The Six with Jamie Elman of Yidlife Crisis
In this edition of The Six we caught up with creator/actor (also, musician) Jamie Elman to discuss the critically acclaimed webseries Yidlife Crisis, which he co-created with Eli Batalion. YidLife Crisis garnered the comedy award during the 2015 T.O. WebFest and was recently nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. In their own words, Yidlife Crisis is “Drinking in the very best that Montreal's multicultural Mile End has to offer… best friends and debating adversaries, tackle life, love, and lactose intolerance in this foodie centric web series done entirely in their grandparents' Yiddish”.
1. Mazel Tov! You were nominated for a Canadian Screen (CSA) award. Did you see it coming?
No. I did not see it coming; absolutely not. I mean look, first of all we were nominated for our first season. We are now actually accepted into the T.O. Web Fest for our second season. Psychologically when we created the first season we didn’t think or know that anyone would watch it outside of perhaps our mothers who we would have to force to watch it and explain what YouTube is and stuff like that. So no: when we made the first season for sure, nevermind not being able to imagine being nominated for a CSA, we didn’t think that anyone would see it because you know, it’s a weird thing, it’s a Yiddish comedy webseries.
We were in the room there the other night, on Wednesday night for the awards, and it’s, you know, The Establishment, the Capitol E Establishment. And we feel that we made this show sort of in a little bubble and not for the establishment. We made it for ourselves, and so no; we were very honoured and surprised and as we say in Yiddish it was a koved just to be nominated.
2. I read that neither you nor Eli are native Yiddish speakers and that you actually wrote all of your lines down in English, had them translated, and then had to relearn the lines in Yiddish.
Eli and I both went to Bialik high school in Montreal that taught Yiddish; one of the few places in the world that does. I only started it in high school. Eli actually went to the elementary school version of it; so he had Yiddish from all through elementary school to the end of high school. And his family, his grandparents are native Yiddish speakers and his parents also speak Yiddish so he heard it in the home growing up and he learned it for 12 years and he was actually the Yiddish Valedictorian at our high school. I did not have Yiddish in the home. Although, my grandparents did speak Yiddish, I have only really known one of my grandparents and her Yiddish is sort of long gone. I only learned Yiddish starting from grade 7, so it didn’t really stick. I learned how to read it. And I can write it. But I can’t really speak it.
Eli speaks it better than he says he does. [clears throat] But neither of us are native Yiddish speakers by a long shot. So, yes, the process is to write it in English and then we translate it, which has been sort of an iterative process. The way we did it in the first season is different than what we did in the second season. The first season was little more by committee; going to different Yiddish speakers. Different kinds of Yiddish speakers, including Eli’s family; and sort of cobbling it together in a way…
But what we decided to do for the second season is go to a hard core Yiddishist, our lererin, that means teacher, Rivka Augenfeld, who’s a native Yiddish speaker and she’s a lifelong board member at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal and basically upped our game with the Yiddish in the second season. Eli is able to learn the lines faster and, you know, maybe improvise a little bit in a way I -- don’t. I’ve learned it sort of phonetically. But I guess-- probably my Yiddish has gotten a little betterthrough doing two seasons of this and now I’m able to have a little bit more ease with it. But it’s still a mega challenge.
In terms of the writing of it though, while we do write it in English, we know as we’re writing it in English that we’re gonna be performing it in Yiddish; so we write it with an eye to how it’s gonna flow in English. And since Eli has a decent background on it we can sort of anticipate what the flow is gonna be. But we also know that 99% of our audience is gonna be (hopefully) enjoying the show by reading the subtitles. So the script is written in a way that we know it’s gonna be read. So it’s tricky because we have to make it sort of natural and conversational, and again I think we’ve worked on this from the first season to the second season and are more aware of how the subtitles are going to work…
Normally you’re not writing a script that you know is going to be read onscreen; this is sort of a matrix of factors of how we write it which is both how is it going to sound in Yiddish, how is the line in Yiddish going to line up performance wise with subtitles. They call this scanning … we want our dialogue in Yiddish, and our physical performance of it, and the inflection of it, to reflect what you’re reading on screen: in other words there’s many ways to translate any line and if the line, just to put it in a very simplistic way, if the line ends in a question then we have to make sure we perform it as a question. You know what I mean?
So when we’re working with a translater, it’s like, “Okay, there’s 10 ways of saying that sentence. We need the one that is shortest to perform onscreen so it lines up with what the subtitle’s gonna be. And even though you can say this as a statement, we want it to read onscreen as a question, so it needs to be one of the question versions of it. And it needs to be short enough that it lines up timing wise with how we’re gonna say it. So all those factors go into the writing of it and the performance.
3. Sometimes what your characters say verbally is slightly different from the subtitles.
Well… we’ve always approached it that there are going to be jokes in there, sometimes we say “J for J, Jokes for Jews”, so we have certain winks to the audience, depending who on the audience is. So we know that, jokes or lines, that Jews are gonna, that non-Jews might not. We have jokes in there that Yiddishists, Yiddish speakers, will hear us say one thing and will translate it differently on screen. That’s a double joke. It has to work onscreen in English, but if you actually speak Yiddish and if you heard what we said, then you know that we actually hid another joke in there for the Yiddishists.
