January 20, 2019

We’re all ‘Old Jews’ at heart

An old Jewish man walks into a restaurant, walks up to the maitre d’ and says: “Pardon me, how do you prepare your chicken?” The maitre d’ says, “We tell ’em right up front they ain’t gonna make it.”

That’s just one of the many jokes that exemplify Jewish humor in the comedy revue “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2012 and ran for 16 months. It has since continued to play in cities around the country and is being presented at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza through March 15.

Audiences have been of varying ethnicities and ages, proving, according to co-creator Peter Gethers, “Everybody’s an old Jew if they have a sense of humor.” (Because of the risque nature of some jokes in the show, however, it may not be appropriate for very young Jews.)

Gethers collaborated on the show with his friend of some 35 years, Daniel Okrent. They were inspired by the website oldjewstellingjokes.com, a collection of vignettes containing old and new Jewish jokes told mostly by amateurs. Okrent said they conducted research, gathered jokes from friends and took their show beyond what is offered on the site by turning it into a production with a beginning, middle and end.  

“And by using actors — not comedians, not stand-up comics, but actors who could turn these jokes, many of which, of course, are going to be very familiar to many people, or at least some of which will be familiar to many people, turn them into little human plays — and adding music, adding songs, kind of building characters out of the material that is really sort of public-domain material,” Okrent added. “These jokes belong to all of us.”

The writers created five original monologues for the five actors in the cast, and Okrent explained how the script follows the life cycle. 

“It begins with childbirth, and it ends with shivah. Actually it ends a little bit after shivah — and [covers] the various stages of life both in terms of age and the various things we go through — school, business, marriage, religion, retirement, hitting all these other buttons as well.”

Okrent said his first exposure to Jewish humor came from his Polish-born grandfather.  

“I remember very vividly, when I was a little pisher growing up in Detroit,” he said, “my grandfather loved to tell jokes — not that they were particularly good.  The one joke that I remember most vividly isn’t good enough to be in our show, but it touches my heart.”  

In a monologue, one of the characters talks of learning about Jewish humor by watching it unfold on television.  

“In the early days of television,” Okrent said, “it was all set in New York. They needed to fill up time, and around New York we had all these Borscht Belt comics. Many of the most familiar names in American humor were at hand, and then suddenly these jokes were in dining rooms in Atlanta, Ga., and in dens in St. Louis, and they were on farms. This is how Jewish culture really entered American life, I think.”

Gethers found Jewish humor and funny Jews to be commonplace as he was growing up because his father was a sitcom writer. “As a result, even [when I was] really young, I became what I would call a ‘shticktologist.’ I was obsessed with jokes and really studied them.” 

He characterized Jewish humor as something that emanates from pain. “I think Jewish humor is all about not so much making fun of other people, but making fun of ourselves and using that humor to deal with very specific bad things that have happened.”  

And, Okrent observed, “There’s an important historical root to this. It’s not this way by accident. If you’re suffering, if you’re going through hard times, the best way to deal with it is humor. And this has been the case with Jewish humor going back — we found antecedents of some of these jokes that are 400 years old and that arise from the misfortunes of life.”

Both men describe themselves as secular Jews. Gethers said he had a bar mitzvah, and his family owned a famous dairy restaurant in New York called Ratner’s. “So, I was very influenced by Jewish food, Jewish humor, Jewish culture, and less so by actual Jewish religion,” he said.

Okrent went to Sunday school and was confirmed but did not have a bar mitzvah. He recalls having Shabbat dinners every Friday night at his grandparents’ house in Detroit.  

“I’m observant every weekend when I eat lox and cream cheese, so I’m observant in that sense,” he said. 

The two are highly respected writers and editors in areas other than the stage.  Gethers has written fiction and nonfiction books as well as comedy scripts for films and television. In addition, he has edited such luminaries as Caroline Kennedy, Barbara Walters, Jimmy Carter, Stephen Sondheim, Roman Polanski and William Goldman. Okrent is also a well-known editor and is celebrated as the first public editor of The New York Times. He is an award-winning author and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work about Rockefeller Center.

However, when they got together to write “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” they were breaking new ground professionally, as neither had ever written for the stage. Okrent has found the process thrilling. 

“I would sit in the back of the theater,” he said, “and hear 300 people roaring with laughter and leaving the theater with grins on their faces, and that was an experience I’d never, ever had before.”

And it’s important to Gethers that audiences leave the theater with a sense of how crucial humor is in life. 

“That’s what I really hope the audience takes away from the show — that they laugh hysterically and realize that there’s nothing in life that is not appropriate for a joke.”

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” runs through March 15 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Tickets are available at the box office and via Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com/old-jews-telling-jokes-thousand-oaks-california-03-05-2015/event/0B004CD4D24191B5?artistid=1828104&majorcatid=10002&minorcatid=32&bba=0