Kvelling in Their Seats

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.

But Peter and I didn’t have to use this story to seduce investors. We didn’t show them the script, or invite them to readings. In fact, we never asked a single person to invest: As Henny Youngman is my witness, they all asked us, probably on the strength of our title. And while we pawed the floor and demurred, insisting that we didn’t want to confuse business with friendship (which was, well, somewhat true), our friends (and their friends) started shoving money in our pockets.

Consequently, we never had to use the various devices that most Broadway producers are compelled to deploy if they hope to raise the megamillions required for, say, a new musical. The following items are regularly addressed in Broadway deals:

(a) How much you must invest to be credited as “associate producer,” or “produced in association with,” or some other such euphemism for “wrote a check.” On a big Broadway musical, if you see a name above the title appended to the phrase “produced in association with,” you can figure that it cost someone $250,000. A name above the title, with no temporizing “in association with,” from someone with no actual producing experience? Half a million.

(b) How much you must invest to get a bio in Playbill. Figure $150,000.

(c) Until recently, whether you got to go up onstage if your show wins the Tony. But the Tonys changed their rules, and put a limit on the number of producers who can represent a winning show onstage. This is why the audience no longer has to endure those mob scenes that bore such a resemblance to a meeting of the board of directors of Temple Emanu-El.

Before we hired a director, we talked to half a dozen. Jason Alexander wanted to work with a writer we weren’t crazy about. He also lives in Los Angeles, and standard contracts require producers to provide local housing for out-of-town talent, and our show was too tightly budgeted for that. Phil Rosenthal, who created Everybody Loves Raymond, talked to us on speakerphone while he was huffing his way through a treadmill workout, and suggested that we not hire actors, but instead use authentic old Jews, like those who appear on the website. We pondered that for about 30 seconds. The likelihood of these bubbes and zaydes getting it up for 80 minutes of shtick eight times a week seemed … slight.

We parted with our first director after nine months of arguments about the musical numbers (he wanted a Beyoncé parody; we wanted Irving Berlin vaudeville), about stand-up comedy material (he was for it, Peter and I weren’t), and about our wildly divergent senses of humor. We just didn’t want to work with someone who doesn’t like a bravura joke like “Tommy the Cat, He Went for a Walk on the Roof, He Fell Off, He’s Dead.”

You might argue that our second director was also the wrong guy for Old Jews, given that he was not Jewish. But this was not his only distinction. He was, in fact, the first heterosexual gentile we had encountered in eighteen months of meetings with producers, directors, general managers, theatrical lawyers, and agents. Plenty of gay goyim, Yids of every description—but until our second director, not a single theater pro whom my shiksa wife’s mother would have preferred for a son-in-law. (Advice to straight Christians and Muslims contemplating theatrical careers: Current reality suggests either great opportunity or utter hopelessness.)

When our partners first proposed Director No. 2, we expressed concern. We didn’t understand how a non-Jew could bring to our material the requisite foreknowledge of centuries of repression, exile, and heartburn. “What do you mean ‘non-Jew’?,” one of our partners said. “He’s been working in the theater for twenty years.”

This was a very good point, and when we lost Director No. 2 to a scheduling conflict, we were absolutely ready for Marc Bruni, the gentile heterosexual whom I am hereby outing. Marc took over last fall and began to smack OJTJ into its current sleek and glistening shape. Working with dramaturge Jack Viertel (hetero, Jewish), he expunged all of the didactic stuff we had crafted about how Jews use humor to ease our pain; all the conversations between actors about what makes a joke work; all the pedantic fog purporting to explain the different varieties of jokes. First, we resisted. Then we capitulated. Finally, months later, at our first rehearsals, we put on our producer hats and took credit for everything Marc and Jack had done.

Unlike in the movie business, where the studio owns the screenplay, Peter and I, as the credited co-creators of the show, don’t actually have to follow anyone’s advice. Copyright rules in the theatrical world stipulate that not a word of the writer’s work can be changed without the writer’s permission. As we were both producers and writers, this often led to our stubbornly resisting each other. Mostly, we argued about language. One of us was absolutely devoted to the cunt joke. The other was passionate about a classic that requires the shv- word. We finally resolved it with a sentence that I doubt Hammerstein ever said to Rodgers: “Enough! You can have cunt if I can have schvartze!”

The C-joke is in the show; shv- is long gone. The first triumphed when actress Marilyn Sokol performed it in a rehearsal two weeks ago. When you hear Marilyn tell this joke, you will be convinced that the producers of Spider-Man could have avoided all their tsuris if they’d only included the cunt joke in their script. It’s that good.

I would like to say the last piece of OJTJ to fall in place was the cast. I guess if you’re building a show around TV or film stars—“Kirstie Alley. Sally Struthers.Godot”—you start the production process with actors. But because OJTJ calls for an ensemble (and because Sarah Silverman is too expensive and Myron Cohen is too dead), we decided to wait until we were near the start of rehearsals to fill out our cast. And there was no point in talking about rehearsals until we had secured the one thing you must have before you can do anything in the theater—namely, a theater.

I thought this was going to be the easy part. But when we brought up the idea of the Minetta Lane, the very appealing 399-seater near Washington Square, our partners reacted as if we had proposed staging our show in Buchenwald. And it wasn’t because they don’t like the theater. It was because, one of them cheerfully pointed out, the only show that has ever run longer than two years at the Minetta was Other People’s Money, which closed in 1991. At the Westside, where we eventually landed, productions that have run longer than two years include the recent Love, Loss and What I Wore, the appropriate Jewtopia, the less appropriate Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, and the more-appropriate-than-you-might-realize Vagina Monologues. Lesson learned: Shakespeare wasn’t the genius; it was the Globe.

