Never before in the history of American film comedy have so many hit films had a trifecta of Jewish and interfaith writers, directors and lead actors/actresses.
You can thank (the Jewish) Judd Apatow for starting the ball rolling as the writer, director and/or producer of a string of film hits staffed by a herd of Hebrews. (Including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Superbad).
Apatow didn’t have a hand in the about-to-be released film, I Love You, Man. However, it is an Apatow-like movie in the way it combines broad humor, romance and social commentary. It also features quite a few Jewish and interfaith family members of the Apatow repertory company.
The advance buzz is that this movie is very funny and it’s likely to score big. (Opens Friday, March 20).
Jewish actor Paul Rudd, an Apatow regular, (Knocked Up), stars as Peter, a nice, very un-macho guy who is about to marry Zooey, a nice, pretty girl (played by Rashida Jones, 33).
Jones is the daughter of Jewish actress Peggy Lipton (Mod Squad) and African-American music legend Quincy Jones, who isn’t Jewish. Jones was raised Jewish and has a strong Jewish identity as an adult. Most recently, she had a regular role on The Office.
The central premise of I Love You, Man is that Peter has no male friends and nobody to ask to be his best man. He decides to quickly make such a friend and is advised by his gay brother, played by Jewish actor Andy Samberg, a current star of Saturday Night Live. (Advance reviews say that Samberg plays gay in a refreshingly toned-down, non-stereotypical way.)
After several comically awkward failures to find a male buddy, Peter meets Sydney, a quirky, free-spirited slacker. Sydney is played by Jewish actor Jason Segal (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Peter is taken with Sydney (in a non-romantic way) and spends so much time with him that he jeopardizes his relationship with Zooey.
Peter’s father is played by J.K. Simmons in a role similar to his turn as the father in Juno. His mother is played by Jane Curtin, an original cast member of Saturday Night Live. (SNL has been on so long that former cast members can now credibly play the aged parents of current cast members).
Actor/director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) has a juicy small role as the macho husband of Zooey’s best friend. (Her best friend is played by Jaime Pressley). Favreau, as I noted before, is the son of an Italian Catholic father and a Jewish mother. He was raised Jewish, is a regular synagogue-goer and is married to a Jewish physician.
I Love You Man was directed and co-written by Jewish director John Hamburg, whose other credits include directing Along Came Polly and the screenplays for the Meet the Fockers films. (Along Came Polly and Meet the Fockers both featured interfaith relationships. I doubt you’ll be surprised, therefore, when I tell you that Hamburg’s wife, actress Christina Kirk, is not Jewish).
Rudd, 39, is featured on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair as a new comedy legend, along with fellow Jewish actors Jason Segal, Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen. The funny cover photo and others of the four by famous Jewish photographer Annie Leibovitz, is on the Vanity Fair website.
Also featured in the Vanity Fair article as a new comedy legend is comedy actor and writer Danny McBride, whom I recently noted is the son of a Jewish mother and father of another fait. He’s another Apatow film regular.
In real life, Rudd says he had a small Jewish wedding, presided over by a guitar-strumming rabbi, when he married in 2003. Now the father of two, Rudd says he didn’t have a best man at his own wedding. I suspect that Rudd’s wife, publicist Julie Yaeger, isn’t Jewish. But I really don’t know for sure. There is almost no biography available on her.
Rudd grew up in Kansas, the son of English Jewish immigrant parents, and is happy to talk about his youth as the only Jewish kid in his high school, how he worked part-time in a Kansas ham-processing plant (!) and later how worked as a bar mitzvah DJ in Los Angeles. But he has always been understandably reticent to talk about his love life and his wife. The details about his wedding were only very recently disclosed when a reporter asked him point blank if he had a Jewish wedding.
Some have been critical of the Jewish comic actors in the Judd Apatow and John Hamburg orbit for playing “schlubs.” They foster the impression that all their comedy hits are about homely Jewish guys chasing “goddess” women who aren’t Jewish. (Which isn’t true; most aren’t about that).
