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Funny Women

Sarah Silverman is the controversial comedian du jour. Her capacity to shock today’s audiences may be distinctly Silverman, yet her career stands on the shoulders of several comedic foremothers. Her routines echo the boldness of Fanny Brice, the sexuality of Sophie Tucker, and the brashness of Joan Rivers to name just a few. She shares not only a religious and cultural heritage with these female comedians, but also a notoriety that suggests she will be remembered by the next generation.

To remember and to honor the contributions of six famed Jewish women comedians was the goal of the Jewish Women’s Archive, based in Brookline, Mass., in creating their documentary, Making Trouble. The film grew our of plans to host a gala celebration, “So Laugh A Little, An Evening of Jewish Women’s Comedy,” in New York City in March 2005. Contemporary comics Judy Gold and Jackie Hoffman performed at the show and their work, combined with archival footage, got the Archive staff thinking. “We thought, ‘there’s a history here and a tradition that they belong to,” says Gail Reimer, one of the Archive’s founders and its current executive director. “Something had to be done with the material. It was too good. So we decided we should make a film.” Of course the Archive had never taken on such a project, but no matter. The idea perfectly reflected the organization’s mission to research, preserve, and transmit the history of Jewish women.

Then the golden moment occurred—the moment that is a dream in the life of any filmmaker or artist. “There was a funder who was as excited as we were and made it happen.” When asked to confirm this fantasy funding scenario, Reimer says that yes, the money for the film came primarily from one individual, who has asked to remain anonymous. “We were very fortunate to have that,” Reimer says with some understatement, adding, “It would have taken more time if we had to raise the money.”

Reimer assembled a production team and hired a director, then it was time to make some decisions about who would and would not be featured in the film. Molly Picon, Sophie Tucker, and Fanny Brice were part of the original program at the gala, so they were in. Picon was an icon in the Yiddish theater and film of the early to mid-twentieth century whose career spanned decades. Tucker also enjoyed a long career singing in vaudeville and performing in films and early television. She was known for her suggestive songs sung in her deep, distinctive voice and her saucy stage banter. Fanny Brice was a contemporary of both Picon and Tucker and became a comic star in The Ziegfield Follies, the premiere stage revues of the era. Her life was popularized by the movies Funny Girl and Funny Lady, both starring Barbra Streisand as Brice.

“In choosing the subjects, we needed to think broadly about comedy,” Reimer says. “It couldn’t be defined as just stand-up. We were really looking for trailblazers. We sought women who defined a certain approach to comedy, but who also had interesting lives.”

She acknowledges that the choices were difficult and that some of the subjects they wanted to include were unavailable. Gertrude Berg is one notable omission. Berg was the creator and star of The Goldbergs, a popular show broadcast during the heyday of radio and early television. Reimer says that another filmmaker is making a film about Berg and has exclusive rights to her materials, leaving the Making Trouble team with no choice but to exclude her.

Reimer’s professional background is in academia. She holds a Ph. D in English and American Literature from Rutgers University and was a member of the faculty at Wellesley College. She also served as the associate director of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities for several years, where she worked “from the funding side” with many filmmakers. “Producing a film was definitely a new experience for me,” she says.

The most challenging time for Reimer, as an executive producer, came as internal conflicts arose in the creative team which ultimately led to what she calls “a shift in team.” She explains: “It wasn’t coming together. There was a disagreement with a producer [and] the director had a different vision then we had. We took a hiatus for a while. We knew we had great material and that we should continue.” Reimer found a new director, Rachel Talbot, and work began again on the film.

“Rachel is a wonderfully sensitive and thoughtful director,” says Reimer. “I knew she was someone who would take what we had and run with it.”

Talbot says, “Gail was looking to me to give it a format. She made great contributions and she respected the fact that [I was] someone who had experience in film.” Talbot says that although the two worked well together, there was a need to balance two different approaches to the material. “We’re talking about academics,” says Talbot. “Gail came with that perspective and she knows the history very well. She would think more in terms of text. I wanted to put in a variety of voices and points of view, and voices and images are different than text.”

Reimer says, “It was a very collaborative process. We disagreed, but we never walked away.”

Talbot brought fresh eyes to the project and she and her editor, Phil Shane, reviewed all the existing footage. “I was very fortunate to come on after some very great interviews were done,” she says. “My editor and I looked at all the interviews and said, ‘what can we use and what can we add and what new stuff do we need to shoot?’”

Talbot and Reimer found that they also needed to address an apparent generational gap. “We screened the film for young educators, people in the twenties and thirties, and it was a challenge for them to connect with the older comedians. We decided that we needed to include some women who were closer to their time and sensibility,” Reimer says. Thus, original Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner and Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein were added to the film.

Talbot also advocated for including Joan Rivers, the only living subject in the film. She says there was some reluctance among her colleagues to including Rivers because of her reputation as an aggressive red-carpet interviewer. But Talbot felt that it was her pioneering career as a female stand-up comedian, as well as surviving the tragedy of her husband’s suicide, that merited her inclusion in the film. “Everyone else is not alive and [with Joan] we could see someone carrying on the tradition,” she says. Talbot brought Rivers together on-screen with her old friend, comedy writer Treva Silverman. “My idea to put her with one of her dear friends turned out to be a good one,” the director says. “It relaxed her and brought her back to that time period.”

