November 16, 2018

Tough Night at the Oscars for Jewish Nominees

Dan Cogan (L) and Bryan Fogel pose with their Oscars - REUTERS

Half a century ago, Bob Hope’s films were wildly popular but the comedian had never been nominated for an Academy Award. So when Hope served as host of the 1975 Oscar bash, he opened his monologue with “Welcome to the Academy Awards… or, as it’s known in my house – PASSOVER.” At Sunday’s 90th award ceremony, Jewish talent, once almost synonymous with Hollywood, could largely repeat Bob Hope’s punch line.

With only one exception and unless someone was hiding his or her tribal descent, no Jewish – or even half-Jewish – nominee got to clutch the golden statuette. In addition, a Jewish actor, tabbed as a likely winner, didn’t even make the nominee list, likely paying for his alleged sexual aggressiveness.

One day before the awards, the list of Jewish nominees, all with realistic chances to strike gold, included: for lead actors, Daniel Day-Lewis (in “Phantom Thread”) and Timothee Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name”), both with Jewish mothers. Also on the nomination list, but not called to the podium, was past repeat winner Hans Zimmer, who composed the score for “Dunkirk.” Benj Pasek, who last year won the Best Song Oscar for “La La Land,” failed to score in the same category for this year’s “This Is Me,” which, however, became the unofficial anthem of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The only consolation for tribal rooters was the win by Bryan Fogel for his documentary feature “Icarus,” which helped expose Russia’s widespread doping of its athletes. Fogel, a Denver native, previously developed, co-wrote and initially co-starred in “Jewtopia,” which became an immensely successful play and movie and was based on his book “Jewtopia: The Chosen Guide for the Chosen People.”

But on the negative side were some startling omissions of movies and their creators who failed to even make the list of five nominees in each category (nine for Best Picture nominees.) Foremost was the absence of Steven Spielberg, arguably Hollywood’s most respected personality. The director of “The Post,” a story of journalists facing down the U.S. government, was omitted from the list of five director nominees – although the film itself made the Best Picture nomination list.

James Franco, a perennial Jewish star, was tipped as a likely best actor winner for his role in “The Disaster Artist.” Franco won the Golden Globe for this role, but between that triumph and the deadline for Oscar nominations, he was accused by five women of sexual aggressiveness. Although he denied the charges, enough Oscar voters apparently decided to ignore his name.

Also raising eyebrows was the absence of Israel’s Gal Gadot from the Lead Actress list, although her performance as, and in, “Wonder Woman” was almost universally praised by critics.

In the Best Foreign-Language Film category, Israel’s entry “Foxtrot,” had made the initial list of nine nominees, but was eliminated when the list was cut to five candidates. The elimination of “Foxtrot” so annoyed Kenneth Turan, chief film critic for the Los Angeles Times, that, writing in his column, he told the judges that they  “should be ashamed of themselves.”

It is somewhat risky to deduce a national trend from an evening of Hollywood awards, but the conclusions from watching more than three hours of the Academy Awards seem fairly clear. One is that at a time of profound social change in the United States, fueled mainly by women and African-Americans, Jews are now generally considered as part of the white (and male) establishment. This development may be cause for considerable satisfaction by Jews who struggled for generations against discrimination, but it seems to have dulled the edge that in the past made for dramatic stage and movie plots.

Instead of the Jewish jokes by hosts during past Academy Awards, this time the traditional opening monologue, delivered by Jimmy Kimmel, were about sexual predators, and the loudest voices – and applause – were for women’s job equality, the achievements of immigrants, and the growing presence of Asian-Americans.

Two years ago, there were vociferous complaints about the nominations of almost exclusively white performers, contrasted to the absence of artists of color. This phenomenon was so pronounced that it earned the derisive label of “Oscar So White.” In a turnabout, black, Asian and Latino performers were so noticeable on Sunday’s stage that one African-American presenter wondered aloud whether the evening might be dubbed, at least in the eyes of white viewers, as “Oscar So Black.”

This article has been modified to correct Bryan Fogel’s name.

Oscars: Doping Documentary ‘Icarus’ Exposes Russian Conspiracy

Inspired by the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, filmmaker and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel decided to see if he, too, could take performance-enhancing drugs and get away with it.

