September 23, 2018

Gilda Radner’s Life Story in Her Own Words

Gilda Radner

In 1975, a petite Jewish comedian from suburban Detroit named Gilda Radner became famous overnight with the debut of “Saturday Night Live.” As one of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” on “SNL,” Radner created iconic characters like Emily Litella, Roseanne Roseannadanna, and Baba Wawa, and won an Emmy during her five-year run on the show. But hidden behind the laughter was the Gilda the public never knew: a woman who struggled with the pressures of fame, an eating disorder, and later, ovarian cancer, which ultimately claimed her life in 1989 when she was 42.

The documentary “Love, Gilda” explores both the public persona and the personal side of the beloved performer, telling her story through video clips, audio recordings, home movies, interviews with friends and colleagues, and writings from her journals, read by more recent “SNL” cast members including Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Bill Hader.

First-time feature director Lisa D’Apolito, who spent 4 1/2 years making the film, told the Journal, “It was a passion project.”  She wasn’t a big Radner fan while growing up, “but I am now,” D’Apolito said. “Her legacy was so unique and important.”

While D’Apolito was working in production at an advertising agency about eight years ago, a request came in to make some videos for Gilda’s Club, the cancer support organization that Radner’s widower, Gene Wilder, founded in 1995. “But about halfway through the process, Gilda’s brother gave me access to her personal materials that had been in storage since she passed away, including audiotapes that she recorded for her book, ‘It’s Always Something.’ Once I heard them, I wanted to incorporate as much as I could, and tell the story from her point of view,” she said.

Unfortunately, some of the audiotapes were damaged, so D’Apolito had others rerecord Radner’s words. She had about a dozen journals and other writings to work with, and excerpts appear on screen in Radner’s handwriting. “It was important to me to use the journals exactly how they were written,” she said. “But we had to retouch and clean up a lot of them.”

One journal, from the summer of 1978, was particularly revelatory. “Gilda had checked herself into a hospital for an eating disorder,” D’Apolito said. “Only two friends knew. It was surprising to me that at the height of her fame, she was going through so much. She was struggling inside and not telling anybody what was going on.”

As noted in the film, Radner’s issues with food go back to her childhood, when she was given diet pills as an overweight 10-year-old. She grew up in an affluent Jewish community, attending a private school and spending winters in Miami Beach with her family, which was her first comedic inspiration.

“Her father, brother and cousins were funny. There’s a real respect for humor in the way she grew up,” D’Apolitio said. “She wasn’t raised religious in any way, but she called herself a Jew from Detroit. She was very proud of her background.”

It was important to D’Apolito to convey what it was like for a woman in comedy in the 1970s and specifically on “SNL,” where there were no female writers at the time. “But Gilda never felt suppressed, and she never doubted herself as a performer,” she said. “She felt equal to [the men].”

Although Radner had tragedy in her life, including her father’s death from a brain tumor when she was 14, plus a miscarriage and her battle with ovarian cancer, “she could always find the humor,” D’Apolito said. “No matter what was going on, she never hit rock bottom, never let anything get her down.”

D’Apolito believes it was Radner’s perky personality that endeared the performer to the public. “She loved an audience. She loved people. She was very accessible and approachable. She exuded some sort of joy, something that made you connect to her.”

In April, comedian Tina Fey introduced the film at its premiere on opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival, with many other “SNL” alumni and comic luminaries in attendance. “Audiences are happy to have Gilda back,” D’Apolito said, based on her observations at Tribeca and other screenings. “They’re remembering her and how much they loved her.”

D’APolito added, “I’m hoping that a younger generation can discover Gilda. She had a really important role in comedy, and I hope the film brings that to light for people who didn’t know her and her work.”

Asked how Radner might react to the film, D’Apolito wasn’t sure. “But her friends and family love it,” she said. “I hear Gilda’s voice in my head [saying], ‘Why did you use that bad picture of me?’ But I think [the film] has a good balance. I think she’d want an open, honest picture of her life and I think that’s what I have. I hope that she would like it.”

New York-based D’Apolito, who was an actress before she got into production and directing commercials and short films, may not be finished with Radner just yet. “Gilda left behind a lot of material, some short stories and a really good screenplay — a comedy about a woman looking for love who’s torn between two men,” she said. “I don’t want her stuff to go back into storage. I’m talking to people to figure out what we can possibly do.”


“Love, Gilda” opens in theaters on Sept. 21.

