Now say something funny: When Comedy Went to School (**1/2) & A top 5 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 24, 2013)

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Regular readers will likely roll their eyes if I kick off yet one more post with “Back in my stand up days…” So anyway, back in my stand up days, I developed a “hook” for the act based on being a Jew from Alaska. “Feast your eyes,” I would tell the stone-faced crowd by way of introduction, “You’re looking at an actual Jew from Alaska. We’re a rarity. We call ourselves ‘Jewskimos’.” Sporadic chuckles. Wait a beat. “God’s Frozen People.” HUGE laughs (usually). Okay, you’ve got ‘em. Don’t lose momentum. “In fact…and I have to say I don’t share this with every audience,” I would confide, “My Jewskimo name is ‘Kvetches With Wolves’. That was given to me by my rabbi…Rabbi Iceberg.” Guffaws, light applause. If I didn’t have them by then, I knew I was fucked.

I never stopped to consider why I made a conscious decision to play up my “Jewishness” to milk laughs/approval from roomfuls of drunken strangers. After all, my father is a farm boy from rural Ohio, and my mother is a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, so technically speaking, I’m not 100 per cent Kosher…I could swing either way. Why not play up my WASP “half”? Why did I eschew the straw hat for the yarmulke? Is it the Jewish DNA that makes me “ha-ha” funny?

It so happens that there is a new documentary called When Comedy Went to School, in which co-directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akaaya tackle the age-old question: Why are there so many Jewish comedians? Apparently, back in 1970, a survey found that while Jews only comprised 3% of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 80% of the professional comics working at the time. Who better to ask than some Jewish comedians? Robert Klein narrates, providing some historical context (my Jewish grandfather emigrated from Russia to escape the pogroms, so I wasn’t shocked  by the filmmaker’s revelation that vaudeville sprang from the shtetls of Eastern Europe).

Unfortunately, after a perfunctory nod to Vaudeville, Frank and Akaaya kind of drop the ball as per any further parsing of the symbiotic evolution of the Jewish-American experience with the development of modern comedy, instead leaning on the old shtick of parading veteran Borscht Belt comics like Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl and Jackie Mason in front of the cameras to swap war stories about the halcyon days of the Catskill resorts (which is where, the filmmakers posit, comedy “went to school”).

There is some fun vintage performance footage (Totie Fields! Buddy Hackett!), and an overall genial tone to the affair that makes it hard not to like on a casual level, but the film is ultimately a somewhat superficial affair (and c’mon guys…a slow motion montage of performers edited in sync to Judy Collins’ rendition of ”Send in the Clowns”…again?). It’s very similar in structure and tone to the 2009 PBS mini-series Make ‘em Laugh: The Funny Business of America; and at a short 76 minutes, it  feels destined for television broadcast.

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OK, so that didn’t work for me, what to watch this weekend? Keeping with the theme, I thought I’d offer my “Top 5” picks for the best films about the business of funny. Enjoy!

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work-“Do you want to know what ‘fear’ looks like?” exclaims Joan Rivers, pointing to a blank page in her weekly planner, “that is what ‘fear’ looks like.” Later, she laments “This (show) business is all about rejection.” Any aspiring stand-ups out there need to heed those words of wisdom (and I will back her up on this). Fear and rejection-that’s the reality of stand-up comedy. One could also take away much inspiration from Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s engaging “one year in the life” portrait of the plucky, riotously profane 75 year-old, as she rushes from nightclub and casino gigs to TV tapings, taking meetings and sweating over the writing and production of her one-woman stage play. The film also reviews her roller coaster career, from Borscht Belt beginnings to anointment (then blackballing) by Johnny Carson, then back up to middling. What emerges is a portrait of a performer who is still working her ass off, putting people 1/3 her age to shame with her fierce drive to succeed.

The King of Comedy– Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is an urbane, intensely private man by day, and a wildly successful TV talk show host by night. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a boorish, pushy autograph hound by day and an aspiring stand-up comic by night (in his mother’s basement). Rupert dreams of getting his big “break” on Jerry’s show. When his demo tape fails to land him an audition, an increasingly delusional Rupert attempts to ingratiate himself by stalking his idol. This does not set well, leaving the desperately fame-hungry Rupert only one option: kidnap Jerry and demand a spot on his show as ransom. The outstanding direction from Martin Scorsese, sharp screenplay by Paul D. Zimmerman, and top-notch performances bolster a dark satire about the ups and downs of the show-biz ladder (as well as our obsession with celebrity culture).

Lenny– Directed by Bob Fosse, adapted by Julian Barry from his own play and shot in gorgeous B&W by DP Bruce Surtees, this 1974 biopic is an idiosyncratic yet ultimately illuminating look at the life and legacy of groundbreaking “dirty” comic Lenny Bruce, brilliantly portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. Don’t expect a hagiography; Fosse is not shy about taking side trips from the faux-documentary framework to revel in the seedier elements of Bruce’s personal life, especially his heroin addiction and dysfunctional marriage to a stripper (Valerie Perrine, in a heartbreaking performance that earned her  a Best Actress win at Cannes). Hoffman’s transformation from the fresh-faced comic genius killing packed houses every night to the ranting,  puffy-faced junkie parsing transcripts of his obscenity trials to a handful of puzzled drunks is nothing short of extraordinary.

Mickey One– Warren Beatty is a comic who is on the run from the mob. The reasons are never made clear, but one thing is for certain: the viewer will find him or herself becoming as unsettled as the twitchy, paranoid protagonist. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare, with echoes of Godard’s Breathless. A true rarity-an American art film, photographed in expressive, moody chiaroscuro by DP Ghislain Cloquet (who also did the cinematography for Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Woody Allen’s Love and Death). Directed by Arthur Penn, who also teamed up with Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde.

The Tall Guy– Whether it slipped under the public’s radar or was poorly marketed is up for debate, but this underrated gem (directed by actor-comedian Mel Smith) is the stuff cult films are made of. Jeff Goldblum is an American actor working on the London stage, who is love struck by a nurse (Emma Thompson). Rowan Atkinson is a hoot as Goldblum’s employer, a stage comic beloved by his audience but known as a backstage terror to fellow cast members and crew. The most hilariously choreographed lovemaking scene ever put on film is worth the price of admission, but a stage musical version of The Elephant Man (skewering Andrew Lloyd Webber) had me rolling. Richard Curtis’ script is a schizoid mesh of high-brow and low-brow comedy that shouldn’t work…but somehow it does.

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