But what started out as a first-person experiment shifted radically when Fogel sought the help of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. In 2016, Rodchenkov blew the whistle on Vladimir Putin’s state-sponsored doping program, turning him into a fugitive in exile—and giving Fogel’s film “Icarus” cloak and dagger urgency and global significance. It’s nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

“I wanted to show how the anti-doping system in global sport was a fraud and ended up exposing a scandal on a level that I never could have imagined when I started the project,” Fogel told the Journal.

He began corresponding with Rodchenkov via email in February 2014, during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and met him that summer at a symposium in Oregon. Rodchenkov agreed to help him, and he began taking the performance-enhancing steroids and hormones—and conspiring with Rodchenkov to substitute frozen “clean” urine samples for drug-contaminated ones.

“I wanted to show how the anti-doping system in global sport was a fraud and ended up exposing a scandal on a level that I never could have imagined.”

At that point, “I knew that he was involved in what appeared to be some wrongdoing at his laboratory but I didn’t know the extent to which he was involved or how deep and vast the conspiracy was,” Fogel said. He later helped Rodchenkov escape to the United States, and felt bound to protect him “because I had no doubt of the validity of what he was showing me and the breadth of the scandal and that it led to the Kremlin’s door.”

When the news broke, “It appeared that the International Olympic Committee was going to continue to sweep this scandal under the rug,” Fogel said. But under pressure from Rodchenkov, his lawyers, and the media, the IOC launched an investigation that corroborated prior investigations and led to the exclusion of Russia from PyeongChang. (some Russians still competed under the Olympic flag as Olympic Athletes from Russia.)

Named for the doomed flyer from Greek mythology, “Icarus” references the fall and comeuppance of “Lance Armstrong and so many others who have all the success in the world but have to push it too far and get greedy,” Fogel said.

He noted that the film, now streaming on Netflix, has had ongoing impact. “The IOC will continue to investigate and decide whether there will be further sanctions and punishments down the line,” Fogel said, adding that FIFA (world soccer) is launching its own investigation into Russian players.

The Los Angeles resident, 45, was born and raised in Denver, Colo., where he grew up “Conservadox. We kept a kosher home. I went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, all of that,” he said. “I think of myself more as a cultural Jew than a religious Jew now, but I don’t have a family yet. Maybe that will change.”

Fogel started out as a playwright, actor, and standup comedian, and made a splash with the semi-autobiographical “Jewtopia” a romantic comedy that opened Off-Broadway in 2004 after a successful Los Angeles run. He wrote, produced, and starred in it, wrote a book based on it, and directed the film version from his screenplay. He hopes to make both features and documentaries going forward, and has both in early stages of development.

But right now, he’s reveling in the spotlight the Oscar nomination has brought to the film and Rodchenkov, who left his family behind in Moscow “and risked his life to tell the truth. If Russia was willing to go to this extent to win and cheat the world of Olympic medals, there’s little doubt it would meddle in democracies, hack elections and change the course of other political affairs,” Fogel said. “I hope the attention to the film will continue shine a spotlight not only on this conspiracy and corruption but the bigger questions and issues, and be a wakeup call to take action to protect democracies around the world.”

‘Icarus’ director points camera at doping scientist, international intrigue

“Icarus” filmmaker Bryan Fogel runs through tests before his race through the French Alps. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Before Bryan Fogel embarked upon his debut documentary, “Icarus,” which revolves around Russia’s Olympic doping program, he was “desperate to not be the ‘Jewtopia’ guy.”

Fogel, 43, who grew up “Conservadox” in Denver, co-created “Jewtopia,” a comic play about a Jewish man who dislikes Jewish women and a non-Jew who wants to marry one. The play opened at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood in 2003 and became a hit. An off-Broadway production several years later enjoyed an often sold-out, three-and-a-half-year run. A “Jewtopia” coffee table book was published by Warner and dozens of “Jewtopia” plays were produced throughout North America.

But Fogel said that directing the 2013 movie version proved to be a “toxic experience” for him. The film was only briefly released in theaters and received poor reviews. Instead of launching his TV- and film-directing career, as he had hoped, “I came out of the film just completely beaten and really emotionally broken,” Fogel said. “I was really in a funk and a bit of a depression.”

As therapy, Fogel turned to his lifelong hobby of competitive cycling, a sport he avoided after a bike crash knocked out several of his teeth in a race when he was 19.