I wish that there were more women from Jewish and interfaith backgrounds writing their own film and TV shows and starring in them. They would probably bring a welcome, alternate comic perspective.
You can wish for a lot of things. But the guys mentioned above didn’t sit around and debate whether their scripts and careers were “good for the Jews,” or interfaith relations, or whether they were too homely or schlubby to star in a comedy film or TV show. They went out and, for the most part, co-created their own star vehicles.
Seth Rogen co-wrote Knocked Up, Superbad and The Pineapple Express. Andy Samberg wedged his way on to Saturday Night Live with his brilliant short films. Jason Segal wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Danny McBride launched his career with the indie hit, Fist Foot Way, which he wrote and starred in. He now is starring in the HBO series, Eastbound and Down, about a washed-up pro baseball player. He co-created and co-writes the show. Jonah Hill just sold Universal a script he wrote based on the self-help book, The Adventurer’s Handbook. He will co-star in the film along with interfaith actor Jason Schwartzman.
Cultural commentators can kvetch about anything. But when nobody was really looking these guys have begun a new golden age in the storied history of Jews in American comedy. The bottom line is the financial bottom line. They have produced a funny product that has clicked with the American public, the majority of whom have no idea that they are Jewish or part Jewish. The public just likes to laugh at something that is fairly fresh and more often than not, quite funny.
I’ve noticed that news stories that a celebrity is converting in anticipation of marriage to a Jewish person are usually completely made up or are based on very little. This is especially true of the British tabloid press, which finds Judaism exotic and seems to gets a kick out of making up such tales.
This time, there seems to be something to the recent, widely reprinted story of Lindsay Lohan possibly converting to Judaism, the faith of her steady romantic partner, Samantha Ronson. ( I’ve previously covered Lohan and Ronson’s relationship.) I think it is exceedingly unlikely that Lohan will have the diligence to finish any conversion studies, but maybe I will be surprised.
The Lohan conversion story broke in the Daily Telegraph on March 1. The essence of the story is in the first few paragraphs below, which have a lot more concrete details than most celeb conversion stories (like Lindsay saying she wants to become Jewish on her Facebook page).
Lindsay Lohan is converting to Judaism in a bid to prove her devotion to Jewish girlfriend Samantha Ronson. Although raised a Catholic, the 22-year-old star announced she was planning to change her faith on her Facebook page. After jetting into London last week, Lindsay joined girlfriend Samantha at the Bar Mitzvah of the DJ’s half-brother Joshua Ronson at the Westminster Synagogue on Saturday. After taking part in the service, Lindsay then went to the nearby Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge to celebrate Joshua’s “coming of age.” Showing her seriousness about converting, Lindsay had also visited the synagogue the day before with Samantha and her designer sister Charlotte. Entering the synagogue, a photographer asked Lindsay if she was switching religions, to which she replied: “I’m trying.” Updating her Facebook status this week, Lindsay wrote “I’m converting.” Lindsay’s change of religion is sure to surprise her family, who come from a long line of Catholics.
Samantha’s brother, Mark Ronson, is a top music producer who coincidentally was once engaged to actress Rashida Jones, mentioned above.
Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman and Catholic-raised comedian/talk show host Jimmy Kimmel have split up again early in March.
The couple were together five years when they announced their break-up last July. Then, in October, they reconciled and everything appeared fine. They certainly were the most amusing interfaith couple in America.
Early this month, Kimmel appeared on The View. He was dressed in drag to imitate former The View panel member Rosie O’Donnell. Kimmel briefly talked about the break-up, saying: “What do you think happened? I’m a 41-year-old man with a bra filled with Koosh balls. I’m an imbecile. She couldn’t date an imbecile anymore.” Barbara Walters then pressed him on whether their romance is really all over, to which Kimmel sputtered, “I don’t know, I mean, you know, I think, I don’t know. Ask her. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”