What is Jewish humor? (Insert palms-upraised, chuckle-inducing shrug here.) Good luck coming up with an answer in a post-Catskills, post-assimilation, post-Seinfeld world. I'll take a stab, nonetheless: It's a way of looking at the world, that much is certain, one that entails being both outside of it and part of it. And sometimes, above it.
Check my thesis against the three-and-a-half-hour study of Woody Allen airing on PBS' American Masters over two nights in November. Or against the handful of sardonic, satiric programs that the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, beginning Thursday, July 21, mixes into its typically probing slate of Israeli dramas, Holocaust documentaries and first-person explorations.
The certified comic highlight is Jews in Toons (Monday, July 25 at 7pm at the Castro Theatre), which blasts one vintage Jewish-themed episode apiece from Family Guy, South Park and The Simpsons onto the big screen. Then the brilliant Mike Reiss, writer-producer of The Simpsons and creator of the beloved animated shows The Critic and Queer Duck, regales the crowd with clips and anecdotes of his career as the lone Jew (ha!) in television. Along with a surfeit of wit, expect a good deal of wisdom about Jewish humor, American-style.
"The Names of Love"
We've come to cherish animation as the main domain in cinema where boundaries may be jumped and taboos broached. So it's almost shocking to encounter the stunningly uninhibited, politically unabashed French screwball comedy The Names of Love (Saturday, July 23 at the Castro and Thursday, Aug. 4 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto).
The opposites-attract romance between a resolutely promiscuous Algerian gal (Sara Forestier) and an older, conservative Jewish scientist (Jacques Gamblin) provides the backdrop for a torrent of barbed, direct and politically incorrect references to the 1942 arrest and deportation of French Jews by Paris police (treated far more seriously in the festival films The Roundup and Sarah's Key) and the abuses of Algerians by the French military a couple decades later. The Names of Love opens July 29 at the Clay in case you miss the SFJFF screenings, but then you'll also miss the animated Canadian short, Don't Tell Santa You're Jewish.
"Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness"
Its title notwithstanding, there are precious few chuckles in Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, Joseph Dorman's prosaic documentary about the extraordinary Yiddish author. Best known today for the Tevye the Milkman stories posthumously adapted for Fiddler on the Roof, the shtetl-born writer who achieved success throughout the Jewish diaspora had a life as bittersweet as the musical. This film also returns after the festival, opening Aug. 19 at the Opera Plaza for a week.
The gay Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox, whose international hits include Walk on Water and The Bubble, is represented by the two-and-a-half-hour miniseries Mary Lou (Sunday, July 23 at 8:30pm at the Castro). Expect scrumptious art direction, a passel of well-chosen pop tunes and generous, heartfelt melodrama in the saga of a young queer guy finding his (lip-syncing) voice in Tel Aviv.
"Life Is Too Long"
Another SFJFF favorite, the iconoclastic German writer-director Dani Levy, returns with Life Is Too Long, an existential farce about a neurotic filmmaker trying to get a project off the ground while his world crumbles around him. The unbearable lightness of being reportedly also infuses Chicago filmmaker Josh Freed's first-person doc, Five Weddings and a Felony, as well as the low-budget Israeli slasher flick Rabies.
Catch enough of these titles and you'll be primed to propose your own theory about modern Jewish humor. At the very least, you'll get a master class in shrugging.
The 31st annual San Francisco Jewish Festival runs July 21-Aug. 8, 2011 at the Castro Theatre and the JCC in San Francisco, the Roda in Berkeley, the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For tickets and information visit www.sfjff.org.