Old Jews Telling Jokes: Peter Gethers on Bringing the 'Funny' to the Stage

Audrey Lynn Weston, Marilyn Sokol, Lenny Wolpe, Todd Susman, Bill Army in 'Old Jews Telling Jokes'/Photo © Joan Marcus, 2012
Audrey Lynn Weston, Marilyn Sokol, Lenny Wolpe, Todd Susman, Bill Army in 'Old Jews Telling Jokes'/Photo © Joan Marcus, 2012

It started with a fairly simple question: “How hard is it to make something funny?”

That was what Daniel Okrent and I asked each other when we decided to buy the theatrical rights to the website – as well as to the book, a collection of jokes from the site – and turn it into an off-Broadway show. The correct answer was: “Hard.” But it didn’t turn out to be the most important question as we went through the process of creating and producing the play. It wasn’t even in the top five.

It started when I had what I thought was a really good idea. (Note to self and future biographers: It was!) I called Dan, my friend of thirty years, as well as a well-respected author and editor, and basically said, “Hey, let’s put on a show.” He eagerly agreed and we called our lawyers to get things started. Four months later, things were finished and we’d paid way more money to our lawyers than we wound up paying to the owners of the website. Thus important question #1: Why didn’t we go to law school instead of becoming writers and editors?

The next crucial question, now that we had the rights: “What the hell do we do now?” The answer, after a decent amount of research and a few phone calls to people who were actually in the business of putting on plays, was: “Find a General Manager.” There was a Question #2A to this section, too, which was: “What does a General Manger do?” The answer to #2A is: “Everything except raise money.” “Everything” includes finding a theater and overseeing the production and budgeting the damn thing and overseeing ticket sales and all sorts of things we didn’t realize had to be done. We did, in fact, find a very good General Manager. So good that he said that he and his partners also wanted to co-produce with us.

Yes, you’ve guessed Question #3: “What does a producer do?” The answer to this is mainly, “Raise money.” But it’s also: Discuss every little detail to death, worry about a range of things from the air conditioning in the theater to the seating arrangements for critics during the previews to what time the opening night party should be held.

At some point, Okrent and I had to buckle down and write the play, which we did. It turned out that WRITING funny – especially when eighty percent of the show is made up of jokes – wasn’t all that difficult. It was, in fact, quite a lot of fun. For instance, take this joke, written out as we originally knew it, which is in the show, one of a trio of desert island jokes.

A guy’s stranded on a desert island with nothing but a sheep and a dog. He’s raising the sheep for food but one day he realizes he can’t kill her. He’s so lonely and she’s so attractive, he’s fallen in love with the sheep. But as he attempts to mount her, the dog rushes up and bites him on the ankle. He waits a couple of days, tries again, but again the dog rushes up and bites him on the ankle. This goes on for weeks. He’s desperate but can’t get anywhere near the sheep. Then, one day, he sees a human figure on the beach. He gets closer and sees that it’s a very beautiful woman. He nurtures her back to health and when she wakes up she says, “You saved my life. I’ll do anything for you.” He says, “Anything?” She says, “Anything.” And he goes, “Great. Go walk the dog.”

We decided not to tell that as a straight joke; we wanted to act it out. So that simple joke in the script, written for actors (and particularly for Marilyn Sokol, the actress in our show who plays the sheep, perhaps the greatest female role since Ophelia) now reads:

REUBEN: Liebowitz is shipwrecked and all he has with him is a sheep...
BUNNY (THE SHEEP): (so sweetly) Baaaaaa.
REUBEN ... and a dog.
NATHAN (THE DOG) (panting like crazy): Bow-vow.
REUBEN He's been raising the sheep for food.
A look from BUNNY – WHAT???!!!!

REUBEN: ... but when she's fully grown he decides he can't kill her. 
Sigh of relief from BUNNY. BUNNY responds appropriately to all the other descriptions of the sheep.

