Over lunch recently at Howells & Hood, the creators of the show "Old Jews Telling Jokes" were chortling about their sign. Signage is often an issue at the Royal George Theatre on Chicago's North Side, a venue that does not exactly come with chaser lights and a blazing digital marquee. But Peter Gethers, a publishing executive at Random House/all-around creative type, and Dan Okrent, a longtime writer and editor at The New York Times, have overseen a hefty installation on an exterior wall.
They well know the simplicity of their assignment: Get the words "Old Jews Telling Jokes" out there. Often at the theater, you can read a title and have no idea what you are buying tickets for. That is not the case with "Old Jews Telling Jokes," a show whose success proves, at least in part, that people buy a title. For the record, that's also why "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" refuses to die the death its quality, or lack thereof, so richly merits. Hey, you can't blame people. It's good to know on what you are spending your hard-earned cash and leisure time.
"We love that you can see the sign as you come out of Steppenwolf," said Okrent. "People will need a good laugh when they come from there," added Gethers. These men, amusing fellows both, are partners on the off-Broadway hit, now moving to the Royal George in a commercial production. That crucial, commercial part of Chicago's theatrical ecosystem, challenged of late, is on a bit of a roll this fall. Along with "Old Jews," there's "To Master the Art," an enjoyable transfer of an off-Loop hit at the Broadway Playhouse (Karen Janes Woditsch's performance as Julia Child is essential viewing), and "Signs of Life," a soon-to-open drama about a World War II Jewish ghetto.
"Old Jews Telling Jokes" recently closed in New York after a whopping 574 performances, not due to any shortage of old Jews wanting to tell jokes but because any show runs out of steam at the box office eventually. Chicago is up next. London, said Gethers and Okrent, is in the cards at some point.
Actually, Gethers and Okrent did not fully know the quality of their timing when it came to the placement of that sign. The current attraction at the Steppenwolf, "The Wheel," is intense and heavy even by the standards of the venerable North Side institution. Zinnie Harris' play is also a fascinating, moving play given a gutsy staging by Tina Landau and featuring a remarkable performance by Joan Allen, but a laugh-riot this one is not.
At "Old Jews Telling Jokes," old Jews are always telling jokes.
More accurately, audiences watch stagings of those jokes. Gethers and Okrent licensed for the stage a popular website of the same name, which consists of short videos of, well, you get the idea. The men decided that in the theater, it would not be practical to offer a parade of aging stand-up comics, or even amateurs who entertain their families at weddings and funerals. Instead, the sketch-driven show interprets the gags, you might say. "There is something of a narrative arc," Okrent said. "Old Jews," incidentally, is directed by Marc Bruni, a busy young New York director who is about to stage "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" starring Jessie Mueller. (I hear Bruni is also considering an offer to direct "The Sound of Music" next year at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.)
To put it simply, if you know a joke about two rabbis walking into a bar and eyeing a kosher chicken, you can expect to see both rabbis and the bartender and the kosher chicken, or some facsimile thereof. (Not that this is an actual joke in the show; we digress.)
Both Gethers and Okrent say they have been ruthless about excising any joke that does not deliver to the belly. "We go by audience reaction," Gethers said. "If they don't laugh, it's out," said Okrent. "There may well be some jokes that don't work in Chicago. They will be gone."
Gethers noted that, when considering what was or was not offensive — an important notion with a title like this one that some might find questionable — the two men had learned that what really counted was the funniness of the joke. If it killed, nobody found it offensive. If it stank, everyone was offended. The solution was obvious.
I asked the men for deeper thoughts on the nature of Jewish humor. They spoke of striving heroes of jokes who learn to accept life's vicissitudes, and who emerge partially, but not entirely, triumphant in the face of adversity. They spoke of community and the wisdom of rabbis, of humor as a way of struggling on through life. They were a very good time.
"All of the best Jewish jokes," said Okrent, cheerfully, "come out of bad news."
There's plenty of that in "The Wheel," of course. But punch lines? Not so much. Ah, but the creators of "Old Jews" insisted that nary a show in New York went by without someone shouting out a punch line and thus ruining the joke. All that varied nightly was which gag got run over.
“Old Jews Telling Jokes” at the Royal George Theatre Center, 1641 N. Halsted St.; $49-$59 at 312-988-9000 and theroyalgeorgetheatre.com
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