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Doctors prescribe laughter

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Sabes JCC bring back the Twin Cities Jewish Humor Festival for its eighth year

By MAX SPARBER

“Laughter is healthy; doctors prescribe laughter.” — Yiddish proverb

There is a case to be made that American humor is Jewish humor. It’s the viewpoint of the 2013 documentary When Jews Were Funny, and you’ll hear versions of this idea here and there. An example: Al Jaffee, cartoonist for Mad Magazine, has argued that his publication helped mainstream Jewish humor, and there’s some truth to that.

There were also the Jewish comics, who dominated vaudeville and later the stand-up circuit. There were Jewish novelists and television actors and film stars, each of them bringing a certain Jewish sensibility to their comedy. It continues today, in television shows like Transparent and Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in films like those of the Coen Brothers, in comics like Eric André and Andy Samberg.

Jerry Lewis, the subject of a documentary making its Minnesota premiere at the Twin Cities Jewish Humor Festival. ( Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

And the variety! American Jewish humorists have significantly contributed to entire genres of comedy, including insult comedy (think Don Rickles), improv comedy (Chicago’s founding improvisational theater, Compass Players, were largely Jewish) and the mockumentary (Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run is arguably the first example of this film genre.)

It’s no wonder the Sabes JCC has been able to sustain a Jewish Humor Festival for eight years. There is so much to pick from.

This year’s event includes a number of legendary names in Jewish comedy, starting with their opening night performer, Carol Leifer. Although she is not the household name that she should be, Leifer’s résumé is enormous, including work as a script writer on Seinfeld (she wrote “The Hamptons,” which you may recall as including a kosher girlfriend, a spectacular ugly baby and the word “shrinkage.”)

Jerry Seinfeld has credited Leifer as an inspiration for the character Elaine on the show, which Leifer downplayed in the past, although she told The New York Times that it was easy to write for the character as she “simply flowed from [Leifer’s] own experiences.”

Leifer is also an author and monologist, her work detailing her life experiences, including her coming out as a lesbian at age 40. She will perform at the Sabes JCC on Saturday, Jan. 14 at 7:30 p.m. with special guest Adam Grabowski, a stand up comic who was the 2015 Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities Comic of the Year, as well as having appeared on America’s Got Talent.

The festival will provide an opportunity to learn more about the notoriously thorny Jerry Lewis thanks to the regional premiere of a documentary titled Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown. Lewis has always been more respected in France than in the United States, so perhaps it is no surprise that the documentary is by a French filmmaker, Gregory Monro, and that the film approaches Lewis’ legacy with utmost seriousness, focusing on Lewis as a technically adventurous filmmaker and a skilled craftsman. The film screens at the Sabes JCC on Sunday, Jan. 15 at 2 p.m.

Later that day, at 7:30 p.m. at the St. Paul JCC, the festival will host Kim Friedman and Kate Siegel, who have taken Jewish comedy into a new medium: Instagram. Their account, @CrazyJewishMom, republishes texts from Friedman, who is responsible for the following observation, already legendary in online circles: “I saw a guy at a Starbucks today. No iPhone, no tablet, no laptop. He just sat there. Drinking coffee.

“Like a psychopath.”

The following week brings another Jewish comedy legend to Minnesota: William Novak, who co-authored the Big Book of Jewish Humor, one of the definitive texts of Jewish comedy. Novak will speak at the St. Paul JCC on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, Jan. 19 brings Miriam Plotkin, creator of a one-woman cabaret called Anxiety Tonight (Pigtails Are Kosher).  Plotkin’s show includes a collection of parody songs inspired by Allan Sherman, the endearingly nebbishy creator of the classic novelty song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.” Plotkin will perform at 7:30 p.m. at the Sabes JCC.

Comedian, author and rabbi Bob Alper, who has occasionally contributed to American Jewish World, will perform at the Sabes JCC on Saturday, Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. The festival will end Sunday, Jan. 22 with a performance by Theatre of Fools, who describe themselves as “Vaudeville for the 21st Century” and perform a blend of improv, theater and circus. They will perform at 2 p.m. at the Sabes JCC.

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For tickets or more information contact the Sabes JCC box office at 952-381-3499 or visit sabesjcc.org.

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