Interview: Alan Zweig

When Jews Were Funny

Alan Zweig, contrary to his own curmudgeonly reputation (bolstered by his well known, almost confessional documentary I, Curmudgeon), is a perfectly pleasant and really funny guy to be around. Sitting in the basement level of a Yorkville coffee shop, it might be the topic of conversation – the very nature of comedy and the basis for his latest film – could be still tickling his funny bone. Maybe it’s because he essentially made it to teach his young daughter how to be funny and still maintain a sense of personal identity. Having never actually been in a room with him, I can honestly say I had never seen the man that excited. (That’s a joke)

For his latest documentary – When Jews Were Funny, debuting this coming week at the Toronto International Film Festival – Zweig, a person who had chronicled obsessives before through his own personal views of similar subject, looks at some of the most obsessive and neurotic people walking the Earth: Jewish stand-up comics. Trying to get to the heart of Jewish humour is easier said than done, however. What Zweig sees as somewhat obviously inherited and learned through familial interaction, some comics don’t necessarily want to talk about. Older comics especially seem to have the hardest time talking about their ethnicity, while the two generations of Jewish comics to follow the Shelley Bermans and the Shecky Greenes seem to not necessarily embrace their bestowed faith openly, but they’ve made peace with it and put it into their act.

Zweig talked to us about the challenges of getting a comic to open up on camera about real topics, the generation gap he noticed, how Mel Brooks making his father laugh opened up his eyes to Jewish humour, how to deal with a difficult interview, and what he hopes his daughter can take from him after he’s gone.

Dork Shelf: I’ve never been able to talk to comedians or interview them. To me, they’re always the hardest people to read because you can never tell if they are going to do their act, or if they want to be funny, or if they want to be serious. As someone who has been interviewing people on camera for a long time now, did you see any differences between talking to your past subjects versus only talking to comedians for this film?

Alan Zweig - F2Alan Zweig: Well, I think that talking to comedians is probably a subset of what I did before. I never thought about this before interviewing them, but after talking to them I realized that before this I had almost exclusively interviewed people who had never been interviewed before. Now here I was with people who had been doing interviews for years, sometimes doing hundreds or more of them. Sometimes just a hundred times with Johnny Carson alone.

What I found was that in spite of the fact that I was told that it would be refreshing for them to not answer the same questions they were always asked, but it turned out that it wasn’t something they would generally or normally do. While it might have been refreshing for them, I wouldn’t be sure if that was really the case for all of them. Most of them will do their act for you, but they won’t tell you they are going into their act. Some people in the film just go right into their act anyway, and sometimes I thought it was really funny and I was going to use it.

But in terms of me saying “Okay, now, get real. Tell me about your mother and father,” the older they were the less capable they were of doing it. The older they were the less capable they were of being self-reflexive. One person – and I won’t say who it was – told me about the first time they met Robert Goulet and I had never been more bored in my life. I suppose if it was actually on Johnny Carson I would have found it fascinating, but I didn’t ever ask him about that, and I didn’t want to know about that. But it was like every question they were ever asked had a stored answer and they just trot ‘em out.

DS: Well, these are also the kind of people who do that because it’s how they cultivate their acts in a lot of ways. That’s how they test their material, largely through repetition. Here you come in and ask them questions they’ve never been tested on. Something that you brought up that really shows in the film is that age difference, and how a lot of the older comics you speak to – with the exception of those with tangible business experience like David Steinberg or Howie Mandel or Mark Breslin – are a bit more standoffish and harder to get them to actually talk about their craft and their heritage.

AZ: That’s really interesting. What I was thinking about was really about that generation that came before David Steinberg and Mark Breslin, you know like Jack Carter, Shecky Greene or Shelley Berman was that it was almost how they made such a strong attempt as young men to get rid of their origins. When you asked them about their origins they just froze up.

Alan King – I wish I interviewed him – but when I was a kid I knew he was Jewish. Not because my parents told me he was Jewish, but because he reminded me of my father and lots of other people. I just knew.

It is interesting though, because I think the ones with the most insider insight often are the most introspective. David Steinberg and Howie Mandel are maybe because they were most directly influenced by Shecky Greene and Shelley and people like that, so they know they were coming just at the end of the Borsct Belt, so they knew what that was still kind of like. Then their grandparents were probably Easter European, so they have enough experience and success to know where they came from, and they wouldn’t try to hid it or run from it.

DS: The success probably plays into a little bit more, too. You talk to someone like David Steinberg about being Jewish and it’s not like it’s going to hurt or damage his reputation at all for him to just come out and say he’s Jewish.

AZ: Right, and I mean he’s part of the first generation that didn’t change their name. I think he’s a great example because he did characters, he did sermons, and all that. He could easily claim what’s Jewish about that, but I think he knows that it all came from his parents and grandparents. However it manifested itself is irrelevant. I think with Shecky and Shelley and Jack Carter, I think they had a very direct and simpler view of what it meant to be Jewish. If you told a joke with Yiddish, then you were being Jewish, but if you manifested that same joke with a character as it was passed down, that wasn’t being Jewish. I don’t know if that shows a lack of insight or it’s just that they don’t come from a generation of analyzing people.

DS: Well today you have people who are in the movie like Marc Maron, who is constantly analyzing comedy and constantly analyzing comedic acts, and you have all of these people today deconstructing comedy. That’s something that I think the older comics are sort of taken aback by now because there was a time when comedy was like magic and you wouldn’t want to give the secret away.

