Seriously Funny Jewish Women

Often in show business, a writer, director or producer is forced to reduce the essence of a project to a short subtitular phrase or tag line for marketing purposes. However, the much used elevator pitch describing Making Trouble as a film about Jewish women comics is not entirely accurate, nor does it do justice to its subject. Making Trouble is really about American Jewish women who have used comedy to express themselves and develop their identities while making a living and entertaining others. It is about women who defied stereotypes, took big risks and paved the way for female entertainers, Jewish and others, today. Jewish history is richer and the world a more enjoyable place because of their contributions.

Young women today, and I include myself and my fellow Gen Xers among them, may not know without watching this film that there very well might not have been a Bette Midler had there not been a Sophie Tucker, or that we might not have been able to enjoy the work of Fran Drescher, Debra Messing and Rachel Dratch without Molly Picon and Fanny Brice having come first. In a post-feminist/third wave feminist landscape, it is hard to imagine that Wendy Wasserstein was the first woman to graduate from the Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program (in 1976), or that Joan Rivers broke through stand up comedy’s glass ceiling before becoming infamous for her addiction to plastic surgery and obnoxious red carpet commentary. It seems natural today for a Jewish woman to be both funny and beautiful, but it wasn’t until Gilda Radner appeared on TV and the cover of Rolling Stone that this notion was recognized and validated .

Making Trouble is “hosted” by four contemporary Jewish women comics and comedic actors, Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Cory Kahaney and Jessica Kirson. The quartet is filmed at Katz’s Deli enjoying pastrami, knishes, pickles and the like while cracking jokes and discussing how they have been influenced by the work and legacies of Picon, Brice, Tucker, Rivers, Radner and Wasserstein. These scenes are interspersed with traditional documentary style pieces on each of these comedy pioneers, incorporating the expected vintage photographs, archival film footage and exponent talking heads.

If you are looking for a funny film, this is not it. If you are looking for an intelligent one that will teach you something while keeping you entertained, then Making Trouble is for you. Its having been produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive rather than by a Hollywood studio assures you that the film, devoid of special effects bells and whistles, is well researched, written and made in service of the organization’s educational mission.

Jackie Hoffman and Cory Kahaney at Katz's

Although a chuckle emerged from my throat during a scene or two of the documentary footage (can anyone keep a straight face while watching Gilda Radner on screen?), I personally found the bits around the table at Katz’s to be the funniest. They are shot so that the viewer feels as though she (or he, but afterall, this is a group of girls doing lunch) is at the table with Gold, Hoffman, Kahaney and Kirson. And I really did feel like I was right there with them, enjoying their banter and dishing it out to one another in their nasally Tri-State Area accents. Oh. how I (in California pining away for my beloved NY) miss being able to wildly gesticulate and talk over one another, as they do, without being considered odd and ill-mannered! It’s a treat to experience Jackie Hoffman coming up on the spot with an updated version of Katz’s famous slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the army” (I’m not going to divulge it here – you’ll just have to see the film to hear it.)

Making Trouble doesn’t – and couldn’t – include every Jewish female comic or comedian from the last century (for instance, Gertrude Berg/Molly Goldberg, to whom I pay homage on my blog’s header, does not appear). Its makers deliberately chose to expose and examine six women who used comedy in different ways. The work of comedic musical actors (mainly of the stage, but also in movies) Molly Picon and Fanny Brice is not the same as that of Sophie Tucker, who was really more of a jazz singer who belted out songs with racy, humorous lyrics. Similarly, one cannot directly compare the stand up comedy of Joan Rivers to the skit work and crazy characters of Gilda Radner. Tony and Pulitzer-winning Wendy Wasserstein was yet again something entirely different.

Just as Jewish women come in all shapes and sizes, so do Jewish women comics not fit into a single mold.  Young Jewish women today stand on the shoulders – narrow and broad – of these giants who made trouble so that we can can own our humor and be respected for it.

Making Trouble has already made the rounds of the film festivals to positive reviews. Now it’s available for purchase by individuals, institutions and organizations. If you like any or all of the following: Jewish humor, Jewish history or Jewish women, then you owe it to yourself, your family, your members or your students to see this film. Let it shed some light on an important subject not many of us are familiar with this Hanukkah season.

A copy can be purchased online at http://www.makingtrouble.com/getthefilm.php

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “Seriously Funny Jewish Women”

  1. Rose Barlow Says:

    I have been looking for a ‘Judaic’ gift for Rachel. Having already done the sports menorah, endless Hanukah books over the years and her stash of Bat Mitzvah judaic gifts not yet exhausted ‘Making Trouble’ would be ideal. Problem is I am having enormous trouble actually getting the link you have posted to work in order to purchase a copy online. Did it work for you? Help.

  2. Renee Ghert-Zand Says:

    The link did originally work, and should work. It appears that the film’s web site and the JWA web site (I think both are supported by the same server) are down right now. Keep trying. If it is still not working in a day or two, let me know.

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