Comedian Don Rickles speaks after receiving the Johnny Carson Award during the second annual 2012 Comedy Awards in New York on April 28, 2012. Photo by Stephen Chernin/Reuters

Don Rickles, insult comedian and actor, dies at 90

Don Rickles, the bullet-headed comedian and actor whose pioneering brand of insult comedy earned him the nickname “Mr. Warmth,” has died at 90.

Rickles died Thursday morning at his home in Los Angeles from kidney failure, according to his publicist. He would have turned 91 on May 8.

Bald and squat, Rickles would pace the stages of nightclubs and late night talk shows seeking out “victims” in the audience, riffing on their weight, ethnicity and dress, calling them “hockey puck,” but usually pulling back from the edge of causing any real offense by offering a wide smile and an intentionally unctuous declaration of universal fraternity. His targets included fellow comedian Jerry Lewis (“You annoy me”), Frank Sinatra (“Make yourself comfortable, Frank — hit somebody”) and an Asian man sitting in the front row of one of his shows (“There are 40 million Jews here in Los Angeles; how did you get such a good seat?” ).

But Rickles also was a serious actor who trained at the famed American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and he had supporting roles in a number of memorable films including  “Kelly’s Heroes,” with Clint Eastwood; “Run Silent, Run Deep,” with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, and “Casino,” directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert DeNiro.

Younger audiences would recognize his voice as that of Mr. Potato Head in the Pixar film “Toy Story” and its sequels. He appeared in countless television shows.

An auxiliary member of the “Rat Pack,” a loose fraternity of entertainers led by Sinatra, Rickles kept on performing nearly to the end of his life and outlived most of the entertainers of his era.

Rickles was born and raised in Queens, New York. His father, Max, immigrated to the United States as a child from Kaunas, Lithuania. His mother, born in New York, also was the daughter of Jewish immigrants.

Rickles served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and after his service honed his act at small and often seedy nightclubs.

“I had a tough time – I had no other jobs – so I reached out to comedy,” he said in an interview with the Jewish Standard of New Jersey in 2013. Sinatra spotted Rickles at a Miami club, and the famed singer helped make him a headliner in Las Vegas. Rickles first appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1965, and would return as a guest at least 100 times.

In 2012, Jon Stewart presented Rickles with the “Johnny Carson Award For Comedic Excellence” at the Comedy Awards run by the Comedy Central cable network.

In his 2007 memoir, “Rickles’ Book,” he recalled a visit to his father’s grave on Long Island along with the cantor who would perform his wedding to Barbara Sklar.

“The cantor put on his white robe and prayer shawl,” Rickles recalled. “In the still of the morning, standing over my dear father’s grave, he sang the Hebrew prayer for the dead. He wailed; he sang with such tender feeling and heartfelt anguish that I felt the presence of God Almighty in every fiber of my being. Afterward, we recited the Kaddish, the Jewish mourners’ prayer, our words melting the morning fog to tears.

“Before we left, the cantor sang a prayer in Hebrew, inviting Dad to my wedding. Then he finished by saying, ‘May your soul be with us forever.’”

Barbara Rickles survives her husband, as does their daughter, Mindy. Their son, Larry, an Emmy Award-winning producer, died at 41 in 2011 of respiratory failure.

Rickles often tried to distinguish between the “character” he played on stage and his real-life persona.

“I don’t care if the average guy on the street really knows what I’m like, as long as he knows I’m not really a mean, vicious guy,” he said. “My friends and family know what I’m really like. That’s what’s important.”

Yom HaAtzmaut special: California on Hebrew [VIDEO]

California on Purim [VIDEO]

‘Yippee’ — Paul Mazursky documents Chasids gone wild

In all his 76 years, filmmaker Paul Mazursky had never seen anything like the 25,000 Chasidim singing, swaying, blowing shofars and dancing around a lake.

“It’s like the old days at the Apollo in Harlem, with the crowd going wild,” the irreverent Mazursky said. “Can you dig it?”

The scene is from his documentary, “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” which had its Southland premier this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The film is quite a change of pace for the creator of such quirky social comedies and dramas as “Bob”&”Carol”&”Ted”&”Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story.”

Despite his artistic reputation and string of Oscar nominations, Mazursky has found it increasingly difficult to find backing for his iconoclastic movies, which are infused with his wry take on the human condition.

During the past decade, after a quadruple heart bypass operation, Mazursky has gone back to his roots as an actor and comedian, including parts in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Sopranos,” while looking for the right combination of film and financing.

But last year, he and his two camera crews found themselves in Uman, a Ukrainian town of 80,000, whose population swells every Rosh Hashanah during an invasion of ecstatic Chasidim dressed in white kitels (robes), black suits or streimels (fur hats).

They come to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chasidic master, disputatious tzadik (learned scholar) and great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. Nachman was buried in Uman in 1811 at the age of 38.

What had brought the insistently secular Mazursky to Uman were the urgings of three disparate Angelenos: David Miretsky, his optometrist; Shmuel Levy, a devout Moroccan-born rock musician; and Rabbi Ezriel Tauber.

All three regularly participated in the pilgrimage to Uman, and they promised Mazursky that he would witness an event unlike any he had ever experienced.

Putting up $50,000 of his own money, and with his broken arm in a sling, Mazursky embarked on the adventure with his friends and a six-man crew, including his son-in-law.

During a brief layover in Munich, he warmed up by filming the beer-swilling Oktoberfest, before stopping in Kiev, where his grandfather is buried, and then reaching Uman after a three-hour drive.

In the run-up to the climax of the three-day celebration, Mazursky meets and talks with Chasidim, policemen, scholars and peasants, combining the roles of an innocent abroad, travel guide and self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn.”

Typical is his encounter with two local peasant women selling fruit from a sidewalk cart. They, like all the other Uman natives, know about Rosh Hashanah, which enriches the town by $2 million each year.

Despite the windfall, one woman is not entirely happy.

“Jews are not cultured people,” she complains. The other woman disagrees.

“They are cultured,” she insists, “they are just different.”

Mazursky’s camera lingers on other happenings. There is a rustic folk festival with pretty dancing girls in costumes and later, Vodka Appreciation Day, during which the filmmaker digs into his bottomless reservoir of jokes, many unprintable.

His favorite joke, told at least three times in the film, goes something like this: Cohen meets Schwartz in New York’s old garment district and Cohen says, “I heard about the fire.” Schwartz puts his fingers to his lips and whispers, “Shhhh, tomorrow.” (The joke dates back to at least the Great Depression, when some storeowners facing bankruptcy would set fire to their shops to collect insurance money.)

The film climaxes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, when the 25,000 Chasidim throw their sins into the lake and pray, dance and sing through the candle-lit night.

“Madonna and Woody Allen should be here,” Mazursky murmurs.

Before leaving, Mazursky organizes a bull session with Tauber and Dr. Julian Unger, a British neurologist, to explore the meaning of what he has seen.

“We come to Uman because on the day of judgment, Rabbi Nachman will be our lawyer, pleading our case before God,” Tauber explains.

Unger has a darker observation. “You know, 37 years before Rabbi Nachman came to Uman, there was a great pogrom here and thousands of Jews were drowned in the lake.

“When the Nazis came, they again murdered Uman’s Jews,” Unger continued. “It is a great irony that in 2005, we should be dancing in the streets of Uman. We are dancing on the graves of our martyrs.”

Mazursky, the wise guy from Brooklyn, drew his own lessons. “I could never think like a Chasid,” he ruminated during a two-hour interview in his crowded Beverly Hills office.

“I think of life as a cosmic joke, which keeps getting bigger all the time. But I’ve learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chasidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things,” he said.

The title of the film comes from another Mazursky observation. “It is better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say ‘Yippee.'”

“Yippee” is available on DVD through the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and will be included in a retrospective of Mazursky’s works at New York’s Lincoln Center, May 4-10.Paul Mazursky

Theater: Troy vs. ‘Tsuris’

“How should I prepare?” asks playwright Mark Troy after agreeing to an interview the following morning about his new play, “Tsuris,” opening Friday, Dec. 22, at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake. “Should I wear a blue tuxedo?”
Although he is not a standup comedian and says he has a “pathological fear of being in front of an audience,” Mark Troy is always “on.”

When asked whether he is Jewish, Troy responds, “You will be needing proof of that?”

Actually, there is no need for such proof from Troy, whose last name may conjure images of Hector fighting Achilles, but whose latest play is about battles of a more contemporary nature — among Jewish spouses, parents and their children in Florida.

Troy has written many plays about Jews, including “Join the Club,” which just played at a Malibu festival and revolved around the decision of a 35-year-old man to get a circumcision. Another play, “Getting to Bupkus,” focuses on a 12-year-old Jewish boy who runs away the night before his bar mitzvah and comes back 12 years later.

Their storylines may remind one of TV shows and films from the past, the first calling to mind the “Sex and the City” episode in which one of Charlotte’s dates decides to test out his newly circumcised penis on multiple partners, and the second bringing back memories of “The Bar Mitzvah Boy,” the film that every 12-year-old Jewish boy has seen.

Troy’s new play, “Tsuris,” also has a familiarity to it, but that doesn’t mean that his dialogue lacks freshness. Troy has his characters rattle off humorous lines like, “Florida is like dog years; you times everything by seven.”

Troy is not suggesting that everyone living in Florida is preternaturally ancient, but rather that “something slows you down” and you end up replicating your grandmother’s habits — going to K-mart, going to the pool, then another pool and, most of all, eating dinner at 4 p.m. at Bagel Palace or Bagel Nosh or Bagel Land.

At these bagel emporia, elders may even utter adages such as this parody of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech: “They say every man should have three wives. When he’s in his 20s … there’s the lustful wife. Then in midlife, he has the motherly wife. Then in his final golden years…the companion wife…. Thank God I’ve found in Irma Messersmidt the lustful whore I’ve been missing.”

“Tsuris” plays Dec. 22 through Feb. 3 at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake.

