How Jewish humour helped make Montreal the capital of laughter
From the days of Yiddish vaudeville to the birth of Just for Laughs
This story originally appeared in French on Radio-Canada Arts.
"There is a Quebec Jewish humour that doesn't exist anywhere else," declares Andy Nulman, who co-founded Just for Laughs in 1985. Without the contribution of its Jewish communities, Montreal would not be at the forefront of the international comedy scene.
There is a 'Jew-ne-sais-quoi' about Jewish comedians from Montreal — a joie de vivre, a more relaxed, liberated side.- Jamie Elman
Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, creators of YidLife Crisis, a three-season web series that's a love letter to Montreal and its Jewish culture, agree with Andy Nulman: there is a Jewish humour unique to Montreal, "especially when you compare it to Toronto."
This Quebec Jewish humour can be explained, according to them, by the particular history of the city, where Jewish communities form a minority within the heart of a francophone minority in North America. "The Jewish comics in Montreal want to stay here, while in Toronto, it's a city that is a springboard to go elsewhere, to New York, for example," says Nulman.
"Laugh so you don't cry"
Jewish humour is stamped with self-mockery, which kvetches (complains) at will, but which does not shy away from ridiculing the authorities — including, of course, Jesus Christ, "the skinny guy on the cross," as the Canadian historian Michael Wex reminds us in Born to Kvetch, a work dedicated to Yiddish culture and language.
This penchant for comedy is said to be rooted in, among other things, the historical oppression of the Jews. "Without taking a step back and self-mockery, we would always be depressed," explains Alex Fredo, a Franco-Canadian comedian who has worked in Montreal for 12 years.
Everyone knows at least a bit of Jewish humour or has taken it in without realizing it. In the United States, the contribution of Jews to the culture of humour is undeniable and well-documented: the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, Marc Maron and Rodney Dangerfield are just a few of the well-known names of a legion of comics going back more than 100 years.
"Seinfeld is our Torah," say Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, who took inspiration from the 1990s cult series for their web series.
In Quebec, however, Jewish communities remain less familiar. "I've worked with extremely educated Québécois that didn't know much [about Jewish people]," explains Batalion. For many Québécois, it's Hasidic Jews who come most prominently to mind, he says — "but most Jews are secular, like [other] Québécois."
The number of Jews following no religious practice is about five out of six, "a proportion that has always stayed more or less the same" in the city's history, according to Pierre Anctil, a historian and anthropologist specializing in Jewish culture.
If Jewish communities have been present in Montreal for more than 200 years, it was from the end of the 19th century that they gained momentum. With the waves of massive immigration at the beginning of the 20th century, Yiddish even became the third most widely spoken language in the city for 50 years.
This strong presence of Jewish culture in Montreal has helped nurture francophone culture. If the two communities evolved in parallel around Saint-Laurent Boulevard, sensibilities stepped over the barrier to spread among others in the arts.
The best-known legacy of this cultural exchange today is without doubt the Just for Laughs festival.
Making Montreal a comedy hub
In the early 1980s, the mere idea of inviting the biggest American comics to a francophone city was enough to cause outbursts of laughter and required a good dose of chutzpah (nerve). When they were courting artists' agencies to invite their comics to Montreal, Gilbert Rozon and Andy Nulman found it hard to be taken seriously.
We were really small-time. At the time, there were no comedy festivals in the world. William Morris [a famous agency that represented Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers] didn't even invite us into their offices; it was a meeting in the lobby. The sellers of American shows ignored us. Why? Because we were from Canada. Even smaller: we were from Quebec, from Montreal.- Andy Nulman
The anglophone branch of Just for Laughs began in 1985 with a very small two-day festival. However, the young festival could count on one thing: the enthusiastic support of Montreal's Jewish communities.
"For Jewish Montrealers, Just for Laughs was big-time," says Andy Nulman. "They bought tickets en masse. I got calls day and night; it was non-stop."
Thanks to this unwavering support, the festival had enough nerve to invite up-and-coming artists who wanted to prove themselves and who didn't mind having to travel to Montreal.
Within a few years, the seduction worked. The young Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Rowan Atkinson appreciated the quality of the venues and the star treatment that the city reserved for them. When they became famous a few years later, they remembered and returned the favour to the festival.
Montreal's Jewish diaspora also played a decisive role in the small festival's rapid growth. Though Just for Laughs continued to be shunned by most of the big American agencies, it was a Jewish Montrealer — Marty Klein, then-head of the important Agency for the Performing Arts (APA) — who allowed the festival to leave the comedy minor leagues behind.
