Recap: “Old Jews Telling Jokes” at Tenement Talks

Posted on: February 27th, 2013 at 11:27 am by
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Monday evening. Relegated to steerage and standing beside the old extolling the merits of Girls, we were more than ready to hear the old Jews tell jokes for a crowded house. As part of its Tenement Talks series, the Tenement Museum invited Old Jews Telling Jokes co-creators Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent to spill the beans on the nascent history of the Broadway “revue.” And as expected, it was a night served with a healthy helping of schmaltz.

Gethers and Okrent began by discussing the genesis of the Broadway production. The two authors/publishers/screenwriters optioned the rights from the popular website that actually founded the concept. However, they quickly reached a “now what?” moment, as neither had any experience in theater. By pulling some strings and massaging networks, the team assembled a crew of producers, actors, and a director.

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Rooted in the tradition of the Lower East Side Yiddish theater, Old Jews Telling Jokes features updated interpretations of classic jokes as well as comical song routines. The plot-line follows the arc of life and, in the words of the co-creators, utilizes the universal math of humor: “tragedy + time = comedy.”

Most of the show funnies were apparently crowdsourced from everyone they knew. Choosing the best utilized the same format of standup. During previews (last May), producers took note of what killed and what bombed, then adjusted accordingly.

The most interesting thread of the conversation, however, was the question of what actually makes a joke inherently “Jewish.” Usually it’s that the main character is Jewish (e.g. Feldman, Schwartz), or that the punchline involves some form of self-deprecating crack about life, food, regret, or sorrow.

The floor was then opened to Q&A and/or joke telling. A few of the brave obliged in the latter. Most of the material elicited crickets from the crowd…

Old Jews Telling Jokes is currently playing in New York and Chicago, with a London expansion planned for November 2013.

Fun fact: both Gethers and Okrent founded Rotisserie League Baseball in 1980, the precursor to today’s fantasy baseball.

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