At Silverdocs, Proud of Their Laugh Lines

Radner was a standout cast member on
Radner was a standout cast member on "Saturday Night Live." The six women's stories are told by Rachel Talbot, left, through archival footage and interviews with experts. (Silverdocs Photos)
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007

When comedian Joan Rivers was young, her father worked as a physician in Brooklyn and Queens. Sometimes prostitutes came to his clinic for medical care, but they never said they were prostitutes, of course. They said they were "actresses." So guess how thrilled the good doc was when his daughter announced that she was going to be an actress? Not very.

Rivers is one of six women profiled in the documentary "Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women," playing tonight in the Silverdocs film festival. The film celebrates Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Rivers, Gilda Radner and Wendy Wasserstein.

And no need to double-check: Sarah Silverman is not on the list.

"I almost want to call the film 'Making Trouble: Sorry, Sarah Silverman's Not in It," director Rachel Talbot says.

Talbot said Silverman was too busy shooting her Comedy Central show to be interviewed for the film. The film isn't about present-day comedians anyway, she says, and the heft of Silverman's popularity might have detracted from the other women's stories.

The film opens with four contemporary comedians having lunch at Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan: Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Cory Kahaney and Jessica Kirson.

"I actually am only in [the movie] because I wanted a free pastrami sandwich," Gold jokes in a phone interview. "I had no idea it would become a film." Clips from the deli conversation are sprinkled throughout the documentary.

Over a round of Dr. Brown's sodas, the group chats about the six women profiled in the film and what the industry is like today. Gold, author of "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother," calls comedy the most unfeminine profession besides urology.

The stories of the six women are told through archival footage and interviews with experts.

Ragtime singer Tucker's story illustrates the sacrifices women made to be a performer at the turn of the century. At 17, Tucker left her Hartford, Conn., home and her infant son for a career in vaudeville. Her family and the Jewish community shamed her.

"She was treated like dirt," historian Stephen M. Silverman says in the film. "The very Orthodox housewives in the neighborhood, you know, to them she was a painted lady. Nothing better than a whore."

Talbot includes clips of each of the women performing, like Radner's "Saturday Night Live" mock commercial for "Jewess Jeans." Radner dances around in jeans with a Star of David sewn onto the back pocket. The accompanying jingle:

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