Most people are familiar with the infamous blacklist of prominent Hollywood and Broadway entertainment figures in the 1940s and 50s that ruined the careers of numerous talented actors, screenwriters, directors, comedy writers and comedians. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s vicious Communist-baiting and his counterparts on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) circulated a weekly insiders “newsletter” called “Red Channels,” which listed the names of entertainers — often without authentication — suspected of membership in the Communist Party of the U.S.A.
“A Jewish Joke,” a brilliant one-man show starring Phil Johnson, who co-wrote the script with Marmi Freedman, follows the meteoric rise and stunning, sudden fall of a top comedy writer. This is a guy with a bulging portfolio of simultaneous Hollywood hits who is reduced to an emotional shambles by the effects of the cruel blacklist. Under the nimble direction of David Ellenstein, Johnson combines the timing and irony of the best of the Jewish stand-up comics with the virtuoso skills of a show business wheeler-dealer.
Bernie Lutz, a curmudgeonly, sarcastic 50-something comedy screenwriter in Los Angeles in 1950, is basking in the success he and his longtime partner Morris Frumsky are enjoying. Their phone is ringing off the hook, with major offers coming in from Louis B. Mayer of MGM for a new Marx Brothers film; NBC for a new sitcom and the prestigious “Danny Kaye Show,” which wants them as writers.
Johnson gives a bravura performance as Lutz, a top comedy writer and expert schmoozer forced to make a critical, unfunny decision that drills into the recesses of his conscience. This runs counter to his very essence — he’s the kind of guy who knows just how to lay on the saccharine so that Mayer’s secretary gets his messages to the elusive MGM mogul. He also has an iron grip on his office phone, making deals, talking with his adoring wife Ellie and frantically trying to track down his partner, a possible Communist Party member or sympathizer, to come to the office and put on his tuxedo for a major event.
The spare set shows Bernie as an old school writer with a no-frills office, papers stacked high on his desk and crumpled up pages littering the floor. All he needs is a shopworn wooden desk, a phone and a coat tree with his at-the-ready tuxedo.
Lurking in the background of his initial seeming success are increasingly ominous references to the possibility that Bernie and Morris are listed in the most recent edition of “Red Channels.” Gradually the blacklist noose tightens around Bernie’s neck as his once successful career begins to shrivel up.
Johnson is convincing in a physically and emotionally demanding role. At first he tries to deflect his gnawing dread of a collapsing career with wisecracks.
“I don’t do politics. I do comedy,” he protests. He has a stack of evenly cut papers on his desk on which he has written some of his favorite jokes. Even old, familiar Jewish jokes still get laughs from the audience.
Bernie also comments on the large percentage of blacklisted entertainers. “Did you know that eight of the famous Hollywood Ten were Jews?” he thinks aloud at one point. Much like the poisoned political climate today, at the time of the blacklist “everyone is on edge,” in Bernie’s despairing words.
The blacklist has been the subject of several previous plays, films and books, perhaps most notably the 1976 movie, “The Front,” which was directed by Martin Ritt with a screenplay by Walter Bernstein, and starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel. In real life, Ritt, Bernstein and Mostel were all victims of the blacklist.
“A Jewish Joke” brilliantly proves that the blacklist was no laughing matter. It is also a cautionary tale for today’s climate in which politics has become a blood sport. Eventually, with the help of groups like American Civil Liberties Union, the blacklist ended—but not before it devastated an entire generation of some of the most skilled writers and actors in American show business history.