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TV Reviews : 'Jewish Humor' Better Than Documentary

December 01, 1990|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

Producer-director Rex Bloomstein's "The World of Jewish Humor," which airs on KCET Channel 28 Sunday at 8 p.m., is a second-rate documentary on a first-rate subject.

The general theme of the program is a tracing of the extraordinarily rich vein of Yiddish humor that reached from Eastern Europe to America with the great Jewish migration to the East Coast in the late 19th Century and the early 20th, taking root in the Catskills, New York City and, later, Hollywood.

Most of the people Bloomstein speaks with are seasoned second- and third-generation veterans, ranging from an engagingly subdued Milton Berle to an introspective Neil Simon, and some of the comment is wonderfully articulate (as is the case with author Leo Rosten) and historically informative (ditto book editor Moshe Waldoks).

Bloomstein's high-profile cast list leaves out some of the lesser known names of the Yiddish theater and comedy (some of whom are still alive), but there are plenty of delightful film clips (including Smith & Dale, Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers and Sid Caesar) and some unusually touching interviews as well (particularly with Jackie Mason and Robert Klein).

Bloomstein's implied contention that Jewish humor is the definitive American expression is an inexcusable oversight toward not only other regional and ethnic forms that preceded the great Jewish migration but toward black performers and artists as well. And only a tasteless dead-head would follow Billy Crystal's complaint about how sharply the word "Jew" is often used ("like it's the invasion of the bug people") with one of the smarmiest and unfunny sketches "Saturday Night Live" ever produced--the quiz segment called "Jew or Not Jew."

Joan Rivers' contention that Yiddish humor's richness is drying up is borne out by a sequence of younger stand-up comedians who seem, in relation to their forebears', smug, passive, lazy and derivative. At its height, the history of Jewish humor has been a great one, and even in this melange, many of the jokes and sketches are irresistible.

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