January 22, 2004
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 .