Posing in a black-banded khaki-colored fedora as kitschy klezmer Muzak introduces his routine, Neil Lawner gestures loudly with outstretched arms and tells a joke about newlywed Luigi, who rode a train to Florida with his new bride Virginia, and tragically, mistook the station stop “Norfolk” for a prohibition in his marriage consummation.
Lawner’s routine, along with nearly 30 others, are part of a new collection posted on OldJewsTellingJokes.com, a Web site that features the stand-up routines of everyone’s favorite Jewish uncles, fathers and grandpas. The staged clips were the brainchild of 42-year-old Sam Hoffman of GreeneStreet Films, who got the idea after listening to over four decades of his father Barney’s joke routines.
At the time, Hoffman hadn’t planned to post the series online, but since the site’s Feb. 1 launch date, it has accrued 1.5 million hits, with nearly 1,700 fans on its corresponding Facebook page, he said. And just last week, video distributor First Run Features won the rights to produce the series in home video format.
“When we started this, there was a concern that it would only be interesting to old people, but that’s definitely not the case,” Hoffman said.
The first round of jokesters primarily included family friends and acquaintances, whom his father carefully hand-selected and invited to a storefront filming session in Highland Park, N.J., last summer.
“He took it really seriously,” Hoffman said, noting that all jokesters had to be above 60. “He wouldn’t let anybody who he didn’t think was funny tell a joke.”
And among those recruited was 67-year-old Neil Lawner, a retired orthodontist from Central Jersey who now teaches dentistry at New York University. He, along with the other cast members, said he had no idea how popular their stand-up routines would become and thought they would simply be receiving a personal DVD compilation at the event’s conclusion. Beyond some simple guidelines prohibiting racism and sexual preference jabs, there were few instructions — they were free to tell whatever jokes they pleased, according to Lawner.
“Of the 50 jokes that were told that night, I knew about 95 percent of those jokes,” Lawner said, noting that all of the performances were unrehearsed and spontaneous. “They were part of my repertoire.”
Only two of the comics thus far have been women, but Lawner attributes this to the fact that nearly all the jokes stemmed from what he calls the “Catskills generation.” Week after week, young 1960s and ‘70s-era Jewish families summered together in the Catskill Mountains, where they applauded jokes from the same stand-up comedians — nearly all of whom were male.
Since the site’s launch, the developers have been receiving an increasing number of e-mails from Jewish seniors interested in joining the already colorful cast, according to Eric Spiegelman, who designed the site with colleagues Hoffman and Tim Williams. In the West Village on Monday, the directors held a second casting, where they filmed more shticks of an older crowd — mostly 80- and 90-year-old Jews — and they also hope to attract more female joke tellers in the future.
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