Alan Zweig stood in a line outside Schwartz’s deli in Montreal a few years back and found himself captivated by the conversation of an old Jewish clan.
“I couldn’t get enough of this family from Philadelphia just displaying their Jewishness in their conversation,” the documentary filmmaker said. “I realized I missed something.”
It was one of a number of incidents that got Zweig, who’s in his 60s, yearning for a greater connection to the old, funny Jews he grew up with.
So the secular Jew decided “the easiest and most enjoyable way” to connect to Jewish culture would be through humour.
“It seemed to me that almost everything you could talk about being Jewish sort of came from there,” the filmmaker from Toronto said. “I just wanted to make a film about the humour of my grandparents and whether that was still a strong factor in the world or not. I just wanted to talk about it.”
Zweig speaks to a host of comics in his documentary film When Jews Were Funny, which recently won best Canadian feature at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It screens as part of the 25th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7 to 14 at Fifth Avenue Cinemas.
But the old comics Zweig recalls watching in the 1950s and ’60s didn’t appreciate his line of questioning.
“This whole interview is about Jewishness,” says 90-year-old comedian, actor and host Jack Carter, who opens the film. “I have nothing to contribute.”
The reactions of the old-time comedians surprised Zweig. Zweig’s parents had told him the comics he loved on TV were Jewish. He hadn’t realized many of them had changed their names and weren’t necessarily “out.”
“When they imagine these guys hanging out, everybody imagines [the 1984 film] Broadway Danny Rose,” he said. “Broadway Danny Rose is a Woody Allen film where he’s a Jewish agent and he’s in New York and he meets with these guys every day at this deli and it’s all a bunch of Jewish entertainers and a lot of them in the film are played by old Jewish comedians, and they’re just attacking each other, ribbing each other in a very recognizably Jewish way these guys used to be. So on some level, I hoped that these old guys would talk to me like they talked to their old friends at the deli.”
Instead, he says, with the cameras rolling, they just wanted to tell him about the time they met famous American singer and actor Robert Goulet.
Carter isn’t the only subject who balks at Zweig’s ideas and questions. As the film progresses from exploring the role of Jewish comedians in the entertainment industry, Jewish humour in general and then what it means to be Jewish, Bob Einstein, a.k.a. stuntman Super Dave Osborne, and others give him a hard time.
“I don’t think we can solve all your problems,” comic Cory Kahaney tells Zweig.
Focusing the film on professional comedians wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, Zweig says, because they’re so used to being interviewed and sticking to their talking points. His previous self-referential films Vinyl and I, Curmudgeon focused on regular people. But despite his struggles as filmmaker, the self-described curmudgeon concedes that winning Best Canadian Feature in Toronto means he overcame these challenges.
Comics including Shelley Berman, Marc Maron, Howie Mandel, David Brenner and Gilbert Gottfried provide their views on the essence and state of Jewish humour in When Jews Were Funny and Zweig has interspersed their insights with standup routines from the 1960s performed by comics that include Jackie Mason, Henry Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield on the Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason shows.
Other festival highlights include whimsical coming-of-age film, The Zig Zag Kid, the cast of which includes actress Isabella Rossellini, the Canadian premiere of the Israeli and Palestinian documentary Two Sided Story and the closing film Hunting Elephants, a comedy that includes Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart and acclaimed Israeli actor Sasson Gabai. For more information, see vjff.org.
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