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Pulling no punch lines: 'Humor Me' director and his Delray Beach dad

Early on in their relationship, Sam Hoffman’s wife had some advice for him to consider the next time they were at a dinner party or family function: It’s OK to slow down, chew your food and swallow it before dropping the punch line to a joke into the conversation. The line can wait. No need to rush.

“I said, ‘I don’t know. That’s not how I was raised,’ ” Hoffman says, laughing.

A veteran director with numerous small and large-screen credits on his résumé, Hoffman comes from a long line of dinner-table comedians, multiple generations of siblings who didn’t allow a mouthful of food to get in the way of a perfectly timed gag. This family history helped to inform his hit internet video series (later a best-selling book and an off-Broadway play), “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” Among those cracking wise onscreen from the beginning of the series were Hoffman’s parents, Delray Beach snowbirds Barnett and Diane Hoffman.

After assisting on films by Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, Richard Linklater and Nicholas Hytner, and with his topical CBS political drama “Madam Secretary” now in its fourth season, Hoffman is making his feature-film directorial debut with “Humor Me,” opening Friday, Jan. 26, in South Florida theaters.

“Humor Me” follows the plight of Nate, a down-on-his-luck New York playwright whose art-dealer wife leaves him for a French billionaire, prompting the melancholy middle-ager to move in with his father, Bob, a chronic joke teller, in a retirement community. Living among the seniors, Nate finds redemption while helping put on a production of “The Mikado,” finding the companionship of a similarly aimless musician (played by indie-rocker Ingrid Michaelson) and ultimately, after some conflict, embracing his father’s relentless mirth.

The cast of “Humor Me” includes Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords (Nate), veteran actor Elliott Gould (Bob), Annie Potts (“Young Sheldon”) and Broadway star (and former “Madam Secretary” cast member) Bebe Neuwirth.

The film opened to positive reviews from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, the latter calling the coming-of-middle-age story “smart, warm and authentic thanks to Clement’s enjoyably hangdog turn and Hoffman’s wonderfully incisive script.”

Hoffman, who wrote the script and filmed “Humor Me” during his downtime from “Madam Secretary” (production also was delayed while Clement worked on Steven Spielberg’s 2016 fantasy “The BFG”), says the film does have its autobiographical elements.

“My wife is an art dealer. As of today, as we speak, she has not yet left me for a French billionaire,” Hoffman says. “But she has let me know … it depends how the [‘Humor Me’] box office is.”

Speaking by phone from his “Madam Secretary” office in New York’s Long Island City, Hoffman cites his father as someone he listened to while calibrating the “cadence” of the dialogue in “Humor Me.” It is a father-son relationship that has always put a premium on comedic timing and delivery.

With his father on the call from his home in Delray Beach, Hoffman traces the genesis of the film back to “Old Jews Telling Jokes” and the cultural significance of comedy.

“It inspired me to write Elliott’s character, who was this guy who tells jokes to keep people emotionally at arm’s length. Which is a type that you find,” Hoffman says. “It’s not my dad. My dad is, you know, very emotionally present. Right, Dad?”

After a half beat of comedic hesitation, retired judge Barnett Hoffman intones, “Yes.”

A New Jersey superior court judge for more than two decades, Barnett Hoffman is a lawyer who for the past four years has spent winters with his wife at Palm Greens, a 55-and-older community in central Delray Beach.

Sam was headed toward a career in jurisprudence, like his father and his father’s father, before trading a spot at Georgetown Law School for film school at NYU.

“He told me, ‘Just don’t tell me you’re going to go find yourself,’” Sam says, laughing, before his father interjects: “Because in my day, if you went to find yourself, you found yourself in the Army.”

Anyone who has seen Judge Hoffman’s bits in “Old Jews Telling Jokes” knows that he managed to walk away from years immersed in serious criminal cases with his sense of humor intact. He’ll have it on display when he introduces an opening-day screening of “Humor Me” 10:30 a.m. Friday, Jan. 26, at the Movies of Delray. About 50 of the Hoffmans’ South Florida friends are expected to attend, but the screening is open to anyone, he says.

The film also is scheduled to open on Friday at the Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, the Last Picture Show at Tamarac 5 and the AMC Aventura 24.

Some of the credit for his son’s sense of humor goes to genetics, the judge says, with the elder Hoffman’s Uncle Max famous in family lore for his time trading jokes with well-known comics on the borscht-belt circuit. Sam’s mother also provided critical comedic DNA: Search OldJewsTellingJokes.com for “Diane Hoffman” and “Broccoli,” the judge says.

“She tells the funniest joke of them all,” her husband says of a routine that invokes the mother of all curse words. “If you push her two, three, maybe five seconds, you can get her to tell it.”

“Humor Me” is set in one of the many retirement communities built on former cranberry bogs near Exit 8A off the New Jersey Turnpike, but both men agree the themes are universal.

“Dad, do you remember when we visited Uncle Dave one time and I parked the car with the bumper in some other guy’s driveway and he yelled at me?” Sam asks. (“That’s a serious infraction,” the judge says.) “Yeah, I’ve probably been called ‘schmuck’ three or four times in these places. They are rife with conflict.”

Judge Hoffman says that even with his experience at New Jersey retirement communities, life in South Florida has been an eye opener.

“It’s funny. I think it’s funny, watching people drive, who can’t see over the steering wheel. It’s really funny going to these restaurants … and all the walkers are lined up outside the bathroom,” he says, laughing. “It’s not funny, but it’s funny.”

Barnett Hoffman will introduce a 10:30 a.m. screening of “Humor Me” Friday, Jan. 26, at the Movies of Delray, 7421 W. Atlantic Ave., in Delray Beach. Call 561-638-0020 or go to MoviesOfDelray.com. For more on the film, go to HumorMeMovie.com.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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