Larry David Creates Firestorm After Saturday Night Live Jokes on Holocaust and Weinstein

In a controversial opening monologue, Saturday Night Live host Larry David ignited a firestorm with controversial jokes connected to the Holocaust and accused sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein.

David, of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame, noted the discomfiting pattern that many of the alleged sexual harassers who have been in the news are Jewish. “I don’t like it when Jews are in the headlines for notorious reasons,” he said in the monologue. “I want ‘Einstein Discovers Theory of Relativity,’ “Salk Cures Polio.’ What I don’t want? ‘Weinstein Took it Out.'”

This sent him on a tangential riff, musing about his “obsession with women,” wondering what it might have been like had he been in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Would he still be checking out women in the camp? He comes up with some conversation starters a person in a camp might use, to highlight the absurdity of trying to think of pickup lines in a concentration camp.

The reaction was immediate.

Many deride the joke as disrespectful, while others strongly hold that we should be focusing our anger on the people who oppress others, not those who joke about that oppression.

See the video here:

 

Larry David Goes One Cringe Too Far

With his appearance on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, Larry David, the undisputed king of cringe-comedy, may have finally crossed a line. It is a symbolic line, admittedly, one that artists draw for themselves both morally and aesthetically.  But it is a line nonetheless.

Of course, it’s not a line David would ever hesitate crossing again.  He’s taken that same devilish step many times in the past—all for laughs.

His monologue on SNL, however, doubled down on a theme that properly deserves to be forever buried and left alone.  That’s what we do with the dead, especially the victims of mass murder.  A certain amount of piety is expected, and one never dreams of desecration with such nightmarish events.

David pivoted from the recently disclosed sexual predations of certain men in the entertainment industry, making the unpleasant association that many of them happened to be Jews, to his own unseemly wolfish behavior.  Apparently, so indiscrete are his sexual urges that he can imagine checking out Jewish women in a concentration camp.  In fact, he gave a national audience a glimpse of David hypothetically approaching an attractive woman with death in her immediate future, and testing out pick-up lines.

Appalling, but perhaps not surprising.  David has been flirting with the Holocaust for many years.  And he keeps coming back, not taking no for an answer, a nebbish with a libido for bad taste.  Except the Holocaust is not a love interest.  It is an unsightly atrocity, incapable of attraction of any kind, and on any human scale.

This is the same man who conceived a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry was making out with a girl during a screening of Schindler’s List.  And another in which a disagreeable fast-food proprietor was renamed “The Soup Nazi.”  An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm riffed on the Reality TV show, The Survivor, in which a winning contestant squared off at a dinner party with an actual survivor of a death camp, comparing their relative suffering.  In still yet another, a man with numbers tattooed on his forearm turns out not to be a Holocaust survivor, but rather just someone who temporarily inks his lotto ticket number each week so as not to forget.

So much for Never Again.

Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption.  George Costanza, David’s doppelganger, was an enduring fool of humiliation, placed in recurring, squirming situations.  David took the Borsht Belt and twisted it into a straightjacket of Jewish self-loathing.

In France, the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has incorporated crude concentration camp humor (and jokes about gassing Jews) into his act.  And because of such material, he is routinely banned from performing and has been convicted for engaging in racial hatred.  In Belgium, he was imprisoned and forced to pay a $10,000 fine for inciting hatred.  In America, for expressing self-hatred, and mocking the Holocaust, David was honored with guest-hosting duties on SNL.

Of course, freedom of expression is a hallmark of American democracy.  David is merely taking extreme artistic liberties with his comedic imagination—Holocaust survivors be damned.  Moreover, unlike Dieudonne, David is himself a Jew.  Shouldn’t he be given the same leeway African-American comedians receive when their material invokes the “N-word”?  After all, concentration camp victims were known to tell jokes to each other in order to keep their spirits up and maintain their moral survival.

But those were their jokes to tell; they owned the experience, and they weren’t ribbing each other for laughs alone, one skeleton to another.  And there are still survivors living among us.  Isn’t there some gentleman’s agreement about un-ripened events “too soon” for comic exploitation?

And as for France and Belgium, they are democracies, too, with artistic licenses of their own.  They just happen to believe that common decency and a respect for the dead should not be debased for the sake of nervous laughter.

Larry David may have finally gone one cringe too far.  Surely, he didn’t violate any laws, other than the one of nature—with something as supremely unnatural as Auschwitz, go find another gag line.

But after all these years, shouldn’t the Holocaust be able to take a joke?  Actually, it can’t, and what’s more, it shouldn’t have to.


Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.  He is the author of “The Golems of Gotham” and “Second Hand Smoke,” among other fiction and nonfiction titles.

Gal Gadot to host ‘SNL’

Actress Gal Gadot signing autographs for fans during the “Wonder Woman” premier in Mexico City on May 27. Photo by Victor Chavez/WireImage

Israeli actress Gal Gadot, known the world over as Wonder Woman, will host Saturday Night Live.

Gadot is scheduled to host the October 7 episode of the show. She will be joined by musical guest Sam Smith.

Gadot informed her fans via a tweet. “No longer a secret, so excited to be hosting #SNL,” she wrote, retweeting an SNL graphic announcing the first three shows of the season.

It is the first time that Gadot will host the comedy sketch show, now in its 43rd season.

2017 Emmy Awards: On a historic night for diversity, ‘SNL’ quietly wins big

Lorne Michaels, right, with Alec Baldwin at the 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Governors Ball in Los Angeles on Sept. 17. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The 2017 Emmy Awards presentation, which is being hailed as a historic night for diversity in Hollywood, honored some Jewish talent.

“Saturday Night Live” led the way with eight of the TV awards, which were handed out Sunday night in Los Angeles.

“SNL” winners included Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin, for best supporting actress and actor in a comedy, respectively, for their portrayals of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath. Melissa McCarthy also won for her work as a guest actress on “SNL,” notably portraying former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

The show’s Jewish creator, Lorne Michaels, was a winner as the show took home the award for best variety sketch series. Michaels, who has produced the show for much of its four decades, now holds the record for most Emmy nominations.

Jewish filmmaker Ezra Edelman won the nonfiction directing Emmy for his work on the ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America.”

The Emmys also paid tribute to those in the industry who have died during the last year, including Jewish actresses Carrie Fisher and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

However, the night was most notable for other reasons. Donald Glover became the first African-American to win best directing in a comedy series and the first black actor to win best lead actor in a comedy since 1985. He is the star and creator of the FX show “Atlanta.”

Lena Waithe, who co-wrote the Netflix sitcom “Master of None” with Aziz Ansari, became the first black woman to win best comedy writing. Riz Ahmed became the first South Asian man to win an Emmy with his performance on the HBO miniseries “The Night Of.” And Sterling Brown, a star of NBC’s “This Is Us,” became the first African-American man to win outstanding lead actor in a drama series since 1998.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has French-Jewish heritage, broke the record for most consecutive wins in any Emmy category with her sixth straight best lead actress in a comedy award. The former “Seinfeld” star is the driving force behind HBO’s political satire “Veep.”

BRIGSBY BEAR *Director/Star Interviews and Movie Review*

Brigsby Bear is a comedic ode to nostalgia, friendship and acceptance.  When James (Kyle Mooney, Saturday Night Live) discovers he was raised by kidnappers and is returned to his biological family, he strives to take control of his life again.  Harnessing the only thing he knows, a Brigsby Bear television show which his kidnappers created just for him, he decides to write and shoot the final chapter in his beloved bear’s story.

Rather than turn James into a joke, everyone around him embraces the project and takes it on as their own.  In the process, each of them discover elements that had been missing from their own lives, like the police detective (Greg Kinnear) who always wanted to act.

Brigsby Bear also stars Mark Hamill, Claire Danes, Matt Walsh, Andy Samberg, and Michaela Watkins.  It was co-written by Kevin Costello and directed by Dave McCary, Mooney’s childhood friends.  

Brigsby Bear and the friends behind it had some bumps–or learning experiences–as they worked to complete their first feature film together.  For more about Brigsby Bear, including an interview with Mooney and McCary about the movie and their process, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

I know how you feel about Trump

President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 8. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Remember when we couldn’t wait to say good riddance to 2016? We’d had it with that abusive spouse of an election year. We were sick of the emotional rollercoaster. We needed an armistice, a breather. We were desperate to rise from the political sewer to the shining city on the hill.

Fat chance. This 2017 thing is even worse. I know how you feel: beat up, battened down, fetal, furious. But just remember, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s not you – it’s him.

Of course you’re depressed. You know that the news is toxic to your spirit, and you admit you’re addicted to it, but really, with all these nonstop horribles, who wouldn’t be obsessed by political disaster porn? Even though the news leaves you feeling not informed and empowered, but helpless and fearful; even if your neocortex knows that Trump’s game is to hijack your attention, and the media’s game is to monetize it; still, your reptilian brain won’t permit you to peel your eyes from the screen, won’t let you stop refreshing your feed, keeps you texting and posting and tweeting and screaming, “Can you effing believe this?” Your news addiction feels no less compulsive than, but is the reciprocal of, an opioid addiction. You’re hooked on pain.

