Pusher Mensch: Jonathan Kesselman talks blaxploitation, comedy, and Jewish revenge flicks
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Courtesy of Jonathan Kesselman

An exclusive Blueprint interview with 'The Hebrew Hammer' writer-director

Not all heroes wear capes, but they can rock a large velvet yarmulke and curly side locks (or peyos for the more traditional crowd).

 

To completely paraphrase the words of the late great Curtis Mayfield, “He’s your אמא, he’s your Levi, he’s that chutzpah in the mikvah. He’s your bashert when in need, have some schmaltz, have some brei. He’s your Pusher-Mensch.” 

 

That’s right, we’re talking about the eponymous protagonist of Jonathan Kesselman’s ‘Jewsploitation’ comedy cult favorite from 2003, “The Hebrew Hammer”. Inspired by the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, “Hammer” is the story of Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg), a “Certified Circumcised Dick” in the vein of Isaac Hayes and Ron O’ Neal whose sole purpose in life is protecting Jews in need. 

 




Courtesy of Jonathan Kesselman

Aside from generously introducing the phrase “Shabbat Shalom, Motherf***ers” into the pop culture lexicon, “The Hebrew Hammer” is an excellent example of retro influences blending perfectly with Jewish culture as it is perceived in the modern age, stereotypes and all.

 

In the movie, Goldberg’s Hammer saves Hanukkah from Santa’s evil son (Andy Dick) with the help of Esther (Judy Greer) and her father, Chief Bloomenbergensteinenthal (Peter Coyote). 

 

Carver is the Jewish hero us Yids deserve and one not often seen in the movies before 2003. After that point, however, we began to see an influx of them come from the likes of Spielberg, Tarantino, and Adam Sandler with "Munich," "Inglorious Basterds," and "You Don't Mess With the Zohan."

 

Far be it from us to insulate a correlation (we’re not and neither is Kesselman), but there’s something extremely gratifying about seeing Jews standing up for themselves and fighting back. Just like all the great super heroes were written by a bunch of Jewish guys living in anti-Semitic-heavy times, so too the Hebrew Hammer is the paragon of standing up to injustice and intolerance. 

 

Speaking of, Kesselman and Goldberg hope to explore those very themes in a much-anticipated sequel, “The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler,” a time-traveling romp that will pit Carver against one of the most notorious Jew-haters of all time. Oh, and did I mention that the Hammer’s time machine is a sukkah? How frickin’ cool is that?!




Courtesy of Jonathan Kesselman

I was able to get a hold of Jonathan and we had a lovely interview via text message about cinematic Jewish badasses, his love of pushing comedic barriers, and how the sequel (which needs your help!) was inspired by the current political climate. 

 

Nu? Can we just read the interview already?

 

Quit your kvetching. Here you go...

 

 

 

NY BLUEPRINT: Just to start off, what were some of your influences, both Jewish and non-Jewish, for "The Hebrew Hammer" and what are your thoughts on the cult status it’s gained since 2003? 

 

 

JONATHAN KESSELMAN: I’d say Mel Brooks’ movies as well as the films of Zucker/Abrams, [they] were huge influences on my comedy. In terms of the “Hammer”, when I had the idea, I got my hands on every Blaxplitation film I could [in order] to understand the genre. “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,” “Shaft,” “Superfly,” “Dolemite,” “Foxy Brown” ... I watched a ton of them. I even took a class in Blaxploitation Cinema in film school at USC. And in terms of the cult status … as the writer/director, I’m going to be biased. But I knew the movie was special after I wrote the screenplay.

 

I got a good sense of how much people loved the film starting at Sundance. When I got to a festival in Toronto, there was an 800-person theater that sold out twice with lines around the block ... it was then I knew it hit a nerve. I guess the notion of ‘cult’ is that people discover something after the fact. In our case, the distribution of the film was bungled the first time around. We had maybe 5,000 dollars in marketing for the theatrical release, and the financiers sold it to comedy central for $500K with the caveat that they would air it on TV first, before its theatrical. So, between all that, nobody saw it in theaters, rather they “discovered” it on TV over following years. 




