The last thing Peter Gethers’ father ever did on his deathbed was make a joke.
Gethers and Daniel Okrent, creators of the play “Old Jews Telling Jokes,”—along with pretty much every other Jew in the world—deal with the sorrows of life by laughing at it. As the writers say, “Life sucks so you gotta laugh.”
And they hope Chicago audiences will laugh with them when the Off-Broadway hit play “Old Jews Telling Jokes” makes its Windy City premiere this fall. The show runs on the Main Stage of the Royal George Theatre in Chicago, from Sept. 24 to Feb. 16, and officially opens Oct. 2. Directed by Mark Bruni, associate director of “The Book of Mormon” Chicago production, the play presents a revue, with musical interludes, that pays homage to Jewish humor.
The idea for the show was born out of a website “OldJewsTellingJokes.com,” which lives up to its name. “The website was hilarious and kind of amazing,” Gethers said.
But if you go to the show, don’t expect to watch just, well, old Jews telling jokes. The play showcases five actors—Dara Cameron, Alex Goodrich, Tim Kazurinsky, Renee Matthews, and Gene Weygandt—of all different ages, telling five monologues, stories based loosely on the writers.
Baby boomers Gethers and Okrent say they grew up in funny Jewish homes. “Mine was a depressed Jewish home with moments of humor,” jokes Okrent. “And mine,” adds Gethers, “was a funny Jewish home with moments of depression.” From as early as they can remember, they were raised on a steady diet of comedy albums by the greats—old time comedians like Bill Dana, Shelly Berman, Henny Youngman, and Woody Allen.
While the show honors classic Jewish humor of the past, it also reinvents Jewish comedy of the present and looks to the future. “The show comments on how humor is evolving,” said Cameron, a Jewish Naperville native, who recently joined the New York cast as a replacement, and will take the stage for the Chicago production. “It’s not just for old Jews, but for younger voices, trying to maintain a connection to the past.”
The faces of comedy are changing, but comedians still have their comedy forefathers to thank, according to Gethers. “Younger people are influenced by different kinds of comedians because the guys we used to listen to are dead. Kids in their 20s and 30s are influenced by everyone from Will Ferrell to Chris Rock,” he said. “But any really [funny comedian] of any ethnicity was influenced by the old Jewish comedians.”
Really, say the writers, we’re all old Jews telling jokes, no matter what our numerical age. Okrent’s son, age 32, is following in the comedy footsteps of his father. “If your eyes were closed and he disguised his voice a bit, you’d think he was a 70-year-old Jew telling jokes,” Okrent said. “My son has inherited that sense of humor, and it works just as well for him as it did for me and for my father.”
The show unfolds chronologically, from birth to death, which taught the creators of the show that being young is not nearly as funny as jokes about the misery of getting old and dying. “Jewish jokes move from unhappy circumstances,” Okrent said. “Our jokes are funny because they’re about bad marriages, bad sex…and getting old. The rueful way of dealing with that is to make it funny so you can live with it.”
“Humor is basically a coping mechanism and the funnier the jokes, the better the coping,” Gethers said. “The famous adage that comedians use is comedy is tragedy plus time. Anything that’s really funny is steeped in something really sad, but there’s enough distance that you can make it funny.”
For more information on Old Jews Telling Jokes in Chicago, visit oldjewstellingjokesonstage.com