August 23, 2012
By Alan Zweibel
I write. This is what I do. My job is to sit down with my vocabulary, select words, and decide what order they should be placed in an attempt to keep someone’s attention and perhaps provide them with a laugh or two along the way.
I am not an actor. Yes, every so often I appear on talk shows to promote something I’ve written and I enjoy doing so because I have a lot of stories to tell and I like making audiences laugh. But that’s not acting. That’s just me being me. I do a good me. But that’s extent of my range. Me.
So if anyone wants me, they should call me. I won’t disappoint. But if they want even the slightest deviation from whoever it is I am, they should look elsewhere. Whether it’s an accent or a limp or the hardy belch of someone who didn’t grow up in my house and, to be exact, share a bedroom with my younger brother Duke, I’m not your guy.
I’m a specialist.
I only do me.
This is information you should know before hearing about what happened to me a few weeks ago when I got a call from the assistant of one of my agents.
“Alan, this is Matt from the casting department…”
“We’ve gotten a request for you to audition for a commercial.”
I had never done a commercial before.
“Yes. An ad agency saw you on ‘Letterman’ and they would like you to come in.”
“Cool. But do they know I can’t act…?”
“And that I can only be me…”
“We made that clear to them…”
“And they still want me?”
“Yes, they just want you to be yourself.”
“Great! Hey, just curious. What’s the character breakdown?”
I thought it’d be interesting to hear the description of the type of character they viewed me as.
“Let me see, oh, here it is, ‘Funny Old Jew.'”
“That’s what it says.”
“Funny Old Jew?”
“Since when am I funny old Jew? Did Fyvish Finkel die and we all moved up a notch?”
“I don’t understand what that means.”
“Are you sure they’re not confusing me with the other guest that was on that show?”
“I doubt it. The other guest that night was Dolly Parton.”
“Funny old Jew?”
I spent the next half hour not breathing.
Funny Old Jew.
Let’s parse this for a moment, shall we?
Funny? Thank you. Whether it’s an innate ability or an acquired way of regarding the world around us, being labeled as funny can only be accepted as a compliment.
Old? Well, I’m 62. I have a wife, three children and two grandchildren. There have been homes, cars, Little Leagues, tuitions, graduations and credits on a resume — all of which, when you do the math, probably did require 62 years to have taken place. So, despite feeling otherwise, if my current age is considered to be old, then okay, I guess I’m old.
Jew? Yep. My grandparents were, my parents are, so I am. I’ve had a bris, was Bar Mitzvahed and, on occasion, have referred to a temple as a shul. I’ve never denied it, nor have I disguised it. I am, indeed, a Jew.
So when examined individually, I really don’t have any problems with any of those three words.
It’s just that when strung together, their synergy conjures images of a Brooklyn park bench where hunched-over men, no matter what they’re eating, are pulling fish bones out of their mouths while complaining about their landlords.
Me? A Funny Old Jew? Sorry. Mel Brooks is a funny old Jew. If Henny Youngman were still alive he’d be a funny old Jew. I have no idea if Henry Kissinger is funny but, in the very least, he’s an old Jew.
Those advertising folks got it wrong.
To my way of thinking, I have approximately 20 more years of being an “aging Jew” before I can appropriately be called an old one. Pretty much the same way a person has about 20 pounds during which he can be described as “getting fat” before he’s officially fat.
So operating on the presumption I was indeed younger than the version they desired and, if I were to have a fighting chance of landing a role that required a funny old Jew, I felt that some due diligence was in order.
“Alan, why are you watching ‘Fiddler on the Roof’?”
My wife Robin asked that question. Here’s how I answered it.
“‘Fiddler on the Roof’? Oh, I didn’t even realize it was on…”
“You didn’t realize it was on the DVD you bought this morning and put into the DVD player?”
Robin and I have been married 32 years. Yet, I still can’t get her to break that nasty habit of not allowing me to lie through my teeth.
“What’s going on, Alan? The last few days you’ve been acting even weirder than usual.”
“They want me to be an old Jew.”
“Who? I know I don’t.”
We both said nothing for a few seconds as I watched the movie and Robin watched me watching the movie. Our silence was eventually broken by her laugh.
“You find Tevye funny?” I asked.
“Very much so.”
“You think I should I act like him?”
“Alan, if you’re asking if you should walk up and down our street pulling a milk wagon, my answer is ‘not while our children are still alive.'”
“I mean it. The ad agency for a commercial I’m reading for described my character as a funny old Jew.”
She stared at me. With that look. The one that is usually followed by a sentence that has the word ‘moron’ in it.
“Hey, it doesn’t matter how they characterized you or whether you agree with it. They saw you. They liked what they saw. So just go in and be yourself, moron.”