"Marty Klein said to me, 'Listen, you're a young Jew. You're from my hometown. Let me help you.' And he helped us like you can't imagine," recalls Andy Nulman.
The doors and hearts of the other American agencies opened in a few years and made Just for Laughs one of the biggest comedy festivals in the world.
The wild years of Yiddish vaudeville and theatre
The contribution of Jewish communities to the comedy industry has its roots in the Montreal shtetl (village or neighbourhood with a strong Jewish majority) nearly 80 years before the first Just for Laughs festival.
It was in February 1897 that the first Yiddish play in Montreal premiered: Jacob Gordin's Der Yidisher Kenig Lir (The Jewish King Lear), a work inspired by William Shakespeare.
For immigrants of Jewish culture, seeing their culture performed on stage, in their language, was a very moving experience and the plays had great success in the city. Even if exchanges with francophones of the time are little-documented, we know today that there were many vaudeville and theatrical productions in Yiddish. The most popular were presented at the Monument Nationale: a 1,200-seat venue owned by the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society and inaugurated in 1893 to counter the influence of English culture.
At the time, cultural exchanges between francophones and Yiddish speakers often took place at this geographic and cultural intersection. The two communities — who, for the most part, had to communicate with each other in English — rubbed shoulders there for decades.
Yiddish theatre and vaudeville enjoyed a prosperous period from 1910 to 1945. The first permanent theatre company saw the light of day in 1912, and famous actresses and actors came from New York to present plays in Montreal.
After World War II, Yiddish theatre underwent a renaissance thanks to the remarkable work of the actress and director Dora Wasserman, who was supported in her early years by Gratien Gélinas, a titan of modern Quebec theatre and film.
A living heritage
The influence of these exchanges is not documented, but is, among other things, felt "in the speech, in the ways of posing on stage and of dressing in a way that is not entirely acceptable," says Pierre Anctil.
The Yiddish language in itself, beyond its content, is a wonderful weapon to make people laugh. Its cadence and sound give it a unique musicality — the comic virtues of which were observed a few years ago by Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman.
In 2014, when the two actors recorded the first episode of YidLife Crisis at the restaurant La Banquise — the kingdom of poutine in Montreal — the strength of Yiddish was revealed to them.
We wanted our series to be in Yiddish, but as a precaution we shot the first scene in English. The reaction of the staff at La Banquise was, let's say ... cold. Next, we performed the same scene in Yiddish, and we heard people laughing hard in the restaurant. We didn't understand it, so we asked them to explain. 'It's like Seinfeld, your thing,' was the response.- Eli Batalion
In addition to being featured in this contemporary web series, Yiddish is also found every year in plays performed at the Segal Centre in the Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood. In the 1990s, Michel Tremblay's play Les Belles-soeurs was performed there in the language of Sholem Aleichem, the Ukrainian author celebrated for his promotion of Yiddish literature and for writing the stories that Fiddler on the Roof was based on.
Several Plateau Mont-Royal buildings still bear the history of Jewish humour. Cinéma L'Amour, known today for showing erotic movies, was once a hotspot for vaudeville in Yiddish. To celebrate some of these places, the Museum of Jewish Montreal has been organizing guided tours in the neighbourhood since 2012.
Artistic events also revive this memory. In 2018, artist Sara Rosenthal painted a mural entitled It's Complicated at the back of Cinéma L'Amour.
While secular Jews have now abandoned Yiddish in favour of English or French, the arts and humour remain an integral part of their cultural heritage. Whether it's at the Segal Centre, the Jewish Public Library, the Museum of Jewish Montreal or through a thousand and one small projects, they continue to shape the face of Montreal.
This summer, if you attend the Just for Laughs festival, you may one day be able to brag about seeing the next Seinfeld or Sarah Silverman before they become a global star.
Hot hanoe fun dem spektakl!
Enjoy the show!
To go further:
- Segal Centre programming
- Montreal Jewish Public Library
- Museum of Jewish Montreal
- Le Montréal juif d'autrefois by Israel Medresh, translated from the Yiddish [to French] by Pierre Anctil, Septentrion (1997)
- Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex, Harper Perennial (2006)
- The web series YidLife Crisis (2014-2019)
- The documentary Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal (2018)
Thanks to Sheila Witt for the Yiddish translation.