Books: Shmegegis of old, shmegegis of gold

“Old Jewish Comedians,” illustrated by Drew Friedman, edited by Monte Beauchamp. (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95) .

“Weep before God. Laugh before people.”
— Jewish Folk-Saying.

Who doesn’t love old Jewish comedians? Those mamzers of mirth and halutzim of humor who paved the road from the Catskills to Vegas as first-generation entertainers. Now comes “Old Jewish Comedians,” a book to honor these slapsticklers and ticklemen of the 20th century. Thirty-two pages of funny faces (all guys), the book is “An Illustrated Gallery of Jewish American Comedians, Comics, Comic Actors, Clowns, and Tummlers Depicted in the Sunset of Their Years.” Artist Drew Friedman’s portraits cover the greats and the greatly forgotten, from George Burns and Buddy Hackett, to Benny Rubin and Joe Smith.

Friedman, whom I first enjoyed for his funny illustrations in SPY Magazine, and whose work currently is seen in MAD, the New York Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, said that none of the comedians posed for him.

“I have a fairly extensive photo file which was very helpful,” he said.

He’s collected pictures of comedians since he was a child. (Bruce Jay Friedman, the author’s father, appears in “Old Jewish Comedians” in a photo from 1940 in the Catskills with comedian Jackie Miles.)

“Rich reality” is how Leonard Maltin describes Friedman’s style in his foreword. Included in the book are the real names for these “show-business survivors” as Maltin calls them: Shecky Green/Sheldon Greenfield, Freddie Roman/Fred Martin Kirschenbaum, Rodney Dangerfield/Jacob Cohen, Henny/Henry Youngman, et al.

Unfortunately, the only writing in “Old Jewish Comedians” is Maltin’s foreword.

“I didn’t want it to be ‘history’ book,” Friedman explained. “There are already those out there. I wanted their styles to be illustrated in their faces and the context of the drawing. Maltin’s intro puts everything into historical context.”

So where to go if you want to learn more about these Jewish jesters? The ones who didn’t make it because comedy was less marketable back then, 50 years before HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and clubs expanded stand-up venues are described in detail by Betsy Borns in her 1987 treatise, “Comic Lives.” Most never even flashed the free- wheeling coffeehouse style that Gerald Nachman recounts in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 60s.” (Shelley/Sheldon Leonard Berman being the exception, appearing in that 2003 book and this one.)

To really evaluate the book, I went to 92-year-old Irving Brecher. After all, Brecher is old, Jewish and he has not only done stand-up, he wrote for some of Friedman’s alter kackers, like Milton Berlinger (Berle, on the cover), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns, inside cover), and the Marx Brothers (Julius, Adolph and Leonard, middle two pages of book.)

Book open, over split pea soup and half a pastrami on rye at Label’s Table on Pico Boulevard, I quizzed Brecher about “OJC” who never found the fame of a Moses — Harry Horwitz/Moe Howard or Jerome Levitch/Jerry Lewis, a Jack Chakrin/Jack Carter or Archibald Donald Rickles/ Don Rickles, et al.

— Irv, here’s Harry Joachim.

“That’s Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers. Harry was the only one who was talented. Al and Jimmy were nothing.”

— Menasha Skulnik?

“That’s his real name. Great Yiddish comedian. The Yiddish theater was a remarkable place. I wish you’d seen it.”

— Joseph Seltzer?

“Joe Smith of Smith & Dale, the famous vaudeville team. They made a movie called “The Heart of New York,” which is a museum piece. For collectors.”

— Abraham Kalish?

“Al Kelly. Al did double talk. That was his style. He spoke gibberish in vaudeville sketches and all the people would try to be polite.

— While he mocked them?

“No, not mocking them. The audience would laugh. But people in the real world he dealt with would be taken in.”

— Sounds like what Borat does!

“Haven’t seen it. But most comedians couldn’t do it like Al Kelly could. He was unique.”

— Here’s a fellow named Ben Rubin…

“Benny Rubin used to work for me! When he was up in vaudeville. I’d give him a part in “The Life of Riley” radio show. In Hollywood, when they wanted a Jew with a long nose, they’d hire him. The lousy Hollywood producers. He’d make $150. I’d never use a character with a Jewish accent. Like Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] did with ‘Mr. Schlepperman.'”

— He used a thick Jewish accent?

“I hated it, that very stereotypical annoying character.

— Who played him?

“Artie Auerbach. Listen, do they have Jan Murray in this book?”

— No.

“I’m surprised.”

Friedman said not to worry; Jan Murray/Murray Janofsky will appear in the sequel, “More Old Jewish Comedians,” due in 2008.

Brecher said he hopes the sequel has a bit, or routine, a catchphrase, something from each comedian to go with the pictures.

Theater: All in the ‘Herbicide’ family

The Emmy-winning writer Jay Kogen (“The Simpsons,” “The Class” and other shows) is helping Herb Astrow go over the opening lines of his first solo stage performance.

“Remember, it’s an intimate evening with,” Kogen tells him. “It’s your party. So rather than just going into a story, you want to be welcoming.”

“Welcome to the height of self-indulgence!” Astrow announces, cracking everybody up at rehearsal.

Astrow, a 72-year-old Los Angeles restaurateur (Yankee Doodles on the Santa Monica Promenade), is, after 50 years, returning to his first love: the theater. In a benefit at the Santa Monica Playhouse, he’ll star in “Herbicide” Dec. 9 and 10.

Astrow’s most recent role was playing Stanley the waiter in a production of “Death of a Salesman.”

“At Brooklyn College,” he laughs. “In 1958. As a kid I wanted to be an actor, but my own kids came along….”

“He’s been great at being brutally honest,” says Kogen, Astrow’s director, who helped him reduce 16 wild tales to the four most resonant. Or redolent, like the one where Astrow smells so bad from working at Nathan Strauss Twentieth Century Fish Market in Flatbush, that he rubs cologne into his jeans before bicycling off to meet his buddies, “Itchy” (Joel Stanislaw), “Rooster” (Stu Lazarus), “Ziggy” (Marvin Zelenitz), and “Pot Cheese” (Jerry Potolsky). Astrow was “Hercules.”

It was 1944, “that perfect time when the Jews, the Irish, the Italians all lived together,” says Astrow ‘s sister, Jo Anne Astrow. “It was a golden time for education in New York.”

Jo Anne Astrow named their production company Chestnut Avenue Productions, after the “last documented dirt road in Brooklyn,” where they lived above their Sicilian landlord, Mr. Sharaldi.

Sharaldi “owned the last horse in Brooklyn,” Herb says. “He called his horse ‘Horse.’ During the winter, when his ass got frozen to the wagon seat, he changed Horse’s name to ‘You F—– Horse.'”

Astrow went to work at the age of 9, making $4 a week delivering fish, which helped pay the rent.

His father, Barney, was his hero: “He sat in a chair reading the dictionary and the encyclopedia and philosophized on life.” He taught Herb to “always compliment women on their appearance and especially say nice things about their home furnishings.”

But multiple sclerosis forced Barney to quit his florist business. The family went on welfare, and when Barney had to move to another home, the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital for Chronic Diseases, Astrow’s mother became his hero.

“By the sheer force of her will to survive,” he recalls. “God bless that crazy woman!”
Elsie Astrow underwent shock treatments for depression and used to beat her son with his father’s cane “over some nonsense thing I did, like eating too many creamsicles” he says.
She was suicidal, but saved his life with the taste of her lamb stew with sugared apple dumplings and the slap of a catcher’s mitt when Herb was choking to death one night at dinner.

The title of the show itself comes from “the life and death struggles” he says he had once with a houseplant.

“Struggles with a life,” adds sister Jo Anne Astrow, leading to Herb Astrow’s story of the vodka-and-Tab habit he picked up after breaking off with his textile business partners, the poisonous dieffenbachia plant and a Thanksgiving dinner in Queens where the two opposing sides of his family — Russian Jews and German Jews — no longer agree to “respectfully loathe each other.”

“Herbicide” is a family project. His son-in-law came up with the title, and Jo Anne Astrow not only co-produced (with Sally Schaub), she figures funnily in the stories. (She’s also comedian Lewis Black’s manager.) And director Kogen’s family and the Astrows grew up and vacationed together for years on Fire Island.

“Even when I was little,” Kogen says of his actor, “we all knew he had an adventurous life. We were told, ‘Don’t go on the boat with Uncle Herbie!'”

Proceeds from “Herbicide” will go to the Save the Playhouse capital campaign to put a down payment on the building at Fourth Street near Wilshire Boulevard.

George Vennes, Santa Monica Playhouse technical director, tells The Journal, “Rent for the offices, two theaters and two rehearsal spaces is up to $10,000 a month.”

With Youth Theater, cultural outreach and a legendary history, the Playhouse, says Vennes, “caters from two to 92.”

It was one of the playhouse’s ongoing workshops, an acting class with the actor Jeffrey Tambor, that first got Astrow interested in telling his stories onstage. And it was his writing coach, Wendy Kaminoff, who dared Astrow to make it happen. (Well, her business card does say: “Creative Ass Kicker”)

“Herb is this wonderful combination of New York savvy, old school wisdom and outrageous life experiences,” Kaminoff says. “Imagine Garrison Keillor, only if he was a handsome Jewish guy from Brooklyn.”

“Herbicide,” Dec. 9 at 8 p.m., Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. $20. Price includes a post show reception at the playhouse. Santa Monica Playhouse 1211 4th St. For information call (310) 394-9779 Ext. 1

Hank Rosenfeld is writing a book with Irving Brecher, who wrote for Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday the

The JCCs’ Celebrity Staged Play Readings, produced and directed by Alexandra More, have been going strong for 11 seasons. Consider taking in the first of their 12th season’s selections. The comedy/drama, “Brooklyn Boy,” by Pulitzer-winning author Donald Margulies, plays this weekend, starring Stephen Macht as Eric, a Jewish author in his late 30s grappling with sudden huge success.

Sept. 16: 7:30 p.m. $12-$16. Valley Cities JCC, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 786-6310.

