Does “funny” mean the characters, all comedians, are humorous? Or does it mean they’re funny in the other definition of the word: suspicious, odd, eccentric and slightly off?
And does “people” refer to that cast of comedians populating the movie? Or does it mean the “People” those characters overwhelmingly belong to: the Jewish People?
It’s the old question: What is Jewish comedy? The answer, as always, is: comedy made by Jews.
“Funny People” tells a universal story about love and friendship, ambition and success, and the fear of a meaningless life using details particular to the American Jewish experience. It also shows a different side of Jewish humor, where Jewish characters no longer dress up in their collective neuroses, but wear their culture on their sleeves.
The movie follows the near-death experience of George Simmons, a comedic actor played by Adam Sandler. George is both incredibly successful and incredibly alone; he lives in a mansion filled with his movie posters, but his only guests are the landscaping and housecleaning crew and the string of women he sleeps with and never sees again.
Then George contracts a terminal form of blood cancer, and the doctors put him on an experimental course of treatment that promises only an 8 percent success rate.
Comedy is the only religion George knows, and so immediately after his diagnosis, he takes himself to a club to perform an impromptu stand-up act; a set darkened by the approaching end of an unfulfilling life and the absence of any framework to make sense of death. George says his father didn’t pass on any religion, telling the boy instead: “If there was a God, why would there be a Holocaust?” The crowd is silent, including Ira Wright, the young comic, played by Seth Rogen, forced to follow George’s dirge.
George hires Ira to be his assistant, writing jokes and performing odd jobs, like talking him to sleep. The first night, George asks Ira about his last name. “You’re hiding your Judaism!” he says in a mocking singsong. It’s true that Ira Wright was born Ira Weiner, but he changed his name to stave off playground taunts of “wiener,” not to seem less Jewish. At his first gig, Ira wears a shirt with the Superman logo inside a Star of David.
George and Ira bookend the generation of Jewish comics who grew up in the world created by Woody Allen’s bookish schnooks. As Mark Harris wrote recently about Apatow, Sandler, Rogan and other “assimilationists” comics in New York Magazine, “The new comics haven’t assimilated; rather, they were born into a comedy culture that has Jewish humor so deep in its DNA that they’re naturally at home in it.” Or, as Ira expresses his ambitions to a co-worker at a mall deli, “I’m going to be like Seinfeld.”
While George grew up among Jewish atheists reeling from World War II, Ira grew up in the cultural Judaism of the Reagan years: Jewish summer camps and awkward bar mitzvahs. Ira’s parents are divorced, which George calls “cute funny,” as opposed to the beatings he took from his father. “I spent my whole childhood trying to make my father laugh. I still haven’t succeeded, but I’m getting there,” George says. Later, in a montage of reconciliatory scenes, George’s father tells him, “A man who is funny doesn’t have to work blue.” You know who was funny? he asks, rhetorically: “Jackie Gleason.”
This effort at reconciliation, prompted by a burbling Ira, leads George to Laura, the lost (non-Jewish) love of his life played by Leslie Mann. She’s married now with two little girls, but still in love, in some way, with George. While the movie lets us glimpse the happy ending we want — for George to recapture the life he threw away in his youth — we ultimately get more complicated, but also more realistic, pictures of personal growth.
George turns out to be among the 8 percent who take to the experimental treatment. “Get back to your life,” the doctor tells him, and George is left to decide what that means.
At a party celebrating his recovery, George is set up with Rachel, a “normal” woman, not an actress or a hanger on. “I’ve actually been on a J-Date,” she tells George. A brush with death didn’t kill George’s narcissism; he uses the moment to joke about the Holocaust. Rachel is played by Maggie Siff, best known for her role as Rachel Menken, the Jewish department store owner from “Mad Men,” the television show on AMC responsible for the most subtle and insightful thoughts on Judaism available in recent popular culture.
It’s a fitting cameo. As Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” told Nextbook last October, the story of America is one of frustrated outsiders struggling to fit in with the broader culture.
“This is why our art resonates with the populous.... We can tell this story, and we’ve told it for people over and over again,” Weiner said. George’s redemption at the end of the movie is small, but honest, and it grows out of the heritage of comedy that swirls through the movie, one that is Jewish in origin, but American in aim.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)