No wonder you’re ambivalent. You have empathy for voters whose struggle to make ends meet and whose loathing of corruption helped put this president in office, but you find yourself rooting that the real harm he’ll do them – robbing their health care, wrecking their public schools, risking their retirement, rolling back their rights – will awaken them to the colossal con they’ve enabled and will eventually rouse them to resistance.

It makes sense to be incensed. You’re enraged by the cowardice of Republican legislators who’ve put protecting their political skins above protecting the Constitution. You’re livid that Trump’s pooh-poohing of “political correctness” has exempted racists, homophobes, misogynists, anti-Semites and other haters from being shunned and shamed. You’re infuriated by the toadies, fools, vipers and shmatta hucksters now wearing staff passes to the West Wing. You’re angry there’s no accountability for the Trumps’ blatant conflicts of interest, no punishment for stonewalling his tax returns, no penalty for his bullying, laziness, lying and ignorance.

It’s perfectly normal that you’re freaked out by how fragile American democracy is, how vulnerable the Enlightenment machinery our Founders designed turns out to be. It’s unsettling that the power of a free press to check political power has itself been checked by the conquest of journalism by entertainment, the displacement of reason by ratings, the substitution of Internet anarchy and networked nihilism for the norms of civil discourse. It’s chilling to concede that the separation of powers between executive and legislative branches can be so completely sabotaged by one-party rule. It’s galling to know that a switch from Trump to Clinton of only 38,873 of the 13,890,836 votes cast in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – call it the Kremlin margin, or the Comey gap – would have thrown the Electoral College to Clinton. The whole master narrative of the 2016 election – Forgotten Americans Give Trump a Mandate! – would never have drawn a breath had there been a ridiculously tiny 0.28% flip. No wonder our so-called president keeps peddling a cock-and-bull voter fraud story; he knows how puny his legitimacy actually is.

True grit is truly exhausting. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” Samuel Beckett said, but it’s awfully draining to be whipsawed between despair and determination. One day you’re uplifted by millions of marching women; the next, another state outlaws abortion. You’re heartened to see so many town halls where the Indivisible movement, already more potent than the Tea Party, is holding congressional feet to the fire, but you’re powerless to prevent the most unfit Cabinet in our history from being confirmed. When a senator says a Supreme Court nominee told him he was “demoralized” by Trump’s attack on the judiciary, you let yourself be hopeful, but when cable yakkers call that a ploy to create an aura of independence for the judge, you feel spun like a chump.

The storm still gathering over Team Trump’s footsie with Putin invites us to imagine a sudden end to the 45th presidency. If evidence turns up that Trump swapped softer sanctions on Russia for Putin’s feeding his Clinton email hacks to Wikileaks, maybe Paul Ryan would let the House vote to impeach him. Or maybe Trump’s megalomania will be so undeniably sociopathic even to his own Administration that the 25th Amendment will be invoked to replace him. Maybe Trump’s misery in his job – White House aides are leaking he wishes he’d never run – will culminate in a resignation. Or maybe SNL, CNN and the dishonest New York Times will finally make his head explode.

Then again, maybe it’s just same old yoyo of hope and dread. You go up – okay, I go up – at the prospect that our national nightmare will be over sooner rather than later. Then I go down at the thought of President Pence. There’s a way out of that, though, and the prairie fire sweeping congressional districts points the way: fight like hell, right now, for a Democratic House or Democratic Senate, or both, in 2018. Implausible? No one knows. But pushing to make it possible is a sure-fire prescription for feeling better.


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

3 must-watch Jewish moments from this week’s ‘Saturday Night Live’

Alec Baldwin, left, playing President Donald Trump in a “Saturday Night Live Sketch” that aired Feb. 4, 2017. Screenshot from YouTube

From a mention of Ivanka and Jared’s Shabbat observance to poking fun of Sean Spicer’s defense of a Holocaust statement that did not mention Jews, this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” had no shortage of Jewish content. Here’s the low-down on the sketches you may have missed.

Trump says that when Ivanka and Jared are observing Shabbat ‘the goys will play’

The sketch-comedy show opened with President Donald Trump (played by Alec Baldwin) sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. Trump asks an aide whether Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his Orthodox Jewish daughter and son-in-law are there, saying they “always keep me so calm and make sure I don’t do anything too crazy.” When the aide says the couple are off observing Shabbat, Trump says: “Perfect, when the Jews are away the goys will play.”

