January 30, 2013
The comedy of being Jewish
The 1960s spawned a plethora of comedy albums, among them a hugely successful satire of the Kennedy White House, called “The First Family,” written and produced by Bob Booker, who went on to write and produce for television, working with some of the most famous names in the entertainment industry. Needless to say, the album and its sequel were pulled from circulation when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“After that success,” Booker recalled, “despite the requests from every record label for another political album, I decided not to go down that road again … so I searched for another concept far from politics, and my love for the great Jewish stories I had heard seemed to be a good idea.”
And so, three comedy albums, all of which would go gold, were born: “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish” in 1965, “When You’re in Love, the Whole World Is Jewish” in 1966 and “The Jewish American Princess” in 1971. They all became, according to Booker, “the longest-selling comedy albums in the business.”
What is surprising is that, while his collaborator on the albums, the late George Foster, was Jewish, Booker, a 20th-generation American whose mother was part of the Ingalls family, is definitely not. But he grew up in Miami, had many Jewish friends and had the opportunity to absorb Jewish culture from a front-row seat.
“When I was a kid, I was a stand-up comic, and I had the good fortune to see, in person, practically every well-known comic in Miami and New York, from (Henny) Youngman to (Milton) Berle, to (Don) Rickles, to Jackie Miles, Joey Adams, Morey Amsterdam and Myron Cohen, to name a few, most of whom were Jewish. Consequently, I was exposed to a great deal of ‘Jewish humor,’ some of which, on occasion, would creep into my own act.”
In assembling material, Booker and Foster did extensive research, going as far back as 2,000 years; they went through all the Sholem Aleichem stories, listened to old tales, and also wrote a few new ones.
They devised such bits as “A Call From Long Island,” in which an overwhelmed daughter cries to her mother for help; “The Bar Mitzvah,” which features a father who hires a bar mitzvah consultant to plan the most extravagant event imaginable; a song titled “The Ballad of Irving,” the 142nd fastest gun in the West;, and “The Jury,” in which the foreman, Mr. Rabinowitz, announces the longest verdict ever heard, among a host of others.
Booker said that, although the sketches depict Jewish characters and themes, he always felt they are fundamentally universal and can appeal to people of all ethnicities, hence the title, “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish.”
Now the sketches are being brought to the stage with a production at the Greenway Court Theatre on Fairfax Avenue, under the auspices of film and television producer/director/writer Danny Gold and Billy Riback, a successful stand-up comic and comedy writer for such TV programs as “Murphy Brown” and “Home Improvement.” Riback recalled first hearing the albums when he was 12 and said he particularly admires the wholesomeness of the material, given the vulgarity he finds in comedy today.
He explained that the seeds of the current production were sown three years ago, when he and Gold were part of a small group, led by Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who went to Poland at the invitation of that country’s government for the purpose of learning about non-Jews there who are spearheading a movement to bring back Jewish culture. At one point, the group visited Auschwitz.
“I don’t have to tell you what that was like,” he said. “The group trudges back to the bus that we’d come on, and the 12 of us are sitting there. ‘Glum’ would be the understatement of the half century. And Nate, out of nowhere, looks at me and says, ‘The Reading of the Will.’ Now, ‘The Reading of the Will’ is a sketch from the first album, ‘You Don’t Have to Be Jewish.’
“We started doing the bit on the bus. And 12 Jews who were sobbing three seconds earlier were, all of a sudden, laughing hysterically.”
Riback and Gold decided they had to develop a staged version of the material. After two years of going back and forth about the idea, they sent Booker an e-mail through the Writers Guild, and, Riback said, he responded in less than a minute.
Booker promised to give them the rights and decided to stay out of the rehearsal process, but insisted that Jason Alexander, of “Seinfeld” fame, direct the production.
Alexander came on board almost immediately. He said he grew up with these albums and considers them “the Bible of Jewish humor,” a brand of comedy he finds notable for exhibiting the ability to laugh at one’s own foibles and to argue ferociously with loved ones.
“I can’t tell you,” he remarked, “how many times, when my grandmothers were alive, I’d hear them in an argument with one of my parents, and they’d go, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ ‘You’re crazy.’ ‘You should drop dead.’ ‘You should only drop dead.’ ‘What do you want for dinner?’
“That’s how they vent themselves to someone that they actually love. It’s an unusual sensibility. I’m sure it has its place in other ethnicities as well, but it seems to really permeate Judaism in a beautiful way. And irony seems to permeate Judaism.”
As for the production, Alexander promised a very theatrical experience, with a five-piece band, six actors and a set flexible enough to provide all the different environments in the sketches. To give the skits some context, Alexander, Gold and Riback have come up with a scenario, inspired by the lyric, “The whole world is Jewish / Since I fell In love with you, Rosie McGonegal,” in which a young Jewish man races into a synagogue in the middle of services to beg for the rabbi’s help. The young man has fallen in love with a non-Jewish girl, Rosie McGonegal, and wants to find a way for them to be together.
“And so the sketches become a very subliminal education of Rosie McGonegal,” Alexander explained. “These are the things you need to understand about Jews in order to be able to marry into our faith.”
Alexander would like to see audience members walk out feeling they’ve been to a party; Booker would like to hear them repeating some of the jokes; and, as for Riback, “I want them to walk out saying, ‘What a great time I had. I wasn’t embarrassed for a moment,’ and, maybe, ‘I’m even a little prouder to be a Jew,’ if you happen to be Jewish. If you’re a [non-Jew], and you walk out saying, ‘I think I want to convert tomorrow,’ that would be a nice bump. Other than that, if a 55-year-old man says, ‘Tomorrow, I want to get circumcised,’ we’ve really done our job.”
“When You’re in Love, the Whole World Is Jewish” runs Feb. 1–Mar. 10. $34.99. Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets and showtimes, call (323) 655-7679, ext. 100 or visit worldisjewishtheplay.com.