She was right. I was making too much of this. Overthinking. Being self-indulgent. Two activities I usually enjoy. But not this time.
So the next day, as I rode the elevator to the floor where I’d be having my audition, I kept repeating her advice like a mantra. “Just go in and be yourself, moron.”
The commercial was for British television and when I came off the elevator and stepped into the reception area I couldn’t help but notice it was filled with about a dozen other actors — all of who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. A fact I pointed out to the rather stern-looking woman behind the desk when I signed in.
“Do funny old Jews die at an early age in England?”
The product was an app that can be downloaded onto a TV so it would have all the features of a computer.
And I actually liked the script very much. Two characters. One, an old television who was cranky because he was about to become obsolete. The other, a cocky young app who was going to replace him.
So now I understood. These kids were reading for the part of the kid, while I’d be the, well, the funny old Jew.
I turned in the direction of the voice and saw a man who identified himself as the producer of the commercial. He thanked me for coming in and said he was excited to see me read with all of these “potential apps.”
So while it appeared there were no other candidates for the role I was auditioning for, I was still a little nervous when I followed him to the makeshift studio where the auditions were to take place.
“Just go in and be yourself, moron.”
First up was a 12-year-old who was a dead ringer for the character Stewie in “Family Guy” — about two feet tall, English accent, a head the size of a pizza platter. And when he read the line of dialogue, “It’s time for you to sit in a corner of the attic and collect dust, old man,” I just shrugged the way I normally do and delivered the line, “You’ve got some nerve you little scamp,” the way I imagined I would deliver it if I was the kind of funny old Jew who actually used the word ‘scamp.’
Truth? I thought I did great despite overhearing “Stewie” whisper, “That funny old Jew wasn’t very funny,” to his rather hefty mum. But when my quick look to the producer was met with a smile and a nod and his whisper to the woman next to him, “He’s not acting. He’s being himself,” my confidence was restored.
And it relaxed me when I read with the next potential app and the dozen or so that came after him. Being myself. Smirking. Gesturing with my hands. Occasionally lifting an eyebrow. Making the producer and the others sitting on his side of the table laugh by having fun within the confines of my personality; as opposed to someone who had oh, let’s call it, talent.
And when there were no more app wannabees to be heard, I looked toward the producer who smiled again and nodded again and said, “Excellent job, Alan” and the others on his side of the table also said nice things so I drove home certain that not only had I gotten the part in the commercial, but I was also becoming increasingly comfortable about being a funny old Jew.
And if I happen to fit the new definition, so be it. Who am I to buck the tide? If the torch has been passed to a boomer who used say he got arrested at Woodstock to increase his chances of having sex with braless women in the 1970s, fine. Or to a young grandfather who rarely fasts on Yom Kippur, but roots for the Mets first baseman Ike Davis even though he’s only batting .206 because he’s Jewish, I accept my new role with pride.
So when I got home I bounded up the front steps and raced into the house anxious to make Robin’s day by informing her that she’d be sleeping next to the F.O.J. poster boy from now on, I made a pit stop to answer the ringing phone.
“It’s Matt. From casting.”
“I just want to tell you that you’ll be getting a call from the producer of that app commercial.”
“Really? That’s great!”
“He wants to personally thank you for coming in today…”
“It was so much fun!!”
“…and for showing them the way they should go with the character you read.”
“I knew I nailed it!”
“Yeah, they were struggling with that role for awhile but after seeing you they had a long talk and realized they were barking up the wrong tree with funny old Jew …”
“…and decided to go another way.”
“What other way?”
“Funny Old Asian.”
“Funny Old Asian!”
“Wow, I never heard you yell before.”
“They’d prefer a funny old Asian over a funny old Jew, Matt?”
“Well, it sort of makes sense since the app itself is made in…”
“No, it doesn’t make sense and you know why, Matt?”
“Because there are no funny old Asians, that’s why, Matt!”
“Boy, you sure are saying my name a lot.”
“What do they plan on doing? Digging up Mr. Miyagi?”
“If I’m not mistaking, the actor who played Mr. Miyagi is dead….”
“I know! That’s why they would have to dig him up, you idiot!”
“Wow, I can’t believe you just called me an idiot.”
“Anti-Semites! That’s what they are! Anti-Fucking-Semites!”
“Maybe I should call back another time?”
It was at this point in our conversation that I started to entertain the notion that I may have been overreacting. Those advertising people had every right to make any decision they wished. No harm done. I would simply remain whomever it is I am despite whatever anyone wants to call it.
“…Yeah, Matt, I’ll speak to you soon.”
“Sorry if I upset you.”
“Sorry I called you an idiot.”
“Oh, and Alan?”
“Pat Morita. The actor who played Mr. Miyagi. I thought he was really funny as Arnold in “Happy Days.”
“So did I.”