Then Trump’s chief policy adviser Stephen Bannon enters — dressed as the Grim Reaper — prodding him to make calls to world leaders, with disastrous consequences.

The reference to Ivanka and Jared’s Shabbat observance didn’t come out of nowhere. A Vanity Fair article suggested that the couple may have been unaware of protests against Trump’s controversial refugee ban since the fallout began over Shabbat.

Trump tells Angela Merkel he will write a memoir called “My Struggle”

After Trump tells both the Australian prime minister and Mexican president to “prepare to go to war,” Bannon-cum-Grim Reaper suggests Trump call Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (played by Kate McKinnon) picks up, not doing much to hide her disappointment that former president Barack Obama isn’t the one calling.

Trump starts talking about Holocaust Remembrance Day, but quickly makes it about himself.

“I want to be serious for just a moment, last week it was Holocaust Remembrance Day and as you know 6 million people,” he says, pausing, “were at my inauguration.” He then tells a speechless Merkel that he will write a memoir about unfair media coverage of his inauguration, titled “My Struggle” and asks her how to say the title in German.

Sean Spicer says a controversial White House Holocaust statement was written by someone who is “super Jewy” 

In a different sketch, Melissa McCarthy plays an overly aggressive White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (and manages to look astoundingly like him) who keeps on accusing the press corps of lying. When one reporter asks about whether a White House Holocaust statement that omitted any reference to Jewish suffering was anti-Semitic, Spicer starts squirting him with a water gun.

“This is soapy water, and I’m washing that filthy lying mouth,” Spicer says when the reporter reacts with shock.

“First of all, how could the statement be anti-Semitic? The guy who wrote it was super Jewy, okay?” asks McCarthy’s Spicer. (The real-life Spicer, in defending the statement, said it had been written “with the help of an individual who is both Jewish and the descendants of Holocaust survivors,” later reported to be White House staffer Boris Epshteyn.)

The prostate presidency

In her Clinton wardrobe and hair, accompanying herself on the piano, Kate McKinnon’s “>said “we are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country.” Really? Who are we supposed to be uniting with? Where does Trump want to lead us?

Well, look where he’s led us so far. He’s already pissed on the presidency (vulgar words, I know, but what else is birtherism?); he’s already normalized hate (what else does his political incorrectness amount to?); he’s already sanctioned evil (what else is climate change denial, or torture?). With congressional cowards abdicating checks and balances, with a Fourth Estate little more inclined to challenge authoritarianism than an “>sermon, our rabbi passed a microphone for people to say what they were feeling. I heard fear, I heard hope, I heard calls to action.

At the very end of the service, our cantor surprised us. She asked us to please turn to page 300-something and join in singing America the Beautiful. I didn’t even know it was in the prayer book. Nor, I suspect, did anyone else.

United in song, we staked our claim to patriotism. We took our country back. We sang to one another, in essence, I’m not giving up, and neither should you.  By the time we got to “Thine alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears,” my eyes were welling up. When we reached “From sea to shining sea,” I almost lost it. 

But looking around me, I saw I wasn’t alone. And neither are you.


Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING *Movie Review*

Real-life best friends Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone have mastered the art of working with friends.  Together, the three created some of the most iconic viral videos that “Saturday Night Live” has featured in years.

Now, moving on to bigger screens the three, who call themselves The Lonely Island, star in POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING, which they also wrote and directed.  It’s a mockumentary filled with back-to-back celebrity cameos and start-to-finish laughter.  The trio managed to get half of Hollywood to sign onto their project: P!nk, Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey, Maya Rudolph, Sarah Silverman and many more.

For more about POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING take a look below…

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Bernie Sanders, Larry David to appear together on ‘SNL’

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders will appear with comedian Larry David on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, according to several media outlets.

Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Sanders, told CNN: “We’ll be live in New York.”

David, who has portrayed the Vermont senator multiple times on “Saturday Night Live” this season, is scheduled to host the show this week. In addition to his popular Sanders’ impressions, David — who like Sanders is Jewish and originally from Brooklyn — is best known for TV shows “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which he starred in, and “Seinfeld,” which he co-created, co-produced and wrote.

Sanders would be the third presidential candidate to be a guest on the show this season. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is competing with Sanders for the Democratic nomination, came on in October. Republican Donald Trump appeared in November.

Larry David calls Trump a racist on ‘SNL,’ earns $5,000

Comedian Larry David heckled billionaire presidential candidate Donald Trump during his appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and will pocket $5,000 for it.

