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“Old Jews Telling Jokes” is Light on Humor, Heavy on Stereotypes

July 18, 2012 3:55 pm 3 comments

Outside "Old Jews Telling Jokes," the off-Broadway (and according to JNS.org's reviewer, off color) show in New York City. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” (OJTJ) is a 90-minute, five-person revue that combines comedy sketches and songs. Playing just off Broadway at the Westside Theater on West 43rd St. in Manhattan, the play was directed by Marc Bruni and adapted by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent from material on Sam Hoffman’s website of the same name. The selected jokes are divided into a series of categories, roughly corresponding to the life cycle chronology.

Beginning with just enough technology to satisfy a 2012 audience—of 65 year olds—OJTJ uses large-screen projected images to change the scenes and enhance some of the skits. Images jump from a desert island to a picture of a doctor’s office door which functions as a prop. As the multimedia overture gets underway, Lenny Wolpe meanders on stage to open the evening. Soon, three old Jews are joined by a few young Jews, not all of whom are portrayed by Jewish actors, for an evening incorporating a little comedy, a little laughter, a bit of dance, some audience interaction and a series of somewhat predictable jokes.

Anyone who has spent time with a bubbe or a zaide (grandmother or grandfather) has probably heard at least some of the OJTJ setups. The night JNS.org attended, the audience seemed of an age and background to presage many of the jokes’ punch lines, a little too many of which descend to questionable levels.

Several songs highlighted the evening and were openly funny, namely Tom Lehrer’s “Hanukkah in Santa Monica” (presented with screened lyrics and an invitation to “sing along”), Harold Rome’s “I’m Not a Well Man,” and a near perfect deadpan version of “Old Man River”—presented in speak/sing by Todd Susman. In thick “Yinglish,” he tells the woeful tale of a man who must settle for corned beef instead of his preferred pastrami. The incongruity between content and form is perfectly tuned by Susman, who manages to keep a straight face—if only just barely.

The audience does laugh. There is a lot of explicit physical humor and well-practiced vocal intonation. The cast is clearly well experienced and appears to be enjoying itself, laughing at the jokes even before the audience does. Marilyn Sokol, a professor at Lehman College in Queens, NY in her “other” life, uses physical humor with great skill, turning her wonderfully malleable face into an expressive mask.  Susman seems stoic, while Wolpe appears amused by it all.  Bill Army and Audrey Lynn Weston represent the next generation.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines stereotype as “a set of inaccurate, simplistic generalizations about a group that allows other to categorize and treat them accordingly.” Though clearly amusing the audience, the characters and characterizations portrayed in OJTJ have no trouble qualifying as some of the most distasteful and negative images of Jews of past generations, whether this was the intent or not.

Is “ghetto humor” ever “cute,” even in small doses or at limited venues? Are Jews, specifically, more dishonest in business, engage in dirtier inter-personal relations, or have more difficulty in marriage? So many of the sequences presented in the show are, at minimum, derogatory, self-denigrating, and even self-hating, even if enabled by Jews themselves.

“Even though I am sure lots of it is funny,” says comedienne and Broadway veteran Marilyn Michaels, “Old Jews…It’s a negative connotation to me. And, what—racist?”

Is it not time to stem the self-deprecating presentations of the sort OJTJ relies upon? Isn’t it obvious that jokes denigrating Jewish mothers are both anti-woman and anti-Semitic? Recognizing and promoting tradition does not require descending to the lowest levels of social humor. Should connecting with Jewish cultural “tradition” require Jews to fall upon the stake? It’s 2012, and they are no longer in the ghetto. Can we not do better than the somewhat off-color, snicker stimulating situations portrayed in OJTJ?

In vivid contrast to OJTJ are the productions of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, which traces its immigrant roots back nearly 100 years and incorporates much “classic” Jewish humor in ways that makes plays accessible to modern, non-Yiddish speaking audiences. At the Folksbiene, tradition has gone positive. OJTJ could learn.

3 Comments

  • Oh please. Are you really this defensive? My own take on the show, and the take of virtually all of my friends (probably close to 50 by now) who have seen the show is radically different, but to each his (or her) own, I guess.

    Did you ever hear a joke, even a one liner, and say to yourself, “I just HAVE to remember that one”? Well, in “Old Jews Telling Jokes” there about 80 like that, and just as you finish trying to remember one you’re being assaulted (in the best possible way) with the next, like machine gun fire that kept many in the audience (including the obviously gentile woman from the UK who was sitting next to me) literally doubled over in laughter. My wife, who has a great sense of humor but for whom laughing out loud does not come easily was guffawing throughout. It’s just that kind of experience. The show was perfectly cast, and they delivered with precision timing and warmth, even when telling jokes with some words that you might not be used to hearing outside of a locker room. (And just seeing Marilyn Sokul as a sheep in heat while acting out one of the jokes was worth the price of admission.) Even when you know the jokes (and most of the audience will know a good number, as you mention) seeing them acted out the way they were and told by such professionals renders them funny redux. If you like to laugh, this is the show to see, and if you don’t, maybe you will after seeing this show.

    I will also say that since I saw the show, my 31 year old son saw it with his girlfriend, and they both loved it as much as I, and have been recommending it to their friends, Jewish and non-Jewish.

  • Well said re

    1. The night JNS.org attended, the audience seemed of an age and background to presage many of the jokes’ punch lines, a little too many of which descend to questionable levels.

    2. The characters and characterizations portrayed in OJTJ have no trouble qualifying as some of the most distasteful and negative images of Jews of past generations, whether this was the intent or not.

