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When Jews Were Funny: Exploring the defining characteristics of Jewish humour

Bob Einstein, a.k.a. Super Dave Osborne, sits down with director Alan Zweig to discuss Jewish humour.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
When Jews Were Funny
Written by
Alan Zweig
Directed by
Alan Zweig
Starring
Bob Einstein, Marc Maron, Howie Mandel
Classification
PG
Country
Canada
Language
English
Year
2013

The intentionally provocative title of Alan Zweig's documentary will make a few people ask, probably a little testily, When did Jews stop being funny?

Plenty of the comics the Toronto filmmaker sits down with to discuss the idea that Jewish people aren't as funny as they were back in his Bubby's day definitely get testy with Zweig, who took home the award for best Canadian feature at this year's Toronto International Film Festival for this look at the roots of Jewish humour. It's fun viewing.

At one point, Bob Einstein, best known for playing Super Dave Osborne, looks like he'd rather drive a stunt car right into Zweig than have to keep talking to him.

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Others are more conciliatory. Howie Mandel tries to convince Zweig that Jewish people are as funny as they've always been, "We're just missing the accent."

Marc Maron, a comedian who has become famous for interviewing other comedians on his podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, goes past the premise and wants to dig deeper. The reason Zweig wishes for the days of being a young boy and listening to relatives and their friends making jokes is because he likes the comfort of the stereotype of the complaining, wisecracking Jew, Maron says.

As many of those interviewed in the film make clear, Jewish humour is borne out of a mix of persecution, outsiderness and a questioning spirit of hyper-analysis.

"The only power you have is the power to be a smartass," Mandel says.

Its influence and popularity are unrivalled.

"The history of 20th-century humour is Jewish, period," says Yuk Yuk's founder Mark Breslin.

It's Zweig's contention that as Jewish people have assimilated and enjoyed success, they have lost or are losing that sense of outsiderness and persecution and are therefore not as funny as they once were. Zweig, whose previous docs include Vinyl and I, Curmudgeon, can come off as a bit of a downer. Stubborn, too. But he's also a very likeable guy onscreen, even if no one can really explain why.

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Regardless of what you make of Zweig's thesis, he's crafted an entertaining, often engrossing look at the history of Jewish humour and its defining characteristics.

To many comedy fans, a look at what defines Jewish humour might sound like old news and familiar territory. But Zweig's presence in the film, his obviously genuine desire to figure out if Jewish people are still as funny as they used to be, prevents the film from getting tired.

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