A teacher asks her classroom, “Who is the greatest man who ever lived?” One boy raises his hand and answers, “Abraham Lincoln!” The teacher shakes her head. Another boy tries “George Washington,” but is also wrong. Finally, Stewart raises his hand and answers, “Jesus Christ.” The teacher praises the correct answer and rewards Stewart with a lollipop. After class, a classmate goes up to Stewart and asks how he could possibly offer up Jesus Christ as the greatest man who ever lived. Stewart responds, “You know it’s Moses, I know it’s Moses. But,” he adds, licking his lollipop, “business is business.”
A young woman and her much-older husband are out to dinner. The waiter arrives and asks what she’ll be having. “The roast chicken,” she replies. The waiter asks, “And for your vegetable?” She responds, “He’ll have the same.”
“They’re going to sell a talking doll of my mother. You pull the string and it says, ‘Again with the string?’”
Guilt-ridden, staccato and full of classic Jewish mothers, “Old Jews Telling Jokes” is 80 minutes of good, (somewhat) clean fun. Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent’s off-Broadway show, inspired by a website of the same name, uses a bare-bones cast of five and a backdrop of baked matzah to invigorate even the stalest of punch lines.
And the pair proves that Jewish humor is very much alive. Sorting their quick-fire jokes into categories like “Assimilation,” “Business and Money,” and “Sex Before Marriage,” Gether and Okrent move from childhood on through death, though they would be quick to assure worried parties that no Jews were harmed during the show. As the cast sings early on, “There are moments when it’s kosher for a Jew to be a ham!”
Marilyn Sokol is simply perfect as the young-at-heart Bunny, contorting her face to portray everything from a distraught wife to an amorous sheep. Todd Susman and Lenny Wolpe are the two playful uncles you never had, making the perfect pair as they mime paddling across the stage into each other’s arms. Youngsters Bill Army and Audrey Lynn Weston fill out the cast, and remind us how embarrassing those old Jews telling jokes used to be.
Heartfelt monologues and silly songs break up the stand up and group jokes. A father comes home from Florida to find that his sons have begun an ill-advised marketing campaign featuring Jesus on the cross and the slogan, “They used Levenson’s nails.” Susman embarks on a Yiddishkeit rendition of “Old Man River” in Old World deadpan that has the entire audience roaring with laughter. A self-satisfied Army sobers up enough to deliver the most touching monologue of the piece, relating his character’s father’s battle with cancer, and how jokes got him through to the very end.
With enough racy jibes to satisfy even the raunchiest zayde and plenty of heart to keep you thinking about the show days after the punch lines have escaped you, “Old Jews Telling Jokes” is well worth the schlep to the Westside Theater in New York. Would it kill you to pay a visit?