Sunday school just got a lot more interesting. The new movie Year One is an Old Testament version of the classic Monty Python comedy The Life of Brian.
Now, for some people, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. Not everybody approved of the Pythons’ outrageous spoof of Biblical epics, which featured something to offend everyone. Yet, thus far Year One hasn’t generated anything like the controversy the latter did decades ago. Why not?
The answer may lie in the fact that Year One‘s irreverence fits in well with the Jewish intellectual tradition of wrestling with higher authorities, and questioning moral and religious issues. This sensibility has been at the core of the Jewish identity since, quite literally, the year one.
History’s first road trip
The plot, for what it’s worth, centers on two cavemen who get kicked out of their tribe. They embark on what you might call history’s first road trip, bumping into biblical figures, like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and other people from the Torah — and goofy comedy ensues.
Yes, this slapstick summer flick takes a lot of poetic (and comedic) license with its sacred source material. As a rabbi, I feel obliged to point out, for example, that Adam and Eve lived over a thousand years before Abraham and Sarah were even born. But remember: it’s only a movie!
Jack Black’s character Zed is a hunter, in contrast to Michael Cera’s timid gatherer named Oh. Oh loves a girl from his tribe named Eema (which is Hebrew for “Mom”, by the way.) After Eema is enslaved by a more advanced tribe — one that has invented wheels and swords and stuff — Zed and Oh vow to save her.
That’s when they meet all those Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Adam is played by Harold Ramis (who also wrote and directed the film.) Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd) play out the world’s first sibling rivalry — this time for laughs.
We’re never told how Zed and Oh manage to miss the Flood, because soon they’re meeting Abraham and Isaac. Hank Azaria, as Abraham, is in his second “ancient” role of the year – he also plays a Pharaoh in the Night at the Museum sequel. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who plays Isaac here and was in Superbad and Role Models, earns a coveted spot in film phenom Judd Apatow’s growing comedy ensemble. (That Apatow is the producer of Year One comes as no surprise.)
Mocking the good book
So, as a rabbi, what’s my take on making mockery of the good book? Humor is a double-edged sword: it can make people more receptive to exploring the Torah, but runs the risk of being all surface and no substance.
Yet, it’s fresh to see a bunch of bright, funny, creative Jewish guys embracing their religious heritage, even for laughs. Jack Black, Harold Ramis, David Cross, Paul Rudd, Hank Azaria, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Judd Apatow are all “members of the tribe” — and I don’t mean Zed and Oh’s. They may be poking fun, and laughing from the pews at the back of the synagogue, but at least they’re back in. It seems, you take the Jew out of the shtetl, but not take the shtetl out of the Jew.
And even a movie full of potty humor like Year One can include surprisingly serious philosophical insights. When faced with the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Michael Cera explains: “It’s not about the fruit. It’s about doing what you’re told.” Not a bad interpretation of an often-misunderstood story. Remember that Year One writer/director Harold Ramis is also the man behind Groundhog Day. That 1993 movie, starring Bill Murray as a sarcastic television weatherman forced to relive one day of his life over and over, has become a curious favorite of religious leaders from rabbis to the Dalai Lama.
With so many “Jew-ish” movies coming out this summer, from Woody Allen’s Whatever Works to Funny People and Bruno, we’re witnessing the dawn of a new age in Jewish comedy. Big stories in recent issues of Vanity Fair and New York magazine have noticed this too. I’m proud to say I predicted this trend in my latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century (Barricade Books: 2008).
So if Judd Apatow or Sacha Baron Cohen is reading this: Just to let you know, I’m available for weddings, bar mitzvahs – and cameo appearances. And unlike Jack Black and company in Year One, at least my beard is real.