‘Oh Hello,’ Bernie Sanders, and the Rise of Old Jews Telling Truths

For one month this past winter, two cranky geriatric men and their small off-Broadway play challenged “Hamilton” as the most sought after ticket in New York.

I was one of the lucky New Yorkers to see “Oh Hello, Live! on (Off) Broadway” during its sold out December run at the Cherry Lane Theater, and to experience the true genius of Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland, the curmudgeonly alter egos of comedians Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. Since closing, the show has gone on to tour the country, and is currently playing to similarly sold out theaters through April 2.

Known for their hit prank show “Too Much Tuna” (in reality a series of sketches on Kroll’s Comedy Central show, “Kroll Show”), in which they ambush an unsuspecting person with a ridiculously oversized portion of tuna, Faizon and St. Geegland’s return to the stage was long awaited — at least by me.

When Kroll, 37, and Mulaney, 33, were first performing their senior personas more than 10 years ago at Rififi, a now defunct East Village comedy club, I was not yet clued in to the burgeoning alternative comedy scene. It wasn’t until watching VH1’s “Best Week Ever” in the mid-2000s that I became enamored, if not obsessed, with them.

Since then I have seen both comedians perform stand-up and have followed their acting careers, but there’s always a soft spot in my heart for the weird and grumpy old men of “Oh Hello.” In addition to the stage show, I saw Faizon and St. Geegland “speak” at the 92 Street Y (the characters’ natural habitat) and perform at a Comedy Central showcase. In short, I’m a fan, or as Faizon and St. Geegland would say, a real “tuna head.”

Watching their early web shorts, there was something in Kroll and Mulaney’s invented personas I immediately recognized.

The 70-something, turtleneck wearing, public radio tote bag carrying, Alan Alda-loving bachelors living in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side awakened in me cultural associations I didn’t know I had.

I identified their callous New York attitudes and out of date feminist views in my older male editors at the New York Post, where I then worked. I heard their weird hacking and throat clearing noises in every man I met over the age of 60. But what resonated most of all was something unmistakably Jewish embedded in their DNA.

Though only Faizon is presented as Jewish, as Kroll is in real life, there was always an undeniable Semitic quality in both characters.

Part of this derives from their personal histories. Faizon attended preschool at the 92nd Street Y, where playtime was followed by “talking about Israel.” St. Geegland conceived but never published “Rifkin’s Dilemma,” a parody of Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” a coming of age story about a boy who masturbates all day.

Other Jewish indicators are found in the unspoken nuances of their performance. The characters’ constant kvetching, their whining spoken cadence, their nebbishy, uncomfortable smiles and hunched postures scream out as belonging to the tribe. I recognized echoes of Mel Brooks’s “2000 Year Old Man,” the golden agers in synagogue who give out wrapped candies, and a stereotypical Jewish grandfather who’s lovable, yet somehow gets away with voicing mildly racist opinions about the person you’re dating.

The popularity of “Oh Hello, Live!” is not only a testament to Kroll and Mulaney’s humor, but also indicative of a larger cultural moment. The show has come at a time when old Jewish men are at the forefront of popular culture, taking prominence everywhere from the comedy stage to the political arena.

Bernie Sanders, a liberal Jew from Vermont with a thick Brooklyn accent, is a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. But with his argumentative tone, hunched shoulders and wild gesticulating he could be your eccentric Jewish uncle who likes to talk politics at the dinner table. His corny campaign slogan, “Feel the Bern,” could easily have been written by Kroll and Mulaney.

All these traits have won him comparisons to another famous Jewish curmudgeon, Larry David, who has parodied the politician several times on “Saturday Night Live.” Known for playing a heightened version of himself on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” David is famously cranky and unlikable, with unyielding honesty that borders on unsociability. Yet somehow comparing Sanders to David has made the senator seem more sympathetic.

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Maybe it’s their non-threatening place as cultural outsiders, or their advanced age (easily mistaken for wisdom), that have made old Jewish men improbable societal spokesmen. We are able to find their stubbornness funny, recognize their blunt truths, and excuse their outdated opinions when necessary. Perhaps there’s just no other way to deal with the generation gap then to laugh, knowing that as young people we have inherited much of their liberalism and less of their impatience.

Whether it’s David pointing out minor social peccadilloes, Faizon and St. Geegland’s ruthless observations (“Rudy Giuliani was the hero of 9/11 because he was mayor when it happened”), or Sanders speaking unapologetically from the left, the public is bemused by these men, regardless of their views. Old Jewish men get carte blanche.

In constructing identity as performance, the cranky old Jew has become a comedic touchstone for our society, allowing us to speak truths we might otherwise never say. That’s why it’s not too far off to imagine a world where instead of running for President, Sanders is the third character in “Oh Hello,” a possibility Kroll and Mulaney have already envisioned.

Referring to Sanders in the play, Faizon announces to St. Geegland that their old friend Bernard is running for President. The senator from Vermont, alongside Faizon and St. Geegland, was apparently the third member of the 1960s activist group the Burlington Three, famous for blowing up the original Burlington Coat Factory.

“Bernard,” George responds incredulously, “He’s running for President? President of what? The Band-Aid on forehead society?”

Yet despite being deeply unhip, past their prime, and sometimes misguided, old Jewish men are as in vogue as ‘90s TV reboots. Their limitless kvetching makes the Semitic seniors ideal vessels for honest, often uncomfortable truths, and in turn perfect comedy fodder. In a world filled with political correctness and obsessive adherence to social niceties, these alter kakers have won the hearts of the public simply because they’re crabby enough to tell it like it is.

Laurie Kamens is a freelance writer from New York. She has written for The New York Times, The New York Post, Conservative Judaism (CJ) Magazine, Interview Magazine, and Long Island Pulse. Follow her on Twitter, @lauriekamens

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