Old Jews Telling Jokes is an onstage celebration of Jewish humor. We speak with Saturday Night Live alum Tim Kazurinsky and actress Dara Cameron about the hit comedy that makes its Chicago debut at the Royal George Theatre this week, and runs through Feb. 16, 2014.
Watch online skits from the website that started the phenomenon, and read an interview with the play’s co-creator Daniel Okrent, a writer and editor who served as the first public editor of The New York Times.
What inspired you and Peter Gethers to create this show?
One expression that I think is very representative of the way we were both raised is, “when something is very rotten you live with it, you deal with it, and you make a joke about it.”
Peter and I are both theater fans, and when we saw the website (www.OldJewsTellingJokes.com), we thought it seemed like something that could be taken live to a much larger number of people. We began working on it four years ago, and it’s been nothing but fun.
What can people expect when they go see this show?
It’s very theatrical. It’s not stand-up. This is a show with an arc that begins with birth and ends with death. It goes through all the phases of life with skits, sketches, jokes, and songs.
Who will enjoy this?
If you don’t have a sense of humor, forget it -- you’re not going to like it. But I’d like to think it’s for everyone. The show is very funny, and you don’t have to be old or Jewish to understand it. You just have to see the world in a certain way. You have to realize that the only way to get through all of life’s pains and struggles is by making jokes about them. One of my colleagues said, “It’s a show that women can take their husbands to that they’ll actually enjoy."
What is special about this type of comedy?
It’s actually the opposite of that. This kind of humor has become mainstream American humor. If you go back to The Ed Sullivan Show, comedians like Milton Berle, Shelley Berman and Woody Allen were telling these jokes. Seinfeld was a direct descent of it.
This is a popular play. It was a hit in New York, and tickets sold so well in Chicago before it even opened that it got extended through February. Why do you think so many people have connected with it?
I think it’s really simple. This show is great fun. People leave grinning, and then they tell their friends about it. I have not worked in theater before, and have never done anything that’s made people happy like this, so I like seeing people have a wonderful time.
What will surprise people about the show?
I think the arc will surprise people. As it moves from birth to life’s end, it shows you that the worse life gets, the more we need jokes. The play gets funnier as it moves on. The final three jokes are about death, and they are some of the funniest lines in the play.
During the show, there are jokes that the audience will recognize, and there are jokes that will surprise them. Woody Allen came to see it in New York and he only knew half of them, so I was proud of that.
What topics do you laugh about in this play?
Mothers and their children; dating and courtship; sex before, during, and way after marriage; business; religion; money; doctors. We cover the waterfront.
What sort of music can people expect to hear?
There are two older songs that people will recognize. One is called “I’m Not a Well Man” by Harold Rome, and the other is called “Hanukkah in Santa Monica” by Tom Lehrer. We also commissioned some new stuff.
In what way does the play pay tribute to some of the giants of the comedy world?
Some of the jokes come from great comic geniuses, like Mel Brooks. And there’s a section in the show that’s a video of Alen King, who is one of the essential Jewish comics of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. It’s a video that works into the story of the show.
What’s the chemistry like among the five-person cast, which consists of Dara Cameron, Alex Goodrich, Tim Kazurinsky, Renee Matthews, and Gene Weygandt?
It’s fantastic. These are five incredibly decent people. They range in age from quite young to quite old, and they are happiest when they see someone else in the cast tell a joke that really kills. They feed off each other, and I’m really moved by it.
Is there a message that you hope people take away from the performance?
When life is hard, find a way to smile.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Watch Okrent tell a joke in a video for www.OldJewsTellingJokes.com:
Joyce Concors, a shopping center owner, tells a joke in a video for www.OldJewsTellingJokes.com: