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Well known Canadian director Alan Zweig turns his attention to the world of comedy, but not just any kind of funny. He’s interested in Jewish comedy and comedians. That’s not what he wants people to know about his film, When Jews Were Funny. Zweig wanted to look at the history of Jewish people, which would explore their sense of humour. The film is equal parts hilarious and heartwarming, and Toronto Film Scene wanted to see how well it would or wouldn’t fit into the category of Essential Canadian Cinema. Writers Aren Bergstrom and Katie O’Connor discussed the film and whether it’s as important as it is funny for this month’s Essential Canadian Cinema.

Aren: I applaud Alan Zweig’s When Jews Were Funny for its obsessively narrow focus. The entire film is Zweig sitting down with Jewish comedians and asking them how Judaism defined their comedy, and whether that humour is still present in the Jewish community today now that Jews are not restricted to a social ghetto. It’s all talking heads interviews, with a few clips of Rodney Dangerfield and Alan King thrown in because Dangerfield and King are dead and unavailable for interview. It’s a funny film, especially when Zweig gets these comedians to discuss their favourite aspects of Jewish humour; I can’t get enough of the joke, referenced by two comedians, about the old man on the train loudly crying out that he’s thirsty every 10 seconds. The film is far more enjoyable than other similar, formally-bland documentaries.

That being said, despite its narrow focus, it lacks a cohesive theme. Zweig uses the film to explore his sadness at the passing of his parent’s and grandparent’s generation and their particular brand of eastern-European Jewish humour, but he doesn’t know what to say about that passing. He muses about Jewish humour being lost in time, but interviewees constantly correct him and tell him that Jewish humour is alive and well. Zweig’s a documentarian known for his obsessive navel gazing so it’s not surprising that he eventually turns the subject back on himself. But it’s far less interesting for Zweig to investigate his own insecurity about his Jewish identity than it is for him to rigorously look at how Jewish humour came to dominate twentieth century comedy. Interviewees like Marc Maron even call him out for his insecurity.

Overall, the film is appealing yet sloppy. What did you think?

Katie: I was very happy to have a solid excuse to watch this film. I’ve been putting it off for a while but was pleasantly surprised. It was great to hear the historical significance of this form of comedy and be introduced to some more classic Jewish comedians. I thought it was great to hear how the Jewish comedians who were interviewed have never referred to themselves as Jewish comedians, but the alteration in American humour was considered in a different way.

Totally agree with your comment about the old Jewish man on the train complaining about his thirst. Loved how that was a favourite joke among a few of them.

I felt a good level of honesty with this documentary. It translates as a comfortable conversation among hilarious people. The film itself has somewhat unexplored subject matter and is assessed in a careful and thoughtful way.

I never thought about Zweig using this film to handle that part of his life. Something I do love that keeps coming up between Zweig and a few of the comedians is the fact that he is in his sixties with a very young child. To Super Dave Osborne, that is the grand finale.

I felt the doc was good, but not incredible. There were some new ideas, but yes, as you, say “sloppy” and would be very different and maybe even stronger with more in depth explorations.

Aren: I just think there’s a possible second act to the film precipitated by these interviews that Zweig never explores. He goes into the film with the assumption that old Jewish humour is dead and that Jewish comedians nowadays have let their Jewish identity recede from their acts. His interviews with these comedians corrects that assumption, showing that Jewish culture just doesn’t look the same nowadays as it did right after the Holocaust, but that essential aspects of Jewish humour remain present in comedy today. This correction raises the question of what is it that has been lost then, and Zweig never really answers it. I feel like a second round of interviews after these initial ones might have addressed that question more pointedly.

But as you say, the movie is good. It’s a very easy watch and it’s hard not to be entertained by these hilarious individuals recounting aspects of their lives or reminiscing about their parents. I do wish more of the comedians were practicing Jews so that the film could investigate whether there is an inherently religious aspect to Jewish humour, as opposed to the humour being mostly a result of centuries of social ostracization (as argued here). As it stands, this film is much more about cultural Judaism than religious Judaism, but it’s always very difficult to parse the two.

Katie: I agree with you that the film would have carried more substance and could have taken a more critical stance if some of the comedians interviewed were more devoted to the Jewish faith. I believe that if Zweig had interviewed comedians that were practicing Judaism, the film would have had more depth and berth. It would have investigated rituals or practices these individuals took upon as being part of the Jewish faith. The religious aspects of the film seem to be lost. While viewing it was certainly not at the forefront of my mind or a glaring theme to be discussed in the interviews or the film itself. Of course, Zweig wanted this film to be funny, but it could have been a more thoughtful and critical film on the role religion has in Jewish humour because this is an area that deserves to be assessed.

Is When Jews Were Funny Essential Canadian Cinema?

Aren: I don’t think so. I enjoyed the film. It’s a highly watchable documentary and if you have any interest in North American Jewish culture or standup comedy, you’ll likely enjoy it too, but it’s not essential. It’s too slight to be mandatory viewing. As well, you cannot argue that it’s essential to Canadian cinema on content grounds, as it doesn’t deal with Canadianism at all. That’s not a problem for the film itself, but when viewing its cinematic legacy in Canada, it doesn’t get an automatic handicap because of its cultural importance.

Katie: This film is not essential Canadian cinema, to me it does not even stand out as a Canadian film. I agree, it is fun to watch, but no, it’s not a film I would initially associate with being a Canadian film that must be seen.