During a recent Friday at the Writers Guild on Fairfax Avenue, scenes from Woody Allen films screened after clips from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Lenny Bruce records were passed around the room, and conversation centered on Jewish assimilation in American life and its connection to Jewish funnymen onscreen.
“That was the paradox,” said Tony Michels, an associate professor of American Jewish history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He explained to a group of young adults taking notes how an increasing number of Jewish actors in the ’60s and ’70s played Jewish roles, despite Jewish assimilation being at its all-time high.
This was typical discourse for Tent: Comedy — one part adult education and another part social experience, for 20- and 30-somethings interested in Jewish comedy and connecting it to their personal relationship with Judaism.
“Modern culture [like comedy] can inspire us to think imaginatively about what Jewishness means. And vice versa,” says the initiative’s Web site, tentsite.org.
Taking place in Los Angeles from March 17-March 24, Tent: Comedy was the first program of Tent: Encounters With Jewish Culture, an initiative organized by the Yiddish Book Center based in Amherst, Mass. It included 20 participants, aged 19-30.
Topics ran the spectrum. When it comes to comedy, being creative is not all that different from “doing” Jewish, according to L.A. screenwriter and producer Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under,” “United States of Tara”).
“Your body has to receive great jokes, great character turns, great plot twists. You can’t think of it. … You have to let it come to you, and that’s kind of like Shabbat,” Soloway told the group — half of whom were from Los Angeles and the other half of whom were from the East Coast.
Morning session at the Writers Guild. Photo by Tim Dolan
Soloway appeared in a Q-and-A on March 22, capping off nearly a week filled with activities, including outings to see live stand-up performances from big names like Jeff Garlin and Sarah Silverman; an improv workshop, “Standing Up, Standing Out: How do You Perform Jewishness?” led by Michaela Watkins, formerly of “Saturday Night Live”; and a writing workshop where New Yorker writer Yoni Brenner offered critiques of participants’ work. There were also discussions led by Michels, the program’s scholar-in-residence, on topics “Is there such a thing as Jewish humor?” “What makes Jews funny (or not) to others?” and “Theories of Jewish comedy, from Sigmund Freud to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin” and more.
Some from Tent were lucky enough to meet Garlin, following a taping of the comedian-actor’s podcast, “By The Way, In Conversation With Jeff Garlin,” during which he interviewed up-and-coming-star Tig Notaro, at Largo at the Coronet.
Largo, where shows cost up to $35 (the free admission to shows was part of the appeal, participants said), was among the many comedy clubs in L.A.’s vibrant scene that were visited by the group. The Writers Guild of America headquarters served as home base for Michels’ lectures and for Q-and-As with guest speakers.
At Upright Citizens Brigade, a Hollywood comedy spot that draws indie comics, the Tent group showed up for an open-mic night, joining budding comics and wannabees from around the city. Thirty minutes before showtime, everyone interested in getting five minutes onstage signed up, and 10 names were drawn for a lottery. Two of the Tent participants were chosen to perform.
Michels’ presentations earlier in the day were meant to be rigorous and academic, but they unintentionally gave space for participants to reflect on personal experiences. His playing of a string of clips from “Annie Hall,” “Seinfeld” and “Meet the Parents,” where the Jewish protagonist is eating with a non-Jewish family and his Jewish idiosyncrasies are heightened, prompted Ilana Straus, a senior at Yale University, to share a story of when she was 12 years old and studying for her bat mitzvah while away at summer camp. The only Jew in her bunk, her fellow campers gathered around her while she was studying her haftarah, gaping at something they’d never seen before.
Her story and the scenes from the film call attention to the non-Jew’s “perception of the Jew,” said Straus, a 22-year-old English major who is interested in becoming a television writer.
Straus and the 19 others had different levels of experience in writing and performing and different reasons for being there. Which was precisely the idea.
“I wanted it to be a comedy workshop both for fans, people who are comedy fans and people who love comedy and are interested in the Jewish culture,” Tent executive director Joshua Lambert said.
Lambert, who is also the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, spent three days with the cohort. During one of Michel’s lectures, everyone jumped out of their seats to get a closer look of a cartoon from an out-of-print Yiddish satirical magazine that was featured onscreen. It was the moment where Tent: Comedy became everything Lambert hoped it would be.
“What Tent is really about is the transition from that moment happening and seeing them going to see Jeff Garlin and Tig Notaro and hanging out with Jeff Garlin after that and batting around his ideas about Israel and Israeli politics,” he said. “That combo of things somehow is what I think the program is about.”