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At Silverdocs, Proud of Their Laugh Lines

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:

"They're uptight, all right / Jewess Jeans / She shops the sales for designer clothes / She's got designer nails and a designer nose."

"Making Trouble" marks Talbot's directorial debut. She got involved with the project when director Joan Micklin Silver ("Crossing Delancey") put her in contact with the Jewish Women's Archive, the organization that helped finance the film. Silver had assembled archival clips of female comics for the organization and thought it would make a good feature.

Talbot has produced five feature documentaries for television, including NBC's "The First Five Years of Saturday Night Live." She isn't Jewish, but that didn't diminish her interest in the subject, she says.

Poignant footage includes a 2005 interview with playwright Wasserstein, shortly before she died of lymphoma at 55, and a clip of Radner's 1988 appearance on Gary Shandling's sitcom, which she did during her treatment for ovarian cancer.

The story of Yiddish-speaking performer Picon is more uplifting. Picon got her start in vaudeville and was popular in the 1920s. Her presence in films and the New York theater scene served as a great comfort to new immigrants.

"These were people that were hungry to be entertained," Yiddish singer Adrienne Cooper says in the film. "People went to the theater needing to be communicated with. It wasn't just entertainment. And I think Molly really took that responsibility on. She knew them, she represented them really fully on screen."

"Making Trouble" establishes that although the comedian-as-prostitute stigma has faded, women in the arts still have barriers. Wasserstein was the first female playwright to win a Tony Award a mere 18 years ago.

"When you go to a comedy club and there's three men on the bill, it's a comedy show," Gold says. "When there's three women on the bill, it's a special night. It's 'Girls Night Out!' "

Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women screens tonight at 9:15 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. $10. 301-495-6720.

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