No joke, we’ve got the fun­ni­est films

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CUL­TURE BRIGIT GRANT

LAST WEEK, the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­ica an­nounced the 101 fun­ni­est screen­plays ever writ­ten and gave the Jews good rea­son to kvell from ear to ear. That Woody Allen’s An­nie Hall got the num­ber one spot was par­tic­u­larly grat­i­fy­ing and the soon-to-be oc­to­ge­nar­ian is also re­spon­si­ble for Sleep­ers (60) Ba­nanas (69) Take the Money and Run (76) Love and Death (78) Man­hat­tan (81) and Broad­way Danny Rose (92). And that’s just Woody’s con­tri­bu­tion to a list that may not be de­fin­i­tive but in terms of Jewish con­tri­bu­tions is stuffed to the kishkas.

I’ll kick things off with just those films in the Top 20 — 14 of them are writ­ten by Jews. Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot came in at num­ber two. Fol­low­ing the late Aus­trian Jewish film­maker at num­ber three are Danny Ru­bin and Harold Ramis, who wrote Ground­hog Day (Ramis is also up there for Ghost­busters). James Abra­hams and David and Jerry Zucker’s Air­plane swoops in at num­ber four. They’re fol­lowed by Larry Gel­bart and Mur­ray Schis­gal ( Toot­sie) Mel Brooks ( The Pro­duc­ers, Blaz­ing Sad­dles and Young Franken­stein) Nora Ephron ( When Harry Met Sally) and the Coen Broth­ers ( The Big Le­bowski) are all there. Stan­ley Kubrick is, too, with Dr Strangelove, The Marx Broth­ers are at Num­ber 17 with Duck Soup, writ­ten by Bert Kal­mar and Harry Ruby, with Steve Martin’s The Jerk, co-writ­ten by Carl Got­tlieb, just be­low.

It would be eas­ier sim­ply to high­light the non-Jewish writ­ers on the list (mostly Monty Pythons) but we don’t do things like that. For as much as our moth­ers like blow­ing our trum­pets — “did you see where my Sacha came on the list” Mrs BaronCo­hen might well have said ( Bo­rat is at No 29) — self-dep­re­ca­tion is what Jews do best and that’s why we’re funny.

Well it’s one of one of the rea­sons any­way. A close ex­am­i­na­tion of some of the high-rated films on the list re­veals sto­ries built around self-dis­parag­ing pro­tag­o­nists who are un­lucky in life and love. Woody’s Alvy Singer in An­nie Hall is the per­fect ex­am­ple — pes­simistic, in­se­cure and un­usu­ally averse to un­fa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions and places. Sound fa­mil­iar? This is a char­ac­ter who be­came a ni­hilist at the age of nine af­ter read­ing that the uni­verse is ex­pand­ing and then ‘‘la dee da’’ he goes and falls in love with the kook­i­est shiksa in New York. It says a lot that Woody and Mar­shall Brick­man, who co-wrote the script, ac­tu­ally wanted to call the film “An­he­do­nia”, which is a psy­chi­atric term mean­ing the in­abil­ity to ex­pe­ri­ence plea­sure.

Phil Con­nors, the jaded weather man in Ground­hog Day could have been Alvy’s best bud as he is in an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis and, though Jeff Bridges’s char­ac­ter in The Big Leb- owski is called The Dude, he isn’t ex­actly a suc­cess story. Pro­duc­ers Max Bi­a­ly­stock and Leo Bloom and Odd Couple Felix Un­gar and Os­car Madi­son are all dif­fi­cult men and Dustin Hoff­man’s Michael Dorsey was so tricky he had to be­come a woman to get a job in Toot­sie.

Yet it is the Jewish traits ( kvetch­ing and moan­ing) by th­ese char­ac­ters that makes mil­lions con­tinue to laugh at their es­capades and this is why we ex­cel in the genre. We al­ways have done, ever since Hol­ly­wood’s golden era. Moody west­erns, blood­ied ac­tion flicks and gang­ster sagas have never been our forte. What do we know about such things?

But, laugh­ing? Making a com­edy out of a cri­sis, find­ing the black­est of hu­mour to make sense of the chaos of life, util­is­ing comic ab­sur­dity to mask the in­evitabil­ity of dis­ap­point­ment?

Look no fur­ther than the To­rah for such in­spi­ra­tion — laugh­ing was an im­por­tant part of Ju­daism even when Abra­ham and Sarah were try­ing for a baby. Ac­cord­ing to Rabbi Yeruchem Eil­fort at Chabad in Cal­i­for­nia (that’s Hol­ly­wood), when God’s mes­sen­ger told the old couple they were ex­pect­ing, they both laughed. As they were both about 200 years old at the time, the re­ac­tion was hardly sur­pris­ing, but be­cause of the laugh­ter, the heir to Ju­daism was named Yitzchak (Isaac) which means ‘‘laugh’’. And that ev­i­dently was the start of hi­lar­ity for the cho­sen peo­ple which con­tin­ued in tal­mu­dic times when a great rabbi be­gan each of his lessons with a joke.

“Our rab­bis ex­plained this by say­ing that a good joke opens the mind to learn­ing, as op­posed to a bad joke, which opens the mouth to groans,” ex­plains Rabbi Eil­fort who be­lieves that the source of the Jewish sense of hu­mour is a com­bi­na­tion of na­ture and nur­ture. “Ju­daism is big on self­ex­am­i­na­tion and self-ef­face­ment. If we can take the big­gest he­roes of our history and dis­sect their ac­tions, we cer­tainly must be able to give a lit­tle gig­gle at our own foibles.”

And who can ar­gue with that? Prob­a­bly most Jewish co­me­di­ans, ac­tu­ally, as they know there is noth­ing quite as funny as a broiges over some­thing point­less and there have been so many in films writ­ten by Jews, among them Jon Favreau who wrote and played the neb­bish friend ar­gu­ing with his pal (Vince Vaughn) in Swingers, which is at 93 on the list.

Carl Reiner at­tributes our comedic chops to the fact that we are per­se­cuted: “The truth of the mat­ter is, per­se­cuted peo­ple have two things they can do to win their point,” says Reiner. “They can punch back, or they can defuse it with laugh­ter.”

It’s cer­tainly true that, from the mo­ment a Jewish per­son is born, they re­alise they are in the mi­nor­ity and, rather than cry and com­plain about it, we crack jokes in­stead. Mix in a bit of cyn­i­cism, add a soupçon of sar­casm and go heavy on the neu­ro­sis (cour­tesy of guilt-in­duc­ing par­ents) and voila — you’ve writ­ten one of cin­ema’s fun­ni­est ever films.

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