    3. Is “ghetto humor” ever “cute,” even in small doses or at limited venues? Are Jews, specifically, more dishonest in business, engage in dirtier inter-personal relations, or have more difficulty in marriage? So many of the sequences presented in the show are, at minimum, derogatory, self-denigrating, and even self-hating, even if enabled by Jews themselves.

    4. ”Even though I am sure lots of it is funny,” says comedienne and Broadway veteran Marilyn Michaels, “Old Jews … It’s a negative connotation to me. And, what —racist?”

    5. Is it not time to stem the self-deprecating presentations of the sort OJTJ relies upon? Isn’t it obvious that jokes denigrating Jewish mothers are both anti-woman and anti-Semitic? …Should connecting with Jewish cultural “tradition” require Jews to fall upon the stake? It’s 2012, and they are no longer in the ghetto. Can we not do better than the somewhat off-color, snicker stimulating situations portrayed in OJTJ?

    MAXINE, this is what I have been saying since day one and guess what, I was banned forever from the OJTJ facebook page for speaking up in this way. Strange! And a bit sad too. Your review says it well. Ted Merwin’s review a few weeks ago also got into all this. Yes, it’s 2012. Enough already, Dan Okrent and Peter Gethers!

    And by the way, for the record, I loved and still love the video website of OJTJ, one person at a time, it is like a kind of oral history, and one can NOT WATCH any video one doesn’t like or can’t stomach. But this play is now in PUBLIC for all to see, antisemites too, and i hear now they are planning a national tour with different adaptions in other cities as well. Oi.

  • A very good and perceptive review. I have been saying the same in blogs and comments since the play opened, but no one in America will listen to me. So I wrote what i call “the Silverman Manifesto 2012″ which was “inspired” by this ill-fitting Broadway play:

    The Silverman Manifesto:

    “Enough of this self loathing and self hating! Enough of Jews
    themselves denigrating themselves in public shows of comedy or books!
    Enough of dysfunctional families and ghetto Jews from the past!

    “We are now living in 2012 and we are no longer dysfunctional people
    nor do we live in dysfunctional families anymore and Jewish mother
    jokes and Jewish Princess jokes and distasteful Joan Rivers’ Anne
    Frank jokes should be thrown out the window.

    “The Bronx and Brooklyn ghettoes are things of the past. Wake up,
    fellow Jews and cast off your self loathing and self hatred with these
    terrible jokes about dysfunctional mothers and weak fathers and
    antisemitic tropes that are sometimes even worse than Shakespeare’s
    Merchant of Venice schtick! Wake up, people!

    “We are a normal people now, successful, middle-class, no longer in
    the New York City ghettoes where much of the old sick humor came from.
    Sure, in the 1930s, those jokes had a purpose. Sure, in the 1950s,
    after the war, maybe some of those jokes still had a purpose. But now,
    in 2012, they have no purpose! Those jokes should be retired and you
    know exactly what jokes I am talking about!

    “We don’t live in dysfunctional families anymore and we have success
    stories all around, in an entirely new and loving way. It’s time for
    Jews in America to wake up and smell the new air of happiness and
    life. It’s time to stop the self loathing and self hating Catskills
    and Borscht Belt jokes of the 1950s and celebrate the joyful reality
    of 2012.

    “Stand up and create a new kind of warm, life enhancing and positive
    humor that goes beyond the old stereotypes of yore. Rise up and
    rejoice, O Jews of America, you have nothing to lose but your
    long-suffering neuroses. We are no longer a neurotic people. Stop the
    Jewish mother jokes, stop the JAP jokes, stop the sick Anne Frank
    jokes (and books!), stop the dysfunctional family jokes, stop the
    victimization. We are no longer victims. We have made it. Wake up and
    celebrate success, joy, happiness, normalness.

    “Enough already. We are normal. We have arrived. Leave the past alone.
    Where it belongs. Stop the Jews are cheap jokes; some of the most
    philanthropic people on Earth are American Jews: they build hospitals,
    museums, fund scientific research, professorships, educational
    initiatives. Focus on the good and the positive; leave the past where
    it belongs: in the past!

    “Wake up and smell the sunshine. We don’t all live in the Bronx or
    Brooklyn anymore, or Queens or Beverly Hills. American Jews must
    evolve. Be nice, all ye who are comedians and humor writers. Respect
    yourselves. Respect what we have become now in 2012.

    “Stop the old, out-dated stereotypes. We can write a new chapter in
    American Jewish history in the creative arts of comedy and film and
    literature and it does not have to be Portnoy’s Complaint anymore. Nor
    does it have to be Old Jews Telling Jokes off-Broadway anymore. Mirror
    the present, stop mirroring the dysfunctional ghetto past. Get past
    the past! Embrace the now!”

    “In old Catskills and Borscht Belt jokes, Jewish men are often
    portrayed as feeling murderous toward their wives, non-Jewish women
    were seen to be secretly more attractive to Jewish men than Jewish
    women were, rabbis always offered
    ridiculous advice, and gentiles occupied a rarefied realm that Jews
    could never hope to enter. Do we need to continue this schtick even
    now in 2012 and beyond? Enough with these old stale jokes!”

    “To compensate for their nagging sense of outsiderness, old and
    outdated Jewish comics often turned to low-brow humor — in particular,
    dirty jokes. Either sex or scatology was thus the underlying theme of
    almost every gag. Enough of this dreck! Time to reinvent Jewish humor
    for 2012 and beyond.”

    “Perhaps we are asking too much, but one wishes that new Jewish humor
    after 2012 will afford some kind of new perspective on the place of
    humor in Jewish life, rather than yet another guilty peep into the
    bedroom or bathroom window. Move forward, dear Jewish comics! Leave
    the self loathing and self hatred behind!”

    ”Hazak! Hazak! ”

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