Sept. 17: 2 p.m. $12-$16. Westside JCC, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 938-2531, ext. 2225.

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Wednesday the

Get in touch with your child, and your inner child. Quality time with the family comes courtesy of Barnes and Noble in Aliso Viejo, today. A special “Rosh Hashanah Storytime” with Chabad of Laguna’s preschool director, Perel Goorevitch, includes storytelling, a guitar sing-along and arts and crafts.
4 p.m. 26751 Aliso Creek Road, Aliso Viejo. (949) 362-8027.

Thursday the

Morocco’s Jewish and Muslim cultures, and the social and physical spaces they inhabit, are explored in UCLA Fowler Museum’s new exhibition. “Liminal Spaces: Photographs of Morocco by Rose-Lynn Fisher.” It opens this week, with an opening reception Sunday, Sept. 17 at 2 p.m. It remains on view through Jan. 14.

Free. Fowler Museum, UCLA campus, Westwood. (310) 825-8655. ” TARGET=”_blank”>

Spectator – ‘Sit Down’ Standup With David & Co.

In an age of assimilation, a couple of generations removed from the ghetto, can Jews still be funny? Yes, says David Steinberg, host of the new talk show, “Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg,” which premiered this past Wednesday on TV Land. “Kvetching is funny. That’s what Jews do,” he says.

Mostly middle-class and divested somewhat of their ethnicity, comedians like Larry David, Jon Lovitz and Jerry Seinfeld, whom Steinberg directed many times on “Seinfeld,” retain a Jewishness, if not in the subject matter of their material, then in their style or delivery.

Steinberg says that Seinfeld uses the historic Jewish trope of beginning a joke with a question, not unlike the way Sholom Aleichem’s characters answer a question with a question, while David, who appears on the second episode of “Sit Down” airing Wednesday, is not “afraid to go as far as he can in creating a stereotype” about Jews. Lovitz, another one of Steinberg’s guests, is Jewish “in his look, in his face, the lying character.” Steinberg traces a direct line from Jack Benny’s penny-pincher to Lovitz’s liar.

Perhaps the guest who comes closest to the traditional Jewish comedian is a non-Jew, George Lopez, who hails from East Los Angeles, once home to a community of Jews, now a barrio. Lopez wields his Latino ethnicity the way that many past Jewish comedians — from Al Jolson to Lenny Bruce and even to Steinberg himself –used to wield theirs.

Steinberg has always been comfortable with his Jewishness. He refused to Anglicize his name years ago when the networks asked him to. “In America,” he says, “they want you to be American first, something else second.”

Raised in Canada, Steinberg grew up Jewish first in an Orthodox household.

He once joked that “David Steinberg is not the name of a star. David Steinberg is the name of an accountant.”

Steinberg has no desk or sidekick, like Johnny Carson, on whose show he appeared more than any other guest but Bob Hope. He gives no opening monologue, just a brief introduction. Unlike James Lipton, he draws little attention to himself, sitting in an egalitarian two-chair layout and permitting a younger generation of comics to shine. That may be a unique legacy for a comedian. Then again, his book of biblical humor coming out next year boasts the eponymous title, “The Five Books of David.” Well, who said comedians can’t be self-referential?

“Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on TV Land.


7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, June 4

Today, galerie yoramgil launches “introductions,” a three-month endeavor to present six new artists to the public. View the diverse works of painters Zeev Ben-Dor, Yuri Katz, Nona Orbach, Paul Abbott and Mary Leipziger, and the bronze sculptures of Immi Storrs in mini solo shows throughout the large gallery.

Through Sept. .5. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). 462 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-2641.

Sunday, June 5

Storyteller and actress Vicki Juditz is used to infusing heart and humor into difficult subjects like infertility and anti-Semitism. Today she performs her highly praised monologue, “Teshuva, Return,” for Child Survivors of the Holocaust in a private Beverlywood residence.

2 p.m. $25. For more information, call (310) 836-0779.

Monday, June 6

It’s a hodgepodge of celebrities and wannabes at tonight’s annual Vista Del Mar and Family Services’ Sports Sweepstakes Dinner. Comedian Paul Rodriguez and Olympian Mitch Gaylord co-emcee the event that includes an appearance by the Playboy Bunnies but not Hef himself. Tommy Lasorda will be honored, cocktails will be drunk and thousands of dollars will be raised for troubled and at-risk youth. Drop a cool 1K to do your part.

5:30 p.m. $1,000. Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-1223, ext. 225.

Tuesday, June 7

Israeli group Mashina has had a long and, sometimes, rocky past. But the band is now back together, touring to promote their 12th album. For the first time in a long time, they’re back in Los Angeles for one night only. Catch them tonight at the Avalon while you can.

8 p.m. (310) 273-2824.

Thursday, June 9

Laughing for charity sounds like a pretty good deal. Tonight, StandWithUs and Pups for Peace co-sponsor “LaughWithUs,” a comedy night featuring funnymen Wayne Federman (“Legally Blonde,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Lenny Schmidt (“Joe Dirt”) and plenty of others. Proceeds will help send comedians to Israel for comic relief and also benefit Israeli charities.

7:30 p.m. $75 (includes 2 drinks). Improv Theater, 8162 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-6140.

Jason Alexander becomes the latest star to try his hand at children’s book writing with his new release “Dad, Are You the Tooth Fairy?” (Which would perhaps be better titled, “Dad, Since When Are You a Writer?”) Still, we’ll grant you Alexander’s a pretty funny guy, and you can size up his literary talents for yourself tonight. He reads from his book and signs it at Barnes and Noble at the Grove.

7:30 p.m. 189 Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-2070

Friday, June 10

Author Maggie Anton does the book tour circuit in Los Angeles this week, promoting her new work of historical fiction, “Rashi’s Daughters.” The book explores the stories of Jewish scholar Rashi’s daughters, who, unlike his sons, were largely ignored. She appears at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on June 8, and as scholar-in-residence at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills this weekend.

Jewish Community Library: (323) 761-8644. Shomrei Torah: (818) 346-0811.

Queen of Laughter

Imagine emceeing an event following Sept. 11. Rhea Kohanknows that feeling. The mistress of ceremonies for countless local Jewishorganizations hosted Friends of Sheba Medical Center’s annual Women ofAchievement Luncheon just 48 hours after the terrorist attack.

“I was dreading it, because who was in the mood to laugh,”Kohan said of the Sept. 13, 2001, engagement. “I told them, ‘Why don’t youcancel? Even the Emmy Awards was canceled.”

But the luncheon’s honorees — including “Will & Grace”star Debra Messing and cartoonist Cathy Guisewite — did not cancel, so Kohankept her commitment, as well.

Attendees of that post-Sept. 11 function recalled how deftlyKohan negotiated the line between comedy and solemnity.

“People walked in absolutely confused, distraught, upset,”recalled Ila Waldman, Friends of Sheba Medical Center’s executive director.”After the luncheon, they walked out uplifted. It was a real catharsis.”

The self-described raconteur refuses to label herself astand-up comedian. But Kohan’s wit has, over the last decade, made her asought-after personality in the local Jewish community, and she refuses tocharge money for her humorous hostessing.

“When I get calls from [organizations such as] Israel Bondsand Sheba Medical Center,” Kohan said, “I find it very hard to say no.”

Comedy and music run in the family. Kohan is married tocomedy writer and composer Buzz Kohan, winner of 13 Emmy Awards. Son DavidKohan co-created the Emmy-winning “Will & Grace” and plays guitar; his twinbrother, Jono, plays piano and drums and is a partner in the music productioncompany, 1st Born Entertainment; and daughter, Jenji Kohan Noxon, won an Emmyin 1996 as supervising producer for “Tracey Takes On.”

Days before the 75th Academy Awards, Buzz Kohan took a breakfrom working on this year’s Oscar telecast to discuss his wife.

“I like her,” Buzz said with comic understatement. “We’vebeen together for 40 years. No sense trading her in now.”

Kohan has collaborated with her husband on specials, such as”The Funny Women of Television.”

“She contributes a Jewish sense of humor, sense of valuesand heart [at her gigs],” Buzz said. “She has a wonderful way of lighting up aroom, which is so rare for people who don’t do this for a living. She sizes upthe people at an event and makes wonderful, pithy observations about them.”

The Kohan offspring report that their mother has always beensupportive of their comedic and musical aspirations.

“Comedy is taken seriously,” said daughter Jenji, 33. “Ourdinner table was a rough room. I didn’t talk for years. Everyone was very quickand had standards for funny.”

Rhea Kohan grew up in “the best place in the world –Brooklyn.” She met her husband while working as a canteen girl in the resorttown of Lake George, N.Y.

“He came from the Bronx, so we would never have metotherwise,” she said, half-joking.

In 1967, “‘The Carol Burnett Show’ made Buzz an offer hecouldn’t refuse,” Kohan said, and they moved to Los Angeles, where her wickedwit was the hit of a friend’s birthday party. Word of Kohan’s gift of gabspread after hosting a Jewish Family Service gala honoring a friend.

“She’s just able to see things clearly and put a comedicspin on it,” said Jono, 38.

Kohan greatly influenced David, the sitcom creator.

“One summer, we were all away in camp,” David recalled ofwhen he was 13. “She had a chance to sit down with her legal pad, and she wrotea novel. A couple of years later, she wrote another.”

Unlike Buzz Kohan’s penchant for sketches and musicalcomedy, “all of my mother’s humor comes from character and the absurdity of asituation,” David explained.

“Up until the day of the banquet,” David continued, “she’sconvinced herself that she’s going to be an abysmal failure, and then she’sbrilliant. She’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Particularly whenshe criticizes my life choices — that’s a scream.”

“Sometimes I bomb like Hiroshima,” Rhea Kohan said, “but Ialways feel that I’m doing it for a good cause, not for the career of RheaKohan.”

The Beverly Hills-based Kohans remain a tight-knit clan.

“Every Shabbat, our family gets together for dinner,” Jonosaid. “We just have a great time together.

Kohan loves working Jewish galas and the community loves herback.