And then, I can say the same thing in the first season especially what we did for Montrealers. Like, there are references to Montreal that we know non-Montrealers don’t get—but they still have to work for anybody watching. But if you’re from Montreal then you got what we just did. Including throwing in a word of French, you know. Like, for example in the very first episode we translate, I say, the word
which is of course a classic French Canadian swear word. Now, what tabernac actually means literally is tabernacle, which refers to Christian iconography, which is where a lot of French Canadian swearing comes from—references to the church, which is considered very, very bad language. But the way we translate it on screen is for me going to say
Well, if you’re a French Canadian, or a Quebecor or a Montrealer, or a Canadian then you know the word tabernac; you know I didn’t just say Jesus Christ. It becomes a double joke, you know?
4. I’m just going to backtrack here. Going back to the awards and to T.O. Web Fest, did you find that anything changed for once you started to receive recognition? I remember you won the comedy award from T.O. Webfest
I’m not sure what it changed in terms of the business aspect of anything for us. I think what winning the award at T.O. Webfest did was probably more to do with, you know, emboldening us, building our confidence, and encouraging us to make the second season… which we already wanted to by the time T.O. Webfest rolled around last year, but, um, we’d already been screened in a bunch of Jewish film festivals and stuff like that, but T.O. Web Fest is not a Jewish film festival and, Toronto is Toronto and it suddenly felt like we had achieved a goal that we didn’t know we would have achieved, which was, even though the show is in Yiddish and talks about Jewish things, a non-Jewish audience would understand that the show is not actually about Judaism at all. The show is about all religion, and all culture, and all crises. So, winning that award for us was like “Okay. So, you know, non-Jews get it. It works. And so, let’s actually, when we go into season 2 make it even more accessible for non-Jewish audiences, non-Yiddish speaking people.” It was just a vote of confidence that we really appreciated.
5. What’s next on your plate?
We did two things when we kicked off the second season.
First of all we shot an episode entirely in English with Howie Mandel. And that was sort of a proof of concept that we could play versions of our YidLife characters, which are like our alter egos, as ourselves. And we called ourselves Jamie and Eli, not Chaimie and Leizer.
The second thing we did … having Howie in it was, you know, like a celebrity cameo. Proof that we could work with other comedians: hopefully Jewish and non-Jewish as we move forward.
And the other thing we did was have the Yiddish be just and aspect of the show and not do the entire thing in Yiddish.
And that was a Pre-Season 2, we called it, like a “special bonus episode”, or something. And then we launched Season 2 with a 16 minute short film which we called Off the Top. And that was our first real attempt at doing a longer-form version of it which is basically 50/50 in Yiddish and English; where in the first season we did not speak English ever. And now like I said to sort of open the world and make it more accessible to the audience.
And we also never explained in the first season why we’re speaking in Yiddish… which is a much longer answer. But in the Season 2 premier we show we’re using Yiddish in a real-world organic way. And when we’re in public with non-Yiddish speakers we speak English. It’s not just this … absurdist world where everybody speaks Yiddish for no reason.
What we’re doing right now is looking to expand the show, expand the world, and do a longer form narrative version of the show. Which is basically a re-imagining of the whole thing … It’s not really Yid Life Season 3. It would be under a new banner presumably, or possibly. And it would be sort of longer form stories, more narrative structure, recurring characters. And a bigger show in terms of the scope of the show, the characters, the location, the world … But either way we know it’s going to be a bigger, bolder, schmutzier, more schmedriky ver.., I don’t know, I’m just throwing Yiddish right now.
But we’re in the process of developing and creating the pitch and the template for this longer version which might be a webseries, might be for television and we can even foresee potentially a feature version of it at some point down the line in different incarnations.
6. One very last question before we go. Can you offer a piece of advice for someone who wants to start their own webseries but doesn’t think anyone will watch it other than maybe their family if they’re forced to?
I suppose the advice would be make it anyway. Because if we can make a Yiddish webseries, and everybody told us when we first talked about it
“It’s so niche.”
“It’s so Jewish”
“It’s in a foreign language that no one speaks”
“You’re forcing people to read subtitles”
“Whose this for? No one’s gonna see it.”
We won The T.O. Web Fest for best comedy and we were just nominated at The Canadian Screen Awards. So: do it anyway. …
be true to yourself, do something authentic. You don’t have to sort of placate and try and make something you think people will watch. Our M.O. for the beginning has always been “we wanna make eachother laugh.” And we did. And we do. And people found it. That’s the beauty of the web. You put it out there, it’s out there. YouTube: the second you hit “publish” it’s out there for the whole world to see.
For additional info about Yidlife Crisis or to enjoy the series yourself visit http//www.yidlifecrisis.com
Also, see Yidlife Crisis at T.O. Webfest May 27-29
Contributing writer: Anaïs Rozencwajg
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