Then, in early 2013, one of Fogel’s cycling heroes, Lance Armstrong, admitted publicly that he had used banned performance-enhancing drugs throughout his winning of seven Tour de France titles, all the while evading detection. “So, I was going, ‘Wait, you tested him 500 times and you never caught him?’ ” Fogel recalled. “ ‘Like, are you kidding?’  So, I’m going, not ‘What’s wrong with Lance?’ [but rather] ‘What’s wrong with this bull—- system?’ ”

So, Fogel got the idea to film a documentary in which he would take the drugs, enter a major amateur cycling competition and see if he could beat the urine testing required by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

To do so, he sought out an expert to advise him on which drugs to take. One Los Angeles scientist declined Fogel’s request but recommended that he contact Grigory Rodchenkov, director of the WADA-approved antidoping lab in Moscow. The documentary chronicles how Rodchenkov eventually outlined Fogel’s doping regimen, even traveling to Los Angeles to smuggle the filmmaker’s urine back to his lab for testing. “All the labs in the world will be confused by your piss,” he gleefully tells Fogel.

The filmmaker goes on to evade detection as he competes in a grueling amateur cycling race through the French Alps.

Along the way, Fogel and Rodchenkov become good friends. But one day, Rodchenkov surprises Fogel by suggesting he view a 2014 German television documentary that features him in an exposé of Russian doping.

“I watched this thing and I went, ‘Holy s—,” Fogel said.

In November 2015, WADA published a report alleging Rodchenkov was the brains behind Russia’s Olympic cheating program.

In a Skype video call included in the documentary, the Russian scientist reveals to Fogel that he fears he might be assassinated for his allegations of a state-sponsored doping program. “I need to escape,” he says. Fogel promptly buys Rodchenkov an airplane ticket to Los Angeles — a round-trip ticket to avoid suspicion — and arranges for him to stay in a series of three safe houses in 2015 and 2016. “I felt a tremendous burden to protect him,” Fogel said.

Rodchenkov says he has wiped his laboratory computer clean but possesses three hard drives with thousands of incriminating documents. The filmmakers helped him hide the hard drives around Los Angeles, but the drives eventually were turned over to the FBI, the Justice Department and WADA, Fogel said.

Soon after fleeing to Los Angeles, Rodchenkov learns that two of his colleagues in the doping scheme died under mysterious circumstances in Russia. He is distraught and frightened by the news, as is Fogel. 

In the film, he tells Fogel meticulous details of how he and others arranged to thwart detection of doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — cloak-and-dagger methods that included secretly swapping out dirty urine samples with clean ones.

Meanwhile, the FBI and U.S. Justice Department may want Rodchenkov to serve as a possible witness in their investigation of the Russian doping allegations, although Fogel is unclear about what the agencies’ goals are for investigating a case that involves another country.

Further into the film, Fogel helps the Russian scientist find attorneys and persuades him to go public with his knowledge, for safety reasons, by providing details to The New York Times. The Times runs a front-page story on Rodchenkov in May 2016. Thereafter, Rodchenkov says his relatives in Moscow have been interrogated, their passports seized and the family’s assets confiscated. Russian authorities also have instigated criminal charges against him.

 

In the film, we see Fogel representing Rodchenkov at a gathering of top WADA officials who want to know what the lab director did. “Is he sorry?” an angry scientist asks Fogel at the meeting. The filmmaker replies that Rodchenkov risked his life to reveal his documents, left his wife and children and all his belongings behind in Russia, and is now committed to telling the truth.

Meanwhile, Russian leaders deny — as they do now — that the state sponsored the doping project and insist that Rodchenkov was a lone wolf. Russian news media also run a number of stories on the scientist’s friendship with Fogel. “All the claims against the government, he did himself,” the Kremlin’s minister of sports says in a clip from a top Russian TV news show.

In July 2016, Rodchenkov went into protective custody with the FBI and the Department of Justice, which may use him as a witness or even prosecute him in their ongoing investigation, Fogel said. He added that he hasn’t seen or spoken to Rodchenkov in a year but has learned through the scientist’s attorney that Rodchenkov is OK, currently residing in an undisclosed location for his safety.

“Icarus” was well received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. But a feature story in the Los Angeles Times suggested that Fogel portrayed the flawed scientist strictly as a hero — an interpretation Fogal disagrees with.

“I see him as a very, very complicated person because he’s lived a very, very complicated life,” Fogel told the Journal. “I think it’s easy from a Western perspective to go into the very simple good/bad, right/wrong point of view. But from a Russian perspective, from Grigory’s perspective, this was a guy who was born into the system … [and] the entire system was always doping and trying to avoid detection.”