Another lesson: If you want to do well in the theater, own one. The basic shape of a theater lease grants the owner a guarantee against roughly 5 percent of the gross, plus a weekly “service package.” In exchange, the producers get an auditorium and a box office. That’s it. “Service package” is another theatrical euphemism, in this case a nice way of saying that the producer pays for everything, from ushers to the nightly cleaning crew to the toilet paper in the restrooms. This summer, we’ll be giving the owner of the Westside $65 per performance for air-conditioning. And $100 a week for “sanitary supplies.” The box-office treasurer who works for the theater, counting the receipts each night while our company manager watches over him like a hawk? We pay his salary, too. And his benefits. And 30 cents for every ticket he prints.

Onstage, we also get bupkes. Even the lights are brought in, every flood, spot, or scoop rented from a lighting-supply house, loaded into the theater before the show opens, and trucked out the minute it closes. The owner also gets the celebrated “theater restoration” fee (at the Westside, it’s a buck a ticket). Gerald Schoenfeld, the penny-wise Yoda who presided over the Shubert empire for several centuries, once said the restoration fees “provide some means of doing these marvelous renovations, which are very expensive matters … [and] there is no reimbursement for that.” This sentiment seems to disregard the fact that the theater owner in fact owns the theater. It’s like expecting a condo-restoration fee when you put a new Sub-Zero in your kitchen.

I will now conclude my Memoirs of the Rialto with the people who are the most visible—and variable—elements of every show. If you want to know where actors stand in the conventional theatrical hierarchy, consider how the money gets divided. The producers get royalties, and they share profits with the investors. Writers, of course, get royalties. So does the director. The set designer gets royalties, the choreographer and the songwriter and the lyricist get royalties. The lighting designer, the costume designer, the sound designer all get royalties whether the show is a hit or not.

The actors do not get a royalty. This is not because they are well paid. For Off Broadway productions, the Actors’ Equity contract guarantees its members a minimum of $637 a week in a theater the size of ours (the Westside has 249 seats—which is very convenient, because at 251 the actors’ minimum jumps up by $99). And though we’re paying substantially more than the Off Broadway minimum, we haven’t breached Broadway’s weekly bottom of $1,703.

And that’s when things are going well for actors. Between jobs, they do readings. We held three for OJTJ, to check its progress and to see how it played in front of a handpicked audience. For each, the actors rehearsed for three days, leading up to a 90-minute performance in a hot, airless studio, in front of the producers’ aunts and cousins and doormen, as well as the admissions directors of the schools they’d like to get their kids into. For this we paid our actors what Equity requires: $100 each. Plus carfare.

Still, good actors want good roles, and judging by the quality of those whom we auditioned, our show was sufficiently attractive. But before we found our cast, we had to endure the EPAs—the Equity Principal Auditions. For any show staged under an Equity contract, audition time must be reserved for the EPAs, which allow any member of the union to stand in line to wait for the chance to perform for nanoseconds in front of your casting director. Your “breakdown”—the list of roles published on backstage.com and elsewhere—might call for a zaftig 60-ish Jewish man, but this does not deter lithe 26-year-old Latino men from showing up. Curious, I sat in on the EPAs. We asked each candidate to tell a joke, and oh, how they tried: the ancient chorus boy who last appeared in New York in the original production of Zorba and had never, even then, had a speaking role; the guy carrying a ukulele who seemed intent on using it as a weapon; the seven different aspirants who, to demonstrate their appropriateness for Old Jews Telling Jokes, told … Irish jokes.

But, eventually, we ended up with a cast we’re very happy with: two older men, one older woman, and a young couple so cute you want to pinch their cheeks. Wonder why we have young actors in a show called Old Jews Telling Jokes? Then tell me: Who else could play the youthful hotel clerk in that great epic saga “The Drobkin Fart”? We’ve reformulated it for our show as a four-character playlet: Audrey Lynn Weston narrates. Lenny Wolpe plays the famous Dr. Drobkin. Bill Army plays the hotel clerk. And Todd Susman, in the role of a lifetime, plays the fart. I know, it’s hard to explain.

Have you heard the one about …

Ginzberg is 74 and he marries a much, much younger woman. Soon, they’re having some problems—the young woman is just not being satisfied. So they decide to go see the rabbi for advice. The rabbi hears the problem, strokes his beard thoughtfully, and says to Ginzberg, “Let’s try something they say in the Talmud. Go find a nice, handsome young man. Have him come in while you’re making love and wave a towel while you’re performing.”

So Ginzberg and his wife find a handsome young man, and they bring him into the bedroom with them. Ginzberg starts shtupping his wife, and the young man waves a towel. They try this a couple of times, but it still doesn’t work. Nothing. The wife just isn’t satisfied. So they go see the rabbi again, tell him what happened. The rabbi says, “Okay. Jewish tradition says we do anything to satisfy our wives. Go back and try again, but this time reverse roles. Murray, you wave the towel. The good-looking young man, he gets into bed with your wife. Let’s see what that does.”

They go home, go back to the bedroom. Ginzberg picks up the towel, the handsome young man gets into bed with the wife, and they start having wild, passionate sex. The wife starts screaming, going absolutely crazy, has an incredible seven-minute orgasm. When it’s over, Ginzberg grabs the young man’s arm and says, “You putz—that’s how you wave a towel!”

From the stage production of Old Jews Telling Jokes.

Kvelling in Their Seats