As the year ends, many of my correspondents (at least one) have been clamoring for the Tommywood Awards, a list of those defining moments in the past year -- the best, the worst, the memorable. Frankly, my mind has already gone on vacation and the rest of me is soon to follow. So although I don't rule out a "best of" list early in the New Year, I won't trouble you or myself with that this week.
Instead, the following is a list of things that I actually saw in this calendar year that made me laugh. No big deal, but no small matter either. While rebuilding Iraq and peace in the Middle East may be more worthy goals, let's face it -- they didn't provide us with a lot of guffaws.
So what was funny in 2004? What moments of Jewish humor, or humor about the Jews, managed to make me fall out of my seat? Remember, the criteria is funny, not polite; inappropriate is fine by me. This is Tommywood, not the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the Jewish Image Awards. There is no schmaltz allowed at this meal.
I laughed out loud at the opening episode of this season's "Everybody Loves Raymond" where Ray's parents tell him they are moving to a retirement community -- and Ray and his brother, Robert, must hide their glee. Jon Stewart had his moments, no doubt, on "The Daily Show"; and for reasons I don't understand, I laughed out loud at the final subtitled animal battle scene in Judd Apatow's "Anchorman."
However, as far as I'm concerned the funniest moment on TV last year occurred on "The Survivor," an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which first aired March 7, 2004. As a prelude to Larry renewing his marriage vows on the occasion of his 10th wedding anniversary, he hosted a dinner at his home. His rabbi asked if he might bring along a friend of his who is a survivor and a fan of Larry's work. Larry agrees and then thinks to tell his father to invite his friend who is also a survivor.
At the dinner we discover that his father's friend is a concentration camp survivor while the rabbi's friend is Colby Donaldson, from the Outback season of the reality TV show "Survivor." Need I say more? Very quickly the two start fighting. Here's some of the dialogue:
Colby: So here we are out in a region of Australia with nine of the world's 10-most deadly snakes. It was harrowing! You come across a Taipan on the trail, you get bit, you're dead in 30 minutes flat.
Solly: That's a very interesting story. Let me tell you, I was in a concentration camp. You never suffered one minute in your life compared to what I went through.
Colby: I'm saying we spent 42 days trying to survive, we had no rations, very little snacks.
Solly: Snacks! What are you talking snacks. We didn't eat sometimes a week, a month....
Colby: I couldn't work out when I was over there.
The two continue to argue over who suffered more until:
Colby: Have you ever seen the show?
Solly: Have you seen our show, it was called The Holocaust!
Colby: All I know is I was damn close to that $1 million, all the time everyone was backstabbing me, undermining me, trying to get me kicked off the show.
Solly: You don't know nothing about survivor. I'm a survivor!
Colby: I'm a survivor!
Solly: I'm a survivor!
Suffice to say the genius of this exchange exists on so many levels -- it not only skewers popular culture, but also Holocaust survivors themselves who when introduced often do compare notes, with the not-so-subtle subtext of "who suffered more." For me this ascends into a Pantheon of comic moments, right up there with parts of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's "2,000 Year Old Man."
Where do you go from there? As Hunter Thompson might say, "Just when you thought it couldn't get any weirder...." This was also the year our friends at "South Park" created a very special episode called, "The Passion of the Jew," currently available for rent or purchase on DVD. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have a particular talent for humor bordering on the anti-Semitic balanced by contempt for everyone else.
In this episode which originally aired on March 31, 2004, Kyle goes to see "The Passion of the Christ" and decides that the Jews are to blame for the death of Jesus and starts to organize rallies for the film's hardcore fans. At the same time, Kenny and Stan think the film is awful and travel to Malibu to demand their money back from Mel Gibson. Offensive? Yes, very. Funny? That, too. You will not soon forget the sight of an animated Mel Gibson dancing in his underwear as he flogs himself.
Finally, in the category of nervous laughter -- as in not really funny, but it made me so uncomfortable I had to laugh -- first prize goes to the scene of a bar full of patrons in Arizona, singing, "Throw the Jew down the well," as instigated and captured on film by English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, a.k.a. Ali G. in his guise as Borat on HBO's "Da Ali G Show".
Also, speaking of inappropriate, "The Best of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog," a collection of Robert Smigel's bits on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" just came out on DVD. Years ago, I recall a book that asked the question: "Is your dog Jewish?" I can't remember the answer, or for that matter speak to the religious observance of Triumph or his handler (as Triumph is a hand puppet that term is particularly apt) but Triumph's persona harks back to the tummelers of the Borscht Belt -- only raunchier.
Some years are less funny than others -- and this is what it took this year to make me hold my sides and gasp for air from laughing too hard. You might not agree with my choices and conclude that I am a sick, twisted person, but if these don't make you laugh (even secretly where you're not ashamed to do so), then something's wrong with you. And I sincerely hope you fix it in the coming year.
Or better yet, let me know what you thought were the funniest Jewish moments on TV or film this year at email@example.com. You never know, I may just be able to get a column out of your suggestions.
Until then, dear readers, I wish you the best and invite you to laugh with me.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.