Why did Rodchenkov offer Fogel intimate information about his conspiracies on camera? He did so not only to save himself from potential Russian retribution, he wanted to come clean, the filmmaker said.

“He had had enough,” Fogel said. “He no longer wanted to live with this information.”

“Icarus” opens in Los Angeles theaters on Aug. 4 and is available on Netflix.

‘Jewtopia’s’ universal truths

David Katz knew minutes into watching Bryan Fogel’s “Jewtopia,” a star-studded independent film adapted from the hit comedic play about interfaith dating, that it would anchor his Malibu International Film Festival. Unfortunately, Katz had his epiphany at 3 a.m.

“It was so frustrating,” he said. “I wanted to call Bryan, but I had to wait until a decent hour.”

Fogel, a Malibu resident, felt compelled to submit his first movie to his local cinema showcase. And Katz, the festival’s executive director, chose the film from more than 2,000 submissions. 

“Jewtopia,” which had its world premiere on April 26 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, screened opening night at the 13th annual Malibu International Film Festival on Sept. 22, winning its Audience Choice Award. 

“He deserves this,” Katz said. 

It took writer-director Fogel six years to make the film version of “Jewtopia,” about as long as it took to bring the play, which he co-wrote with Sam Wolfson, to fruition. 

“It was a tough one to get going,” Fogel said. “Getting a movie made is a miracle … because the studios are only interested in making ‘The Avengers.’ ” 

When it came to adapting the hit play, which opened in May 2003 at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse, Fogel looked to broaden its appeal. For instance, gone are the play’s in-jokes about the online Jewish dating site JDate.

“It’s very different from the play,” Fogel said. “Ultimately, it’s a great buddy movie. The play is a cast of seven; the movie has a couple hundred. It’s a very loose adaptation. In a play, the characters tell you the sky is falling. In a movie, you better show the sky falling.” 

“Jewtopia” revolves around Chris O’Connell (Ivan Sergei) and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore), two childhood friends who reunite years later. Chris, a non-Jew, feels comfortable dating decision-making Jewish women, while Adam escapes his Jewish roots by pursuing shiksas. The pair form a “Strangers on a Train”-style pact, schooling each other on how to score with their women of choice. 

Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jon Lovitz co-star in the film, which also features Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Nicollette Sheridan, Wendie Malick and Phil Rosenthal, creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” 

Most of the stars had not seen the play, Fogel said, but “the cast fell in like dominoes,” thanks to a strong script.

Fogel says that “Jewtopia’s” humor is universal because it taps into “an ongoing truth of humanity.” “I don’t think it’s just gentiles and Jews; it’s all religions and cultures. If you’re North Korean, being with someone from South Korea is taboo. It’s universal. It’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” he said.

Fogel says that the play — a hit with audiences from West Hollywood to Manhattan — was based on real-life experiences. 

“I never went through what Adam Lipschitz went through. I’m not that person. I didn’t go through those anxieties or have a nervous breakdown and enter a mental institution,” said Fogel, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox household in Denver and attended the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But there’s something very real going on in a Jewish home, having pressure on how to live your life and who you date.”

Although less Jewishly active today than during his youth, Fogel attends Jewish Federation functions and says his Jewishness informs everything he does. “It’s the sum of your existence, and how one is brought up ultimately affects who you are,” he said.  

Still friends with his collaborator, Fogel said he had not seen Wolfson, a television writer, in a few months and was unaware of what projects he was currently working on. Wolfson’s involvement with the film was limited to co-writing the script, Fogel said.

Andy Fickman, the play’s director, produced the movie, which was shot throughout Los Angeles, including in Sherman Oaks, Simi Valley, Burbank, Venice and the Santa Monica Mountains in July and August 2011.

Production designer Denise Hudson, costume designer Caroline B. Marx and art department assistant Jessica Shorten said they enjoyed collaborating on this first-time filmmaker’s production. 

“There were so many comedians on the set,“ Marx said. “It was a fun summer!”

At Saturday night’s after-party, revelers — Jews and non-Jews alike — smiled as they recalled the film. 

“It hit home for me with my own Jewish upbringing,” said Jeffrey Blum, who was among the 200 moviegoers at the Toyota-sponsored festival’s opening-night gala at Malibu Lumber Yard, an upscale shopping complex off Pacific Coast Highway.