“She is just the most delightful human being,” said State ofIsrael Bonds’ Brigitte Medvin. “She can be a stand-up comic. She researches thehonorees and weaves wonderful stories about the people she introduces.”

“We’ve had her emcee our Women of Achievement Luncheon forthree years now,” Waldman said. “She’s synonymous with the luncheon. I can’tthink of doing it without her. To us, she’s our perennial woman ofachievement.”

Rhea Kohan will emcee the State of Israel Bonds’ Women’sDivision’s Golda Meir Club Luncheon on May 8 at the Four Seasons Hotel, WestHollywood. For information, call (310) 996-3004.

Kohan will also host Women’s Group of Friends of ShebaMedical Center’s Women of Achievement Luncheon on June 5 at the Four Seasons.For information, call (310) 843-0100. 

Not a Day Over 39

In one of his most famous bits, comic Jack Benny was held upby a thug who demanded, “Your money or your life.” His response was silence.And more silence. Then, desperately, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

The fiddle-playing Jewish comedian (1894-1974) dominatedradio and TV for decades with his persona of a put-upon, miserly fellow whoinsisted he was 39. He’ll be honored this weekend at a convention, “39Forever,” sponsored by the International Jack Benny Fan Club and the NationalComedy Hall of Fame. Events will include Museum of TV and Radio screenings,trivia games, a Friars Club banquet and panel discussions with experts such asBenny’s daughter, Joan; his manager, Irving Fein; satirist Harry Shearer; andEddie Carroll of the Benny tribute “Laughter in Bloom.”

If the comic was America’s best-known cheapskate, he avoidedthe anti-Semitic stereotype.

“Benny secularized cheapness,” cultural historian NealGabler told The Forward in 1999. “People didn’t go around saying, ‘Boy, thatcheap Jew, Benny.'”

Despite his riffs on stinginess, most listeners never knewthe Midwesterner (ne Benjamin Kubelsky) was Jewish. Unlike comics such as EddieCantor and George Jessel, he sounded less “like a Catskill refugee” than a”middle American, middle-class everyman,” Gerald Nachman wrote in his book,”Raised on Radio” (Pantheon, 1998).

Yet by creating his lovable cheapskate character during theDepression, this son of a Russian immigrant drew “on the Eastern EuropeanJewish condition and [applied] it to his American audiences,” Lawrence Epsteinwrote in “The Haunted Smile” (PublicAffairs, 2002), his book on Jews andcomedy.

In Benny’s private life, the tightwad image came with aprice.

 “He’d always tip extra, just to prove he wasn’t cheap,”Fein told The Journal.

At her Beverly Hills home on a recent Friday afternoon, JoanBenny, who is in her 60s, sat in a book-lined living room decorated with herfather’s memorabilia and described how dad grew up in an Orthodox home inWaukegan, Ill., the son of a haberdasher. When he was 8, his father gave him a$100 violin; his parents were appalled when he asked to take his fiddle on thevaudeville circuit a decade later. Permission came only when his pianistpromised to shield him from treif and loose women.

According to Benny’s unpublished autobiography, he met hisfuture wife, Sadie Marks, when fellow vaudevillian Zeppo Marx took him to adistant relative’s Passover seder around 1921. After Benny broke into radio 11years later, Marks eventually joined the cast as his on-again, off-againgirlfriend, Mary Livingstone (thereafter, Marks used that name in her privatelife).

By the time the Bennys segued into television in 1950, theyhad adopted Joan from a Jewish agency and moved into a Beverly Hills two-storywhite brick Georgian next door to Lucy and Desi. Their lavish Hollywood partiesincluded guests such as Frank Sinatra and Barbara Stanwyck, Joan said.

She described her father as an irreligious man who attendedHillcrest country club and had a Canter’s sandwich named for him, but rarelyset foot in synagogue. Each December, a 10-foot-tall Christmas tree graced thebay window in their first-floor library, where dad presided over scriptwritingsessions in his Queen Anne winged leather chair. On Friday nights, the familyate gribenes and other Jewish delicacies at the grandparents’ duplex on ThirdStreet near Fairfax Avenue, “which was about as religious as we got,” she said.

She felt the butler needed roller skates when the familydined at the home of dad’s best friend, Jewish comic George Burns.

“The two of them ate so fast, I think, because of theiryears in vaudeville trying to wolf down meals in between eight shows a day,”she said.

Her father’s relationship with Burns revealed much aboutBenny’s on-air persona. “Minus the stinginess, he was exactly like hischaracter,” she said. “He played a kind of mild-mannered patsy, the butt of thejoke, and he was like that with George and in real life. For example, my fathercould never make George laugh, but all George had to do was lift a finger andmy father would fall down on the floor.”

Joan recalled her dad wearing crazy outfits when greetingthe cigar-puffing Burns (Burns didn’t crack a smile) and his mock exasperationwhen his pal hung up on him in the middle of a telephone conversation.

“At dinner with the two of them, you were just waiting forsomething to happen,” she said.

The American public did the same throughout Benny’s weeklyradio and TV shows.

Fan club President Laura Leff, 33, hopes the convention willintroduce a whole new generation to his work. Leff, who founded the club at age10 after viewing Benny reruns, isn’t alone.

“It’s meaningful to me that younger people will discoverJack,” Fein said.

For information about the convention, which runs fromFeb. 14-16,  visit

JAKKS Jumps for Children

In the movie "Little Nicky," Adam Sandler played the son of the devil, but for many Israeli children today Sandler is an angel.

When the Jewish actor-comedian wanted to do something to help brighten the lives of Israeli children wounded in suicide bombings, he contacted his friend Stephen Berman, president and COO of JAKKS Pacific toy company.

The collaborative effort resulted in a donation and shipment of more than 500 toys to hospitals in Tel Aviv, each with a personal note from Sandler included. However, while the celebrity’s name was probably the most recognizable to the children, it was the lesser-acclaimed Berman whose massive donation made the whole thing possible.

"I sincerely hope the toys helped to put smiles on the faces of children in Tel Aviv who have endured much heartache," Berman said.

Children in Tel Aviv are not the only ones who are smiling as a result of Berman’s efforts. Ever since Berman and CEO Jack Friedman co-founded JAKKS Pacific seven years ago, philanthropy has been one of the company’s main objectives. Now, as the third largest toy company in the nation, JAKKS’s mission to help children in need has only intensified.

Every holiday season, JAKKS donates truckloads of toys to needy children and families throughout Los Angeles and across the nation. The company is financially and actively involved in furthering the efforts of numerous children’s organizations, including Hollygrove Children and Family Services, Special Olympics, The Boys and Girls Clubs, the Starlight Children’s Foundation and Toys for Tots, in addition to several Jewish organizations, such as the Museum of Tolerance and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Last holiday season, JAKKS donated toys and art supplies to children affected by the tragedy of Sept. 11.

In December of 2001, JAKKS Pacific received the City of Los Angeles proclamation from Mayor James Hahn, honoring its commitment to public service. "Giving toys and art supplies to children who need them most, in good times, and especially during challenging times, is the best way we know of to show but a fraction of our gratitude for our good fortune," Berman said. — RB

Being Jan Murray

The first time I saw Jan Murray perform was on my TV in 1964. I was in pajamas, with my two sisters in Detroit, and on comes their favorite morning game show, "Treasure Hunt." This tall, suave gentleman is the host, and he has a great wit and raspy New York inflection that glues us to our set for years.

The first time I saw Jan Murray perform live was in the 1990s, at Morey Amsterdam’s funeral. Milton Berle, Rose Marie, Steve Allen, Red Buttons and so many others make it the funniest memorial I’ve ever attended.

When Jan took the bimah, he told the packed University Synagogue sanctuary how Morey was "the most cheerful, optimistic man" he’d ever known. There’s a definition of Jewish humor I like: "Laughter with sadness in the eye." And I remember thinking, Jan Murray has that look.

So now I get to meet him, because my friend Irving Brecher is his pal at Hillcrest Country Club. Irving wrote Marx Brothers movies and MGM musicals in the so-called Golden Age, and plays low-stakes gin rummy with the other octogenarians in the Hillcrest card room. But Jan used to play a lot of golf there, so he’d rather talk on the sunny deck facing the fairways. He’s not as tall as I recall from TV. I mention this, and how I much he touched me at Morey Amsterdam’s memorial.

"When Morey was dying he was the size of a cufflink," Jan says, tugging up the sleeves of his sweater to settle in. "We shrink when we get older, ya know." Right away, funny. And that great voice. Men like Jan Murray and Irving Brecher carry a deep, haimish wonderfulness inside their wit and style. I wonder, do the thousands of Jewish comedy writers and comics in this town appreciate the experience our tribal elders can convey? In a place like New York, you might see a Freddy Roman or Nipsey Russell crossing 57th Street, but it’s not like that here. When Irv invites me to the Friars Club or Label’s Table on Pico, I feel it is my one shot to sit among the "greatest generation." Of tummlers, anyway.

"Tummler was just a name people gave," Murray corrects me. "Nobody said, ‘Here’s a tummler.’"

Jan tummeled at dozens of Catskills resorts, starting in the 1930s. He made "top banana" at 19. A tummler, he informs me, is the guy who tries to be funny all day, not just on the stage at night.

"In the morning, the fat ladies in the exercise room," explains Jan. "I’d pass by and do shtick."

I ask him, "Wasn’t being this jester-Jew-roving thing 24-7 exhausting?"

"What are you, nuts?" Jan fires back. I get a look like I’m a contestant on his "Dollar a Second" quiz show who just missed the easiest question since 1953. "You get exhausted when you’re 80," he schools me. "Until I was 80, I wasn’t exhausted. There’s no medicine like being on stage hearing people laugh."

Now 85, the charming stand-up spins his gravel-timbred tales while sitting down, going on about everything from what’s in the comedian’s artistry to what’s in a name.

