Shalom Life | March 17, 2014

Movie Review: When Jews Were Funny

Shalom Life reviews the award-winning documentary by Alan Zweig

By: Ilan Mester

Published: November 15th, 2013 in Culture » Film » Reviews

The list of documentaries about Jewish comedy/comedians is basically endless. Many such films have won critical acclaim and one (Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth) has even been nominated for an Academy Award. So the question is: do we really need another documentary about Jewish comedy? If it’s When Jews Were Funny, the answer is yes.

The film from Toronto-born director Alan Zweig – which picked up the Best Canadian Feature prize at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival – doesn’t necessarily break new ground. But it’s an entertaining and incredibly honest look at Jewish comedy and its key players.

The documentary consists mostly of talking head interviews, yet it manages to remain engaging and anything but stuffy. That’s partly due to Zweig’s candid chats with his interview subjects, and of course, the comedians themselves. The list of comics in this film is nearly endless. The talent spans multiple generations, which makes it even more interesting.

Some of the many interview subjects include Howie Mandel, Shelley Berman, Norm Crosby, Shecky Greene, Jack Carter, David Steinberg, Andy Kindler, Gilbert Godfrey, Bob Einstein, Judy Gold, Mark Maron, and the list goes on and on.

Don’t expect to see any cheesy archival footage and themes that are oh so familiar in these types of documentaries. Instead, expect candid talks with dozens of comedians and jokes that only they can do justice. But it’s not all fun and games; When Jews Were Funny takes a look at the evolution of Jewish comedy and explores, among many ideas, how oppression can lead to humour. It also points out the irony that success doesn’t always do comedy any favours.

When Jews Were Funny is by no means a history lesson – it’s a frank film about Jewish comedy and the people who care about it. Among those people is Zweig, who’s clearly connected to the subject matter and turns what could have been a dry factual film into a personal, relatable doc.
 

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