Sunday school just got a lot more interesting. The new movie Year One is like an Old Testament version of the classic Monty Python comedy The Life of Brian.
Now, for some people, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. Not everybody approved of the Pythons’ outrageous spoof of Biblical epics, which featured something to offend everyone. Yet, as a rabbi and comedy connoisseur I find myself bizarrely intrigued.
The plot, for what it’s worth, centers on two cavemen who get kicked out of their tribe. They embark on what you might call history’s first road trip, bumping into biblical figures, like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac and other people from the Torah, and goofy comedy ensues.
Yes, this slapstick summer flick takes a lot of poetic (and comedic) license with its sacred source material. As I rabbi, I feel obliged to point out, for example, that Adam and Eve lived over a thousand years before Abraham and Sarah were even born. But remember: it’s only a movie!
The two cavemen are played by Jack Black (who is Jewish) and Michael Cera (who is not). However, Cera may as well be, what with his nerdy, nebbish onscreen persona; you might remember him as the (Jewish) character Bleaker in Juno.
Black’s character Zed is a hunter, in contrast to Cera’s timid gatherer named Oh. Oh loves a girl from his tribe named Eema (which is Hebrew for “Mom”, by the way.) After Eema is enslaved by a more advanced tribe – one that’s invented wheels and swords and stuff – Zed and Oh vow to save her.
That’s when they meet all those Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Adam is played by Harold Ramis (who also wrote and directed the film.) Cain is played by David Cross, and Abel by Paul Rudd, who play out the world’s first sibling rivalry, although this time for laughs. (Incidentally, Ramis, Cross and Rudd are all “members of the tribe”, and I don't mean Zed and Oh's).
We’re never told how Zed and Oh manage to miss the Flood, because soon they’re meeting Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is played by the Sephardic Hank Azaria, in his second “ancient” role of the year – he also plays a Pharaoh in the Night at the Museum sequel.
Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays Isaac. Yes, he’s Jewish (both the actor and Isaac!) and was also in Superbad and Role Models, thus earning a coveted spot in film phenom Judd Apatow’s growing comedy ensemble. (That Apatow is the producer of Year One comes as no surprise.)
As you can see, Year One is just the latest example of how much Jews are “over represented” in the world of comedy – not that I’m complaining. Comics and jesters are usually outsider figures, and we “wandering” Jews have been outsiders for thousands of years.
So what’s this rabbi’s take on making mockery of the good book? Biblical blasphemy has never been this much fun before. While no one would show the movie in Sunday school, it would probably increase attendance — not to mention the number of confused questions you'd get from the kids.
It’s nice to see a bunch of bright, funny, creative Jewish guys embracing their religious heritage, even irreverently. Their generation may be poking fun, and laughing from the pews at the back of the synagogue, but at least they’re back in.
With so many “kosher” movies coming out this summer, from Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, to Funny People and Bruno, we’re witnessing the dawn of a new age in Jewish comedy. Big stories in recent issues of Vanity Fair and New York magazine have noticed this too. I’m proud to say I predicted this trend in my latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century (Barricade Books: 2008).
So if Judd Apatow or Sacha Baron Cohen are reading this, just to let you know: I’m available for weddings, bar mitzvahs – and cameo appearances. And unlike Jack Black and company in Year One, at least my beard is real.
Simcha Weinstein is an award-winning author, whose latest book is Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st century (Barricade Books: 2008) is out now.