Sonia Enriquez, who enjoyed the play, said she didn’t know what to expect from a film adaptation of “Jewtopia.” 

“I was pleasantly surprised,” she said. “It’s very different from the play. It’s a whole new experience.”

“There were times when the running joke ran too long,” said Mary Faherty, who added that the film was surprisingly good. 

“I love the film, even as a non-Jewish person. There are themes in it that are universal,” she said. “Everyone’s got their struggles with their culture and their parents. It feels good to know you’re not the only one being tortured!”

For more information about “Jewtopia,” visit jewtopiamovie.com.

Choice of a Jew generation

If you’re in a bookstore and see a book with two impish-looking guys trying to sneak a light for their cigarettes from a chanukiah, then you’ve happened upon “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” (Warner).

Yes, the saga of Los Angeles’ longest running original play continues. “Jewtopia,” the play, was first brought to us in 2003 by two unemployed writers/actors who maxed out their credit cards to mount the funny, if somewhat stereotypical, comedy about dating and Jews. It was originally supposed to run for six weeks but was so popular that it extended for another year, then left in 2004 for an off-Broadway run in New York, where it’s still playing to sold-out audiences.
Now Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, the creators and sometime actors in the play have expanded their “Jewtopia” vision into a book, and they are working on a movie deal as well. The 200-plus page color book, might be mistaken for a coffee table book — except that much of the material inside is not fit for the living room.

Consider, “The Jewish Kama Sutra: An Illustrated Guide to Lovemaking,” because “Jews are certainly not known for their prowess and skills in the bedroom.” Positions include “The Challah,” “The Heimlich,” “The Reader” “The Minyan” and “Bubbe’s Visit” (She cleans while he…oh, don’t ask.)

“It’s to be read in the bathroom only,” jokes Wolfson, who plays Adam Lipschitz, a Jewish guy facing extraordinary parental pressure to marry a Jewish woman.

“I think it should be read at the family seder — it’s a good substitute for the Haggadah,” replies Fogel, who in the show plays Chris O’Connell, a Christian obsessed with meeting a Jewish woman who strikes up a bargain with Adam to help him pass as a Jew if Chris can find Adam a date.

To be sure, there’s more than just sex jokes in “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” There’s a chapter on Jewish History, the Holidays (“Celebrate the Bad Times”), Food (“Anyone Have Some Zantac?”) Travel (“Planes, Trains and Diarrhea”) and Conspiracy Theories (“Do Jews Control the World?”) with real, live facts mixed in with, well, bubbemeises, like Moses’ lost diary or the game “Match the Nose to the Jew.”

In a world where it’s hip to be sardonic about Jewish identity (Heeb, Jewcy, Rabbis Daughter) “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” is a more idealistic, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jewish Stereotypes” kind of take on our people-sophomoric and sometimes scatological humor by two guys who are clearly having fun.

“We kind of consider ourselves the Trey Parker and Matt Stone of the Jewish world,” Wolfson says, referring to the creators of “South Park.” “Not so much enforcing stereotypes but having fun with them.

So they’re not self-hating Jews?

“We hate ourselves for so many other reasons,” Wolfson says. “There are so many good reasons to hate ourselves aside from being Jewish.”

Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson will be reading from “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” on Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino.— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Q & A With Jewtopia Creators Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson

“Are you interested in a 29-year-old Jewish girl?”

I’m standing in the foyer of the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood talking to Bryan Fogel, the co-writer/co-producer/co-star of “Jewtopia” — a play that parodies dating, JDating, interdating, rabbis, Passover seders, Purim, Chanukah bushes, bar mitzvahs, shofar blowing, other types of blowing, goyim, Asian fixations, synagogue memberships and, most of all, Jewish women and their overbearing mothers — when this overbearing Jewish mother shamelessly accosts Fogel outside his dressing room to peddle her daughter to him.

“I tried to bring her today, but she couldn’t come,” the gray-haired woman continues, describing her daughter, eventually extracting Fogel’s information from him (“It’s on the Playbill,” Fogel says).

The whole exchange was all the more surreal because we had just spent the past two hours watching a play in which she could have been one of the characters.

That seems to be the thing about “Jewtopia:” it skewers Jewish stereotypes, and still leaves most of the subjects of the satire laughing (like the aforementioned unfazed pushy mother).

