Author Interviews

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Here's a joke to start your week. A grasshopper walked into a bar and ordered a drink. The bartender looks at him and says, you know, we have a drink here named after you. The grasshopper replies, you got a drink named Stanley?

Yeah, I got a million of them. Well, actually, more like 250 pages of them. A new book, "Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not So Kosher Laughs" began as a website after YouTube videos of the older Jewish men and women telling jokes went viral.

Sam Hoffman and Eric Spiegelman told their parents that was a good thing. They are responsible for the site, as well as the printed collection. Sam is in our New York bureau. Hi, Sam.

Mr. SAM HOFFMAN (Co-Author, "Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not So Kosher Laughs"): Hello.

HANSEN: And Eric is at NPR West in Culver City, California. Hi, Eric.

Mr. ERIC SPIEGELMAN (Co-Author, "Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not So Kosher Laughs"): Hi, how are you?

HANSEN: I'm well, thanks. But the first thing I really have to say about this book is that 75 percent of the jokes are a little on the blue side. So, we got to be really careful on a Sunday morning. Are these jokes you've heard all your life?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I've heard a lot of them. My dad is a joke teller and my family does like to tell a joke. And as, of course, we've been doing this now - we've done now four shoots and we've shot hundreds of people - and you do hear a certain number of jokes come up again and again and again. But a lot of them have been new to me.

HANSEN: What was a new one?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, there's a fun one that a guy named Joel Leizer told at the first session. He's a dentist from New Jersey. And he - it's interesting, it's a rabbi joke. And I've noticed that most of the rabbi jokes, actually the subtext of them, is about hypocrisy. But in this case, the subtext isn't, and I'll tell you the joke.

There's an old rabbi who wants to try eating pork before he dies. And being an orthodox rabbi, he can't go ahead and eat pork in his community, so he drives about 50 miles and goes to a restaurant about 50 miles away. And he goes into the restaurant and on the menu is a dish called roast suckling pig. And he says, well, this is got to be worth a try, and he orders the roast suckling pig. And they bring out this incredible presentation with an entire roast suckling pig with an apple right in his mouth.

Just as the rabbi's about to take his first bite, in walks Goldberg, who's the president of the synagogue. And he says, rabbi, rabbi, what are you doing? What are you eating? Rabbi looks at him and says, Goldberg, you know, I came in this restaurant, I ordered an apple and look at how they served it to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Oh gosh, that's perfect. Do you find you have a community, given the website and now the book of people who want to come in and sort of be a part of this?

Mr. SPIEGELMAN: I mean, we do. The first day that we filmed was cast entirely with his family and his family's friends. After that, we got something of a bit of momentum, where our second shooting day was in New York, our third was in Los Angeles and our fourth was in New York. And each one of those, I think the majority of people who showed up were people who were fans of the website.

And there's been a thing that's been happening that we've noticed is a lot of people get up onstage and they want to tell a joke in tribute of their parents or grandparents. And on at least one occasion, a woman got up to tell a joke that was - I think it was her mother's favorite joke.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Her mother had been a Holocaust survivor.

Mr. SPIEGELMAN: Her mother was a Holocaust survivor, and she told the joke and just absolutely broke down in front of everybody. And it was one of the more powerful things that I think I've experienced in the time that we've been working on this.

Mr. HOFFMAN: 'Cause you went from laughter to crying in, like, 10 seconds.

HANSEN: I can imagine that. You know, I can imagine that. But you also, I mean, you divide the book into certain categories. It's like we're actually looking at the Jewish experience in America and the jokes are divided as such. Give us an idea how you do that.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I really think of it as kind of like an informal and not intellectually rigorous history of the American Jews as told by their jokes. You know, so, you have chapters about coming to America, chapters about the rabbi, chapters about the Jewish mother.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: And what is the difference between a Jewish mother and a Rottweiler? Eventually the Rottweiler will let go.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #2: Four yentas are having lunch in a restaurant. A waiter comes up to their table and says, good afternoon, ladies. Is anything all right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPIEGELMAN: You know, you listen to these jokes and you hear patterns develop. You hear a number of jokes that are, say - there's a whole bunch of jokes that are Jewish men and women trying to get into a country club and they're faking, you know, they're faking that they have these Protestant names and then they slip up at the last minute. Or they're starting a business and they don't want to be known by their Jewish names, so they fake a, you know, a Protestant name then they slip up at the last minute.

HANSEN: Right. They slip up when they're asked what religion are you and they go, goyim.

Mr. SPIEGELMAN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPIEGELMAN: So, I mean, that's one - an assimilation issue that was faced by a whole generation of either, you know, first-generation or second-generation immigrants to America. And it comes out in the humor; it comes out in the jokes.

HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there are so many good set-ups and jokes here, and so many people. How did you audition people or where did you find these people?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, the first round we did in my hometown, Florham Park, New Jersey. My dad, who's a retired Superior Court judge, actually acted as the casting director. And he put together a group of 20 men and women who were relatives and friends, and basically he was very, very redress. Like, when I would suggest, who about so-and-so, he would say, what? Are you joking? He can't tell a story. He can't tell a story to save his life.

So, he was very, very dedicated to finding good, funny people to come and tell stories. And those 20 people produced the first 30 jokes, which, you know, once it went online - and actually, the funny thing is my mom, who is not really known as a joke teller, she's the kind of person who always sort of gives you the punch line first, that sort of thing - her joke, the one joke that she told, which may be the only joke that I can remember her ever finishing properly, was our big first viral hit. So, since then...

HANSEN: What was the joke?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I can't. It's not a Sunday morning joke.

HANSEN: Oh, here we go. OK.

Mr. HOFFMAN: It's called Broccoli if anybody wants to go on the website and watch it.

HANSEN: The broccoli joke does appear in the book.

Mr. HOFFMAN: And it is in the book, but I can't repeat it.

HANSEN: No, we can't repeat. 'Cause there are words that would kick us...

Mr. HOFFMAN: And I think part of the appeal of it was seeing my sort of cute 60-something-year-old mother and hearing her potty mouth and watching or sort of shame at the expletive and also her joy at getting a laugh at the same time.

Mr. SPIEGELMAN: I think people really respond to the, you know, the - I don't want to say dirty but the unfettered nature of the jokes. Because if you're sitting around with your family on any given Saturday and someone's just cracking jokes over dinner or something like that, they're going to tend to be uncensored. And everyone has that experience growing up where there's the, you know, the funny uncle who comes over and he tells, like, dirty jokes that you don't understand and your parents look kind of aghast and they're like, oh, go to your room.

And this is, you know, there's something honest about that. There's something real about it. There's something ironically very family-oriented about the language in those jokes.

HANSEN: Sam Hoffman there with Eric Spiegelman. Their book is called "Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not So Kosher Laughs." Eric joined us from NPR West and Sam joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you both.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Thank you.

Mr. SPIEGELMAN: Thank you.

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