In Conversation: Bobby Miller on 'Old Jews Telling Jokes' at New Jewish Theatre
Bobby Miller, one of the founding members of St. Louis’ legendary Theatre Project Company, left theater for a career as a video, television and film producer and director, for which he won many Emmys and other awards. After several successful decades, Miller retired from television and returned to theater, where he has become the dominant character actor of the St. Louis stage in roles that have also garnered him several awards, including the 2014 St. Louis Theater Circle awards for Outstanding Director (“Waiting for Godot”) and Outstanding Supporting Actor (Fool in “King Lear”).
ALIVE sat down with Miller to find out about his newest role in the play “Old Jews Telling Jokes” at New Jewish Theater, as well as the benefits of playing older characters and the state of St. Louis theater.
ALIVE: “Old Jews Telling Jokes” is a great title. What is it about?
Miller: It’s not a play per se; it is its own kind of animal. The closest I can come to is, it’s like a review, but a review of jokes rather than music, although there are a few songs. A cast of five people are telling jokes all of which come from Jewish humor. The jokes are either about Jews, or they have a New York Jewish vibe. There’s a couple of bits that are famous Alan King things, so if you were to create a basket-full of Jewish humor, that’s pretty much what this is.
ALIVE: So it’s literally just old Jews telling jokes?
Miller: There’s no character relationships. There’s no scenes that have arcs and peaks and valleys and dynamics. In a lot of cases, it’s a joke-off between people. Sometimes there’s sketches, but sketches that are three lines long. The thing that holds it all together is a Nascar pace. The audience is literally trying to keep up and before you know it, it’s over. It’s a very short play. And I don’t want to call it a play. It’s a very short evening of theater. It’s very different than anything that I’ve ever done, because it’s not a play. It’s not a musical; it’s its own little genre.
ALIVE: I’ve never heard of this show. Where did it come from?
Miller: I know this without having to Google it. I remember six or seven years ago when there wasn’t that much on the Internet—there was Google and you can find recipes and some political sites and things like that—but before entertainment generators were using the web. I remember seeing by accident a website called Old Jews Telling Jokes. There were little 20-second video closeups of old Jews with like a newsboy cap and thick glasses…
ALIVE: What kind of cap?
Miller: …you know, those caps that old Jews wear when they go to Miami Beach and retire. And it was somebody’s father who probably had told a lot of jokes and was kind of cranky, staring into the camera and telling these jokes. And they put a bunch of thumbnails, and you’d push them, and it was old Jews telling jokes. I always remembered that. Not unlike some of the sites you see now since those things became popular. But I think this was one of the first ones.
ALIVE: And the show is derived from that website?
Miller: It has to be. Has to be.
ALIVE: How did you get involved?
Miller: Ed Coffield approaches me and says, “I’ve got a play you’ve got to do. It’s ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes.'” And I’m like, “I remember that. It was a website.” Ed says this show is playing in New York and it’s selling out. I agreed to do it based on the title alone.
ALIVE: It’s a great title.
Miller: By the way, they’re not all old Jews. There’s three old Jews and two young Jews.
ALIVE: “Three Old Jews and Two Young Jews” is not as good of a title.
Miller: No. Doesn’t work. In the opening song one of the lyrics is, (he sings…sort of) “Young Jews are funny too.” And of course they do the sketches when you need younger people. In the beginning, they all loosely have a two-line description of their character; my guy is between 60 and 70, he’s cranky, and doesn’t realize how funny he is. Funny stuff just comes out of his mouth. There’s that old adage, some people say things funny and some people say funny things. This guy says things funny. And the other older guy is sweeter, and the woman is annoying, and that’s pretty much all you need. And they tell jokes to the audience.
ALIVE: Are there no serious bits? No theme?
Miller: Everyone has one poignant monologue that’s funny, but you know they’re not telling jokes anymore. My monologue has to do with someone who’s roughly my age whose baby sitter in the ’50s was television. Television was new. And I say my three baby sitters were The Three Stooges, Soupy Sales and Groucho Marx. And the idea is this was a time when Jews still couldn’t buy a house or an apartment in many parts of the country, but because of television, people in Alabama, Wyoming and Arkansas, who never even met a Jew now had them in their living rooms every day. That really was true in the ’50s. Although show business was generated and perpetuated by Jews. Every movie studio except one was started by Jewish men. And of course this is the golden age of radio turning into television with Jack Benny and Groucho Marx, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Henny Youngman and I could go on and on.
Miller: All of sudden the country was catching on to Jewish humor because of television. If you lived in New York, San Francisco or L.A., where there were clubs where these guys were big, you could see them. You could see Sid Caesar. You could hear the writing of Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart. There was a vibe to it that nationally America started to listen to. People didn’t even particularly know it was Jewish humor. But there was a rhythm, a style. A lot of the jokes weren’t about Jewish people or Jewish life. So the play celebrates that too. Because in the monologues you start to get a little more of a serious feel of what this thing is with Jewish humor. Do you have to be Jewish to like the show? Absolutely not. I’m a student of comedy and I’ve heard half these jokes where the guy is Irish in the joke, or Catholic, or Lutheran mothers or whatever. But they change through the years.
ALIVE: Like dumb blond jokes are really old Pollock jokes.
Miller: Right. The continuity of the jokes in the show goes from birth, to children, to work, to assimilation of Jews working their way and finding a place in society—or being left out—all in a funny way, right up to old age.
ALIVE: So in a sense the sequence of the jokes tells the story of Jews in America?
Miller: And from birth to death.
ALIVE: Are the actors sitting on stools or is there a set of some kind?
