Created & Directed by
Boca Raton Season Edited by
"Dave Tarras' B flat Bulgars" from the album "Klezmer Plus! Featuring Sid Beckerman and Howwie Leess" produced by Henry Sapoznik
a Jetpack Media & Spitting Cobra Films Production
Old Jews Telling Jokes was born in an empty storefront in my hometown of Highland Park, New Jersey in the summer of 2008. Eric Spiegelman and Tim Williams of Jetpack Media had asked me if I had any ideas for an internet show and I suggested: “how about we shoot my father and his friends telling jokes?” Surprisingly, they agreed. The rules would be simple. Every joke teller had to be at least sixty years old and “Jewish.” The age thing I would be strict about, the Jewish thing would be in spirit. If nothing else, we would make portraits of people who had lived at least six decades and that would be something to see.
My first inkling that we had something more came on the afternoon of the shoot. My father assembled a group of twenty or so men and women. His criteria was that they could “tell a story.” He did a wonderful job of casting (made simpler by the fact that half of the storytellers were his cousins.) The group came, ate bagels, told jokes and two magical things happened. The first was that everyone stayed and listened to each other, cheering each other on and laughing at jokes that many of them had heard many times before. I started to realize then how vital jokes are to this community. They bind us together, ritualistically, like Bar Mitzvahs and chicken soup. The second was the amazing transformation that happened when one of the joke tellers landed a joke and got a laugh. These folks aren’t comedians, they are dentists and lumbermen and pediatricians and, of course, lawyers. They’re not used to “killing” in a live room. When they got a laugh, suddenly they were children. For a beautiful moment, the mask of sixty years of life’s exhaustions disappeared from their faces.
We launched the site in February of 2009 and it became an immediate success. Ironically my mother’s joke “Broccoli,” which featured her adorably mixed emotions about dropping an “F” bomb and actually remembering a whole joke, became our first breakout hit. We struck a nerve on an internet that rarely honors people of a certain age and where humor generally arrives at someone’s expense and without any style. We were covered in the mainstream media and on countless blogs and sites. This success allowed us the opportunity to do more shoots and we followed with two in New York, one in Los Angeles and our latest, in Boca Raton.
What initially began as a whimsical project has deepened in scope. We now have a library of nearly five hundred jokes. We will, in the foreseeable future, have recorded the whole canon of this particular material. We have become proud amateur folklorists, preserving and cataloguing an element of this culture that is finite. Consider that our joke-tellers are essentially all born in the first half of the twentieth century. They bring inimitable qualities to their joke telling: an ear for Yiddish, a firsthand knowledge of cataclysmic anti-Semitism, assimilation anxiety – that later generations have no way of knowing. We hope. Their voices make the jokes what they are.
So sit back, enjoy the jokes, and remember: Laugh Loud! We don’t hear so good!