Monday, May 21, 2012

Old Jokes Are Sometimes the Best

Old Jews Telling Jokes
Westside Theatre, NYC
May 17, 2012

OJTJ was a real treat. I didn’t know what to expect, and what it turned out to be was something unique in its shameless lack of originality!

The cast of Old Jews…was made up of three people who looked to be in their 70s and 80s, and two people who looked to be about 27 and 35 respectively. So, “Old” Jews Telling Jokes consisted of a cast of people of various ages.

The Off-Broadway house was packed (I don’t think there was an empty seat). The house manager said they have been selling out consistently. There must be a “market” for this type of entertainment.

OJTJ doesn’t have a plot (though at times it can make you plotz from extreme laughter).

The cast members come out, sometimes as solo acts, sometimes as pairs or a trio, a couple of times (but only a couple) as the entire ensemble. And all they do is tell jokes…old jokes…sometimes very well known jokes…but in a particular context.

Each cast member has a single monologue different from the other shtick they perform. These monologues are personal, brief, autobiographical stories about why these old jokes are important to them. Other than these brief serious moments (which sometimes contain humor as well), the rest of the show is just the performance of these old jokes.

One actor (Bill Army) explained that these jokes are meaningful to him because they provided a shared experience of laughter between him and his father while his father was dying. His girlfriend at the time was horrified that they he would be telling his father jokes and laughing with him at such an “inappropriate” time. He said he learned from that experience that there is no inappropriate time to tap into joy.

Another actor (Lenny Wolpe) explained that his father had come to the US from Eastern Europe and wanted to assimilate completely into his new country and culture. So he stopped speaking Yiddish and never taught his children Yiddish. But the one thing he couldn’t give up was the old jokes he brought with him from Europe. They reminded him of his parents who had told them to him, and they not only made him laugh, they made him remember. And so, Lenny continues to cling to the old jokes to remember and honor his father.

Audrey Lynn Weston told of a relationship she had in college with a goy, whose parents found her Judaic background fascinating. They loved off-color jokes but had never heard some of the ones she knew, so she shared with them her old jokes and it was a bonding experience. Later, the boyfriend broke up with her and so she called his parents to tell them and basically to say goodbye; the mother’s response to her about her own son was, “I hope I’m using this word correctly, but if he dumped you he’s a schmuck.” She later married “a nice Jewish boy” and they have two children, a boy and a girl, who were named after the parents of the (Gentile) ex-boyfriend!

The other actors were Marilyn Sokol and Todd Susman.

I really was surprised at how well known some of the jokes were, but to know these jokes have a cultural and historic significance made them seem fresh, even if the punch-line was already known. And to see these actors perform the jokes as if they were original, and sometimes cracking up themselves as if they had never heard the joke they just told made it all very touching as well as amusing.

When I say “old” I mean some of these have to go back to Burlesque and Vaudeville (and the show itself had a vaudevillian quality to it…skits, monologues, jokes, songs…no acrobats or jugglers or dancers or animal tamers, but still, just one bit after another showcasing talent).

Some of the old standards included (and often with a thick Russian or German influenced accent):
A man walks in on his wife having sex with his business partner. He says to the partner, “Sal, I have to, but you?!”

A woman looks out the window of her apartment to see a man driving into the parking lot. He’s gorgeous so she calls him up to her apartment. She brazenly compliments him on his stunning good looks and asks him to remove his shirt so she can admire his physique. The man, flattered, complies. Next she asks him to reveal his “family jewels” as they must be as impressive as the rest of him. Again, he complies. She then takes the jewels in her hands and says (while slapping the tender parts), “Don’t ever park in my parking spot again!”

A man goes to see the doctor and the doctor says to him, “Sir, I’m afraid you are going to have to stop masturbating.” “Why” asks the patient.” “So I can examine you!”

A man is given bad news and worse news by his doctor. Bad news: he has 24 hours to live. Worse news: the doctor forgot to call yesterday to give him the news!
The man rushes home to tell his wife he has mere hours to live and he wants to spend his final moments making passionate love to her. She says, “I don’t think so darling. Unlike you, I have to get up in the morning.”

A man is stranded on a desert island with only a dog and a sheep. After a long period of time, the man gives in to desperate loneliness and decides to romance the sheep. But every time he tries, the dog comes up and bites him on the ankle, preventing intimacies from occurring. One day, a beautiful woman is floating aimlessly on a broken raft in the water, the man swims out, rescues the woman, brings her to the island, and helps her regain her strength. She is so grateful that she says she will do ANYTHING the man asks of her to show her appreciation. “Anything?” asks the man. “Anything!” So he says, “Thank God, here hold this damn dog so I can schtupp the sheep.”

The last one is particularly outrageous in our PC world, but it is also ridiculous, and that is what makes it funny.

The set is simple (actually a bare stage that is transformed from scene to scene as the actors, without benefit of blackout, move set pieces on and off the stage).

There are only a few songs, and they are original, written just for the show.

It was history. It was a nod to vaudeville and pre-television/radio/film entertainments. It was humor. It was communal. It was cultural. It was simple performance (and multi-media…the music was played live by a pianist and scenes were introduced with slides or videos). It showed how simple and how powerful simply communicating to an audience can be. Sometimes, it’s no more complicated than a few heart-felt stories and a series of time tested jokes.

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