“You’re a racist. Trump’s a racist,” David yelled from offstage during Trump’s opening monologue on Saturday night.

The Deport Racism PAC had offered a $5,000 bounty for “anyone on the set of the show or in the studio audience who yells out or gets on camera during the live TV broadcast clearly heard in the TV broadcast saying “Deport Racism” or “Trump is a Racist.”

The organization later thanked David for yelling at Trump and promised to pay up.

Asked by Trump for an explanation, David replied, “I heard if I yelled that, they’d give me $5000.” “As a businessman, I can fully respect that,” Trump replied.

The heckling was written as part of the opening monologue, Raw Story reported.

The previous week, David appeared on the show as Bernie Sanders.

Q&A with Nikki Levy

“Saturday Night Live” alumna Laraine Newman shares an experience she had in high school, when, high on a psychedelic drug, she saw her mother as a person and not just her parent for the first time. 

Actress (and daughter of Motown icon Diana Ross) Tracee Ellis Ross, one of the stars of the TV series “Girlfriends,” which ended in 2008, shares a story about when she once used what she thought was a toilet, but which was actually a stage prop, and how she worried that her mistake would ruin her mom’s reputation. 

On Sept. 13, Newman and Ross were among a cast of comedians, screenwriters and actors who appeared in the show “Don’t Tell My Mother!” an increasingly popular storytelling comedy show produced monthly at Café Club Fais Do-Do in Los Angeles. Next month, the show celebrates its one-year anniversary with a performance on Oct. 11 and expands to New York.

“Don’t Tell My Mother!” creator Nikki Levy is a producer at 20th Century Fox who grew up in a Jewish household in New York — with a stereotypical Jewish mother. During a series of interviews, she described how, for her, the show’s best stories are wild without being mean-spirited, salacious but still enlightening. The following is an edited and condensed version of those interviews.

 

Jewish Journal: If you’re a performer, what’s the incentive to go out in front of an audience and share something personal and humiliating, other than to get laughs? Are there other reasons that performers might do it?

Nikki Levy: I figure it’s for a couple of reasons. One, it feels really good to be honest — and sometimes it’s easier to do it in front of a crowd than in front of a really good friend. 

Also, I think people like to get exposure. Someone who is doing our next show got an agent from doing the show [last May]. Someone also cast a pilot from doing the show. So there’s the actual work incentive.

But I think the other incentive is the honesty involved with it. I work in the entertainment business, a lot of people I get are people who act and write, and I think a lot of people don’t get to do this kind of show. They’re maybe on a TV show or write for a super successful sitcom or something, but that idea of sharing writing, performing in a different kind of medium and in a really personal way is kind of freeing. They’re not writing for someone else’s voice, not writing for a character. They’re writing as them. 

 

JJ: Your audience has been growing, and similar comedic storytelling shows also have been dong well. Why do audiences respond so enthusiastically to this type of confessional storytelling? 

NL: Well, my feeling is we’re bombarded with so much bulls— all the time that it’s very compelling when someone honest is performing. I learned this thing once, in acting class — it’s a reason we look at car crashes: All of a sudden, we see something that’s real, it captures us because it’s truth. For instance, in a play you drift off, but the minute someone gets real, actually real, your eyes automatically go to that person. In this world now, with Facebook, Twitter and celebrities tweeting personal things, we’re past the point of going to see stand-up [comedy], of someone doing a character. People want to see things that are real and things that are honest.

 

JJ: You’ve had 10 shows and hosted dozens of performers at this point. Do performers make similar confessions? You said a lot of the stories have been salacious. What other topics have popped up a lot, besides sex? 

NL: We had a great story from someone who accidentally shoplifted at age 24 and got arrested, when really she was spacey, as opposed to shoplifting. One of my favorite stories — by [performer] Jen Kober — she told a story about being a fat kid in a small town and her mother would make her ration cheese that she got from Costco. Jen, 8 years old, realized she needed to steal the entire block of cheese and convince her mother she never bought it. That’s a story I loved. They’re definitely not all sex stories. Drugs come up. Getting arrested comes up. Stealing comes up. Losing your virginity is something that comes up. 

I told my “Hand-Job in the Holy Land” story. … I think it was probably 1993. It was the USY Israel Pilgrimage. … I told that story in March. People loved it. It was short, like five to seven minutes, and people loved it. A lot of audience members are Jews … a lot of the audience having been in USY tours when they were kids. 

 

JJ: How did you become interested in comedy?

