Jews Are Funnier Than Mormons

Take it from a former NYT ombudsman

Who Daniel Okrent
Age 64
New gig Co-producer, Old Jews Telling Jokes
Old gigs Public editor of The New York Times; new media editor for Time Inc.; author of several books, including Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Your Off-Broadway show, Old Jews Telling Jokes, started as a website. How’d it become a stage production?
When I became 60, which is their minimum age, I became the youngest old Jew on the website. And then my business partner and pal Peter Gethers and I, we licensed the theatrical and television rights. At first we thought it was just going to be a cabaret act. One thing led to another and we found ourselves in the offices of a very experienced team. Suddenly, it was a show. We passed our 300th performance last month.

What’s so funny about Jews in particular telling jokes?
The way we would like to put it in our ads but we can’t is, everybody know Jews are funnier than Mormons. The essence of humor is pain. There’s a butt of the joke, and in Jewish humor, the Jew in the joke is the butt of the joke. He’s not the victim. It’s this self-deprecatory nature. It’s distinctive, and it’s very much in the mainstream of American humor.

Now that it’s going on the road, how do you think the show will play in other cities?
Where the Jewish population is highest, that’s where we’re most confident. New Yorkers, you don’t have to be Jewish to understand Jewish humor. And it’s not all Jewish. But that attitude is familiar to people in the Northeast, generally.

And yet, Seinfeld was big across the country. Do you feel you owe a debt to Seinfeld?
There’s no question, Seinfeld is the most recent manifestation of preparing the rest of America for the sense of humor that the show has. You take it further back, it owes Woody Allen, it owes Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman. … There’s a series of monologues in the show, and one is based on an interview with my former boss, colleague and good friend John Huey explaining growing up Christian and Protestant in Atlanta and discovering the world of Jewish humor from the television set.

Do you have a favorite one-liner?
The best way to kill a joke is put it in writing. People don’t call each other with jokes anymore. They don’t emanate from the world they used to emanate from, the financial industry, with the gallows sense of humor. Our humor’s much less topical today.

You’ve had a couple of movie roles, in Sweet and Lowdown and The Hoax. Was that just accidental?
Mostly. Woody Allen’s casting director is one of my closest friends, and he needed talking heads to move the story forward. I was in The Hoax because [director Lasse] Hallström wanted to do a scene with the editors of Life deciding whether to use the Clifford Irving material, and I had been the editor of Life. I just sit at a table in a three-piece suit. I had one line, which I wrote myself: “Shit.”

Does print still have enough romance to build a movie around?
In some cases, it might be a pretty grim movie. Or it might be the story of the world of print leaps into the future.

You were The New York Times’ first public editor, right after the Jayson Blair scandal …
I was the unwanted love child of Howell Raines and Jayson Blair …

… They now have a female public editor, which you had hoped for, as well as a female executive editor. Why does that still matter?
You want to know there’s no barrier. Symbolically, I’m sure it’s inspiring and encouraging, just as having a black president tells people it’s possible to have a black president.

As papers like the Times shrink their staffs, do you think there’s a greater risk for another scandal like Jayson Blair?
My biggest worry is the newspapers in smaller cities. When the staff goes away, who’s watching the people who are stealing from the public trough? Ask any prosecutor: When they discover public malfeasance, often it’s because of the reporting of newspapers.

Newsweek’s gone. How long do you think Time will be around in print?
I think the question is, not how long will Time the magazine be around but how will Time the brand be around? And maybe it’ll be in a digital form. I personally anticipate that as a good thing.