The two-hour play tells the story of Adam Lipschitz (Sam Wolfson), a Jewish guy facing extraordinary parental pressure (normal for Jewish parents) to marry a Jewish woman, who meets up with an old friend, Chris O’Connell (Fogel), a Christian obsessed with meeting a Jewish woman. They strike a Faustian bargain: Sam will help Chris pass as Jewish if Chris helps Sam find a Jewish woman to marry.

When The Journal first saw “Jewtopia” on opening night last May, it was originally set for a six-week run. Nine sold-out months later and 40 minutes shorter, the play is about to hit its 150th performance. Fogel and Wolfson, together with Clear Channel Communications, are taking “Jewtopia” to Chicago in April and, if all goes well, they plan to open in Boston, Miami and New York within the next year.

The Jewish Journal: What do you think of this “Jewtopia” phenomenon?

Bryan Fogel: When we wrote “Jewtopia” we were hoping it was funny, that people would have our sense of humor and our sensibility — but statistically, [knowing] L.A., we were holding our breath — and we were prepared to be $80,000 in debt.

Before the opening weekend we did a marketing thing with JDate and The Jewish Federation and other singles groups, and from that point on it just took off. Once the [Los Angeles] Times review came out [last May] we sold 1,500 tickets. From that Friday on, we were sold out two months ahead of time. It was just totally bizarre.

JJ: How do you account for the popularity of the show?

Sam Wolfson: Who knows why people laugh at what? [At] our show last night one-third of the people were between 20-30, one-third were between 30-60 and one-third were between 60-80 years old. [Comedian] Jan Murray brought like 12 people with him. They laughed as much as the 20-years-olds.

There’s been this wild age crossover.

BF: There’s our generation, and my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, who stayed where they were born. There was never any issue that they weren’t going to marry a Jew; our generation is the first generation — and I think it’s similar for Christianity, too. I love being Jewish, but I think that our generation is the first generation that crossed that line between being a cultural versus a practicing Jew. I think that our generation has started to question all that.

SW: A perfect example of why people are going nuts for it: This woman, she must’ve been 70 or something, and she said, “My son married a Mongolian [a character in the play meets a Mongolian woman]. I can’t believe it! How did you come up with Mongolia? This is my life!”

BF: We had the founder of JDate, Alon Carmel [and he said], “This is my Mongolian wife — she’s Japanese, and this is my half-breed child.” My character Chris [is based on my sister’s husband] — he had the same military/hunting/fishing background; he converted, and he’s more Jewish than she’s ever been.

I think that what’s working — everything we’re doing is in really, really good fun. The whole show comes from a love of Judaism. I love being Jewish. We’ve taken some stereotypes and turned them on their head in a way that everyone can identify. What we’re doing is not spiteful, it’s not coming from any other place but this zany, irreverence for our culture. When the Buddist says at the seder, “We can stop suffering and reach enlightenment, and the grandfather asks, “Stop suffering?” it’s about a love for our culture, and I think that the audiences love it. We’re pleasing most of the people. There’s always one person who says this is offensive. But I think that people can say that we’re not making fun.

JJ: People either love it or hate it. What offends people? And does this bother you?

BF: In my opinion, 97 percent love it. That 2 or 3 percent who hate it, I think that’s a small percentage. It seems to be the older people, or observant, who think we take it too far, that it reinforces Jewish stereotypes.

SW: These jokes have been going on for 100 years and suddenly we’re responsible for perpetuating it?

BF: Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, this self-deprecating humor is Jewish humor, so when I hear that they are offended, I think they would be offended by Jackie Mason, too.

SW: I do feel like if a lot of these jokes were done by those guys — if it was in “The Producers” they [audiences] wouldn’t think twice. It’s OK if it’s an established comedian, but not from two punks who haven’t done it before. Nobody likes everything. But the fact that people who don’t like it really don’t like it — I think that it means we’re doing something right.

JJ: Speaking of offensive, I thought the play was a bit misogynistic. (Are Jewish women really that bad?)

BF: I don’t think the play is misogynistic at all. There’s no gray area in the play — we just decided to make everything zany and over-the-top. Obviously in real life you don’t get peed on [as Sam does on one of his 150 JDates] but I don’t think that the stereotypes are directed at Jewish women…. Just overall craziness, rather than anything grounded in reality.

