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Our ‘national’ humor the core of ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’

The Off Broadway hit comedy 'Old Jews Telling Jokes' begins performances Chicago's Royal George Theatre September 24 for limited engagement

The Off Broadway hit comedy, "Old Jews Telling Jokes," begins performances at Chicago's Royal George Theatre September 24, for a limited engagement through November 24, 2013. The cast includes: Gene Weygandt (from left), Renee Matthews and Tim Kazurinsky.

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‘Old Jews Telling Jokes,’ through Nov. 24, Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted. $49-$59. (312) 988-9000;

Updated: September 26, 2013 4:03AM

So, where did Jewish humor begin?

Ask Daniel Okrent, the creator, along with Peter Gethers, of “Old Jews Telling Jokes” — the revue that both pays tribute to, and reinvents classic Jewish jokes of the past and present — and he will tell you about the “badchen.”

Rooted in Hebrew (and Yiddish), the word translates as “jester.” And badchen was the term used to describe a Jewish comedian who entertained guests at weddings among the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe. The badchens’ brainy humor — primarily of the verbal, as opposed to the slapstick variety — was often infused with Talmudic references and inside jokes.

Does that mean Jewish humor has Biblical roots?

“Yes,” said Okrent. “Even the Hebrew name, Yitzhak [Isaac], translates as ‘he laughs’ or ‘joker’.”

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” was inspired by a hugely popular series of web videos. Okrent and Gethers licensed the name for the title of their show which became an Off Broadway hit and is now in previews at the Royal George Theatre in a Chicago edition that features Tim Kazurinsky, Alex Goodrich, Gene Weygandt, Dara Cameron and Renee Matthews.

As it happens, Okrent, 66, an editor and writer who served as the first public editor of The New York Times, and penned “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” the book that served as a major source for the 2011 Ken Burns/Lynn Novick miniseries “Prohibition,” has been collecting Jewish jokes all his life, as has Gethers, a writer, book publisher and producer.

“The first joke I remember was told by my Polish-born grandfather,” said Okrent. “It is not really reproducible in written form, but it began with talk about something red hanging from the ceiling that goes tweet-tweet. I also remember savoring the work of Myron Cohen [the nightclub performer of the 1950s and ’60s who often appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” who reminded Okrent of his grandfather], Rodney Dangerfield who was really a kind of genius, and that Mel Brooks/Carl Reiner sketch from 1961, ‘The 2000-Year-Old Man’.”

“The truth is, Jewish jokes are our NATIONAL humor,” said Okrent, noting that we’ve all grown up with The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, Soupy Sales, Buddy Hackett and Woody Allen. “The humor is the outgrowth of a culture that has had to deal with centuries of bad news. And the more you suffer, the more you need humor. We begin with the premise that tragedy plus time equals comedy, and the idea that out of defeat, anxiety and rue comes light.”

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” is structured thematically, more or less moving from birth through death.

“It goes from childhood, to dating, to sex before marriage, to marriage, to sex after marriage, to movies about good sex, to business, assimilation, doctors, retirement, old age and the end. And it gets funnier as it goes.”

“The jokes in the show — as well as some comic songs — are from all over the place,” said Okrent. “About 20 of them are from the website, but there are about 80 other jokes from many other sources. A second show, drawn from our database of more than 500 jokes, is already written. This is humor that flourished in the shtetls of Europe, came to the U.S. with immigrants and grew more urban as Jews became more urban. Later it was more fully developed in the Catskills and on television, with Jerry Seineld as the latest example.”

Okrent admits to having a certain “New York snobbery” quickly dispelled when he discovered the Chicago cast — “wonderful people who are not only funny, but have great range, can sing and are delightful to work with. The three men are non-Jews, and Gene Weygandt has one the best Yiddish accents I’ve heard. The two women are Jewish. We have three Jewish mothers in the show, and Alex [Goodrich], a 6-foot-4-inch gentile plays one of them, and is hilarious.”

Cast member Renee Matthews, who grew up in vaudeville and the Yiddish theater, has performed a one-woman show about the life of Yiddish actress Molly Picon, and has played everything from a matchmaker to a nun during her long career, believes she was born to perform in “Old Jews.”

“The Jewish tradition of humor is based on making fun of ourselves in order to diffuse suffering, and it has become universal, dealing with such topics as health, wealth, family and ungrateful childen,” said Matthews. “The humor is a way out. And we’ve all grown up with it — watching people like Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks and Bill Crystal, and laughing at the work of Neil Simon. As my favorite joke asks: ‘Why don’t Jewish mothers drink?’ The answer? ‘They don’t want to dull the pain’.”

Enough said.

TWITTER: @HedyWeissCritic

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