The title of When Jews Were Funny, which was awarded Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival, is attention-grabbing. It is also—thankfully—misleading. The notion that Jews are no longer funny is hilariously dispelled in the first few minutes of this insightful, intelligent, laugh-out-loud documentary.   

Looking into both the past and the possible future of Jewish comedy, Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig interviews dozens of men (and a couple of women), from old Borscht Belt veterans like Shecky Greene and Shelley Berman to up-and-comers like Andy Kindler and Marc Maron.

There are commonalities, of course. A lot of their shtick is rooted in Yiddish. Even for younger comics who don’t speak Yiddish, the timing, the intonations, the rhythms of the language are there.

There are also differences. The older guys prefer not to identify themselves as Jewish comedians. “I’m Jewish and I’m a comedian, but I’m not a Jewish comedian,” is the common stance. On the other hand, the younger Mark Breslin, founder of Yuk Yuk’s, is unequivocal about the connection. “The history of 20th-century comedy is Jewish. Period,” he declares.

Most of the film’s subjects view Jewish humour as the survival mechanism of a persecuted minority. Talking about his grandparents, who fled Europe and came to Winnipeg poor and not knowing a word of English, David Steinberg suggests that all they had was humour and each other.

This puts Zweig in the peculiar position of worrying that his two-year-old daughter, who has never known poverty and oppression, won’t be funny. He frets that she might never become “an old Jew” like the relatives he remembers around Friday night dinner tables, men and women who raised complaining to a fine comic art. 

Certainly Zweig himself is still good at kvetching. He’s made a career out of his pessimism, especially in three films called the Mirror Trilogy, which began in 2000 with Vinyl, a brilliant doc about obsessive record collectors. I, Curmudgeon (2004) looked at the chronically cantankerous, while Lovable (2007) was about single people. Zweig, a cranky vinyl fan who was unmarried into his fifties, is upfront about how his themes come out of his own experience.  

But if Zweig’s documentary approach seems a tad self-obsessed, it also means that he’s right in there. Much of his incredible skill as an interviewer comes from the fact that he has a stake in his subjects. In When Jews Were Funny this leads to a comically difficult exchange with stone-faced Bob Einstein (a.k.a. Super Dave Osborne).

And Zweig always uses his own neuroses to explore bigger things. When Jews Were Funny might be the best investigation into the mechanics of comedy since The Aristocrats, a 2005 documentary about one famously dirty joke.  And all those “Take my wife.... please!” punchlines ultimately morph into a serious investigation into the immigrant experience, of the push and pull of assimilation on one side and traditions and close-knit community on the other.

While it starts with Jewish comedy, the film becomes a perceptive and wryly funny look at what it means to be Jewish. Zweig and his interview subjects don’t come to any final answer, but clearly, part of what it means to be Jewish involves constantly wondering what it means to be Jewish.

Maybe things haven’t changed as much as the filmmaker fears. Though Zweig keeps declaring that he’ll never be “an old Jew” like the ones he grew up with, his presence in the film—weary, nostalgic and magnificently negative—suggests he’s well on his way. 

You can see When Jews Were Funny at Cinematheque from January 10 - 18. Hear Alison Gillmor's review on Up to Speed on Friday January 10.