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'Old Jews Telling Jokes' is old news for Irv Brecher collaborator Hank Rosenfeld

by Hank Rosenfeld | Off-Ramp®

Off-Ramp commentator Hank Rosenfeld with the book he co-wrote with Irv Brecher, the original Old Jew Telling Jokes. (Photo: John Rabe)

You've probably seen one of these clips already.

It’s part of the new stage show “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”

Old Jews? Old news! Milton Berle, George Burns and Jack Benny. Those are three old Jews telling jokes. And I spent seven years with Irving Brecher, who wrote for all of them. When I helped him write his memoirs, he wanted to call it “Scripts & Crypts,” because he said, “What’s funnier than death?”

Irv had a book called "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor" that had 14 pages of death jokes, and he took me to some of the funniest funerals ever, for Morey Amsterdam, Buddy Hackett and Jan Murray. These were funny old Jews who got so old they um, died, but even at their memorials they were funny. So many friends wanted to speak at Jan Murray’s funeral that the rabbi warned mourners: "Just to remind you, Shabbos begins tomorrow at sunset..."

I read once that Jewish humor is "laughter with sadness in the eye." Irv had that look, and so did his friends. Irv told me a joke Milton Berle used:

“Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies.”

“He would say that on stage!!??” I blurted out, shocked.

“To Jewish audiences,” Irv said.

Irv told one to a big group (you can hear him tell it in the audio version we've posted here):

Actor Pia Zadora was talking with her husband about her screen career, which flopped. "Movies aren't for me, but on stage, where I can connect with a live audience, I'm wonderful." So her husband funded a production for her. "The Diary of Anne Frank." Pia Zadora played the lead, and in the third act when the Nazi's rushed in and demanded, "Where is she!?" 400 people in the audience all shouted at the same time, "She's in the attic!"

Freud wrote, "the capacity for humor wanes when we are overwhelmed by shame, guilt, and depression." Bupkis! Groucho Marx, another comic Irv wrote for, said reverence and irreverence are the same thing. So either nothing is sacred to them, or everything is. Especially life.

At Hillside Cemetery in Culver City, the retirement home of so many Jewish mirth-masters, I saw these words from the prophet Isaiah carved into a chapel wall: “The Lord God maketh death to vanish in life eternal. And he wipeth away tears from off all faces.” So do old comedians.

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