REUBEN: In fact, he's so lonely – and she's so attractive – he’s fallen in love with her. He takes her for long strolls and pets her and brings her bouquets of flowers, then one day he decides it’s time to consummate the relationship. So he splashes a little coconut oil on his face, checks his reflection in the ocean, takes one step toward her – but before anything happens, the dog rushes up to him ...
NATHAN rushes up to REUBEN, barking – chomps down on REUBEN’s ankle.

(Dog glares at NATHAN)
REUBEN: He waits a few days and can't stand it. He goes to see the sheep, steps up behind her and he’s about to mount her when, once again ...
NATHAN barks ferociously, rushes over – bites REUBEN on the ankle again. For all the description, the actors act it out or respond next to REUBEN.

REUBEN: This goes on for weeks. Every time Liebowitz approaches the sheep, the dog goes crazy. And Liebowitz is getting desperate. He writes love sonnets in the sand ...
BUNNY (lovingly): Baaaaaaaa ....
REUBEN: ... he sings to the sheep at night ...
BUNNY (happy, sleepy): Baaaa ... baaaaa ...
NATHAN: Grrrrrr ... grrrrrrrrr ....
REUBEN: ... but he can’t get anywhere near her. Then, one day he's limping on the beach when he sees a human figure in the distance. 
DEBBI flops down on the “island”

REUBEN: He gets closer and sees it's not only a woman – it's a very, very beautiful woman.
DEBBI perks up at the description.

REUBEN: He helps her to her feet, feeds her, gives her some hot tea, and finally she says ...
DEBBI: Thank you, thank you so much. You saved my life – I'll do anything for you.
REUBEN: Anything?
DEBBI: Anything!
REUBEN: Great. Go walk the dog.

The above example leads to a whole bunch of other questions, which can all be condensed into one: “How do you make a play work?” Another way of putting it is: “How do you turn the funniest jokes in the history of the world into a living, breathing show?”

This was the hard part. Once the script was in good shape – and it was, even though it was rewritten and reconceived and re-molded and re-shaped several dozen times over the three-year period – the hard part began. We had to get a director. He had to be reasonably sane, funny, patient, talented, creative, and attracted to the material. Amazingly enough, we found one: Marc Bruni, who’s thirty-four and as non-Jewish as a guy who’s spent most of his adult life in New York theater can be. Writing a joke like the sheep and the dog joke is a lot easier than staging it so it works in context with the show as a hole, is paced correctly and works with real-life actors.

Which brings us to the next hard part: Casting. We also did rather brilliantly when it comes to this part of the equation. We have five extraordinarily talented performers. Todd Susman can not only be a funny dog in the desert island joke, he plays the world’s longest, loudest fart; a religious Jew at the wailing wall; a ninety-three-year-old rabbi and a guy with an overwhelming desire to put his schlong in a pickle slicer. Not a bad range. Marilyn Sokol can be a sheep as well as tell the filthiest jokes imaginable without offending a soul. Lenny Wolpe can be a man whose penis was cut off in an accident; a rabbi in Hawaii; a world-class singer; and can hold you spellbound as he weaves a long and complicated joke all alone on stage. Our two young performers, Bill Army and Audrey Lynn Weston, are wonderful actors who can tell stories, mug with the best of them and deliver a great stand-up joke when need be. Bill can convincingly be a talking dog and Audrey can do things with a ketchup bottle that no one has ever dreamed of before.

The final hard parts: Paring the show down to eighty minutes – done. Adding in music – done (three songs – two old, one new, commissioned specifically for our show – and occasional interludes by an on-stage pianist). And, finally, adding five monologues, which are more sentimental than jokey, so the show has some real heart and a bit of meaning underneath all the humor.

And there you have it. All of the above opened this weekend and hopefully will run for years. Or at least long enough so Okrent and I can swap in some of the jokes we love that didn’t make the final cut.

Find out more about the show here.