A leap of faith that found a huge following, “Jewtopia” is not only the hit play by first-timers Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, expanding from Los Angeles to New York and beyond, it’s now a coffee-table book of Jewish humor available nationwide. (A movie is also in the works.) How did all this happen, and how did “Jewtopia” become code for “JDate”? Spark Networks’ President Greg Liberman goes to the creators for answers.
GREG LIBERMAN: I’m a big fan – I saw your play, “Jewtopia,” right after you opened in L.A. How did you two come to work together in the first place?
BRYAN FOGEL: About six years ago, in L.A., a mutual friend introduced us. Sam started doing these one-act festivals that I was producing, and the scenes he was putting up were really funny. We said, “Hey, let’s write a theme for this one-act festival.” And the theme that we wrote basically became act one, scene one of “Jewtopia.”
GREG: I saw it in 2003, but I read that you guys constantly re-write it. So tell us what folks can expect if they come to spend a night with you guys.
SAM WOLFSON: Bryan plays Chris O’Connell, a gentile who is obsessed with Jewish women. I play the Jew, Adam Lipschitz, and he asks me to teach him how to be a Jew because he wants to trick the girl he’s dating into believing that he’s a Jew. He wants to date her, a Jewish girl, so he’ll never have to make another decision. In his mind, he believes that your life becomes total bliss with a Jewish girl. You never have to decide what to eat or what movie to see or which friends to hang out with. So it’s obviously an exaggerated idea, total over-the-top insanity. In the show, part of the pact that we make is that he’s going to help me find the Jewish girl to marry. He takes me onto JDate, which is called Jewtopia in the play. And it’s referenced about 20 times throughout the course of the two hours as the place to go to find your Jewish soul mate.
GREG: I saw the play before I started working here, and it was very enlightening because a bunch of my friends were on JDate, but it was the first time I’d seen JDate as a generally accepted way to meet Jewish women.
SAM: Yes, it’s funny because when we started writing it in 2002, JDate and Internet dating were kind of new and very taboo. I had friends that said, “Have you heard of this JDate thing?” And it just started to get popular. Originally, when there were lines mentioning JDate, they weren’t really getting laughter. But now, when we say JDate, or that Jewtopia is JDate, 200 people instantly get it. It’s like, “Of course! Jewtopia is JDate. How could it not be?” We’ve also had quite a few JDate [marriage] proposals on stage at the show.
GREG: That’s awesome. So are either of you single?
BRYAN: I was on JDate before we wrote the play, and I had a girlfriend for three or four months via JDate, but it didn’t work out. We do both have girlfriends now.
GREG: And are they Jewish?Once we had this [book] deal we thought, what if we did a full-color, fully illustrated, kind of whacked-out book of everything Jewish and Gentile?
BRYAN: Sam is dating a Jewish girl, and I’m not.
SAM: Bryan’s dating a Swede.
BRYAN: Right. Swedish is very close to Jewish.
SAM: And what’s really cool is that my girlfriend’s mother is on JDate. She just met a guy, and I think they’re going to get married.
GREG: Great! So your book is coming out September 27th, right between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What made you decide to bring the “Jewtopia” concept to print?
BRYAN: We were approached two years ago by a book agent who saw the play – a gentile, actually. And he said, “Hey, I’ve sold a decent number of books. I think I can get you guys a book deal.” And we were like, “A ‘Jewtopia’ book? You’re crazy.” But lo and behold, he gets all the major publishers down for the show, everybody from Bantam to Simon and Schuster. And there’s a bidding war for our book that we haven’t written yet and have no idea what it will be. So, Warner Books, from Time Warner, ends up winning the rights. At the time, they bought what was supposed to be a 6 x 9, black and white, no pictures, no color, just us-writing-funny-stuff kind of book. A little kitschy, hardcover book. Like a Yiddish Dick and Jane, very much centered on our show. Once we had this deal, we thought, what if we did a full-color, fully illustrated, kind of whacked-out book of everything Jewish and Gentile? We were big fans of Jon Stewart’s “America” book and wanted to do something in the vein of photo-shopping, pictures and games – the kind of book you can bring to the bathroom and pick up and read for five minutes and leave on your coffee table.
We went to Warner’s with this idea, and they said that book would cost about $250,000 just to design and lay out. “You guys don’t know how to do something like that. That’s not in the budget. That’s not the deal we gave you, and your book is a 6 x 9 black and white book.” And we basically said, “Well, that’s not the book we want to do. We’re going to go do the book that we want to do.” We went on Craigslist and hired about 10 people – some freelance, about six of them full-time – and literally moved them into our house. They were working here about 60 hours a week. We spent every dime of our advance to put together the book. It was pretty crazy, because for about six months, we were shelling out about $6,000 a week on illustrators and graphic artists and designers, bringing our book to life. About halfway through, we’d spent over $100,000 of our own money. We brought it into Warner’s, and they said, “Okay, go for it. We’re behind you.”
GREG: What are you favorite Jewish holidays?
BRYAN: My least favorite is Passover, for two reasons. One is, I came from an Orthodox home and Passover for my family was extreme. My mother literally changed dishes, shut all the cabinets, wax papered the cabinets. I mean, it was radical. And my father would do all this research for the Seder, and they would turn into seven-hour events. As a kid, all of a sudden, you’re bringing all this weird food to school. I grew up in Denver, and Denver’s not New York or L.A. I would dread my mother packing all these crazy Passover lunches for me. I’d pray that it would be spring break or something so I didn’t have to come to lunch with a matzah sandwich and jelly candies.I would dread my mother packing all these crazy Passover lunches for me. I’d pray that it would be spring break or something so I didn’t have to come to lunch with a matzah sandwich and jelly candies.
SAM: I would say that Passover is my favorite holiday. My family is pretty spread out, in Miami, Jacksonville, San Francisco. Passover is one of the only times that we get together. It’s nice to see everybody, and we keep the service pretty short.
BRYAN: There you go. Sam’s family is Reform.
GREG: One thing I thought was really interesting in reading your book is the statement that at the end of the day, Jews are Jews. How quickly did you reach that conclusion as you guys started working together and comparing your backgrounds, which are obviously different?
SAM: There are two levels to it. Bryan grew up in Denver, and I grew up in Jacksonville. You can hardly say those two places are touchstones of Jewish culture, but he grew up Modern Orthodox, and I grew up Reform. Two totally different cities, totally different states, and everything was the same, basically. And then at the show, we get Jews from places I didn’t even know Jews were from.
BRYAN: Dublin and Buenos Aires. Brazil and Australia. All over the world.
SAM: And they’re like, “This is the funniest show I’ve ever seen. This is me.” And we think, “Holy crap! It’s real. It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
BRYAN: When we were in L.A., everybody assumed that we came from L.A. We were in New York and everybody assumed, “You must be a New Yorker because this is how we are here.” And yet, I’m from Denver, he’s from Jacksonville, and we’ve had thousands and thousands of Russian Jews, Israelis, literally Jews from all over the world at this point. It just seems Jews are Jews.