"My first job was at the Bronx Opera House," he recalls. "They were looking for a stooge for a singer. I was 16. When I got there, the agent said, "Awright, what’s yer name?" I said, "Murray Janowski." He says, "Murray Janowski? What the hell kinda name is that for an actor?" He says, "Look kid, let me give you advice: Get an easy name. If you’re good, they’re leaving the theater, have an easy name for them to remember. Otherwise, who the hell’s gonna remember Janowski?’"

As a kid in the East Bronx, Jan loved the 25 cent vaudeville shows his mother took him to see at Loew’s Boulevard Theater. Then his mother grew too ill to make the matinees.

"I used to come back, stand at the foot of her bed, and describe the whole show," Jan says gently. "The tricks the opening juggler act did, the female performer and what she wore and what she sang. But when it came to the comedian, I knew his whole goddamn act."

Jan likes to say he started off with "an audience of one." By 18, he was playing the Melody Club in Union City, N.J., packing them in for a year straight, seven nights a week. Commuting two hours by subway and train, Murray made $50 a week. Eventually, headlining vaudeville houses and in Las Vegas in the 1940s and 1950s, Jan was tapped by a "CBS somebody" to become the first comic emcee of a TV game show.

He hosted and owned shows in the quiz game for 17 years, but Murray would rather talk about his 18 years as the master of ceremonies for the annual Chabad Telethon.

"They didn’t know what a telethon was!" Jan kids the Lubavitchers. "I had to show ’em how to put it on. But anything Jewish, I never turn down."

Still, he was wary at first. "I thought, who’s gonna watch this? There will be 10 people from Fairfax Avenue tuned in. We’ll take in a dollar thirty. A guy with a beard and a yarmulke? Then the phones started ringing. And they never stopped. It was sensational! And it gets wilder every year."

Tummeling for eight hours, he says, he discovered a "Yiddish pride," and although it wasn’t planned as a yearly event, the Chabad Telethon dances the Yiddishkeit fantastic today. "And you should see the building we put up," Murray kvels, referring to the Chabad headquarters in Westwood. "Gorgeous!"

"Of all the comedians I’ve known," Brecher says, "Jan is the most gentle and sincere. His family is wonderful, and he had a seder that was a hot ticket in this town." Thirty-two people per night, the first night for Jan and Toni, his wife of 52 years, and their family. The second for the funnymen and theirs. Imagine Buddy Hackett repeating the 10 plagues. Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Shecky Greene and George Burns after four cups of wine. "I led a serious seder," Jan insists. "Then, after dinner we’d tummel ’til 3, 4 in the morning."

"Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?" is a line I read in the Talmud. OK, I got it from the "Simpsons" episode where Jackie Mason played a rabbi, Krusty the Clown’s father. But I like to believe it’s true. And Mason did win an Emmy.

When Jan Murray began suffering from asthma, he retired at the age of 82. "For about 20 minutes out there, I was great," he explains. "And then I start gulping for breath, and I didn’t feel people should spend money. I started to time my material around my breath, instead of the art. So I hung it up. I did it 66 years. That’s long enough, isn’t it?" (By way of comparison, Phyllis Diller retired at 84, after doing comedy for 45 years.)

When I ask what’s next then, Jan, who still does benefits and roasts, of course, looks at me like what am I, nuts?

"Now?" he replies. "Now I’m a Jew who walks around and kvetches."

Fade to Black

Two Jewish pioneers of the popular culture, comedian Milton Berle and director Billy Wilder, died last week in Los Angeles.

Wilder, who fled the Nazis to become one of Hollywood’s greatest (and most caustic) filmmakers, died of pneumonia March 27. He was 95.

Berle, the stogie-smoking vaudevillian who became America’s first TV star, died March 27 after battling colon cancer. He was 93.

Six-time Oscar winner Wilder, whose protagonists were often alcoholics or gigolos, grew up in his family’s Galacian hotel, where, he said, he "learned many things about human nature, none of them favorable." As a cocky journalist-turned-screenwriter in Berlin in 1933, he sold his belongings for a few hundred dollars and was on a train to Paris the day after the Nazis burned the Reichstag. Arriving penniless in Hollywood a year later, he taught himself English by listening to the radio, but had less success convincing his relatives to leave Europe. When he returned to Germany to help de-Nazify the theater in 1945, he discovered that his stepfather, mother and grandmother had died in Auschwitz. When a director asked if a Nazi could play Jesus in a passion play, he replied, "Permission granted, but the nails have to be real."

Wilder went on to write and direct movies that exposed the darkest recesses of human nature, dissecting the underbelly of American life in classics such as "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Boulevard." The versatile filmmaker also triumphed in the genre of farce ("Some Like It Hot") and sophisticated romantic comedies such as "Sabrina" and "The Seven Year Itch."

Wilder is survived by his wife, the former Audrey Young; and daughter, Victoria.

Berle, dubbed "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Television" for addicting Americans to the tube, was born Mendel Berlinger, the son of Moses and Sarah (aka Sadie), in a five-story Harlem walk-up in 1908. One of his earliest memories was of his Jewish mother bouncing him on her knee and telling him, "Make me laugh." By the age of 5, young Berle — spurred by stage mother Sadie — had won a children’s Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. By 13, he’d changed his Jewish last name and was performing vaudeville on Broadway.

After decades of working as a top theater and nightclub performer, Berle was hired to bring his irreverent brand of humor to NBC’s variety show, "Texaco Star Theater" in 1948. He promptly drew fans for gags such as prancing in drag, grinning to reveal blackened teeth and dubbing himself "The Thief of Bad Gags."

After his television reign ended in the 1960s, Berle went on to make movies such as 1963’s "It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," play himself in Woody Allen’s 1984 comedy "Broadway Danny Rose" and make numerous guest appearances on TV shows like "The Love Boat" and "Beverly Hills, 90210."

In later years, he appeared as a master of ceremonies at celebrity roasts and was a fixture at the Friars Club, where he served as president and laid on the Jewish shtick. "You’re probably wondering why we’re roasting Mickey Rooney," he said during one affair. "It’s because we ran out of Jews!"

Berle was buried at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles and is survived by his wife, the former Lorna Adams; son, William; daughter, Victoria (Mike) Walton; stepdaughters, Susan (Richard) Moll and Leslie (Ron) Sweet; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Something to Laugh About

“The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America” by Lawrence J. Epstein (Public Affairs, $27.50).

“I’ll tell you. I don’t get no respect. My mother stopped breast-feeding me as a kid. She told me she liked me like a friend.” (Rodney Dangerfield)

For as long as I’ve been a comedian, I’ve been asked two questions over and over:

Why are there so many Jewish comedians? And why do you think Jews are so funny?

In “The Haunted Smile,” Lawrence J. Epstein attempts to answer these questions by chronicling the history of Jewish comedians in America.

During the silent film era, for example, none of the top comedians were Jewish. Why? Because Jews need to be verbal to be funny, Epstein says. (Imagine your mother as a mime: Not funny.) He uses “Seinfeld” to illustrate that point: Many of their scripts were 20 pages longer than most other TV shows. The excess language betrays nervousness — a distinctly urban and Jewish approach to dealing with anxiety. In real life, Seinfeld is not nearly as wound up.

Psychologist Samuel Janus is quoted as saying in the book that an astonishing 92 percent of Jewish comedians come from families in the lowest socioeconomic class. (I knew one family that was so poor that after dinner, the mother would count the kids.)

The great comedian Alan King had many routines about his “big-shot rich doctor” brother. In the audience’s mind, this lowered King’s own status a notch or two so they could relate to him. A comic cannot go on the stage and complain about the color of his Porsche or talk about his summer home outside of Paris. I myself grew up in a sixth-floor walk-up in the Bronx. I lived in such a poor neighborhood, rainbows came in black and white.

Most of the comedians that made us all laugh in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s were Jewish. Jerry Lewis and his effect on other Jewish comedians are clearly under-appreciated, Epstein says.

One encounter Lewis had with anti-Semitism was when he was in high school. After being sent to the principal’s office, Lewis was asked why he behaved the way he did, and he said he didn’t know. The principal then said, “Is it because you’re a Jew and don’t know any better?” Lewis then hit the principal, who fell against his desk and lost two teeth. He was expelled.

And dig this fact — Moe Howard (born Moses Horwitz) from the Three Stooges was the first American actor to portray Adolf Hitler in the 1940 film short, “You Natzy Spy.” In the 1941 sequel, “I’ll Never Heil Again,” Curly (aka Jerome Horwitz) played a field marshal who reports to Moe, a dictator, “We bombed 56 hospitals, 85 schools, 42 kindergartens, four cemeteries and other vital military objects.” That was pretty powerful for the Three Stooges.

Many Jewish comedians got their start in the Catskill Mountains — aka, the Borscht Belt. It was almost a substitute for the shtetl, Epstein explains. The familiar food, the presence of families and other Jews and the warm environment offered a deep sense of security.

When I started doing stand-up comedy in New York in 1978, we created our own little shtetl. All I saw every night, either walking the streets or in a comedy club, was mostly other Jewish comedians. About 80 percent of the comics I worked with were Jewish. I personally knew a therapist that was treating 10 different Jewish comics at the same time. (One time, when a comic was leaving therapy and another was waiting to go in, the therapist said, “You’re on next.”)

Two things we all had in common were: we all knew we were funny, and we all had to express ourselves in ways we were not permitted to when we were growing up. Many nights after our shows, we would go to diners and hang out till 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock in the morning. Those were the days when it was still legal to drink real coffee at 3 a.m. And I’ve personally eaten more than 2,000 blueberry muffins.

The problem with the 21st century, Epstein says, is that the newly assimilated Jewish comedians may not be as funny as their ancestors, because they are too far away from their original roots.

My old Uncle Louie would eat fish all day, smoke cigars and ask his wife why she was always sniffing him.

I ask you: Are the new grandparents, aunts and uncles of today half as funny as the ones from the older generations?

In 356 pages, Epstein does a wonderful job of covering the subject of Jews in comedy, using “laugh out loud” stories about the lives of these comedians.

And tonight, as I write this review, I am in a hotel room in Kansas City. I am waiting for Jerry Seinfeld to get ready so we can head over to The Midland Theatre, where the two of us will perform in front of 5,000 people.