Courtesy of Jonathan Kesselman

NYB: When it comes to tough Jews at the movies, you’ve got “Munich,” “Inglorious Basterds,” “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan,” and “Defiance,” all of which came after your own movie. Do you think “The Hebrew Hammer” helped pave the way for these films about members of the Tribe fighting back, or at least sort of warm up audiences to the concept?

 

 

JK: I guess you can’t really know for sure. I know how impossible it is to get anything made in this business, so the fact those films got made it all is a testament to those filmmakers making it happen. As far as warming people up ... I don’t know. At the time in Hollywood, it was a “hot” script, but every single person in Hollywood told me that it was “too Jewish,” and it would never get made. Then, Ed Pressman and John Schmidt came long and let me make it. So, I guess the fact that it found an audience let other filmmakers know that there might be an appetite for something like it.

 

 

 

NYB: Particularly, “Zohan" is a movie, which, like “The Hebrew Hammer,” lovingly pokes fun at Jewish stereotypes. Would you consider the two movies to be quasi-blood relatives and as a writer and director, how do you find the best way to make light of Jewish culture in a way that’s relatable and funny without becoming offensive? 

 

 

JK: I hate to admit, but I never saw all of “Zohan.” I remember someone gave me the screenplay a few years after I did “Hammer” and I thought it was hysterical. Don’t know what draft it was, but it was written by Robert Smigel, who is a genius in my opinion. Then, I saw the first 30 [minutes or so of] the film when it came out, and I remember thinking to myself that it was a whole lot less hysterical than the draft I had read. In regards to Part 2 of your question, I don’t have some magic answer that. I know what I think is funny and interesting, and what gets me excited when I write. At a certain point, you make the leap in believing that gut instinct, and whether you can execute that onscreen, and then you go with that. 

 

In terms of being offensive: My favorite kind of comedy is comedy that advances and pushes “the line.” Whether it was Richard Pryor or George Carlin (and I am in no way comparing my comedy to theirs), the stuff I admired as a kid was the stuff that came right up to the line, crossed it, pulled back a little, and by doing so, advanced that line a little. I want to do stuff that isn’t necessarily safe.

 

 

The great thing about comedy is that it’s objective. If people laugh, then they’re laughing for a reason. And if they do laugh, then I “win.” I also think it’s in some ways easier to make people laugh using more taboo subjects like religion, sex, death ... these things make people uncomfortable and unsafe, so if you can get in there and release some of that discomfort, people appreciate that, I think. 

 

 

NYB: Getting back to the second question for a sec, There’s this idea of the “Jewish Revenge Flick” when it comes to those movies. How do you feel about the genre and would you characterize the Hammer as that sort of eye-for-an-eye character?

 

 

JK: Now that you mention it, I never even thought of that. “The Hammer” was an experiment with the Blaxploitation genre. Those films were (initially) made by African Americans and had a certain DNA which was [that] those filmmakers were tired of the onscreen stereotypes that portrayed African Americans. So, they decided to own the stereotypes by taking them, exaggerating them, but in the course of the same movie, beat the white man with them. For [example], the highly sexualized black man, the overly-aggressive and violent black youth, the mammy, and so on.

 

The notion was, if this is how White America sees us, let’s give them that, but in an exaggerated manner, and better yet, let’s have our protagonists sleep with the white woman, kill the white man, and get away with it. It was an empowering idea. For me, I was curious (but in a lot more comedy-based manner) to see if the same would work for Jews and Jewish stereotypes. When I met Adam Goldberg for the first time and we started discussing the character, I told him he’s got to be insanely neurotic and insanely cool all at once. 

 

NYB: What do you like most about working with Adam Goldberg and what are you looking forward to the most about re-teaming with him? 

 

 

JK: There’s a lot I love about working with Adam. First off, there’s not a Jewish actor I can think of who could better embody the character. No two ways around it, Adam is objectively very ‘cool.’ He also, objectively is, like me, maybe more than a tad neurotic  But apart from that, he is VERY funny, VERY creative, and VERY collaborative. When you’re making comedy, you don’t want to be the only one funny one with ideas,  you want every actor you cast to bring something to the party. Adam brings A LOT to the party, always. He’s always thinking, always adding, and always taking what I write to the next level.

