You might well expect to get a lot of laughs from “Humor Me.” First, of course, there’s that imperative title. Then, there’s the fact that the film’s writer and director, New Jersey son Sam Hoffman, is the originator of the popular web site, book, and Off-Broadway show “Old Jews Telling Jokes” — and you don’t get more humorous than that.
Not to mention that that funny-bone-fracturing franchise provided the seeds of inspiration that, Hoffman said, led him to making the 2017 feature — which will have its N.J. premiere on Wednesday afternoon, March 21, at the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival.
What you might not expect is the incisive insight “Humor Me” proffers about: family dynamics, father-son friction, loss of loved ones (through death and divorce), fear of failure, the challenges of aging, rediscovering love, etc., etc.
It’s all conveyed — hilariously and touchingly — through the story of Nate Kroll (the drily droll Jemaine Clement of the musical-comedy duo and TV series “Flight of the Conchords”).
Nate is a 40-year-old New York writer who achieved notable success with his first play, “Crack in the Clouds,” but just can’t seem to finish his second; whose wife has left him for a jet-setting billionaire and taken their small son (Cade Lappin, nearly unbearably adorable) with her; and who, with nowhere else to go, has moved in with his widowed father, Bob (the perfectly cast Elliott Gould), a perennial joke-meister, in his N.J. retirement community.
What might be most surprising is that the film’s “spine,” in Hoffman’s term, is formed by some of the very jokes told by those old Jews — dramatized (comedized?) in vignettes featuring “Zimmerman,” a sort of hapless Jewish everyman.
These segments that punctuate the film are side-splitting, to be sure, but they’re something more. They serve as a “Greek chorus,” relating “parables reflecting on what Nate is going through,” Hoffman said. It may not be explicit in the film, but the stories, often comic, that we tell “act as our own little mythology…to rationalize the condition of our lives,” Hoffman said in a phone conversation from his TV production office in Long Island City, Queens.
In Jewish culture in particular, he said, there are “stock characters and ideas that we put a twist on to make us laugh. We take pride in the fact that these characters, in challenging situations, are often clever and self-deprecating.” But, Hoffman said, the way the jokes are framed prevents us from having “too high an opinion of ourselves”; they “take us down a notch” and so become potent “nuggets of mythology” conveying a metaphorical message, “the way that mythology traditionally does.”
His chorus is an apt device. Nate’s tale is a familiar one; in fact, said Hoffman, “it’s hard to come up with a story that hasn’t been told.” In the film, “the protagonist’s life has fallen apart, with his status upended, and he has to get it back together again, a structure that defines almost every comedy.” Nate’s journey may be small, but the jokes- cum-metaphorical-commentary give it a more “global scope,” Hoffman said.
Aside from those jokes, “Humor Me” has plenty of comedy springing from the characters and situations peculiar to life in a N.J. retirement community. You know the types — and so does Hoffman.
Though he was born in Seattle, his parents were both from the Garden State and returned to raise their family in Highland Park. Hoffman’s father, Barnett, retired from almost 21 years as a Superior Court judge in Middlesex County, was the original “casting director” for — and contributor to — the “Old Jews Telling Jokes” project. Hoffman’s mother, Diane, a Trenton native, met her husband at Rutgers when he was a student there. Also one of the original joking “Old Jews,” she ran the radiology department at St. Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick for many years. The Delray Beach snowbirds still live the rest of the year in Highland Park.
They are members of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, where Hoffman became bar mitzvah; he remembers as “great” its late longtime religious leader, Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath.
Hoffman has close to 30 years’ experience as a producer, director, and writer in film, television, and digital media. Among the feature films he has produced are “Moonrise Kingdom” and “5 Flights Up,” and he has served as assistant director on numerous films by such directors as Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, and Richard Linklater. He is currently a producer and occasional director on the hit CBS drama “Madam Secretary.” “Humor Me” is his first feature as a director.
Hoffman; his wife, art consultant Andrea Crane; and their two children live in New York City, but it was New Jersey, specifically visits to relatives in some of the state’s many senior communities, that provided the inspiration for the setting of “Humor Me” (aka “Cranberry Bog: An Adult Lifestyle Community”) and its quirky, engaging, sage geriatric denizens, who have a strong effect on Nate as he struggles, clumsily and comically, to rebuild his life.
And though the jokes are Jewish, as are the Krolls, and Hoffman’s cultural touchstones are his own Jewish relatives, the residents of Cranberry Bog are not all MOTs, a way this story achieves a wider reach.
But so much of the wisdom embedded in “Humor Me,” Hoffman said, can be traced to Jewish family members, through aphorisms that in some cases made it into the film: “Don’t wish your life away” — something Hoffman’s father “said a lot during my childhood”; “Wherever you go, there you are,” according to his wife’s aunt; “Life’s gonna happen whether you smile or not, so you might as well try to smile.”
And then there’s “Life is a joke that’s just begun….” Recognize that one? It’s actually from “Three Little Maids” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” a song whose performance by three elderly Cranberry Bog ladies figures in the illuminating — and very funny — finale of “Humor Me.”