NL: Well, I came from a totally bananas household, the wild, wild East Coast of Queens. And coming from two parents who did not get along, there was a lot of yelling, so I would park myself in front of the TV and I would pop in the same three VHS tapes over and over again: “Coming to America”; the critically acclaimed [she says this sarcastically] “Moving Violations,” starring Bill Murray’s brother, John Murray — it’s so awesome but so bad; and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”… I don’t know what drew me to comedy, but I loved it and I love everything about it, and I was totally in love with Eddie Murphy, completely in love.

When I was 12, I came out to L.A. with my mom to visit family, and one of my family members worked at Paramount, so we got a tour of the studio lot, and I saw Eddie Murphy’s golf cart — this is during the ’80s, and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m totally going to work at a studio, in movies, in casting or development.”

For whatever reason, I chose development. But I loved comedies since I was  a kid, probably because it was a great distraction from all the craziness at home. It was such an awesome escape.

 

JJ:  So when did you move to Los Angeles to pursue development?

NL: I moved in November 2002. I’d been working at the Oxygen network, in New York, but I’d gone to school [at Northwestern University] for film [specifically, creative writing for media]. I always wanted to work in film, and there was no film in New York. I was 24 years old, and my mom said, “If not now, when? And if you don’t like it, come back.” 

I sublet my amazing place in Park Slope, and I came out here, and I felt the max I would be here is six years. [She landed several jobs, including positions at Imagine Entertainment as the junior development executive on Oscar nominee “Frost/Nixon” and running “Ice Age” director Chris Wedge’s animation company, before taking a break living in Buddhist monasteries in Northern California, “because I wanted a change,” she said.] … It was during that time, between Imagine and working for Chris, that I started writing again and doing a little performing here and there. 

Last October, we had our first [“Don’t Tell My Mother!”] show, and we had 100 people waiting at the door. It was Yom Kippur, and it was my birthday. … I had told my producer to lay out 35 seats because I wanted the place to look packed. … When all those people came, I was flabbergasted, literally. 

 

JJ: So your expectations for the show weren’t high?

NL: No, I didn’t have any high hopes for the show. I just figured we’ll do it, and it will be fun. I worked with people on their pieces, like I do now, and hoped it would be good. … I couldn’t believe all these people came. Granted, they were mostly my friends, but still they showed up and gave the impression that maybe there is something to this. The theater took the entire door of 100 people. I didn’t even arrange anything with them. They took all the money because I was, like, whatever, I don’t care.

I get that a big part of [the success] has to do with the title — we all have something with our moms and want to hear salacious stories that you wouldn’t share elsewhere. … But I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was finally inhabiting my own skin. And it became, like, OK, we’re here to make these people happy. Let’s just have fun. And it was such a fun show.

For information about upcoming performances of “Don’t Tell My Mother!” visit donttellmymother.com.

Michael Bolton, Andy Samberg take on “Jack Sparrow” in latest Lonely Island Boys video

Al Franken leads in Senate race, poll finds

Al Franken has taken the lead over incumbent Norm Coleman in the Minnesota Senate race, according to a new poll.

The Star-Tribune Minnesota Poll, conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 2, showed the Democrat and former writer-performer for “Saturday Night Live” with a 43 percent to 34 percent advantage over Coleman, a Republican, in a contest of Jewish candidates. Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley garnered 18 percent.

Coleman led Franken by four points last month in the same poll. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.7 points.

Coleman campaign officials, according to the Minnesota Star-Tribune, criticized the poll’s methodology by noting that a SurveyUSA poll conducted by a local TV station and released earlier in the week had Coleman up 10 points on Franken, 43 percent to 33 percent.

The Star-Tribune Minnesota poll also found that Barkley was drawing more votes from Coleman than Franken, and that Franken would be ahead by seven points in a head-to-head match.

–JTA

Live From Hillel — It’s Laraine!

Fans of the legendary first seasons of “Saturday Night Live” remember Laraine Newman sashayingwith Gilda Radner in the hilarious faux commercial for “Jewess Jeans.” They recall her BarbraStreisand impression and her angry beatnik character reciting bad poetry in nasal Brooklynese.But Newman, 50, will reveal one of her more serious roles when she’s honored at Hillel at Pierce &Valley Colleges’ Comedy Nite 2003 on Feb. 1: her involvement with the Jewish community.The granddaughter of an Arizona Jewish cattle rancher, Newman will describe how she grew up soassimilated that “all my Jewish friends went to Hess Kramer but I was shlepped off to CampTrinity.”

