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Interview: Director Alan Zweig talks about When Jews Were Funny


In his documentary When Jews Were Funny, Alan Zweig explores the idea of a uniquely Jewish sense of humour, its origins and whether or not it still exists. I talked to him about his influences, Jewish humour and the challenges he had making the film. For Zweig the inspiration to make this film came from his childhood.

”My late father was the biggest influence.”

“My sense of humour came from my father. I think I eventually decided that what he laughed at was funny; his favourite comedians were my favourite comedians. The other thing about my father is that he once said to me that he believed that there must have been a reason that Jews survived all these thousands of years that there must have been something that they were bringing to the world. At the time he said it I didn’t think much of it but in later years I thought, oh perhaps there was something. Sure they brought humour and now it’s our job like we’re not going to bring anything else.”

“Jews brought psychoanalysis and humour and Hollywood”

“When I think about old Jews at a Bar Mitzvah or wedding I don’t think about anyone in particular …I had an uncle Dave, everyone remembers uncle Dave as being funny but my grandmother wasn’t funny on purpose. My uncle Dave was funny on purpose and he was funny in a Jewish on purpose way. When I think about old Jews at a Bar Mitzvah or wedding, I think about these people that I didn’t know like friends of my grandmother. I only had one grandparent and she was funny in a martyrdom kind of way and so was my mother too.”

Throughout his life Zweig found that his own sense of humour was a distinctly Jewish one that was not widely appreciated outside of the Jewish community.

“When I left the Jewish community and demonstrated my Jewish humour in the wider Goyic world It wasn’t appreciated it was seen as negativity. Even dry humour. Dry humour is very unappreciated in the non-Jewish world.”

Zweig takes a lot of flack from his interviewees but manages to keep his cool throughout the film. This footage was not edited out because in the end it helped to support Zweig’s thesis.

“One of the most shocking but not uncommon critical reactions to the film is, ‘the guy is such a bad interviewer that people argue with him.’ I start the film with a guy completely shutting me down (Shelley Berman). The thing is a documentary is not a piece of journalism…it’s just a personal exploration so if somebody disagrees with me it’s way more interesting to me that they’re being so Jewish while they’re doing this.

“I really don’t care if they agree with my thesis as long as they’re funny when they’re shooting me down.”

“In the case of Shelley Berman they give you a gift. He sang that song and I was like you might hate my guts but that my friend is going to be in my film.”

When Jews Were Funny opens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on November 15.