And when all is said and done, and all the reasons why Jews are funny are put aside, tonight will be just another night when funny people get up on stage in some strange city and make the people laugh. And what do we hope to accomplish? That when people drive home tonight, they say to each other, “Boy,
those guys are really funny.”

Comic Riff

It’s Day 1 of rehearsal for the new and improved version of Richard Krevolin’s “King Levine,” scheduled to reopen at the Tiffany on May 1. But for star Sammy Shore and director Joe Bologna, it’s The Joe and Sammy Show.

Sammy, the comedian who used to open for Elvis and Bob Hope, is remembering the time he hired Joe, the actor and director, to write comedy for him 40 years ago.

“He kept me out of the big time,” Shore, 68, complains.

“It wasn’t that difficult,” Bologna retorts.

Now the two old-timers are wandering outside the rehearsal space, wondering where the producer is with the key.

“Usually, we break a window,” Shore tells a reporter.

“Or kick in a door,” says Bologna.

When the producer finally arrives to open the door, Bologna and Shore make the reporter sit onstage while they yuk in the front row. “You’re onstage now,” Shore says, gleefully. “We’re watching you,” says Bologna.

About four years ago, Shore called his pal Bologna while working with Krevolin on the one-man show that would become “King Levine,” a comic riff on Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” The play tells of a grumpy bialy king who divvies up his bagel biz among three daughters, only to be carted off to the Jewish old age home, or “old Jew hell.” Initially, Krevolin wanted Shore to play all four characters, which “was giving me a headache,” Shore says.

Enter Bologna, who, with wife Renee Taylor, was writing his own comic riff on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “Love is All There Is,” a film about rival Italian catering families in the Bronx. Bologna agreed to direct and help shape “Levine,” while Shore “kept calling every five minutes and breaking my chops,” Bologna says.

Bologna the director had to keep a tight reign on Shore. Levine’s monologues were a snap for the comic, who’s used to working the audience. “But Sammy the stand-up is this ingratiating guy who wants people to love him,” Bologna says. “And King Levine isn’t lovable.” Bologna imitates a few Shakespearean quotes the irate character shouts in the play, mit hecksent. Shore looks outraged and complains, “Now he’s doing me, the S.O.B.”

The comic grumbling aside, the Shore-Bologna chemistry works. “King Levine” played to rave reviews and sold-out crowds at the Odyssey; it will move on to Florida and perhaps off-Broadway after the Tiffany run.

Shore likes that the play is showing at the Tiffany. The theater is down the block from The Comedy Store, which he co-founded with then-wife Mitzi in 1972, but deeded away in the divorce. “I want her to see my name on the marquee, and think, ‘I should have stayed with Sammy!'” Shore quips.

“King Levine” plays Thursdays through Sundays at the Tiffany through July 1. For tickets and information, call (310) 289-2999.

Up Front

I don’t know why they love me so much [in England]. Over there, I played the London Palladium for a month. It was just announced that I was going to play there, and the show has practically sold out. Here, I’m told I’m too Jewish; over there, they love me. Go figure that out.”

The World According to Jackie Mason By Michael Aushenker, Community Editor

If anyone was preordained to be a rabbi, it was Jackie Mason. Born in Sheboygan, Wis., in 1937, the Yiddish-accented comedian comes from four generations of rabbis. All three of his brothers are rabbis. And, once upon a time, Mason himself was a rabbi, teaching Talmud in far-out places like Lathrop, Pa., and Walden, N.C.

But, at the age of 27, Mason’s life took a detour from destiny. Disillusioned with Modern Orthodoxy, he quit his congregation and hit the road as a stand-up comedian. His career was temporarily stalled in the 1960s following an infamous appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” during which he made a hand gesture that Sullivan construed as a personal insult directed at him.

It was in the late 1980s when Mason’s career blossomed anew with an award-winning one-man Broadway show, “The World According to Me.” Along with his subsequent shows — “Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect” and “Jackie Mason: Brand New” — the opinionated humorist has rode his runaway monologues to international success. Mason has even parlayed his old-school Jewish persona into limited success on TV (the thankfully short-lived sitcom “Chicken Soup”) and cinema (the long-forgotten and dubious sequel “Caddyshack II”).

However, it’s on stage, before a packed audience, where Mason’s wit is a force to behold.

These days, Mason co-hosts “Crossing the Line” with celebrated attorney Raoul Felder. Currently in its third year, the topical celebrity panel show appears on PBS stations around the country.

This month, Mason will break in his latest one-man show, which is bound for Broadway and abroad. The comic will offer his unique, unfettered take on such topics du jour as the Lewinsky affair; Sen. John Glenn in space; Microsoft founder Bill Gates; and Viagra. Catch Mason at The Comedy Store on June 17-20, 22, and 24-28.

IS MASON REALLY JEWISH, OR IS IT FOR THE ACT? [laughs] “As far as I know. Unless my father and mother lied to me….”

MASON WAS A RABBI; SAM KINISON, A PREACHER — WHAT GIVES? “I don’t see any connection between religion and comedy. It’s like saying once you were a fireman and now you’re a doctor.”

HONING HIS ACT ON THE BIMAH: “I used comedy to make a speech at a wedding or a bar mitzvah. [At times, a rabbi] is more of a social director. He’s not a very popular rabbi if he’s not entertaining. People come to a religious place, but they don’t want to hear about religion. Most Gentiles go to a bar, the Jews go to temple.”

“TOO JEWISH”: “Only Jews say to me that I’m ‘too Jewish.’ They’ll never say a comedian is ‘too Italian’ or ‘too Spanish,’ because they would feel like bigots. They don’t feel accepted. They always feel that they have to impress the Gentiles. But then they say they’re proud to be Jewish. It’s nuts. It’s a sickness.”

PERSECUTION COMPLEX: “A lot of Jews are shocked when Gentiles laugh at my humor. They wonder, how could they understand my humor. What is there not to understand? It’s in English. The humor is universal. It’s only Jewish paranoia that makes them say that…. This is the self-hate that Jews suffer from. They can’t understand about being accepted. When Jews hear a Jewish accent, they get panicky…. They still can’t believe Gentiles will accept them, so they still imagine persecution if someone finds out they’re Jewish. If a Jew loses a job, he’ll say its anti-Semitism.”

GENTILE MAN’S AGREEMENT: “Jews have always been in control of the studios, yet there was never a Jewish character in a movie. Even now, when you look back, you can count them on your hands…. They’ll show [every other race], but they’ll never show you a Jewish character. It’s all one big Jewish sickness. They’re always nervous about showing Jews. A Jew is always some kind of a complete lunatic character, whose Jewishness makes him some kind of a crazo.”

JEWS IN SPACE: “Woody Allen cannot depict a Jew as a normal person. Mel Brooks makes the Jew a character who doesn’t belong in front of normal people. He becomes a Chassidic clown or a sick weirdo. That’s the only way [Brooks] could depict a Jew: If he’s a moronic character, if it’s showing to a Gentile audience that it’s a nut case…. It’s Jewish self-loathing.”

DON’T THROW A “JEWISH PRIDE” PARADE JUST YET: “There’s definitely been some progress. Thirty years ago, you would never have a show called ‘Seinfeld.’ There would never be a Jew called Streisand; she would have changed her name…. It’s changing but not changing that much. They can admit they’re Jewish, but they’re a lot more proud to marry a shiksa .”

HE’S PERFORMED FOR THE QUEEN MOTHER, QUEEN ELIZABETH II, PRINCE CHARLES — CAN WILLIAM AND HARRY BE FAR BEHIND? “I have no idea. I don’t know why they love me so much [in England]. Over there, I played the London Palladium for a month. It was just announced that I was going to play there, and the show has practically sold out. Here, I’m told I’m too Jewish; over there, they love me. Go figure that out.”

WHAT IF SOMEONE FLIPPED JACKIE THE ONE-FINGER SALUTE ON LIVE TV? “I don’t know if I would ban him from the show, but if it was intentional, I wouldn’t want to have him over for dinner. I never did that to Sullivan. He imagined it…. As far as I’m concerned, he made an issue out of nothing. I think he was a wonderful guy.”

A HORSE WAS A HORSE: “Back then, if you made a dirty gesture, they had contempt for you. Today, you’re a hero, you’re a hit…. Madonna will sleep with a horse if she has to…. It’s a whole different kind of morality.”

“CHICKENED” OUT: “I didn’t care about ‘Chicken Soup.’ I was nauseous doing the show… I can’t take selfish people. I did it out of decency, to fulfill my contractual obligations. From day one, I wanted out of it…I hated doing a sitcom. All of a sudden, I found myself being a prisoner of someone else’s dictates. I felt like I was captured in Vietnam, and I couldn’t remember what I did to deserve this. If I had a choice right now between a prison camp or a sitcom, I’d pick the prison camp.”

BUT WOULD HE DO ANOTHER SITCOM? “I didn’t go into show business to stand in a warehouse at 4 in the morning and repeat lines 40 times for a director. The whole process is very arduous, and there’s no way to get around it. It’s like working in a coal mine. What’s the difference whether it’s my coal mine or someone else’s coal mine, it’s still a coal mine.”

“CADDYSHACK III”? “If they do it, it’ll be without me.”

Owing It All to Jerry

Elon Gold is an Orthodox Jewish comedian whoplayed an offbeat Jewish guy from Long Island on the recent WBsitcom, “You’re the One.” Though the short-lived series wascancelled, Gold has plenty of Jewish-themed TV and even movieprojects in the works. During a recent conversation with The Journal’s Naomi Pfefferman, he said he owes it all to”Seinfeld.”

Jerry and I both had Castle Rock shows and we shotthem on the same lot. I was flabbergasted to discover he was a fan ofmine from work I’d done on Comedy Central and the stand-up circuit.He was always asking me to do my impressions; my Jeff Goldblum washis favorite.

