How Zayde’s wisecracks stormed the internet

Have you heard about the website featuring elderly Jews telling their favourite jokes? It’s had over three million views in five months.


By Mel Poluck, July 30, 2009
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Hoffman: preserving Jewish folklore

Hoffman: preserving Jewish folklore

Old Jews Telling Jokes. Sounds like the last family gathering you went to, right?

But it is also the name of a website where you can watch old Jewish people spinning yarns with the delivery and comic timing that comes only with decades of practice.

That’s right. Jokes told by alter kakas — on demand.

The American website (www.oldjewstellingjokes.com), which has had over three million hits since it was set up in February, is the brainchild of director, producer and Woody Allen collaborator, Sam Hoffman.

“I thought it would be valuable to collect these stories, told properly,” he says, who set up the site with colleagues. “The goal of the site is not to have Jewish jokes, but jokes told by ordinary Jews. The only test for inclusion is whether people laugh. My aim included doing portraits of an older generation practising an art that may be fading from view. Jewish grandmothers don’t have Lithuanian accents any more.”

Updated twice weekly, the site shows videos of the joke-tellers punctuated by a jaunty klezmer riff and laughter from an audience of fellow raconteurs. Beneath the videos (some of the stories are quite risqué) are bare-bones details about the joke-teller. It has a refreshingly clean format.

“The first season was cast by my father based on the criteria ‘can they tell a story?’” says Hoffman, who was first assistant director to Woody Allen on the 2001 film The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, and who has worked on a raft of successful Hollywood films. “Then we spread the net wider and included people we knew and famous names such as former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.”

Now on series two, the site’s winning formula is celebrated in one advert in typical plotzing fashion: “3,000 000 plays in five months. What? You want the poor internet to have a heart attack?’”

It is Hoffman’s treatment of joke-telling as an art and cultural preservative that are the driving forces behind the site, where jokes are stories rooted in what he describes as “the immigrant experience” and “part of a rich Jewish folklore that won’t always be around”.

Interestingly, while 60 per cent of the audience is aged over 50, a quarter is under 35. “The appeal is that it reminds them of family gatherings and older relatives who may not be alive any longer. I think the audience has many Jewish members who enjoy having a ‘cultural’ Jewish experience that’s nostalgic and comforting, but doesn’t expect anything of them,” he says.

The first series is released on DVD on September 15 and Hoffman is working on a documentary looking at the art of Jewish American comedy. “Our movie will concentrate on the breakthroughs of some of the comedy giants and the street-corner practitioners you see on our site.” He is also talking to publishers about a book for which jokes would create “a spine for a cultural history of the American-Jewish experience and what they say about a culture that has, let’s face it, been through a lot in the last 100 years”.

With the site’s second largest source of viewers coming from London, the UK is now on Hoffman’s wish-list of places to film jokes.

“It would be fantastic to see how British humour affects Jewish humour. What’s interesting to me is that lots of English Jews came to England from Eastern Europe around the same time as American Jews came to America, so they have common roots. I’m sure they tell a lot of the same jokes. It would be really fascinating to make a comparison between the same jokes as told on either side of the Atlantic,” he says.

Hoffman — who works with producers Eric Spiegelman and Tim Williams on the site — ascribes Jews’ comedic reputation to a custom of oral history and to dealing with adversity. “The Jews have always had a strong storytelling tradition as exemplified by the oral history that eventually became the Old Testament and the roots of Western law.

“For much of their history they have been ‘guests’ in countries that were not always hospitable. As a result you have an intellectual, storytelling culture with a coping strategy of finding a way to laugh at their troubles.”

A Frenchman, a German, and a Jew…

The favourite story of the co-creator, Sam Hoffman, is one told by his dad, Barnett, a former judge, about a Frenchman, a German and a Jew walking in the desert. They shlep in the heat for days, gasping for a drink.

The Frenchman says: “I am ’ot, I am tired and I am t’irsty. I must ’ave some French wine. ”

The German pipes up, saying: “I am hot, I am tired und I am zirsty. I must have some German beer.”

The Jew says: “Oy! Oy! Am I tired, am I tirsty! I must… I must… I must have diabetes.”

Among the gags currently on the site is one told in a heavy Yiddish accent by Richard Levine, a semi-retired printer:

Sadie rings her friend Becky who has just moved home. She says: “I heard you got a new apartment.”

Becky replies: “Yes, I live in a big building at 1486, 86th Street. Come and visit.”

Sadie: “I’d love to, but I don’t know where that is. I need directions.”

Becky: “You take the train to 86th Street. You get out and you’ll see the apartment building with the big double doors. With your right elbow, push the door handle down and open the door. You’ll be in what we call the vestibule. You’ll see a long list of bells. I’m apartment 4b. With your left elbow, press bell 4b. I’ll buzz you in through the inner door, and you walk to the elevator. With your left elbow press the up button. Get in and with your right elbow press four for the fourth floor. When the elevator door opens, walk straight to my apartment, 4b. With your right elbow ring the doorbell, give a couple of knocks with your left elbow. I’ll answer the door, you’ll come in, we’ll have coffee…”

“Just a second,” interrupts Sadie. “What kind of directions is this — the left elbow, the right elbow? What’s with the elbows?”

“What,” says Becky, “you’re coming empty-handed?”

    Last updated: 12:37pm, August 12 2009