AZ: That’s really interesting and I can kinda see that. Jewish stand-ups were the first people to talk about themselves. It wasn’t about what a fool this other guy was or is, it was about what a schmuck YOU were. So that’s kind of a natural progression to go from talking about how horrible your life is to talking about how horrible your comedy is. (laughs)

I always tell people that the first time I reconnected with Jewish comedy was when I saw Andy Kindler and his whole act is very dour and depressed and he just knew you weren’t going to laugh at him, and he told a punchline in Yiddish just so people wouldn’t laugh, and then he said “My manager made me get a focus group for my act and it turns out my core audience is ’35 year old Jewish men who are me.’” (laughs)To me, putting yourself down THAT hard was just SO Jewish that I knew we were back! He was Jewish, but he wasn’t telling Yiddish jokes. He was just a smartass Jew putting himself down. He’s my favourite, and he’s kind of successful.

But with Marc Maron, he didn’t actually talk about being Jewish for quite a long time.

DS: Maron seemed to really light up when you start talking about your family and your daughter.

AZ: Yeah, I think he was taking me on fairly directly. On some level I think the things that I am doubting, are things that he’s not really questioning anymore. But he told me that his girlfriend or whoever wanted to have kids, and it seems like it was the one thing he was really questioning around that time. Now if you listen to the podcast he does, or so I’m told, is that he’s been talking about potentially having kids more and more now, and I think that’s interesting.

DS: It seems like a lot of the people you talked to think about how funny their family was at one time, but then they kind of forgot about it. It’s like they seem to be searching for, in a lot of case, the perfect anecdote they think you’re looking for but that they might have forgotten themselves.

AZ: That’s an interesting take. I had never really thought of that. I always find it interesting – and this is a little bit off topic – those things that you remember so clearly, as if it were yesterday, and what you often forget.

DS: The things you remember really could be as simple as eating soup.

AZ: Right. Like when I was 12 we used to watch David Susskind all the time, and he was really famous and married to a Canadian girl name Joyce Davidson, which is why everyone up here liked him. He was Jewish. He was erudite. He had this show about growing up with Jewish mothers. David Steinberg was on it. Mel Brooks was on it, and I had never seen Mel Brooks before that point because he was a writer and not a performer. My father was a bit like me because he would laugh at the things we did, but if we were watching comedians on TV, he could think they were funny, but he wouldn’t ever kill himself laughing. But Mel Brooks made him project through his nose. He was rollicking back and forth. I had never seen anything like it. He was just pounding the couch and his legs like he didn’t know what to do. And yet all Mel Brooks was talking about was growing up Jewish. To me that was the first time I realized there was such a thing as Jewish humour, and I probably wouldn’t have made this film if that didn’t happen.

But not everyone has those stories that they can remember. David Brenner and Bob Einstein in particular who have these memories so vivid that it’s almost like their fathers taking them out into the woods, but instead of showing them how to hunt and fish, they taught them what humour was. I don’t think a lot of people got that from their parents.

DS: They are really passionate guys, especially Bob who here seems like he could be a really tough guy to be in a room with, which is vastly different from the Super Dave persona he kind of cultivated for himself over the years.

AZ: Yeah, the funny thing about that interview is that you never know when someone is being a prick with you to be funny or if they’re just being a prick. The other thing was that when he was being funny, I would just kind of think, “Yeah, okay, go ahead. Make fun of me. That will be funny. The audience will like that.” Then he just said something to me that was a pure and simple insult, and I said “That’s it. Let’s pack up. We’re done. I got what I need.” Then as I started to leave he made some crack about Facebook, and I just… [makes sceptical face]… and I just thought he could do whatever he wanted, and by then I had everything I needed, so at that point when he thought I was leaving, he opened up a bit more and I was able to ask him what he thought about this and that. But it is true when you are with these big comedic stars that you feel a bit beholden to them; like they’re doing you a favour. If they’re being rude to you it’s not like someone like me could go toe to toe with Bob Einstein, and I was there with my executive producer who was a good friend of Bob’s. I know I couldn’t, but I could have done better in the room with him. For Toronto, I’m pretty good. For Bob Einstein, I’m really not because he might be one of the single funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. He told us these stories about working with Red Foxx that I hope might make the DVD extras. Those moments were “kill yourself” funny. But at the same time he always had a little, “I’ll give you what I want to give you” attitude. But that story about his father and that house of a thousand names shop in the film, it really was one of the most perfect stories of Jewish humour. If you grow up and your father does that, you’re going to be a different person.

DS: There’s something incredibly sweet about how you’re doing this for your daughter in a lot of ways so she can have a sense of her background and identity. I’m not saying this thing is some kind of time capsule that you’re going to close off and bring out fifteen years down the road. But I like that you are trying to be that father who wants to impart what it means to be funny onto your daughter, because you’re right when you say that a lot of parents don’t do those sorts of things for their kids.

AZ:  I think that anybody in the third or fourth generation of any ethnicity will wonder if their kids will retain that identity at all. Doesn’t matter if they are Greek, or Italian, or whatever. They won’t speak the language anymore. They don’t eat the same food. I’m not going to do anything overt with my daughter. I’m not going to send her to Hebrew school or have a Bah Mitzvah. My ideal is that she’ll have nothing. (laughs) But by the end of this I think I want to do this because I’m not going to be around as long as some parents would be. I think I might make it maybe to her being 25, but I won’t be around for the majority of her life. I will probably be around for about a third of her life, so it’s really about what I can tell her and what she can take with her. My parents are gone, so she won’t have that same connection I did. She won’t really have any connection to any old Jews, per say, and yet I would like her to understand a Jewish joke. I want her to be a little sarcastic. I want whenever someone who’s in her presence says “It’s all good” for her to cringe a bit. I don’t want her to give two thumbs up to that. Unless she’s being sarcastic.

When Jews Were Funny screens at the Toronto International Film Festival:

Tuesday, September 10th, Scotiabank 13, 9:15pm

Thursday, September 12th, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 9:15pm

Sunday, September 15th, Scotiabank 9, 4:45pm

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