So before they taped the historic last episode of”Seinfeld,” I had my agent call his manager and ask if there were anyspeaking parts for me. He said no, but would I consider being anextra? I was like, ‘Are you kidding? It would be the thrill of alifetime.'”

I ended up being the guy in the diner who ispaying the bill at the top of one scene.

At the party on the set after the final taping,Alan Horn, one of the partners at Castle Rock, came up to me andsaid, “This could be you someday.” But my thinking is, without Jerry,I wouldn’t even have my career. I would absolutely not be takenseriously as a leading man and the star of my own sitcom if itweren’t for Seinfeld. He paved the way. Now guys like me and AdamSandler can be more than just character actors.

Paul Reiser has helped, too, but unlike Seinfeld,he never mentions he’s Jewish on “Mad About You.” Maybe he’s afraidto, but it bothers me that he’s so obviously Jewish and it’s just soglossed over.

Jerry doesn’t avoid the fact that he’s Jewish on”Seinfeld,” and he’s had Jewish themes like the bris episode. Of course, GeorgeCostanza was supposed to be Italian, but there is no way thatcharacter is Italian. He’s based on Larry David, the creator ofSeinfeld, who is a Jewish comedian and writer. I think maybe hisethnicity was changed because the show initially had pressure fromthe network, saying “This series is too Jewish.”

Actually, every Jewish viewer knows that all fourcharacters on that show are Jewish, even if stated otherwise. Thenon-Jews know it too, and that’s why the show has been so good forthe Jews. For someone with a name like Jerry Seinfeld to be the mostimportant phenomenon in American pop culture, can’t help but dotremendous things for the Jews.

Racism and anti-Semitism are overlooked whenpeople are entertaining you, when you’re Seinfeld, Oprah or EddieMurphy. People for some reason are suddenly willing to accept youinto their living rooms.

And there is nothing more Jewish than “Seinfeld.”The overtones, the undertones, the writing, the performing is soJewish at the surface and at the core. All four of the actors areJewish; so are 80 percent of the writers, and it’s just theirsensibility of looking at the world. They analyze everything from aJewish point of view and speak in Jewish tongues. The charactersdissect the smallest of matters; it’s virtually Talmudic.




Toward the Millennium

The 2000 Year Old Man is alive, well and still doesn’t touchfried food

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Before Carl Reiner invented the “Dick Van Dyke Show” and thetemperamental, toupee-clad Alan Brady, before Mel Brooks was aYiddish-spouting Indian chief in “Blazing Saddles,” indeed, beforethe dawn of Christianity, there was The 2000 Year Old Man.

Any Jewish baby boomer who ever dipped into his or her parents’album collection can still recite sizable chunks of Brooks andReiner’s now-classic routines about the discovery of a Jewishmethuselah. From that first album in 1960 onward, the bit hasremained one of the most inventive and enduring in American comedy.Brooks is the old man, a dapper, salty and haimish ancient who hasmanaged to live for two millennia without losing his Eastern Europeanaccent. Reiner is his nimble straight man, a reporter who probes theloquacious alte kaker’s memory for everything from insight into thebubonic plague (“Too many rats, not enough cats!”) to the scoop onJoan of Arc, his one-time girlfriend (“I told her, ‘Look, I gottawash up; you save France'”).

For Jews, Brooks’ funny, free-form and topical observations had anadded appeal. The humor and jazz-like attention to language andrhythm were deliciously recognizable — mined from the same stuffthat made the listeners’ own family gatherings and privateconversations so…well, Jewish.

The truth is, none of it was ever intended for the public. Thatfirst recording session, in 1960, was done mainly at the prodding ofcomedian Steve Allen. Brooks and Reiner had already been doing wildlyimprovisational riffs on The 2000 Year Old Man for 10 years by then,but it was a strictly private shtick — batted around playfully forfriends, done at parties and for co-workers on Sid Caesar’s “YourShow of Shows,” the place where it all began.

As Carl Reiner remembered it during a 1994 interview with SaulKahan, “I came in and sat down next to Mel on the couch in [producer]Max Leibman’s office and said…’I understand you were at the sceneof the Crucifixion.’ And Mel said, ‘Oh, boy!’ and we were off. Thewhole office was laughing for 10 minutes…. Any time we’d get bored,we’d ask Mel questions.”

(It’s worth noting that Woody Allen, in those days a writer onCaesar’s staff along with Brooks, created his own historicalcharacter purported to have been everywhere. The 1983 movie was”Zelig,” and it came out 33 years after The 2000-Year-Old Man wasborn.)

The resounding success of the pair’s first comedy album spawnedthree more. The old man got a second lease on life when Rhino Recordsreleased the “2000” recordings as a four-CD compilation in 1994. Andnow, as a new millennium approaches, Brooks and Reiner are back incharacter for “The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000,” a brand-newCD on the Rhino label. This one has a book of the same name to gowith it, a companion volume that’s subtitled “Including How Not toDie and Other Tips.” It contains some material from the new disc andhighlights from past routines, including the world’s first nationalanthem (a prehistoric cheer written by The 2000 Year Old Man’smother: “Let ’em all go to hell except Cave 76!”).

My favorite part of the book is the “Two Thousand Year Old Man’sSeven-Day Diet.” It should be hung up in every deli in America as thedefinitive weight-loss regimen for Jewish binge-purge eaters.

But, of course, it’s the CD that best captures the humor of thepair’s question-and-answer format. Reiner lobs a question, then stepsforward to play net — methodically edging Brooks back into a corneruntil he has no way to score except via his own quick-wittedness andinstinct for the absurd.

A lot has changed in the 24 years since The 2000 Year Old Man’slast “interview.” These days, he tools around the informationsuperhighway with a cyber girlfriend named “Dot Com” (short forDorothy Comsky). He marvels at the proliferation of silly mall stores(“The Athlete’s Foot…. Look at that — they named a store after afungus”). And like the rest of us, he’s peeved about theimpossibility of reaching an actual human being on the telephone (“Ifyou’re bleeding from your eye, press two. If you’re bleeding fromyour tushy, press four…”).

Old fans will be delighted by this latest addition to the Brooksand Reiner oeuvre. For the uninitiated, this disc offers a freshchance to discover what the rest of us have been laughing about foryears.

“The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000” (CD or cassette) and thebook (HarperCollins, $20) are widely available at local record shopsand bookstores.


The Wild Man

A conversation with Mel Brooks

Jewish Journal: You did an interview recently with The NewYork Times’ business section about your own conservative investinghabits. That story ran the day before the market crash. You must havehad some interesting feedback.

Mel Brooks: People in the financial community thought I wasa genius. (Laughter.) I do only buy bonds and real estate. I don’tbuy stocks. The market is up 500 points, it’s down 500 points. Whoneeds that emotional ride? I whistle no matter what the market isdoing.

JJ: Is your friendship with Carl Reiner a lot like what wesee onstage?

MB: Oh, it’s even more intense. We hang out on weekends.He’s my best audience, and, therefore, he’s my best friend. He getssome of the more insane and arcane things I fling at him. Andsometimes we end up lapsing into Yiddish. How many people can youtalk to in Yiddish these days?

JJ: This material is still so popular, even though there’sa whole new generation that probably doesn’t know what vildachaya (wild animal) means. Does it surprise you?

MB: It does. I’m still amazed that anybody is in tune withsome of those jokes that have Yiddish in them. There’s a scene in”Blazing Saddles” where I say, “Luzim gayen” (let him go). Atthe time, I thought, “I’ll put that in so four old Jews watching inthe back row will get a kick out of it.” Then I start getting theseletters from 23-year-olds, saying, “Luzim gayen was the line thatdestroyed me.” How did they know? At the time, I just figured I’d putYiddish in a Western. Why not? Who the hell knew Cherokee?

JJ: For Jews, there’s this great shock of recognition witha scene like that, or with The 2000 Year Old Man. Yet everyone findsthis stuff funny. Does the humor work on two levels — Jewish andnon-Jewish?

MB: Yes. The Jews, of course, understand all the words andeven recognize people they know in the material. I think, fornon-Jews, they may not understand all the words, but they know enoughto know it’s Jewish, and it tickles them.

JJ: Are you consciously calling up certain members of yourfamily in your comedy?

MB: Oh, yes. I’m calling up my uncle Joe, my mother and,certainly, my grandparents. They were very outgoing and vivacious.There was a radio program, “The Yiddish Philosopher,” and mygrandfather was like that. He would make these pronouncements aboutanything and everything, much in the same way The 2000 Year Old Mandoes. It was a way of talking that certain Jews his age had. Heoffered an expert opinion on any subject, as if he was Schopenhauer.He’d say things like (with a thick Yiddish accent), “As far as thenew cars are concerned, [pause] they’re all good.” What is that? Hefelt compelled to make these incredibly insane pronouncements. Theyhad an air of profundity about them for a moment, and then youthought, “What the hell does that mean?”

JJ: Which comics in the generation that came after you doyou admire?

MB: I like Chris Rock. He’s adorable. And I like Seinfeld’sshow, although I don’t particularly like sitcoms. Most of them areinane. I like “Mad About You.” Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt are verysmart, very talented. I appear on that show every so often as acharacter named Uncle Phil.

JJ: What do you think of Albert Brooks?

MB: I love him. I often say he’s
my son. Actually, I saythat when he has a good picture. When he has a lousy picture, I goaround telling people that he stole my name.

JJ: After creating the TV series “Get Smart,” you ended upmaking “The Producers,” one of the funniest movies ever made. It waslike Jewish surrealism, incredibly funny.

MB: God bless you! How old are you?

JJ: Could a film like that get made today?

MB: No. It’s not politically correct.

JJ: It had this manic, edgy energy, like the Marx Brothers.

MB: Well, I was really influenced by two brother teams –the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers. They were my gods. I likedBuster Keaton and W.C. Fields and the others, but they never touchedme emotionally. It was the same with Laurel and Hardy. I thought theywere funny, and I was able to appreciate them, but they didn’t touchmy soul like the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers…. It’s funny,because David Geffen has been after me lately. He loves “TheProducers,” and he said to me, “Why don’t you do this as a stagemusical, and I’ll produce it?”

