Interview with Jordan R. Young, playwright of "Kvetcher in the Wry"
Q: They say history is written by the winners, but in the case of Kvetcher in the Wry, maybe history is written by the comedians. Is this play a chronicle of 20th century America seen through a comedian's eyes? That's one way to see the play, but how do you see it?
A: I see it more as a personal history (not mine, despite autobiographical bits), the evolution of a comedian. I basically put about a dozen comedians in a blender to create Dizzy Moskowitz. There were things I wanted to say—so many of the great comedians of the 20th century assimilated or suppressed their Jewish identity in favor of wider acceptance (most in fact), and I wanted to comment on that. I try to stay away from politics, but I realized I had to leave my comfort zone and deal with it in the scope of the play, and I think Dizzy’s evolution reflects that.
Q: Dizzy Moskowitz is a comedian who tells the truth, and he finds people don't want to hear the truth, even though it might make them laugh. Do you think the best comedy is rooted in truth, or in something else?
A: Samuel Beckett, my favorite playwright, said there was nothing funnier than unhappiness, and there’s something in that. But what’s better than speaking truth to power, or situations where you least expect humor? Albert Brooks’ movie, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, didn’t fully deliver on its promises, but I give him high marks for the concept.
Q: Kvetcher ends in the Eighties, with Dizzy yearning for the comedy, the music, the country he once knew. He feels out of place; nothing is funny anymore, and the gigs have dried up for him. Do you think that comedy has an expiration date? Mort Sahl was a game-changing comic, the Steven Colbert of the Atomic Age - but by the Nineties, when he would come out and do his stand-up act on talk shows, it was painful, nobody laughed. It seemed time had passed him by. What kind of comedy transcends its times?
A: Again, truth to power. George Carlin’s satiric rants against the stupidities and injustices of this world were funny 20 and 30 years ago, and I’ll think they’ll be funny decades from now. Groucho Marx, as the president of a fictitious country in Duck Soup, sings, “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ‘til I get through with it!” That was almost 90 years ago, and unfortunately it’s more relevant than ever. It’s hard to top Mark Twain, though: “Washington is a stud farm for every jackass in the country.”
Q: When you watch Dizzy's story, you think of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Mort Sahl and the way they stood their ground in the Fifties and Sixties against the censors and the squares. That whole era is so rich with history, did you have a hard time reining it in to fit the arc of the story? Did Dizzy and certain other characters seem to want to run away with themselves as you wrote the play?
A: Yes, absolutely. I did have to rein them in at times. At other times I had to let them speak their minds. There were comedians like Mickey Katz (Joel Grey’s father, whom I knew) who railed against anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic Jews—yes, there is such a thing—but that aspect of show biz history has been largely forgotten, and I wanted to shine a light on it.
Q: A number of your plays are set in the "golden age of showbiz" and concern film or TV history. What is the key to taking these stories - sometimes obscure, sometimes from several decades ago - and making them compelling for an audience that may not be too familiar with that era?
A: You have to find someone or something they can identify with. In one play I have George Bernard Shaw in conversation with Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford; I would hope most people are somewhat familiar with them, but I can’t rely on that; the jokes have to stand on their own, to some extent. Folly on 42nd Street is about one of the biggest fiascos in the history of Broadway; it focuses more on the story (I’ve changed the names to give me a little poetic freedom), which is very relevant to today even though it takes place in the 1950s. As a show biz historian I sometimes find it a challenge to make these stories work theatrically, but I relish the challenge.
Jordan R. Young's comedy Kvetcher In The Wry now streaming online for the 2022 OC-Centric New Play Festival.