 

He’s also a an actor’s actor. Meaning, he’s not just funny. He knows now to not wink when he’s delivering the lines. He plays comedy the way it’s intended to be played  - straight as death. And because of this, he grounds what it is, a pretty ridiculous and absurd world. This time around, I asked Adam to be my producing partner on it. He’s as excited and as invested in making this movie as I am, and I wanted him to feel that we were in it together. And that’s been great, as I think we’ve become a lot more comfortable with one another. Because of that, ideas and collaboration flow more easily, and there’s more trust, which will show up in a very positive way onscreen.




Courtesy of Jonathan Kesselman

NYB: Speaking of "onscreen" In your own words, what is so satisfying about seeing a Jew or group of Jews kicking butt onscreen?

 

 

JK: Going back to the Blaxploitation question ... when I was growing up, I remember seeing Jews onscreen that made me feel -- well, a little shitty about my own identity. Coming to mind are Joe Pesci’s character in the “Lethal Weapon” movies, etc. I also remember seeing “School Ties” and being inspired by Brendan Fraser’s character. Jews (and every minority group) are not just one “thing.” And I think it’s positive for us to see ourselves reflected as sexy [and] powerful alongside some of those other traits we see a lot: anxious, overly-analytical, nebbishy

 

NYB: Couldn’t agree more! Who are some of your favorite Jewish badasses from across history either fictional or non-fictional? 

 

 

JK: There are so many Jewish badasses, it’s hard to know where to start. Just look at any of the most accomplished folks in most fields, and you’ll find bad ass Jews. 

 

 

NYB: Given the fact that the sequel involves a time-jumping Hitler as well as a time-traveling Sukkah (love this concept to death, by the way), will the Hammer be teaming up with any of these badasses (perhaps biblical figures)? What can you tease about it other than the fact that our hero will be facing off against one of the most evil and anti-Semitic individuals of all time? For example, will Peter Coyote be returning as Esther’s father?

 

 

JK: Thanks! Yes, the Hammer will be encountering A LOT of Jews in history. I don’t want to spoil the fun, but yeah, many Jewish badasses will be portrayed onscreen. And Peter’s character is still in the movie. I’d LOVE for him to play Chief Bloomenbergensteinenthal again. He was in when we spoke about 5 years ago. I assume he’s still in. 

 

 

NYB: Is this the Jewish “Bill & Ted”??? 

 

 

JK: I like to pitch it as “Bill & Ted” meets “History Of The World.” Adam pitches it as “Bill & Ted” meets “Shoah.”

 

 




Courtesy of Jonathan Kesselman

NYB: What were your intentions with the first movie and what will be your intentions with the sequel? In other words, is their a certain message or takeaway you want to get across along with all the jokes? 

 

 

JK: I like to think that good comedy is a good idea packaged in the form of a joke. There are a lot of messages and takeaways throughout the movie. But overall, in regards to what we’re dealing with is Trump-land. Jews have been around for millennia, and we’ve been persecuted for as long. And because of this, we’ve learned to be funny. We’re still funny, and we aren’t going to let some orange, spray-tanned, cheesy reality TV conman and his tiki torch carrying friends change that.

 

 

 

NYB: Here! Here! And final question...Will more sequels or spin-offs be forthcoming after this one? What other scenarios would you like to place these characters in?

 

 

JK: There’s a lot I’d love to do, but first things first, we still need to get this one financed. So, here comes the ask ... we’re not there yet. We need people who believe in this to invest in the film in order to make it. Help us make this, and you have my guarantee that I will make one of the funniest, empowering, movies of next year. Then, after that, we can talk next “Hammer” projects. HERE is the link to the site where you can invest.

 

 

NYB: Thank you and I know I'm a day early, but Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

JK: 

 

 

 

 

For incentive, investors can get everything from a digital dowload of the finished sequel to a producing credit, depending on how much they give. 




Courtesy of Jonathan Kesselman

 

Hebrew Hammer

Jonathan Kesselman

Adam Goldberg

Judy Greer

blaxploitation

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