No joke, we’ve got the funniest films
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.