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From the Stage to the Page: Old-school Shtick

For Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, creators of the hit play “Jewtopia,” the path to becoming published authors was murky at best. As they note, “We barely read books!” Nonetheless, their lack of familiarity with the reading process hardly kept the actors from penning a book of their own (a spin-off of their play), titled “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People,” released last month by Warner Books. Inspired by the monster hit “America (The Book)” (Warner Books, 2004), written by “The Daily Show” star Jon Stewart and the TV show’s writers, “Jewtopia” is an all-purpose compendium of Jewish jokes for a new century, tricked out with nifty illustrations and zings at the writers’ stereotypical Jewish mothers.

In an e-mail interview, Fogel and Wolfson weighed in on the process of putting the book together, their comedic inspirations and their future plans. For them, their play was always a first step in the direction of their ultimate dream of Hollywood success. “We wrote the play purely out of desperation to be noticed in Hollywood. We knew that if we wrote a play we could be in and put it up ourselves… hopefully people would take notice.” The production, originally intended for a six-week run, played for a year and a half. Its surprise success led to a bidding war between publishers for the “Jewtopia” book, which had been little more than an idea at the time. Fogel and Wolfson’s cinematic dreams are coming true, as well: Their screenplay, loosely based on “Jewtopia,” begins shooting in February 2007, with the duo reprising their starring roles from the play.

After receiving a six-figure advance from Time Warner, the twosome decided to ditch the original plans for a text-only book. Instead, they proceeded full-steam ahead with their Jewish take on “America (The Book).” “We loved the way that the book covered so much comedic ground and that it didn’t matter where in the book you turned to, there was always something funny and visually stimulating on every page. There was only one slight problem: Neither of us had the technical skills to design and lay out the book we wanted to create. But in our heads, we knew exactly what the book would look like. So we did what any industrious writers would do: We went on Craigslist and hired artists and graphic designers to design and lay out the book for us.”

The result is a grab bag of humorous gibes at Jews’ food obsession, their germophobia and their inability to grasp the nature of car transmissions. Often, the humor of “Jewtopia” is less reminiscent of “The Daily Show” than of the hoary shtick of a previous age of Jewish comedians. Referring to such comedic influences as Don Rickles and Mel Brooks, Wolfson and Fogel note: “[T]heir influence can be seen in everything that we do; all of our jokes that center around self-deprecating humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves and our own religion and all of our crazy foibles and stereotypes…. We’d like to think that we are the Gen X version of this old-school type of comedy. It’s edgier and a little crazier than the Jewish comedians that came before us, but the heart of what makes Jewish humor is still very much there.”

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Forward.

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