When Jews Were Funny

Yiddishe yuks

WHEN JEWS WERE FUNNY (Alan Zweig). 90 minutes. Opens Friday (November 15). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN

In this survey of North American Jewish comics, T.O. filmmaker Alan Zweig isn’t really sure of his themes. Is it about whether Jews define American humour, what makes Jews funny or where Zweig himself fits in now that he’s married a non-Jew?

Even his subjects appear baffled by his mission, many of them asking some variation on “What did you say this movie is about?”

Whatever its mandate, it’s mainly a film about male Jewish comics. Of his scores of subjects, only two are women, and Judy Gold hammers away at that sexist chestnut, her horrible Jewish mother. Where’s Sarah Silverman, Sandra Bernhard, Fran Drescher? If you can dredge up archival stuff on Jackie Mason, you can find footage of Joan Rivers.

And too bad Zweig couldn’t land interviews with the heavy hitters of his own generation – Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Gary Shandling.

Still, When Jews Were Funny is a very entertaining survey of guys who know funny, compelling enough to take the Best Canadian Feature award at TIFF 2013. Howie Mandel, Mark Breslin and David Brenner, for example, are very smart, and almost all of them get laughs.

Especially fascinating are the interviews with older pros Norm Crosby, Jack Carter and Shelley Berman, all of whom deny their humour is Jewish. Then Berman sings an old Yiddish song that’ll make you verklempt.

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