Richardson — When I was a kid, there was no shortage of Jewish comedians on TV; Jackie Mason, Richard Lewis and Paul Reiser spring right to mind, and that’s just the sitcoms. Today, there are fewer comedians with a forthrightly Jewish bend to their act, but they haven’t all disappeared.
Take Daniel Okrent, who has co-created Old Jews Telling Jokes for the stage, along with Peter Gethers. They describe the show, which is directed by Jeremy Quinn, as “an Evening in the Catskills with Jokes, Skits, Song, and Dance!” and is in the early portion of their July 11-28 run at the Charles W. Eisemann Center for Performing Arts.
We asked a few questions of Okrent and a couple of actors in the show — Emily Freeman (who plays Debbie) and Sharon Geller (Bunny). This is what they had to say:
TheaterJones: What can you tell us about this show beyond what is in the press release?
Daniel Okrent: The show originated in the website of the same name; a film director filmed his father’s friends telling the jokes they loved so well. For Peter Gethers and me, it looked like he had the beginnings of a theater piece; what we needed was some wonderful actors who could not just tell jokes, but turn them into little sketches, or “playlets” — in other words, to make these jokes come alive.
What sets the traditions and the style of Jewish humor apart from the humor of non-Jewish mainstream culture?
DO: Jewish jokes are distinguished by a very specific attitude: you deal with tragedy (or even just little annoyances) by turning it into humor. It’s worked for centuries!
Are we at risk of losing Jewish sensibility in humor? If so, is this act an attempt to preserve it and see it live on?
DO: There is no risk of losing Jewish sensibility in humor as long as there are Jewish comedians, writers, actors, and filmmakers who bring that sense of humor to films, TV series, stand-up and the stage. That includes the older ones like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Alan Arkin, Nora Ephron, Albert Brooks, Steven Spielberg and Barry Levinson to the more contemporary Seinfeld, Judd Apatow, Rob Reiner, Zach Braff, Coen Brothers, James Franco, Eugene Levy, Jason Reitman, Seth Rogen and Ben Stiller. As long as they and hundreds of others, write, direct, and perform, Jewish humor will continue to be the essence of American humor.
This show, Old Jews Telling Jokes, just highlights and pays tribute to Jewish humor of the past (& present).
Emily and Sharon, What drew you to this project?
Emily Freeman: The idea of bringing the different generations together through laughter.
Sharon Geller: I’ve loved comedy and comedic characters ever since I used to watch The Carol Burnett Show, Red Skelton, and The Honeymooners with my dad when I was growing up. My father had a great sense of humor so I’m sure that had an influence on me wanting to share in the laughter. Later, my idols became Gilda Radner and those first seven years of SNL were magical.
What, if anything has been uniquely rewarding or surprising as you have rehearsed, learned, and performed the show?
EF: The thing that has been the most uniquely rewarding about this show is that no matter who you are you can enjoy this show. It shows us that just because it is Old Jews Telling Jokes those jokes can be enjoyed no matter your background.
SG: When I first read the script, I knew most if not all of the punch lines and I asked the producer why people would laugh at a joke they already knew so well. He said, “The trick is in the telling of the joke.” And I soon realized that the comedy characters bring the joke to life in a way that just reciting a worn joke cannot. Plus, it’s like going to hear Paul McCartney sing “Hey, Jude.” You’ve heard it a million times and you know what’s coming but you still appreciate hearing it and enjoy the experience.
What sets the show apart from other variety-type comedy shows and plays?
EF: The thing that sets the show apart from other shows is the history. These jokes have a past and because of Old Jews Telling Jokes they have a bright future.
SG: Old Jews Telling Jokes is a tribute to the Borscht Belt, that area of the Catskill Mountains in New York that gave rise to so many famous Jewish comedians in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Buddy Hackett. It includes funny songs, humorous stories and, of course, jokes! It’s like a buffet for your comedy soul…a little bit of everything. Jewish humor is American humor so you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it but like the joke goes…it couldn’t hurt!