“A Jewish Joke” Tackles Serious Issuesby Brie Stimson February 14, 2018
“A Jewish Joke” tells the story of a 1950s screenwriter named Bernie Lutz, living in the Hollywood of Joe McCarthy’s Blacklist. “He’s not political, he’s a reluctant hero, but he finds out through the course of the evening that his screenwriting partner and his best friend is very much involved with communist activity in Hollywood. So he has to make a decision at the end of the evening. Is he going to turn in his friend and continue being successful or is he going to make a decision that is difficult and stand up for something finally,” Phil Johnson, writer and star of the show, tells SDJJ.
Although Bernie is a fictional character, he is based in reality. Johnson’s co-writer, screenwriter and writing professor Marni Freedman, studied under a screenwriter who was on the Hollywood Blacklist. Johnson says he looked for an real person to base the play on, but couldn’t find the right match. He eventually ended up basing the character on family. “The main character is based on my partner’s uncle,” he says. “He was a crusty and curmudgeonly Sunshine’s Boys kind of guy. He was like a little turtle, and he would come up to you and just say something … that was funny and sarcastic and cut you down.”
Johnson says the play originally started out basically as a story of the history of Jewish comedy – something he’s always loved. “Growing up in an Irish Catholic family you needed a sense of humor,“ he laughs. But as he began to write, he realized the story needed something more. “He has to use more than his street smarts and his sense of humor and he actually has to stand up for something.” Johnson says the Blacklist was the perfect setting for Bernie to face something “enormously bigger than him.”
Johnson is a believer in the power of comedy to get us through difficult times and explains that’s how Bernie’s deals with his conflict. “Jewish humor is a pragmatic way at of looking at the worst things in our lives.”
He also says the play is relevant today. “It also speaks to this moment – this moment in politics,” he says. “The fact that there’s an unreliable authority up there.”
The play, which will be a the Moxie from March 14 through April 8, started out as a one-page monologue at the Lawrence Family JCC’s 5 Minute Play Festival about four years ago.
Since then the play has been to Chicago, St. Louis and will soon be in Louisville and Off Broadway next year.
Johnson says he hopes the play will convey a message about dealing with adversity. “We can get through things with a sense of humor that Jewish culture has been using for millennia.”
The play is directed by North Coast Rep Artistic Director David Ellenstein and produced by the Roustabouts Theatre Co.