The stage doesn’t do much for ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes,’ but it doesn’t need to

Bill Army, Todd Susman, Marilyn Sokol. (Joan Marcus)
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I grew up among old Jews—and I’m rapidly becoming one myself, not that I’m complaining—so I’ve always known how funny they can be. For anyone who didn’t have a zayde with a ready supply of deadpan one-liners, or a foul-mouthed tante who told filthy anecdotes around the Shabbos table, you’ve recently had access to other people’s Jewish relatives via Old Jews Telling Jokes, a website filled with videos of mostly ordinary folks recounting their favorite jokes.

Started in 2008 by filmmaker Sam Hoffman (no relation, as far as I know, but you can never be too sure), Old Jews Telling Jokes is, to put it mildly, a gold mine for anyone interested in comedy, simultaneously an ad hoc oral history of Borscht Belt humor from decades ago, and an implicit instructional video for any would-be comedian today who wants to learn how to really deliver a zinger.

Now, writer Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent (former Times public editor) have turned the website into an off-Broadway show. They’ve added a few songs, a few brief monologues, and added a few bells and whistles (and a piano), but the bulk of Old Jews Telling Jokes is a rapid succession of jokes, like watching videos on the website for an hour and a half. And the jokes, like the jokes on the website, are enduring moments of comic genius.

All the usual topics are covered: Jewish mothers, impotence, digestive problems, death, doctors, assimilation, and, of course, oral sex. While the show leans toward quick one-liners more than the website, which often tends toward longer, more ponderous anecdotes with a delayed payoff, there’s still a mix of long and short gags. (The drawn-out "Drobkin fart" joke, one of the highlights of the website, is included on stage.)

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The cast of five does a good job delivering the goods; even if they sometimes are a bit—you should pardon the expression—hammy, they have a strong sense of timing. Even if you’ve heard these jokes before (and who hasn’t?), you’d be hard-pressed not to laugh out loud at least 20 times before the show is over.

Beyond the still-solid jokes, which have been roughly organized according to lifecycle events, Old Jews Telling Jokes isn’t a particularly inspired piece of theater. The monologues are mildly interesting, but hardly the highlights of the evening, and the other things that have been added—a few shticky songs, a cheap-looking video display—seem more fitting for a talent show in your shul’s basement than an off-Broadway show. And in a truly strange bit of casting, Old Jews Telling Jokes includes in its five-person cast two people who are most certainly not old; they’re perfectly competent performers, but there’s no apparent reason why these relative youngsters have been included, and it does sap a bit of the punch: Hearing a twenty-something man tell a raunchy story isn’t a tenth as funny as hearing that story come out of someone’s grandmother’s mouth. Being old is part of what makes the jokes funny, and that’s why the older folks on stage—Todd Susman, Lenny Wolpe, and Marilyn Sokol—are simply funnier to watch.

But there’s a larger problem in translating the website to a stage show: Watching someone stand still and tell a joke isn’t the same thing as watching multiple people act out a joke, with gestures and props and video backdrops and musical accompaniment. The best jokes on the website are stronger when they’re simply being told straight to the camera, and it takes more skill to land a joke without any help—when it’s just the jokester and his or her delivery that sell it.

There’s one video clip in the middle of Old Jews Telling Jokes where we see late Borscht Belt comedian Alan King slaying an audience by simply reading from newspaper obituaries. He doesn’t have any props or sets or actors to help him; it’s all in how he says it.

In the end, despite its apparent lack of dramatic ambition, the show maintains the basic core of what made the website a smash success: the jokes themselves. Thanks to the performers, these jokes are still funny even if you’ve heard them a thousand times. Will the show strike a chord with the goyim, though? You don’t have to be Jewish, as Gilda Radner once put it, but it wouldn’t hurt.

Old Jews Telling Jokes is playing at the Westside Theater, 407 W. 43rd St. Tickets are $80-125. Call 212-239-6200.