October 19, 2018

Jewish humor in ‘Tent: Comedy’

Actor and comedian Jon Lovitz once offered this reason why so many Jews are funny: “To be funny, you have to suffer, suffer, suffer,” he said. “Jews, blacks, we’ve suffered a lot in the past. That makes us funny, I guess.”

Maybe this talent is also a survival mechanism; as Milton Berle famously quipped: “I live to laugh, and I laugh to live.”

The origins of Jewish humor also have become a serious topic of study, in academe and elsewhere.

“I think it mainly has to do with historical conditions around Jewish immigration to the United States, and the ways in which Jews adapted to life in America,” said Tony Michels, a professor of American Jewish history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who teaches classes about Jews in comedy. 

Michels will lead a group of 20 aspiring humorists from around the country chosen to participate in “Tent: Comedy,” Oct. 18-25, at the Silverlake Independent JCC, now in its second year.

“Jews in their 20s want to connect with Jewishness in ways that are a little different from the ways their parents did,” said Josh Lambert, director of the national Tent program and academic director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. “A lot of young Jews care about being Jewish, but haven’t found natural homes in Jewish institutions that are religious or political in focus, or which were built on old models. With “Tent,” we’re creating new kinds of Jewish communities around the issues and cultural areas that are most relevant to this generation.”

Mornings are spent discussing readings by the likes of Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Phyllis Diller, as well as watching vintage performances and listening to classic LPs. Participants also read academic papers, such as Sigmund Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.” In that essay, Freud offers several examples of Jewish jokes, pointing out that jokes made by Jews are usually funnier than those made about them. “Jewish witticisms,” he wrote, “are made exclusively by Jews themselves, whereas Jewish stories of different origin rarely rise above the level of the comical strain or of brutal mockery.”

Guest speakers will also address the group, including Jill Soloway, creator/writer/director of the critically acclaimed new Amazon Prime show “Transparent,” which New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum called, “the most Jewish show I’ve seen on TV.” Soloway also met with the group last year, at which time her feature film “Afternoon Delight” was coming out.

Among last year’s speakers were screenwriter and New Yorker contributor Yoni Brenner, and actress Michaela Watkins, a former Saturday Night Live cast member. This year, Jason and Randy Sklar, hosts of the sports and pop-culture podcast, “Sklarbro Country,” will offer their own lessons on finding success in show business.

The nights include soaking in L.A.’s stand-up scene. Last year, Sarah Silverman entertained the group with a typically risqué set at the Largo, along with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin and comedian Tig Notaro.

Among the students this year will be Matthew Epstein, who has been writing comedy since moving to Los Angeles seven years ago to attend college, and has honed his stand-up and sketch comedy chops at Improv Olympics, along with some television writing.

“My characters tend to be Jewish, because I base a lot of what I write on my own life,” Epstein said in an interview. A script he wrote for a show called “Missionaries” helped him break into the comedy scene, and got him an agent. 

“It was a mockumentary about evangelical Christian missionaries in South Central Los Angeles, except the main character was actually a Jewish kid who was going on a mission [in order] to win over his Jewish girlfriend,” Epstein said. “I actually went to Catholic school, so I’m very familiar with Christian theology. I dated a Catholic girl, and I definitely had a hard time being the one Jewish kid,” he said, laughing.

Being able to tell jokes, Epstein said, helped him get through high school and land him a career.

“Comedy has definitely helped me my whole life, by giving me an honest way to relate to people,” he said. “If you can make people laugh, you can get them on your side, and that’s how it’s always been for me.”

Epstein said that because writing can be a solitary process, he finds that networking is one way to create a much-needed support system. The fact that everyone is Jewish in the “Tent” workshop, he said, can add to that bond.

Among last year’s participants was Jessie Kahnweiler, creator of the web series “Dude, Where’s my Chutzpah?” and other comedy shorts that confront taboo subjects, like rape and eating disorders, from a Jewish perspective. One of the classmates she met at the workshop is acting in her current project.

“I’m a film director, so it’s really nice to be in groups of people, because I’m used to being on my own,” Kahnweiler said. “So it was cool. I like that shared learning.”

“Tent participants take away a community,” Lambert said. “They form a group of peers, across the country but connected online, from vastly different backgrounds, but who are all interested in the same questions and are fighting some of the same battles personally and professionally.” 

In addition, Michel said, participants leave with “some knowledge of this history, and they’ll continue to think about it, and hopefully if some of them go into comedy, that Jewishness will, in some way, be a meaningful part of the material.”

To learn more about “Tent: Comedy,” visit tentsite.org.