It wasn’t until she enrolled her oldest daughter in Temple Isaiah’s preschool around 1992 that shejoined a temple (Isaiah), learned Hebrew and brought ritual home. “I never had that kind of pride inmy heritage,” she said. “At Beverly Hills High, all the Jewish boys liked [non-Jewish] girls and therewas a pervasive Jewish anti-Semitism.”

Newman skewered that kind of self-hatred when her “SNL” character, Connie Conehead — thealien teen who longs to “pass” as human — considers a “cone-job.”

At Beverly, the actress said, she “had acne, braces and my nose was my adult size, although Iwasn’t.” But she was also the class clown, and, after studying mime with Marcel Marceau, she wasdiscovered at the improv troupe, the Groundlings, by “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels.

On “SNL” from 1975-1980, she made an impression with characters such as Sheri, the WASPValley girl who complains about making peace cobbler for her Jewish in-laws to-be who said,”Look, the shiksa made a Presbyterian pie.”

Yet, while her colleagues forged successful careers after “Saturday Night,” Newman’s post-“SNL”pickings were slim. It didn’t help that “the press was really mean and took every chance to depictme as a loser,” she said. Newman overcame that by taking modest film roles and forging asuccessful cartoon voiceover career. “My daughter’s birth … freed me to take ego out of theequation,” said Newman, who also played Richard Lewis’ rebbitzen on TV’s “7th Heaven.” So didrediscovering her Judaism: “It’s kept me concerned with greater things than self-centeredness,” shesaid.

For information about the tribute, call (818) 887-5901.

The ADL Is Not Amused

The Anti-Defamation League is not amused by a “Saturday Night Live” satire in which cast members, posing as pop stars, said that Jews own all the banks and that Christians have forgiven them for “killing our Lord.”

And NBC has promised not to air the sketch again — maybe.

Following widespread protests by viewers, ADL head Abraham Foxman dispatched a letter to Rosalyn Weinman, NBC’s head of broadcast content policy, blasting the skit for reviving “anti-Semitic stereotypes at their worst” and called it “a lame attempt at humor.”

In her response, Weinman pledged to take the offending portion out of the sketch in reruns. However, in a subsequent statement, NBC said that the entire matter is “currently under review.”

Lorne Michaels, “Saturday Night Live” executive producer, also joined the fray, telling the Washington Post last week that he opposed Weinman’s pledge and charging that the ADL “trivializes the important work they’re supposed to be doing with this kind of nonsense.”

Whichever way the decision goes, Foxman said in a phone interview, “We won’t go to war with NBC and SNL, but we hope they will be more sensitive next time.”

The gradually evolving brouhaha started Dec. 4, when SNL parodied an earlier CBS special, “And So This Is Christmas,” with a mock promotion for an imaginary CBS show, called “And So This Is Chanukah.”

Featured in the CBS Christmas special were Celine Dion, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan and Babyface singing carols and recalling their childhood holidays.

In the SNL Chanukah skit, cast members and guest Christina Ricci appeared as faux pop divas Dion, Britney Spears and Mariah Carey singing fake Chanukah songs.

In the next scene, the faux Dion, played by SNL regular Ana Gasteyer, said that as a child she was told that Chanukah “is a holiday celebrated by the people who own all the movie studios and the banks.”

Ricci, as Britney Spears, said that at this time of the year, “We, as Christians, take time out to think about forgiving our Jewish friends for killing our Lord.”

The following Monday, Foxman said, “all the lights on our switchboard lit up. So we got a transcript of the skit and felt that it had crossed the line of legitimate satire.”

In his letter to NBC’s Weinman, Foxman noted, “We have worked with the Vatican and others for the last 50 years to educate against this poisonous doctrine and for SNL, in a lame attempt at humor, to revive this notion is unacceptable.”

At the same time, the ADL director recognized that SNL is a series designed “to poke fun at institutions and individuals in society.” He added that other parts of the Chanukah sketch, while perhaps offensive, “would fall into that legitimate irreverent category.”

In his counterblast last week, Michaels told the Washington Post that “what satire is supposed to do is provoke discussion.”

“We are not pro-drugs, but we make jokes about drugs,” Michaels said. “We’re not pro-ignorance, but we make jokes about ignorance, and the only way you can do it is by showing ignorance. The idea that any discussion of these ideas is out of bounds is idiotic to me.”


The Jewish Federation is opening a Venezuela Flood Relief Fund
c/o Executive Office of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
5700 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036
For further information call Annabelle Stevens, Director of Public Relations (323) 761-8081