Miller: The whole thing is amplified by two brilliant—and I mean brilliant—set designers, Peter and Margery Spack. I mean, what’s the set? What do you do? A vaudeville stage? It’s wide open. They don’t tell you in the script, which for a designer is great. They (the Spacks) are incredibly imaginative. You get more than just a plain space that supports theatrics. You get statements that just make their mark enough but support the show. It’s not like, oh we’re gonna put our design in this and steal the show. They put this play on a New York rooftop. There’s a piece of what would be a giant billboard and they use projections of chimneys and air conditioning units and crap like that, that you find on a rooftop with the New York skyline behind.
But to delineate the birth of children, romance, wedding, having children, work, assimilation, old age and so on, they created these bits where the billboard changes. They have done these incredible pieces of artwork that either amplify the joke, support the joke or give you transitions into new sections of the play. It’s brilliant. Some of the things are like a professional comedy writer wrote them. Margery—they’re married—she should write plays. I mean, she’s witty. All of that has been worked into this rooftop in New York that also amplifies the New York vibe. The set alone. I’d pay just to watch the set perform, because the set actually performs. It’s got half the jokes in it. It’s very impressive.
ALIVE: A lot of people are curious about the show. I predict it does well.
Miller: It’s set a record for advance sales for the same reason I took the show—the title. A lot of people who don’t even go to the theater are buying tickets.
ALIVE: You’ve been playing a lot of older characters. Are you putting actual old actors out of work by taking all their jobs?
Miller: That was always my thing as an actor. I majored in theater, so as I more or less retired from television production, I started doing two or three shows around town a year. I figured as long as you can stay vertical and learn lines, you can still act.
ALIVE: Stay vertical. I love that.
Miller: Yeah. Just stay vertical. So I used to do a few shows a year and last year I did eight. I’ve never been happier. When you’re in the theater all you do is bring your body. No computers and crews and cameras and trucks…ugh. I played Prospero in my thirties with four pounds of silver in my hair. Now I am that age and all the great parts are out there. There’s something wonderful about playing characters over 60. First of all you’re always sitting down, or you’re in a wheelchair. Look at the shows I did last year. In “Duck Variations” I’m sitting on a bench all night. For “The Lyons” I’m in a hospital bed. “Tuesdays with Morrie” I’m in a wheelchair. The rare thing about “The Price” was I didn’t die on page 70. I actually lived through the evening. The only time you get up is to cross the stage to get your meds.
You look for these things when you’re my age. How much jumping around do we have to do? My days of getting down on one knee in tights are over. I can get down but I can’t get back up.
ALIVE: Yeah. “Can we cut the He dances part?”
Miller: Right. “You still want me in this cause that ain’t gonna happen.” The fabulous thing is some of the greatest parts are older men, seniors, facing life. As Bruce Longworth described Soloman in “The Price,” it’s a guy sitting in God’s waiting room. He can’t die. There’s some wonderful dramatic nuance, themes and layers you get to play about men at the end of their life. I’ve been really fortunate over the last couple of years to get a lot of great parts. And I still have a short bucket list that I’d still like to play. And the phenomenal thing about working with 20- and 30-year-olds right now—I love it. I always thought I’d be a good teacher but I never really had the interest or the patience, but it’s my version of teaching where I sort of have these father/son, father/daughter relationships. And they’re actors, and I recognize their passion.
ALIVE: And we’ve been there.
Miller: Right. They’re artists. They have a passion that you can’t find in any other business. They’re at that place where even though they’ve been trained, their talent is so raw, and so vital and so available it’s bubbling out of their skin. The smart ones are working as much as they can anywhere because even if it’s a bad experience or bad theater or you’re working with bad actors, that’s how you learn. Not by working with great ones because nothing goes wrong. So they don’t learn how to fix anything. That’s been the great thing since I came back to the theater, working with all the young people, and boy, there’s some talented ones out there. But if they go to New York or L.A., they’ll be at an audition with 2,000 people and they’ll be lucky if they are in the top 50. They’ll never be seen. They should do local plays, go to summer stock.
ALIVE: What is the state of St. Louis theater?
Miller: Compared to when we were doing Theater Project Company, there are so many theaters, and seven or eight of them are viable, professional theaters. When we started there was the Muny and The Rep. And The Rep was new. Regional theater was not necessarily a given everywhere. Every city did not have a regional theater. And the City Players were here too, which started in the Garfield administration, I think. There just weren’t that many theaters in town. Now, as a director, when we hold auditions it takes two days to see everybody. It gives people like me a bunch of places to work.
And the state of theater education has grown too. Webster used to be it. Now there’s SLU, Fontbonne, Lindenwood, UMSL, all of which have great programs, and kids stay for two years and do six or seven plays here before they move on. So the state of St. Louis theater is terrific. The theaters are all mutually supportive too. It really is a community. They really don’t compete with each other. In this town, the theaters compete with sports. There’s only so many tickets people can buy. So we feel it when there’s a World Series or a Stanley Cup or football playoffs.
For the most part everyone knows everyone. And there are still a lot of veterans who were acting back in the ’70s when we still had dinner theaters. You know them as well as I do. The mix is a great combination. And we have flow though as well, people who are on their way from one coast to the other who stop for a couple of years. There’s a few veterans here who just came here to do a show where they fell in love with the town, or fell in love with somebody and stayed.
There’s a fantastic core of local actors in St. Louis, seasoned with enough people who are just passing through to keep it really interesting. That makes a really strong theater community.
“Old Jews Telling Jokes” at New Jewish Theatre runs from May 8 through June 1. For tickets and information, visit the New Jewish website, or call (314) 432-5700.
Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly