‘Jewish Joke’ Oct. 19 examines humor in tough times

By Eva Trieger

Eva Trieger

Eva Trieger

Jewish Joke posterLA JOLLA, California — As autumn approaches, who doesn’t look forward to a bowl of soup? And what about your grandma’s special recipe for borscht? Not so much? Well, maybe you’re more excited about the Borscht Belt and the Jewish comedians who gave that Upstate New York region her beloved cache. Jewish Joke will share this relevant story in a one night performance before it begins a national tour.

In a phone interview with Chicago born, San Diego immigrant, actor /writer, Phil Johnson, I learned all about an upcoming one man show that was written as a poignant homage to these alter cockers, who include such greats as Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers and Jackie Mason.

Johnson grew up on this humor that celebrated self-deprecation, bickering, marital complaints, (“take my wife, please!”) and clever insults. As Phil told me, the “pragmatic Jewish comic spirit” prevails and finds humor and perhaps a silver lining in whatever roadblocks he encounters.

Phil is a well-known and much loved comedic actor, and has been on nearly every stage in San Diego, as well as in Les Miserables on Broadway and tour. He has appeared in Sunset Boulevard and Miss Saigon, twice earning the coveted Craig Noel Award. Beyond his illustrious acting career, Johnson has written and co-written a number of shows before Jewish Joke. He also has an ongoing original sketch comedy show, Casa del Haha with Senor Phil.

“Jewish Joke” is somewhat of a departure from previous comic works in that it spotlights a dark period in American history, as well as Jewish history. At the close of World War II, America had a festering fear and mistrust of Communist sympathizers. In 1945, Gerald K. Smith, a neofascist party leader, warned of the “alien minded Russian Jews in Hollywood.” This paranoia, like every voracious forest fire, spread unchecked, consuming lives, obliterating social standing, and devouring successful artists’ livelihoods.

In 1947, ten writers and directors came under fire for contempt of Congress by refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). The witch hunt continued and by 1950 over 151 entertainers and those behind the scenes, had been identified as a threat to America. At the height of Communist blacklisting, Jewish actors, writers and comics came under scrutiny as being subversives, and were barred from the entertainment industry, some for the ensuing 25 years. Just as in Salem, Massachusetts, the only way to clear one’s name was to the point the finger and provide the HUAC with names.

Johnson’s play, co-written with Marnie Freedman, shares the story of Bernie Lutz, a comedy screen writer who is an amalgam of Johnson’s comic heroes. Through his numerous roles, Johnson has portrayed facets of this character in a variety of shows. Bernie was born out of a synthesis of The Little Shop of Horror’s Mr. Mushnik, Willie Clark from The Sunshine Boys, and Johnson’s own uncle in law. Johnson knew this character well and wanted to see him grapple with this challenging story and difficult setting. To create this perfect trial for his character, Johnson teamed up with Freedman who had extensive experience with, and knowledge of blacklisting.

Freedman is an accomplished writer and has been a script doctor, ghost writer and book editor. She teaches writing workshops at San Diego Writers Ink and runs The Writer’s Circle. Johnson was thrilled and honored to work with her on this project, and believes they are the perfect writing team for Jewish Joke.

Directed by North Coast Rep’s David Ellenstein, Johnson engages us in this moral dilemma. Bernie Lutz, a nebbish, a comedy screenwriter, is facing the most pivotal decision of his life. He has been asked to name names and provide the government with Communist associates, his friends, to save his own neck. Jewish Joke will take us through this gut twisting journey of conscience and self-preservation. I asked the actor what Ellenstein is culling from him and instilling in him for this performance. “A real sense of truthfulness.” The director has brought forth that core instinct for Jewish survival. When a Jew finds himself in an untenable situation, he uses his humor to maintain sanity and to come to resolution.

Johnson’s play was first previewed at the 5 Minute Playwriting Festival. That event was sponsored by the Center for Jewish Culture and performed at the JCC in La Jolla, and after winning that contest, is now being booked in venues around the county. Johnson told me he feels it is only right that it opens at the JCC first.

Phil Johnson shared that he is most honored and feels quite lucky to be working with David Ellenstein and Marni Freedman on this project, and is excited to celebrate the Jewish sprit in this show. While he told me that he is not a religious person, Johnson said he has always been drawn to Judaism for its “real emphasis on education.” He stated that he appreciates the way things are always talked out even when consensus isn’t reached. Jewish humor “brought me towards admiration and friendship with Judaism.”

There will be a one night performance on Monday October 19th at 7:30 pm at the JCC in La Jolla. And as the saying goes, “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Jewish Joke, but it couldn’t hurt!

Tickets are available by phone 858.362.1348 or online at tickets.lfjcc.org

Trieger is a freelance writer specializing in the arts.

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