Can a 1965 comedy album still be relevant in 2023? You betcha. In fact, it’s what the Australian cast of You Don’t Have to Be Jewish is counting on.
American writer and producer Bob Booker first began his professional career in radio and television when he was 16. While being drafted into the army during the Korean conflict definitely threw a spanner in his career works, he said ultimately it was his comedy album, The First Family, a spoof of president John F Kennedy, that propelled him to a high level of comedy in New York, which, as he told The AJN was “dominated for the most part by Jewish comics and writers”.
When looking to write his second album, Booker admits he’d had enough of politics, so he looked within himself. “The bulk of great Jewish comedy became obvious to me – but not jokes just for a Jewish audience,” he said. “I thought that you did not have to be Jewish to love these long living Jewish jokes. We researched it and BOOM we hit the charts first day, and the Grammy nomination came a few weeks after along with a world-wide audience.”
You Don’t Have to Be Jewish – a comedy album written by Booker and George Foster – was recorded in front of a live studio audience. The ideas sprang from jokes told to him at a lunch of legendary Jewish comedians including Zero Mostel – Broadway’s first star of Fiddler on the Roof and featured on both albums.
Booker told The AJN that it was a conscious decision to record it with a live studio audience, and he relied on his experience as a disc jockey as well as his association with popular Jewish comics at the time, including Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Jackie Mason among dozens more.
“They were usually just a recording of the performers’ acts with an audience,” he recalled. “I wanted to do it as if it were a Music Show, with a cast and much like old radio shows. That form was perfect for the Jewish material.”
Stage versions of the album have been produced around the world, including in LA and Miami under the direction of Jason Alexander.
According to Booker, the popularity of the show is down to one factor. “Funny is funny, even if it’s a thousand years old,” he said.
Director of the new Australian production Ruth Fingret said she was originally drawn to the production because she grew up with the record playing in her home.
“It’s quintessential Jewish, understated humour. The record is perfectly timed, perfectly written, and I’ve always loved it,” Fingret told The AJN. “It portrays the mundane of life with humour. There’s not a swear word in it, it’s clean, it’s loaded with irony, it’s loaded with pathos as well. Yet it’s still hysterical.”
Fingret acknowledges that there is definitely some nostalgia there, and that’s why the sketches are so relevant today, but it’s also a wonderful way to spend a family evening with your grown-up kids, because at the end of the day, while the world around us has changed, the human moments that it addresses haven’t.
“Husbands and wives that bicker, parents and children that have differing expectations about what they want to do, business partners. People being put in awkward situations and watching them react,” she explained. “It still resonates, because it’s dealing with the mundane human interactions and family interactions, a lot of which haven’t changed really, especially in the Jewish community.”
The Australian production, which features West End veteran theatre couple Linal Haft and Buster Skeggs, as well as Geoff Sirmai, Liv Hovey, Andrea Ginsberg and James Burchett, is directed by Fingret with producer David Spicer, and musical direction and choreography from Aaron Robuck.
Fingret said audiences can expect to laugh. A lot.
“It’s interesting directing because at least half the audience will know the material really intimately, so we have to honour the recording. But we also have to do a theatrical presentation of material as if we’re seeing the script for the first time, because many people are actually seeing it for the first time,” she said.
“We’re expecting a mixed audience here, where the majority will be Jewish, but we’ve got to make it relatable, friendly, fun for everyone. I think people will be laughing and hopefully leaving with these lines inserted into a new generation; those sort of classic lines that I think people are going to walk away, repeating, like we have for decades.”
You Don’t Have to be Jewish will be at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre from October 25 to November 5 and then at Emanuel Synagogue from November 15-19. For tickets: bonditheatrecompany.com.au