AJFF What to Watch: Films About Comedy


The joke's on all of us in these comedic films featuring Jewish humor and some well-known comedians. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

The unexpectedly tender side of one of comedy’s most iconic figures, the brash, boundary-pushing Gilbert Gottfried, is revealed in this laugh-packed and poignant profile featured at the 2018 AJFF. Known for his shrill, foul-mouthed movie and TV roles, and years as a New York stand-up comic, Gottfried is famous as the voice of the Aflac Duck, and parrot Iago in Disney’s Aladdin. Beneath the coarse exterior and profane comic stylings, filmmaker Neil Berkeley finds a sensitive, devoted family man. Behind the scenes of performances and in moments at home, the notoriously private Gottfried opens up about his Brooklyn childhood, late-in-life role of husband and father, and career highs and lows, including the tasteless jokes that have sparked controversy and condemnation. Interviews with fellow comics such as Whoopi Goldberg and Jay Leno round out this entertaining and ultimately moving biography.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
This well-reviewed documentary follows the life and career of Joan Rivers, a veteran comedienne sometimes more known for her extensive plastic surgery than for her talent. The film explores her early years in the comedy industry and touches on her longtime professional relationship with Johnny Carson, one of many celebrities featured, along with George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Kathy Griffin and Rivers' own daughter and frequent screen partner, Melissa Rivers.

The Last Laugh
The world's foremost comedians debate the outer limits of comedy and subjective taste in this documentary, an exploration of the taboo topic of Holocaust humor and the implications for free speech. Is a tragedy on the scale of the Holocaust ever an appropriate subject for comedy? Filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein puts the question to a pantheon of funny people, including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock and Harry Shearer, as well as Holocaust survivors and prominent Jewish leaders. Mixing levity with deeply philosophical themes, an intriguing conversation emerges over where to draw the line when it comes to jokes about the Holocaust and other so-called untouchable subjects. Interviews are augmented with movie clips, comedic stage acts, as well as seized Nazi footage of cabarets performed by prisoners inside concentration camps. Featured at the 2017 AJFF.

Mel Brooks: Make a Noise
Participating for the first time in a biography about his own astonishing 60 years in show business, Mel Brooks puts his zany comedic genius on display in this loving profile, featured at the 2014 AJFF. Now an octogenarian, Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky) is as energetic as ever, playfully joking and jousting his way through an extended interview about his life. From the early beginnings of live television with Sid Caesar, to the ingeniously skewed film satires Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety, and late-career resurgence with the smash Broadway musical The Producers, this multi-hyphenate talent has earned more major awards than any other living entertainer. Less known are his creative risks and occasional misfires, as well as uncredited efforts to support such film artists as David Lynch and David Cronenberg. There are also wonderful glimpses into Brooks's personal life, from intimate reflections on his Brooklyn childhood, to longtime marriage to actress Anne Bancroft. 

Take My Nose...Please!
A funny, irreverent look at the pressures on women to be attractive, this documentary, featured at the 2018 AJFF, ponders the impact of plastic surgery on relationships, careers and self-esteem. Though some 15 million cosmetic procedures are performed annually in the United States, 90% on women, undergoing a nip-and-tuck remains a dark secret. Who better to dismantle such taboos than blunt-talking comediennes, from late greats like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, to present-day icons Kathy Griffin and Roseanne Barr, who seek to relate women’s attitudes towards going under the knife. Beauty magazine editor-turned-filmmaker Joan Kron also speaks with Jewish comics Jackie Hoffman and Emily Askin who bemoan their ethnic noses while wrestling with whether to “de-Jewify.” Sundry experts add perspective and raise provocative questions about female empowerment, and society’s arbitrary and absurd standards of beauty.

When Jews Were Funny
Embracing a stripped-down format, Canadian documentarian Alan Zweig conducts a series of free-form interviews with industry greats, spanning the early days of the Borscht Belt to the present, from Shecky Greene and Norm Crosby to Howie Mandel, Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Bob Einstein (better known as Super Dave Osborne), and more. The give-and-take interactions, sprinkled with occasional TV performance clips, are more surprising and even combative. Old school comics of the age of assimilation bristle at the notion of a uniquely ethnic brand of humor, while younger generations affirm the influences that make their jokes quintessentially Jewish. Nostalgic for the lost days of vaudeville and comforting clichés of Jewish humor, Zweig ultimately abandons the premise of his film to confront a more personal guilt about continuity and the decline of his own Jewishness. Featured at the 2014 AJFF.

You Must Be Joking
Stuck in a personal and professional rut, a listless New York twenty-something is inspired to pursue her long-abandoned love for standup comedy in this film featured at the 2015 AJFF. Barb Schwartz (comedienne Sas Goldberg) is Jewish, single, smart and fed up with the daily grind of a dead-end job as a paralegal. Between her condescending boss (Vanessa Ray), over-bearing mother (Margaret Colin) and disapproving sister (Katherine Waterson), she can't seem to catch a break. When her law firm lands a case involving a political sex scandal, Barb is circuitously reunited with her gay childhood friend Billy (the film's writer-director Jake Wilson). A feisty and fearless dancer, he motivates her to stretch outside her comfort zone and reclaim her passion for comedy by taking an improv class. Together, they discover it's never too late to change course in life, even in the unforgiving world of the Big Apple.