As a framing device and to lend contemporary context to the profiles, the director opted to include scenes of current comedians discussing the figures in the movie. Talbot took her inspiration from Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose in which a group of men sit in a deli and talk about the legendary Danny Rose character. “I thought, ‘let’s do it with women, let’s use women who are really friends and hard working comedians in New York’,” says Talbot. She began with Judy Gold and Jackie Hoffman, both of whom had performed at the JWA gala, and then added Cory Kahaney and Jessica Kirson.

Kehaney had created The J.A.P. Show — Jewish American Princesses of Comedy, which is currently running off-Broadway. “She was someone who brought a lot of knowledge to it,” says the director. There is no footage of any member of this quartet performing their stand-up routines though. “Their purpose in the film is to be the chorus,” Talbot explains. “It’s more about the influence of the early women. That’s not to say that I didn’t try to get an interview with Sarah Silverman.” Talbot says Silverman’s management declined the request. “I know they get a hundred requests a day, so I didn’t take it personally,” she says.

For the shoot, Talbot brought the four comedians and two camera people to one of New York City’s classic delis. The cameras rolled while the women ate and talked. And talked. And talked…not always about the subjects of the film. When Talbot reviewed the footage, she knew she had to re-shoot. “The [first] deli just wasn’t a great space. I let them talk and go off on more tangents,” she says. “I didn’t see that I really needed to come in and direct the conversation a lot more.”

The four comedians returned, more knishes were ordered, and the cameras rolled again. “They were incredibly gracious to come back and do it again,” Talbot says. This time the scene was the famed Katz’s Deli on the lower east side of Manhattan. “It was a busy place, there was food being served, but it was tremendously fun.” She was careful to re-direct the conversation when it drifted too far. In the film, the women express surprise that Phyllis Diller isn’t a Jew “because Diller is a Jewish name” and then declare Carol Burnett “an honorary Jew.” They also discuss their own families, sex, humor as a defense mechanism, and whether or not Gold will share the pickles she’s ordered. “What was important was the rapport between them,” the director says. “Phil Shane did an incredible job weaving it all together.

Some of the subjects presented challenges for the filmmakers. “With Sophie Tucker, there was not a lot of material from her earlier days. It was tough to find stuff of her as a younger woman,” Talbot says. It was also very hard to find a picture of Shelton Brooks, the composer of Tucker’s famous song “Some of These Days.”

Talbot says that Wendy Wasserstein was not included originally in the film, but Madeline Kahn was. Eventually, the producers felt that Kahn’s story was not as compelling as the others. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Is hers the story we want to tell?” she says. Kahn appears in Wasserstein’s story in the context of her Tony Award winning performance in The Sisters Rosensweig.

Wasserstein died of cancer in January 2006 and although an interview was shot with her for the film and there was a wealth of archival interview footage, the producers were unable to get rights to her theatrical material. “It was frustrating not to get the theatrical stuff,” says Talbot. “You’re not getting to see Madeline Kahn in action.”

Reimer too, feels a sense of dissatisfaction with the Wasserstein section, but it is one of the experiences she had to learn to live with in her role as film producer. “Our work is predominantly on the Internet,” she says, speaking about the Archive. “Working on the web you can be forever changing things, but when a film is done, it’s done. I wish I could say finishing the film was one of the best moments, but finishing the film was one of the scariest moments.” Reimer looked to the film for reassurance. “I thought, ‘this is really good and people are really going to like it.”

The film is having a lively run at festivals around the world. Both Reimer and Talbot have enjoyed watching viewers of the film and interacting with them. “You touch hearts through film in a way that the Internet doesn’t,” Reimer says. “People feel connected to their past or their parents or they want to introduce this to their children.” Talbot says she feels surprised and rewarded by the expressions of gratitude she has received. “It’s a fabulous feeling to have people say thank you for making this film.”

On November 7, Reimer is collaborating on a special event with the Boston Jewish Film Festival. She and director Rachel Talbot will be present for post-film conversation along with scholar Barbara Grossman, who is featured in the film. Cory Kahaney from NBC’s Last Comic Standing will warm up the crowd with live comedy.

Making Trouble will continue to show on the festival circuit and the producers are developing the plans for a DVD to include interview footage that wasn’t used in the film. Reimer says she hopes people will enjoy the film and also become interested in the work of the Jewish Women’s Archive and raise awareness about women’s history. Personally, she says the film reminds her of the importance of humor in our lives. “We’re living in bad times now, and we have to be attentive to what is happening,” she says. “[But] one route towards change is being able to laugh at ourselves and at the status quo. That’s what these women were doing.”

Ellen Mills is a writer living in Boston.

Related Links:

To learn about the film, go to www.makingtrouble.com.

To learn about funding sources for specific ethnic and religious groups, read “Playing Niche” from November 2003.

To learn about The Boston Jewish Film Festival, visit our classifieds page.

To learn about the Jewish Women’s Archive, go to www.jwa.org.

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