2 editors yuk it up with 'Old Jews Telling Jokes'

MARK KENNEDY AP Drama Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- There's an easy trick to writing a good Jewish joke -- just make the idiot at the center of it sound Jewish.

"Any joke you tell, if the character's name is Feldman, it becomes a Jewish joke," says Daniel Okrent. "Say you've got a joke about a guy on a desert island who watches Angelina Jolie float by. The guy could be named O'Hara. But if it's Feldman, it becomes a different joke."

Such is the wisdom that Okrent and his friend and collaborator, Peter Gethers, have gleaned by mining generations of jokes over the past three years to create their new off-Broadway show, "Old Jews Telling Jokes."

The revue, which opens Sunday at the Westside Theatre, is stocked with some 80 classic jokes and a few songs that a five-person cast delivers with rat-a-tat comic precision. The jokes are clustered by category and move chronologically from Birth, Childhood, Dating, Sex, Marriage, Assimilation, Doctors to Old Age.

"Why don't Jewish mothers drink?" one joke goes. "They don't want to dull the pain." Another starts with a doctor telling his patient he has bad news and very bad news. "The bad news is that you only have 24 hours to live." Horrified, the patient asks what could be worse than that. "I couldn't get hold of you yesterday," replies the doctor.

"The thing we've learned is the show gets progressively funnier because it's chronological," says Gethers. "The worse life is, the funnier the jokes are."

The project marks the first time Okrent, a writer and editor who served as the first public editor of The New York Times, and Gethers, a writer and Random House executive, have ever tackled theater. They are now co-producers and co-conceivers.

"Our first goal was hilarity. We wanted the show to be as funny as it could possibly be. But we didn't want it to be only funny," says Gethers. "Without being pretentious, without turning it into anything major, we wanted it to be a show that was not just jokes but a show that was partly about jokes and about humor."

It's inspired by the website OldJewsTellingJokes.com and Okrent and Gethers have acquired its theatrical rights. Early versions of the scripts were performed in living rooms as they hammered out its 80-minute shape, aided by Okrent's 495-joke database.

"I always thought theater was too hard. I thought writing an actual play was the hardest possible thing. And we figured out a way to do it so that it wasn't that hard," says Gethers.

To which Okrent quips: "We didn't really write it and it isn't really a play."

Skits went in -- and came out. Audience participation was considered and then abandoned. Several songs and whole sections of jokes were cut. Monologues were changed. Above all, pages in the script that explained the jokes themselves were dumped.

"We didn't trust the jokes," says Gethers.

The creators even considered having a section about the Holocaust. "There's a huge log of Holocaust jokes that are twisted but hilarious," says Gethers. "It was a nice little chunk and it was weird and weirdly funny, but it doesn't belong in the show."

Jokes that weren't in the Jewish tradition -- say, Irish or Polish -- were adapted and rewritten if they worked. "It's not 'Old Jews Telling Jewish Jokes,'" says Gethers. "There's a difference." Adds his partner: "There's a certain kind of humor that has become everybody's humor, but, at its heart, is Jewish humor. That's really humor that's based on being a loser in some way."

The intense process of putting on a show hasn't broken up their 32-year friendship. Gethers credits their editing backgrounds for being able to dump favored material if it didn't work. "We were reasonably ruthless and reasonably insensitive," he says.

The final cast, which includes Bill Army, Marilyn Sokol, Todd Susman, Audrey Lynn Weston and Lenny Wolpe, also helped the show's final tuneups, since a key part of whether a joke lands is in the delivery.

"There are some jokes that pretty much anybody can deliver funny if they're not total idiots," says Okrent. "And there are some that are extremely complicated to deliver well."

Okrent and Gethers have spent countless hours during the preview process listening to the audience react to their show. They can tell how the night will be from the way the first joke is received. They think there are five jokes that always get a laugh and four jokes they still dislike but have kept because director Marc Bruni wants them.

"I sit there each night when these jokes come by and think, 'I can't wait for this one to be over. I have friends here tonight. Their opinion of me is going to plummet,'" says Okrent. "Then it gets a huge laugh and we move on to the next thing."

"And then of course, the bigger the laugh, the closer we come to taking full credit for them," says Gethers.





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