I have to admit that I don’t have a lot of experience reviewing documentaries. I mostly only see them because they’re nominated for Oscars, and when I see the other ones it’s mostly about nature and that couldn’t be further away from the kind of topic When Jews Were Funny focuses on. Ultimately I can only draw comparisons from what is normally nominated for an Oscar, and those are some of the best documentaries of the year. Still, I found When Jews Were Funny to be a pretty weak documentary overall even if it has some laugh-out-loud moments throughout.
Basically it’s a documentary about older Jewish comedians. The reason I chose to watch it at TIFF is because I was under the impression that it would go through a lot of the history of the humor and work itself up to present day. Not really the case I’m afraid. I don’t actually think director Alan Zweig knew what he wanted to make it about, so he basically just met up with a bunch of Jewish comedians and asked them to tell jokes. In the end it’s basically a series of short often awkward interviews about nothing in particular except for what Jewish comedy really is.
I don’t particularly think it’s a very engaging topic strictly because it’s hard to be alive in North America these days without being able to recognize a Jewish character. It kind of came off like a documentary made for comedy students. There was nothing really in it that couldn’t have been found on YouTube and it’s spliced together as if someone found these clips and put them into a playlist. A lot of the comedians which include Howie Mandel, Gilbert Gottfried, Bob Einstein, Marc Maron and a slew of others kept actually being confused about why they were interviewed at all. It made the whole thing feel awkward and not very well thought out, but I was mostly confused by why Zweig didn’t cut those things out of the film.
Having said all of that, some of the jokes are incredibly funny. I haven’t heard the audience laugh that hard all year and I found myself constantly having a smile on my face. It makes a very weird dynamic because I found the jokes hilarious but it was a very poorly made documentary as far as the genre goes. In the end it had nothing very thought-provoking to say, nor did it really educate the audience – which I think is the reason why documentaries exist – but it had great jokes you could take and tell others, so it’s not completely terrible. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to get a good laugh out of a compilation of well known Jewish comedians, especially if they’re Jewish themselves, but on the other hand they can find all of these things on YouTube.