‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’ light on humor, heavy on stereotypes

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Click photo to download. Caption: Outside "Old Jews Telling Jokes," the off-Broadway (and according to JNS.org's reviewer, off color) show in New York City. Credit: 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.

Posted on July 16, 2012 and filed under Senior Life, Special Sections.