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'Old Jews Telling Jokes' keeps them laughing off-Broadway

The show at New York's Westside Theater relays old punch lines and a timely message.

June 22, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Peter Gethers, left, and Daniel Okrent, creators of "Old Jews Telling Jokes."
Peter Gethers, left, and Daniel Okrent, creators of "Old Jews Telling… (Joan Marcus )

NEW YORK — You don't have to be in your twilight years to appreciate the off-Broadway show "Old Jews Telling Jokes."

But speaking of mortality, have you heard the one about the doctor who tells his patient that he has bad news and worse news? The bad news is that the patient has only 24 hours to live. "Twenty-four hours to live? What could possibly be the worse news?" the patient asks the doctor. "That I couldn't get ahold of you yesterday," the doctor says.

There is a joke for every occasion in "Old Jews," a five-person revue that has become an unlikely hit since opening at New York's Westside Theater a month ago. Audiences have packed the 250-seat house to laugh knowingly and recite punch lines collectively; they wait outside the stage door to share their own jokes with actors and even stop producers on the street to say they can tell them better.

"I usually just nod and pretend to agree," said Peter Gethers with a laugh. Gethers, 59, is the book editor, author and former sitcom writer who created the show with journalist and self-described old Jew Daniel Okrent, 64.

The show organizes jokes, most of them in the public domain, into a series of subjects, then presents them in various forms: as stand-up, reenactment, sketch comedy and even musical numbers. Friendship, family, work, religion and sex all come under its scalpel.

And on the subject of sex, did you hear about the deli worker who tells his therapist that he has an inexplicable urge to put his genitals in a pickle slicer? The therapist says he'd like to see the man five times a week for treatment. When the man comes in one day and says that he finally did it — he put his genitals in the slicer — the therapist, brow furrowed, asks if the deli worker is OK.

"I got fired," the man says.

"No, I meant what happened with the pickle slicer?" the therapist asks.

"She got fired too," the man responds.

Indeed, if "Old Jews" is descended in part from the Borscht Belt that once existed about a hundred miles to the north of here, it also owes a debt to the bawdy comedy that's defined mainstream performers like Rodney Dangerfield and Lisa Lampanelli. "We didn't want to do 'Catskills on Broadway,'" said Gethers, leaning back in his corner office at the publisher Random House, a poster of "Old Jews" behind him. "We wanted to be a little edgy."

They also didn't want the show to be a series of set-ups and punch lines. "We weren't going for Jackie Mason. We wanted narrative jokes, something with theatricality," Okrent said of the show, which producers say is profitable weekly and has an open-ended run. "But I guess it's also an insult to the word 'play' to call it a 'play.'" (Versions of the, er, play, are being planned for other cities and could head to Los Angeles as early as next year.)

Based on a popular website of the same name in which amateurs submit videos of themselves telling jokes, "Old Jews" began when Okrent turned Gethers on to the site several years ago. Okrent had just appeared on it telling his own joke, a point he proclaims with unexpected pride for a man who founded Rotisserie league baseball and was the first public editor of the New York Times. Though they had no theater experience — Gethers had written episodes of "Kate & Allie" but never a live production — the duo spent months negotiating with the site owners to buy stage rights.

"Sure, we could have just done jokes on stage, but we needed the title," Gethers said. "It was a lock with it. It was doomed without it."

Okrent began an obsessive process of compiling a database of jokes, sorting by category and subcategory. "It was about balance. If we had 11 [oral sex] jokes, we said let's use three," he said. "There are the jokes where the woman is the butt of the humor and where the man is the butt of the humor. Jokes where you deprecate yourself and jokes where you deprecate someone else. We wanted to make sure we had the right ratio."

He and Gethers said that there was no line they wouldn't cross, though less favorable Jewish stereotypes simply didn't play as well, and an especially raunchy joke — let's just say it involves chopped liver and a honeymoon suite — was deemed too edgy for the opening performances. (The idea is to swap in a new whole group of jokes further into the run to lure repeat theatergoers.) Producers say they weren't concerned that a large part of its target audience — yes, it has skewed older and more Jewish — would already be familiar with the material.

In fact, they thought it could be an advantage. "The great revelation of the show is that you can know every punch line and still laugh," Okrent said. "It's like going to a cabaret where someone is singing the classics. 'Darling, they're playing our joke.'"

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