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Kvelling in Their Seats

A first-time producer on what it took to stage Old Jews Telling Jokes.

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Illustration by Antony Hare  

I don’t want to begin with what is known to the cast and crew of Old Jews Telling Jokes as “the cunt joke.” This has less to do with taste (by writing those words, I’ve already demonstrated that I have very little of that) than with the fact that jokes on the printed page can be as limp as a lox.

Besides, the cunt joke is fairly long. So are a lot of the show’s jokes, many of which we’ve transformed into little playlets. Here’s one of the shortest ones:

OLD MAN: Doctor, I can’t pee.

DOCTOR: Tell me, Mr. Moskowitz, how old are you?

OLD MAN: I’m 94.

DOCTOR: You’ve peed enough.

Believe me: It’s a lot funnier live. So is this one: Why didn’t Hitler drink? Mean drunk. Or the one about Feldman, who’s pulled over by a cop on the Long Island Expressway. Cop says, “Sir, do you know that your wife fell out of the car a mile ago?” And Feldman says, “Thank God—I thought I was going deaf.” But if you place classic jokes in the hands of outstanding comic actors, they become completely new.

Just like the process of co-producing, co-writing, and co-shvitz-ing your first effort on the stage. Four years ago, when I turned 60, I was filmed for oldjewstellingjokes.com (it was an appropriate day for an old Jew: I had had a colonoscopy that morning). I stood in front of a white backdrop as I told my four jokes, including the classic “Because You’re a Schmuck”—which, in my book, is to Jewish humor what Ulysses is to modern fiction.

This gave my old pal Peter Gethers, a book-publishing big shot, an idea. Peter, who’s been an old Jew since he was 8, suddenly morphed into Mendl Rooney. I became Shecky Garland. “Hey,” he said, “that website—let’s turn it into a show!” A show, we thought at first, like Celebrity Autobiography, which was appearing on Monday evenings at a small club on West 72nd Street. No sets, no music, nothing but jokes. Maybe with some amateur jokesters from the website, possibly the occasional professional. Now, as we prepare to begin previews this week, we’re in an established Off Broadway theater, with five comic actors, a piano player, a set by a Tony-winning designer, six songs, and 225 lighting cues. And the cunt joke. And the Drobkin fart, which I’ll save until the very end.

Peter and I took our first step onto the stage three years ago, when we had our lawyers acquire theatrical rights to the website and its name. In a sort of real-life Jewish joke, the legal fees far surpassed the amount we paid for the rights themselves. We were suddenly producers, but we really had no idea what that meant. Soon we found four experienced, successful Jewish gentlemen of the theater who agreed to co-produce with us.

On Broadway, finding four Jewish producers was like finding hay in a haystack. I had always imagined that the role of the producer was to make decisions, eat pastrami sandwiches, and cash checks. So far, I’m batting two for three. Our partners have since taught me that the job description also includes constant worrying about absolutely everything: casting and set design, of course, but also marketing, budgeting, union regulations, music licensing, theater leasing, variable ticket pricing, and whom to invite to opening night.

This last item has taken up more time than virtually anything else. Every member of the cast and crew gets tickets to the opening. But so do the designers, the actors’ agents, the casting agent, the accountants, the lawyers, the advertising agency, the theater owner (ten off the top!), and Steinway & Sons, for letting us use one of their pianos. And, of course, the investors.

Producers and investors split profits 50-50. But if the show’s a flop, the producers generously allow the investors to take 100 percent of the loss. Nonetheless, investors still invest, possibly for the opening-night tickets and for their access to house seats, which is less of a gift than it might seem. When everyone else is buying at a discount on broadwayoffers.com or theatermania.com or ticketswecan’tevengiveaway.com, house seats are sold only at full price—even to the people bankrolling the show. With half the profit going to the producers.

I was not without experience in the theatrical fund-raising arena. When I was in my early twenties, I was offered the chance to invest a very small amount in a new Broadway musical. Alarmed, my father gave me his definition of a theatrical investor: “A schmuck with a pen.” Earnestly absorbing his well-informed caution, I chose not to invest in the show, which was called Grease.


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