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'Old Jews Telling Jokes' has humor

This 2012 photo provided by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows, from

This 2012 photo provided by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows, from left, Audrey Lynn Weston, Marilyn Sokol, Lenny Wolpe, Todd Susman and Bill Army from the production, "Old Jews Telling Jokes," which opens Sunday, May 20, 2012, in New York. Credit: AP

First -- a little Long Island Expressway humor.

A man is driving down the LIE when he's pulled over by a cop. Cop says, "Sir, do you realize your wife fell out of the car a mile back?" The man says, "Thank God -- I thought I was going deaf."

Peter Gethers is no stranger to the LIE. The publishing exec, screenwriter and novelist splits his time between Manhattan and Sag Harbor. He is, however, a complete novice when it comes to writing and producing for the stage -- but that didn't stop him from suggesting to his buddy that they do just that.

It took four years but the dream became reality last month when "Old Jews Telling Jokes," a new Off-Broadway comedy co-created and produced by Gethers and editor-columnist Dan Okrent, opened at the Westside Theatre.

"These are jokes anybody -- any race, religion, nationality -- can laugh at," says Gethers. "That's why it's titled 'Old Jews Telling Jokes.' It's not meant to be old Jews telling Jewish jokes."

If you've ever stumbled on the website oldjewstelling jokes.com, you have some idea of what's in store. Some. That site is . . . just like it sounds -- regular folks on video telling their favorite gut-busters.

Inspired by that site, Gethers and Okrent acquired the theatrical rights and expanded on the idea for their show, collecting classic jokes from history (many of them risque -- so be forewarned, this isn't for the kiddies), then adding original songs, skits, monologues and random pop-culture references -- from Mother Teresa to Angelina Jolie -- all performed by five actors.

Who, for the record, are not all old. Or Jewish. "Here I am pronouncing 'nudniks' incorrectly on the first day," Bill Army says, recalling the Yiddish term for pest or bore. "I'm going 'NUHD-niks,' and they're like, 'It's NOOD-niks, Bill.' "

Army, with his blond hair and New England boarding-school background, is, yes, a tad on the gentile side. (As is director Marc Bruni.)

"The show isn't just for a Jewish audience," Army says. "If you like to laugh, you'll love it. Humor is universal and helps everybody get through -- that's a central theme of the show."

The show is loosely structured from birth to death, peppered with commentary about dating, marriage, sex, retirement . . . and certain key relatives. ("They're gonna sell a talking doll of my mother. You pull the string and she says, 'What -- again with the string?' ")

You may have heard these jokes a thousand times, says Gethers, "but we realized its like hearing Sinatra sing 'New York, New York.' There's nothing like hearing it live."

Or responding to it.

Audience members sometimes shout out the punch lines, making the show, at times, a bit like "Rocky Horror" with a side of gefilte fish.

"Last night, I got up to tell the 'Talking Dog' joke," Army explains. "I started -- 'So a man is driving down a country road and sees a sign that says: Talking Dog for Sale' -- and a woman sitting front-row center says, "Ohhh, good!' The rest of the audience heard, and went nuts. So did we onstage. It encapsulated what everyone, I think, feels at some point in the show: 'Oh, yeah, I love that joke -- tell that one.' "

Gethers has long been fascinated by comedy, reared like all good TV babies on humorists like Soupy Sales and the comedians who appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show." He later caught stand-up greats (Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, Albert Brooks and more) in New York, and got his first comedy-writing gig working for Alan King (the late comic genius makes a surprise cameo at the Westside via video).

Over the years, Gethers has holed himself up in Sag Harbor and churned out books in various genres, from nonfiction ("The Cat Who Went to Paris," about his own feline) to thrillers (under the pseudonym Russell Andrews). So he wanted this Off-Broadway evening to have a variety of flavors, too, "not just joke, joke, joke."

One monologue, in which a man talks to his dying father, is from real life. "My father called to say he was dying," Gethers explains. "And we just started making jokes over the phone. That was how we dealt with it."

The monologues, he hopes, add heart to the show, reminding the audience of humor's power in unlikely situations.

The balance seems to work.

"I'm pleased people are enjoying it because, lord knows, we're having a blast onstage," says Army.

"It's nachas, really," he says, smiling. (We know, again with the Yiddish. But what -- like you can't do a Google search?)

Then he adds, "Can't say it enough."

 

It was laugh at first sight

 

BY JOSEPH V. AMODIO, Special to Newsday

 

When oldjewstelling jokes.com debuted in 2009, it was an instant hit. "We struck a nerve on an Internet that rarely honors people of a certain age and where humor generally arrives at someone's expense," notes creator Sam Hoffman.

The site now boasts nearly 500 jokes from joke-tellers in New York, Jersey, Los Angeles and Boca Raton.


WHEN | WHERE Tuesday-Sunday, Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St. (at Ninth Avenue), Manhattan

INFO 212-239-6200, or oldjewstellingjokesonstage.com

TICKETS $80

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