JJ: That could be wonderful. It’s too bad Zero Mostel isgone, and Dick Shawn is gone.

MB: Yes, but who knows? Maybe we’ll still do it. I couldsee people like Nathan Lane in it.

JJ: What’s the most tiresome thing that fans of yours dowhen they see you?

MB: They give me things. They come up to me and hand me 300pages and say, “Here, you gotta read this script by my first cousin.He’s a comic natural.” Or they give you a cassette and say, “Here,this is my son. He’s in an improv group, and you gotta watch it.” Imean, you want to be nice, but who needs it? Don’t give methings! It happens a lot. Carl and I were in a restaurantrecently, and a woman from Israel came up to me and stuck a cassettein my hand. So, later, we went back to Carl’s and we tried to playit, and it didn’t work. It turns out it was on the PAL system, notVHS. So, now I have to go find a PAL system…. Enough already.

JJ: Is it the worst in Los Angeles?

MB: Yes. In New York, they don’t give you things, but theyget in your face. Someone will come up and slap me on the back sohard, it knocks the breath out of me, and he’ll say, “I love ya,kid!” Or they’ll call out, “Mel, one joke! You’re gonna love thisone.” Then they tell me a joke that I know is going to be terrible.And it is.

JJ: When you were starting out, you were a tummlerin the Catskills. Was that a good experience?

MB: It was very good. Nurturing. The Jews were brutallyhonest. I’d finish a show and then go past the coffee room, wheresome old ladies were eating sponge cake, and I’d say, “Howya doing,girls?” And they’d say, “Melvin, you stunk, but we love you.” –Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

The Straight Man

A conversation with Carl Reiner

Jewish Journal:How has the reaction been to your newrecord?

Carl Reiner: Great. You know, we hadn’t done it in so long,and Mel thought we shouldn’t. Of course, I knew that we could stilldo it. On my last few book tours, particularly among Jewishaudiences, the one question people kept asking us was, “When are wegoing to hear from The 2000 Year Old Man again?”… So the feedbackhas been great. Steve Martin called me after listening to it twotimes to tell me he thought it was hysterical.

JJ: Given that Yiddish is slowly dying out, are you alittle surprised at The 2000 Year Old Man’s continued popularity?

CR: Mel kept saying that — that the accent isdisappearing. But I think there is a new thrust among people to learnYiddish…. Also, there’s a second and third generation of kids andgrandkids, people whose fathers and mothers taught them theserecords. A lady came up to us with an 8-year-old and said, “Listen tothis,” and the kid started doing our routine. (Laughter) So we have alot of salesmen out there.

JJ: I’ve read that one of the reasons you two didn’toriginally consider The 2000 Year Old Man as something commercial wasbecause it was too insider-ish, too Jewish.

CR: For 10 years, it was just something we did forourselves…. The reason we didn’t record it was because we thoughtit was too anti-Semitic. If you’ll remember, after Hitler, there werea lot of comics who stopped doing their Jewish accents. It felt veryuncomfortable. A lot of them lost their careers over that because itwas the centerpiece of quite a few acts — Lou Holtz, Dave Chasen. Inthose days, people called them Jew comics. Chasen was doing it inmovies, but then he opened a chili stand, which eventually becameChasen’s restaurant. There was always Myron Cohen, of course, who hada very elegant way about him.

JJ: So what persuaded you to make the record?

CR: By 1960, we were convinced by Steve Allen that everyonewould enjoy it. He was right. It did cut a wider swath than wethought. At that time, I had a bungalow on the Universal lot next toCary Grant, and he used to come in and ask me for two dozen recordsat a time. That startled me. He even took them once on a trip toEngland, and when he came back, he told me, “The Queen loved it!” Hewas quite a character. I remember every time I’d pass him and ask howhe was, he’d say, “Jaunty jolly!”

JJ:How much of the material is ad-libbed?

CR: We really did it on a wing until 1973. After that, webegan to prepare a little bit. Now, it’s 24 years later, so we wrotesome questions down and sort of talked about them before we startedad-libbing. But there are always surprises. Those little addenda thatMel puts at the end of things, those little throwaways, arespontaneous and they’re hilarious.

JJ: Are there any contemporary comics you particularlylike?

CR: Oh, there are so many, I’m afraid to leave anyone out.Well, the older ones, even though some of them don’t really dostand-up anymore — like Robin Williams and Steve Martin, BillyCrystal, [George] Carlin and Dennis Miller. Chris Rock, who has justexploded on the scene, is also wonderfully funny. And there’s [Jerry]Seinfeld, [Paul] Reiser and Ray Romano. Always, with a tip of the hatto Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. And there’s nobody better than SidCaesar and Dick Van Dyke.

JJ: Are you two working on anything else together?

CR: We’ll take it as it goes. We do have a lot of stuffthat we didn’t put on this record, mainly because of length.

JJ: Privately, does your friendship with Mel Brooksparallel what we see on stage?

CR:Yes, absolutely, except that, privately, he doesn’t mindwhen I’m funny. He appreciates it. You know, onstage, it’s incrediblyhard for him to think about where he’s going next if I’m competingwith him for laughs.

JJ: What does it take to be a good straight man?

CR:To be interested in what is in the mind of the personyou’re interviewing. To glean knowledge that you didn’t have before.With Mel, I always knew that the harder I pressured him, the funnierhe would be…. Originally, I interviewed him to make myself laugh. Istill do. I use him as an entertainment. –Diane Arieff Zaga,Arts Editor

All in the Family


All in the Family

Annie Reiner is more than just Rob’s sister

By Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer

Author Annie Reiner is tall, elegant, poised — and politelyexasperated when you ask about her famous father and brother.

You can hardly blame her: It’s the umpteenth time she’s beenasked.

Father, of course, is the celebrated comedian and filmmaker CarlReiner. Brother is Rob Reiner, director of “The Princess Bride,””Misery,” “A Few Good Men” and “When Harry Met Sally…”

But Annie is not in the family business. Rather, she is apsychotherapist, painter, poet and author whose play, “Mirageá Trois,” is now at the Santa Monica Playhouse. It’s about aplaywright’s conflict with his unconscious, which is not surprisingfrom an author who also practices psychoanalytic therapy. Thecomedy-drama is more surreal and dreamlike than NewYork-Jewish-neurotic.

Reiner, 48, says “Mirage á Trois” is her first producedplay. Her first two books (a poetry volume, a children’s story) werepublished when she was 41. What took her so long? “Things simplyhappen to me when I am ready,” she says.

Annie andfather Carl, “a powerful force.” Below, the Reiner clan in the1950s.

Reiner’s childhood was hardly typical. She spent her earliestyears on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and later moved fromWestchester County to Beverly Hills when Dad created “The Dick VanDyke Show.” After school, Annie and shy, sensitive Rob often visitedthe set, where she played with little Ritchie between takes. At home,she helped her older brother prepare for his bar mitzvah at TempleBeth Zion.

Dinner guests included comic luminaries from the writer’s room on”Your Show of Shows”: Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Norman Lear andDad’s best friend, Mel Brooks. Dad and Brooks practiced their2,000-year-old man shtick at parties. Annie’s best friend was SidCaesar’s daughter. Rob’s very funny best friend was Albert Brooks.

All the while, Annie was aware of her brother’s teenage angst. Ininterviews, Rob Reiner has often said that he was awed by hisfather’s celebrity and by the comedy icons who filled the house. Hedesperately longed to be part of the group, to be deemed funny, butwas convinced Carl felt he lacked talent. “My father is a powerfulforce,” Annie says, “so Rob felt he had to compete with that. It wasa lot of talking — what comedians do is try to grab the floor — soit got pretty loud.”

If home life could be loud and funny, Annie was a quiet observer.She enjoyed frequenting museums with her mother, Estelle, a painter,and volunteering at a school for disturbed children. She was the onepeople turned to for advice: “My father used to say I had perfectpitch when it came to emotions,” Annie says. Dad may have indirectlyaffected her career choice because “everyone on ‘Your Show of Shows’was in analysis.”

If she rebelled at all, it was that she was drawn to the innerworkings of the mind rather than the exhibitionist world of comedy.When Lear cast Rob as “Meathead” in “All in the Family,” Annie wasworking toward her licensed clinical social worker degree, which sheearned from USC in 1975.

During those years and beyond, Rob often spoke to his sister abouthis feelings of love for and rivalry with his father. The angstdiminished with his own success, and, some interviewers havesuggested, because he has become a better filmmaker than his father.

Annie, however, speaks with equal admiration of “Your Show ofShows” and “When Harry Met Sally…,” her favorite of Rob’s films.”When Sally orders everything on the side,” she says, “that is me.”

In her own therapy practice, Reiner utilizes much dream work, andall her artwork, she says, “is a dream.” She suddenly began paintingwhen she was 30, when she spontaneously picked up a brush at herparents’ house. Since then, she has had a number of one-woman shows,and her paintings now hang all over her sunny, Spanish-style Westsidehome. One of them, an abstract figure confronting an open door, was”another boyfriend receiving his walking papers,” she quips.

Reiner also began writing in earnest around 1980, eventuallycreating a poetry volume, “Mind Your Head,” and a book of shortstories, “This Nervous Breakdown Is Driving Me Crazy.”

“Breakdown” is dedicated to her parents, for all their love,support and “for driving me crazy.” Dad and Mom have read earlydrafts of everything she has written, she says, and her parentsattended the opening night of her play with Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroftand Steve Allen. Rob was there, and so was their much-youngerbrother, Lucas, 37, an artist. Brooks and Neil Simon providedlaudatory press quotes about “Mirage á Trois.”

But, no, neither Carl nor Rob have been able to help Annie sellher screenplay, an unusual children’s tale. That’s because the pieceis “different from the mainstream and from the kind of work they do.”Nevertheless, the creativity of each relative has helped feed Annieas an artist. “We all have a respect and a capacity for the truth,”she says.

For tickets and information about “Mirage á Trois,” call(310) 394-9779, ext. 1.