SW: Stereotypes are so ridiculous. We made a conscious decision never to make the Fran Drescher-type, “Friends” Janice-type. In terms of presenting the Jewish girl … when I’m on the phone [making dates with 150 Jewish women] I’m happy about it! I’m excited! I break down because I’m broke and haven’t had sex for six months…. We never wanted it to be “Jewish women are bad and evil.”

BF: It’s coming from the two guys that wrote it, and the single dating world. My mother is my best friend. There was nothing in our writing spiteful. Sam’s last three girlfriends have been Jewish.

JJ: Go Sam! Perhaps misogynistic is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s just uneven — skewering Jewish women and not Jewish men.

BF: We did write about Jewish men. He has the pressure of marrying a Jewish woman. These two guys have a lot of flaws. You couldn’t look at these guys and think they’re the ideal guy.

SW: No Jewish women were harmed when writing this play.

JJ: What is the message of this play? Is Adam’s statement at the end, that “we’re all people and we should all get along,” a statement in favor of intermarriage?

BF: It’s a reality, that last monologue, that for better or for worse, it’s more grounded in the real world. In the ideal world, I’d find a Jewish girl and you’d find a Jewish guy, but the importance has diminished because there hasn’t been the threat of persecution — that we have to stay together or we’ll die. If I could just find a Jewish girl that I was into, wouldn’t my life be easier. Well, that’s not as exciting.

SW: I’m sure it’s the same for everyone and every religion. It’s a part of the culture, I guess.

JJ: Has this gotten you more dates?

SW: Well, it hasn’t been bad. We have both met girls through the show.

JJ: Bryan, would you go out with that girl whose mother was peddling her the day I saw the show?

BF: I would certainly entertain the idea.

“Jewtopia” plays at 8 p.m. (Thursdays-Saturdays) and 3
p.m. (Sundays) at the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.
Tickets are $27.50 and can be obtained by calling (800) 595-4849 or visiting www.jewtopiaplay.com .

A State of ‘Jewtopia’

"We’re nice Jewish boys who love our mothers," Sam Wolfson said. "We don’t mean any harm," said his pal, Bryan Fogel.

Wolfson and Fogel feel nervous because they’ve written and are starring in an irreverent play, "Jewtopia," about a Jew who dislikes Jewish women (Wolfson), and a non-Jew who adores them (Fogel). They’ve included over-the-top riffs on clichés such as theme bar mitzvahs, cheesy Purim carnivals, JAPS and the politically incorrect word, shvartze. They say they intended to humorously but lovingly exploit Jewish stereotypes the way plays like "Nunsense" exploit Catholic ones — but they’re aware viewers could take offense.

"We never meant the play to be taken seriously," Wolfson said. "We’re poking fun at ourselves."

"Jewtopia" began when the struggling actors, now 30, sat down to write a scene to perform at one-act festivals last year. They envisioned two guys at a singles mixer with "Hava Nagila" pumping in the background and "decided the gentile, Chris, was there because he likes Jewish girls, and the Jew, Adam, [was there] because of family pressure," Fogel said.

When ex-Paramount chief Frank Yablans saw the piece and urged them to write a full-length play, the actors mined their lives for material. Fogel’s non-Jewish Hungarian wife became Rachel, the Mongolian, who shocks Adam’s parents at the family seder. Adam’s mom, like Wolfson’s, insists it’s his duty to marry Jewish. When the characters surf JDate, Wolfson also drew on his recent experience.

"’Firetushy’ is real," he said of one woman’s screen name. "’Jewable’ is real.’"

Mining stereotypes struck gold for the novice playwrights when Yablans agreed to raise one-third of "Jewtopia’s" $80,000 budget and to produce it at the prestigious Coast Playhouse. Acclaimed theater director Andy Fickman ("Reefer Madness!") signed on because the characters "reminded me of my Jewish family," he told The Journal.

Nevertheless, while fiddling with his briefcase full of allergy medications — another stereotype in the play — Fogel worried about being perceived as a "bad Jew."

Wolfson had a different concern. "Please say in the article that I’m looking for a nice Jewish girl," he told a reporter. "And send all inquiries to my mother."

The play runs through June 8. For tickets, call (800) 595-4849, or visit www.jewtopiaplay.com. n

(From left) Bryan Fogel, Lin Shaye and Sam Wolfson star in the world premiere of "Jewtopia." Photo by Michael Lamont