Before there was Prozac, there was Jewish comedy.
There is only one fail-proof cure that I know of for enduring the trials of our times, and that is laughter.
I know that people are not always in the mood to laugh, due to depression, the state of the world, and our own personal challenges.
If only we could stay open to what is funny. The pharmaceutical business would have fierce competition from a substance that is free: laughter.
Scientists say that laughing changes the biochemistry of the brain, at least temporarily.
I'm not saying that trauma or long-standing biochemical depression can be simply treated or transcended.
I am also not proposing that the grimmer realities of life be dismissed or denied.
But I am wondering: is it possible to create a movement where laughter is used as a cure and sought as a true healing?
When Comedy Went to School is a terrific movie to kick-start this endeavor.
This brilliant new film showcases the roots of Jewish humor, but you don't have to be Jewish to love it.
It's an interesting fact that being Jewish has historically meant encountering the world's hatred, and that generally speaking, the Jewish response to this has been to seize and express the funny in life.
This has been our weapon.
I believe this passionate talent for finding and feeling humor is a gift from, and nothing less than, God.
Thus it was with God's, and the greatly gifted publicist Roz Wolf's help, that I found myself amongst a massive Jewish audience one very funny night in Encino at the world premiere of the hysterical film that preserves the golden days of Jewish humor, When Comedy Went to School. The Jews in attendance were expressive, extremely vocal, and all in their 80's. I loved it.
When Comedy Went to School is a stunning film that should be required viewing not just for every Jewish person, but also for everyone who wants to witness the secret of fighting diversity with laughter that the Jews perfected.
The movie should also be required viewing for anyone with an ache or a pain. Results guaranteed.
The Jewish humor crowd at the world premiere of When Comedy Went to School were comfortingly featured both on the screen and in the audience. In fact, the audience was so comfortable that they mistook the venue for their own living rooms, freely discussing the trajectory of each featured comic's career.
Did you know that comedian Jackie Mason started his professional life as a rabbi?
It is no small deal that the world premiere of this dazzling documentary took place somewhere in Los Angeles, introduced by the inimitable Larry King.
For me, Los Angeles is the Germany of the United States.
It is the film industry town, an industry created by Eastern European Jews who ran from murderous dictators to live freely in America, where they ran movie studios and changed their names to hide their Jewish identities.
This self-annihilation, aka personal anti-semitism, in my opinion, caught on. It answers the question of the invisibility of Jewish soul in Los Angeles. It perhaps also accounts for the self-deprecation in our humor. Am I wrong?
Only the Jews could find their way out of being hated by making it funny. This is the essence of Jewish comedy.
I'm going to hate myself first so you can't hurt me.
I'm going to use the word "Nazi" whenever I can and make it funny.
I have been asked by an unnamed source to make this piece "a little less Jewish". By the way, how do you write about a Jewish comedy movie without an emphasis on Jewish. Is it possible to make the "J" in Jewish a small "j"? Why would you want to? Only a Nazi would have the answer. (See what I mean about "Nazi"?)
It is no accident that When Comedy Went to School makes clear that New York is where Jewish comedy was fertilized.
The movie tells the story of the ascent of Jewish humor, beginning with the Yiddish Theatre in the late 19th Century in New York, followed by Vaudeville through the 1920's and 1930's. This vibrant community of genius comics led to the Catskill Mountains becoming a vacation and entertainment mecca where a stunning assortment of Jewish comics, many of whom went on to have major careers as stand-ups on television, got their comedy legs.
For those of you who, like me, generationally missed Grossinger's and all the other New York Jewish country hotels of the 1940s through 1960s, this film is your ticket back to those beautiful historic spots and all that nourishing laughter (and food).
Alan King, who has the exact delivery of Moses (yes, I was there), is featured along with Lenny Bruce, George Burns (a known imitator of God), Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Henny Youngman, Myron Cohen, Sid Caeser, Don Rickles, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jerry Stiller, Buddy Hackett, Molly Picon, Totie Fields, Robert Klein, and more.
These comedians are the Wise Men and Women of our modern Jewish history. They taught us to sharpen our wits, and laugh at ourselves. They are as necessary as Bible figures when we seek to know how Jewish we are, and what that means. They must never be forgotten.
Bravo to these beloved clowns and comics who turned life's cabbage into sauerkraut. May all that talent live on forever and continue to spawn more comedy. And may we never lose our laughter or fade out our ability to find the funny in life.
Now go see the movie, which pens in Los Angeles on Friday, August 16