‘Making Trouble’: a film on being funny, female, Jewish

Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner and playwright Wendy Wasserstein
Courtesy of Jewish Women’s Archive
Molly Picon (from left), Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner and playwright Wendy Wasserstein are the troublemakers.

For a documentary about comedy, “Making Trouble” has a funny name. I mean “funny” as in odd, not “funny” as in, you know, hilarious — even though the film itself has lots of humor.

In other words: What could be the trouble of making people laugh?

“These women were subversive,” says comedian and scholar Lauren Antler of the six Jewish female troublemakers featured in the documentary: Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Molly Picon and playwright Wendy Wasserstein.

“Each in her own time, these six pushed through societal boundaries to say something important about American culture,” Antler says. “They were trailblazers, flying in the face of the status quo.”

Antler is the senior program manager at the Brookline, Mass.-based Jewish Women’s Archive, which produced “Making Trouble” with director Rachel Talbot.

JWA founding board member Barbara Berman Dobkin, whose work helped inspire the documentary’s creation, will introduce a screening of the film at 7 p.m. Sunday (March 9) at the Walker Art Center and take questions afterward. (Befitting its dual focus on gender and Jewishness, the movie is screening as a co-presentation of the Walker’s “Women With Vision” series and the Sabes Foundation Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival.)

Can we talk?
“Barbara will certainly talk about why we at the Jewish Women’s Archive decided to make the film,” says Antler. “When we think of comedians in this country, we tend to think of men. And meanwhile the work of Jewish female comedians is often not discussed. So the film is intended to highlight not just the work of these six women, but the century-long tradition of Jewish female comedy from the Vaudeville and Borscht Belt eras to today.”

Radner’s super-geeky Lisa Loopner on “Saturday Night Live,” for example, fits the long tradition of self-deprecation in Jewish female comedy. The same tradition has Rivers joking in the film that she has gotten accustomed in her old age to using her “left one” as a stopper in the tub.

But, like the overtly sexy vaudevillian Tucker, the late Radner subverted that tradition as well, to the extent that her own beauty — evident whenever she wasn’t playing Lisa Loopner (or Roseanne Roseannadanna) — landed her on a variety of magazine covers in the 1970s. (In this, Sarah Silverman can be seen as the foul-mouthed heir to Radner’s equally pretty and funny throne.)

Brice, with her comically exaggerated Yiddish accent, made Jewishness a public part of her performance — a radical act in the early 1920s. Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head as her career progressed, leading Brice to cosmetic surgery and cuts in her routine as well. But her transgressions paved the way for those Jewish women who followed her onstage.

“Not hiding their heritage was bold and important,” Antler says. “In addition to being comics, these women brought their culture into the public eye, celebrating it without shame.”

The same could be said of the Jewish Women’s Archive, whose decades-old mission has been to “uncover, chronicle, and transmit” the stories of Jewish American women in all fields — not just the funny ones.

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