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Old jokes by aging jokesters

Steve Fierberg

Sam Hoffman, founder of the “Old Jews Telling Jokes’’ website, will be featured in a comedy night Saturday in Newton.

Before becoming a filmmaker in his own right - he just finished serving as an executive producer on “Moonrise Kingdom,’’ due out next year - Sam Hoffman worked with directors Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Wes Anderson, as well as the stars attracted by such luminaries. But when he stepped behind the camera three years ago, it was for a project that focused on far more ordinary people: his father and his father’s buddies.

“My father gathered together 20 of his friends in New Jersey and I shot video of them telling jokes,’’ Hoffman said.

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The project seemed trivial at the time, according to Hoffman, but the magic of the Internet is such that the footage went viral. “It was astonishing,’’ he said. “But what I noticed was that when you take people 65 or 75 or 80 years old and ask them to tell a joke, they become kids again. There’s a sense of genuine delight when they get a laugh.’’

Hoffman will be discussing his work in a comedy night also featuring stand-up comic Jon Fisch and Brookline’s Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, author of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,’’ at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center, 333 Nahanton St. in Newton.

Before the evening ends, three audience members will be selected to tell a joke, and their success will be measured by audience response.

In Hoffman’s original video, he said, one of the most popular segments involved his mother, Diane, telling a joke about broccoli.

“At the end, she curses a little bit, and then you can see her getting embarrassed about having cursed, and then after that you see how proud she is when the crowd starts laughing.’’

So popular was the project that it evolved quickly into a website called “Old Jews Telling Jokes.’’ (In his mind, the emphasis is on “old’’ rather than “Jews,’’ Hoffman said. He doesn’t really care about their religion or ethnic background; he just likes the way seniors recount a funny story.)

When he and his business partners at Jetpack Media took the project on the road to New York and Florida, it garnered increasing interest. Now, the “Old Jews Telling Jokes’’ enterprise includes a book published by Random House and a DVD. However, he said, more important than the project’s reach is its depth,

“What’s been interesting to me is that what started out as a fun little comic concept has become in large part a folklore project,’’ Hoffman said. “Older Jewish people have a specific way of telling jokes that is different from how younger people tell jokes. There’s a certain kind of comedy that in large part has been spawned by Jewish culture.

“The central conflict in Jewish humor, as I see it, is that Jews insist on being called chosen, but at the same time want to consider themselves underdogs. At one point, they were poor immigrants who had to make a life in a new land after being chased by Cossacks across Europe. That central conflict seems to breed comedy.’’

Jewish humor is a tradition that Hoffman traces through the decades, from George Burns on through Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks up to the present with comedian Jerry Seinfeld and filmmaker Judd Apatow.

“What we are doing now is building a very interesting library of the type of humor specific to early and mid-20th century,’’ he said.

Tickets to Saturday’s third annual “Martinis and Merriment’’ event are $26, or $23 for JCC members, students and seniors, with a beverage and snacks included. The event is cosponsored by the Boston Comedy Festival. To purchase tickets, visit www.jccgb.org/arts or contact 617-965-5226.

ON A BUMPY PATH: Perhaps religion as an inspiration for comedy is at its tipping point, or perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but the lineup of local events this weekend includes Seth Lepore performing his one-man show about the search for spiritual enlightenment, “Losing My Religion: Confessions of a New Age Refugee,’’ in Arlington.

Lepore, 37, grew up Catholic in Rhode Island, but as a teenager became fascinated with Eastern philosophy and eventually converted to Buddhism.

But at some point in early adulthood, after being educated at Buddhist-influenced Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., Lepore said, he became increasingly skeptical as he attempted to find his way amid the healers and energy devotees he met while living in San Francisco.

In the Bay Area, there were plenty of people whose interests matched his, Lepore said, but he also found “90 percent of them to be really weird, and not people I wanted to be associated with.’’

He and his wife moved to Western Massachusetts, where he returned to a college interest in the performing arts and began writing the one-man show, which he says “exposes the blurry line between self-help and faith.’’

Audience response to the show has been gratifying, he said.

“A lot of different kinds of people come to my show,’’ he said. “But whether they are devout Catholics, Jews, Muslims, agnostics or anything else, they all seem to get it.

“I’m not trying to offend people by lampooning religion; I’m posing questions about why we believe what we believe. I do this through a number of characters with extreme personalities. One is a high school sex education teacher; one sells hot chocolate; one leads a New Age workshop in masculinity.’’

Lepore will be performing “Losing My Religion’’ at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at the Arlington Center for the Arts, 41 Foster St. Tickets are $14, $12 for students and seniors, and are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com, or by calling 800-838-3006.

EVENING OF VERSE: Lexington residents Cammy Thomas and Ros Zimmermann are among four poets who will be featured in a “spoken word’’ program Saturday at the Munroe Center for the Arts, 1403 Massachusetts Ave. in Lexington.

Thomas, who teaches English at Concord Academy, had a book of poems, “Cathedral of Wish,’’ published in 2005 by Four Way Books; the following year she received the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Zimmermann, who also works as a visual artist, has had pieces published in experimental poetry magazines in the United States and Britain.

The program Saturday begins at 7:30 p.m.; admission is free, with donations accepted. For more information, visit www.munroecenter.org; to reserve a seat, e-mail saturdays@munroecenter.org.

OPEN STUDIOS: Saxonville Studios, a consortium of 14 artists working in a Civil War-era textile mill on Concord Street in Framingham, is opening its doors to the public Saturday and Sunday.

The works on display will include jewelry, fiber art, photographs, watercolors, drawings, and prints. The studios, at 1602-B Concord St., will be open from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, go to www.saxonvillestudios.com.

FILM ON SLAVERY: The documentary “Traces on the Trade: A Story From the Deep North,’’ which outlines the often overlooked history of slavery in states fighting on the Union side in the Civil War, will be screened tonight at 6:45 at the Watertown Free Public Library, 123 Main St.

A discussion with James Perry, managing director of the Watertown-based Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery, will follow the free screening, which is being sponsored by World in Watertown and the Historical Society of Watertown.

Send ideas for the Arts column to westarts@globe.com.
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