of hits as Doc Pomus.

This doc includes loads of archived and new testimonies from Pomus's contemporaries, including Dr. John, the late Lou Reed, Leiber and Stoller and even Pomus himself (who died in 1991). But the film's most poignant moment comes from Felder's ex-wife, who recalls how he couldn't dance with her at their wedding, which inspired the lyrics of Save the Last Dance for Me.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2014 D5

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