What’s So Funny About Jews and Comedy? Erev RH 5779

Ok, stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Two old Jewish men are sitting on a park bench. One looks at the other and says, “Oy.” The other looks back and says, “Oy.” This is repeated again and again until the first older man says, “I thought we weren’t going to talk politics today.”[1]

How about:

A Jewish mother is sitting at her daughter’s inauguration as the nation’s first Jewish president. At the inauguration, a stranger leans over and whispers in the mother’s ear, “You must be so proud! Your daughter is the president of the United States!” Whereupon the Jewish mother responds, “Yes, but her brother is a doctor!”[2]

Okay, one more (for now):

A Jewish grandmother takes her handsome young grandson to the beach. The boy is close to the incoming waves and unexpectedly gets knocked down by a powerful wave and is washed out into the ocean. The Jewish grandmother, unable to swim, screams in terror that her grandchild is drowning, pleads for someone to save him, and prays to God for help. As if God hears her anguished cries, a young, muscular lifeguard appears and dives into the water. The lifeguard brings the blue-looking boy to shore and begins to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him while the grandmother continues to pray. Soon, water spurts from the boy’s mouth and he is breathing. The lifeguard reassures the grandmother that her grandson is going to be okay. Whereupon the old lady nods, unclasps her hands from the prayer position, and, with a bit of an edge in her voice, says, “HE HAD A HAT.”[3]

Jews and comedy go way back. If you sit and think about all of the major figures who have seemed to shape the comedy landscape – in stand-up, in television, in film, in books, and in theater – so many of the most noteworthy are Jewish. Many of us who enjoy the comedy genre feel quite proud of the fact that so many of the greatest contributors are Jewish.

But, first, we should determine – what is Jewish humor?

Jeremy Dauber in his recent master work, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, suggests two conditions which should be met for a joke or piece of work to be considered Jewish humor. First, he specifies that Jewish humor has to be produced by Jews. Second: Jewish humor must have something to do with either contemporary Jewish living or historical Jewish existence.[4]

The Big Book of Jewish Humor, edited by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, goes further by identifying some of the trends. It suggests that Jewish humor, as social or political commentary, is sarcastic, complaining, ironic – sometimes the point of the humor is more important than the laughter it delivers. Jewish humor tends to be anti-Authoritarian, ridiculing grandiosity and hypocrisy. It is strongly democratic, stressing the dignity and worth of the common folk. Jewish humor frequently has a critical edge with can create discomfort while making its point. And Jewish humor mocks everyone – including God – at the same time that it affirms religious traditions and cultural heritage.[5]

I would add to this that there seems to be a Jewish lens through which many of us see the world – an intense, critical, explorative view that goes back centuries, which allows us to mull over our experiences, all while turning them upside and inside out. So, even though a particular joke may not have something directly to do with being Jewish, there can be a style or a pattern that is familiar to Jews.

But – why so many Jews in comedy? Why did we gravitate towards this art form and play a central role in shaping it?

Most often, people believe that Jewish comedy began as a response to persecution and anti-Semitism. In the midst of our powerlessness, at the very least, we could crack jokes. Humor, therefore, has been viewed as “a kind of coping strategy, a display of resilience under historically tragic circumstances.”[6]

In a 2013 documentary entitled, When Jews Were Funny, comedian David Steinberg felt that this persecution is key when it comes to good comedy. He said:

The thing that helps humor is oppression. The thing that kills humor is assimilation. That group, that immigrant group that came over – your grandparents, your parents to a degree, yes, there’s something lost in assimilating. If you had a great childhood and a good marriage and a little bit of money, you’re gonna make a lousy stand-up comedian. The Jewish dilemma was that they had nothing, so it just poured – it came out of their pores, really.

Howie Mandel then takes it to another level. He said:

I think that comedy ultimately comes from darkness. It does. Because that sense of humor is a great conduit to survival. And I think that, as Jews, just culturally, we suffer a lot of pain. And even when there isn’t pain to be suffered, we enjoy giving it to ourselves. We’ve gone through the hardest, toughest time. I think other cultures have also. But,…We’re very comfortable kvetching. Even when things are good, we question that. How are things doing? Ehhh, they’re doing.….And that’s why we answer questions with questions, because we can’t even face the wonderfulness. ‘How are you?’ ‘How am I?’ We might want to say I’m fine, but it’s not right for a Jew to just be fine.”

One of the earliest examples of Jewish humor is built on a story of anti-Semitism and near destruction for the Jewish people. A number of scholars suggest that the foundations of Jewish humor go all the way back, thousands of years, to the Book of Esther.

The Book of Esther contains the story of Esther and Mordechai, who secretly infiltrate the Palace in Shushan, Persia, which allows them to outsmart evil Haman and incompetent King Ahasuerus, thus saving the Jewish people. It’s the first work to feature the joyful celebration and comic pleasure that comes with an anti-Semite’s downfall and the victory over someone who meant to eradicate us. Though we don’t view it as funny-ha-ha, many biblical scholars do believe that it was written as parody. We can see why this text led to the tradition of Purim Spiels and other parodies during the festival of Purim.

We can fast forward from biblical days all the way to the Talmud, written around the year 500 CE. I see in the Talmud the methods of inquiry and examination which lead to the clever observational humor we enjoy today. Think of Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with decaf? How do they get the caffeine out of there, and then where does it go?”[7] Since we have always been encouraged to interpret our texts, to question our teachers, and to debate each other with enthusiasm, these skills easily translate into a way of interacting with the secular world.

A few texts of the Talmud stand out for their intrinsic humor.

A baby pigeon that is found within fifty cubits of a coop belongs to the coop’s owner. If it is found outside of the fifty cubits, then it belongs to the finder. Rabbi Yirmiyah asked: If one foot of the pigeon is within the fifty cubits, and one foot is outside, to whom does it belong? … It was for this that they expelled Rabbi Yirmiyah from the academy. (BT Bava Batra 23b)[8]

And there’s:

Some say the Emperor said to Rabban Gamaliel: “I know the number of the stars in the heavens.” Rabban Gamaliel replied: “How many molars and other teeth do you have?” He put his hand to his mouth and began counting them. Rabban Gamaliel said: “You don’t know what is in your mouth but you do know what is in heaven?” (BT Sanhedrin 39a)

These forms of Jewish humor have little to do with anti-Semitism or fear. Rather, they reflect our enjoyment for word-play, puzzles, and intellectual inquiry. There’s also a segment of Jewish humor which highlights the belief that Jews are different from – or even better than – everyone else. Definitely a contrast from the inferiority we express in other jokes. Really, so much about Jewish humor is a contradiction. We long to fit into American culture but we still cling to that which makes us distinct. We brag about our success while still demanding even more success. There is reverence for Jewish family at the same time that we endlessly mock Jewish grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. There is a mourning over the loss of Yiddishkeit concurrent with an embrace of assimilation.

And Yiddishkeit itself, as embodied by the archetypal Yiddish-speaking grandparent, became its own category of humor, which Marc Maron describes:

Were they trying to be funny? No. Are we laughing AT them? Yeah. Most of what we’re referencing is a series of tics and idiosyncrasies that are hilarious because they comfort us. What is it, how many Jewish grandmothers does it take to screw in a light-bulb? None. I’ll sit in the dark. That character in that joke is not a funny person. It’s the stereotype that’s funny.[9]

On the other hand, these Yiddish curses are certainly trying to be funny:

May your bones be broken as often as the Ten Commandments.

May all your teeth fall out, except one to give you a toothache.[10]

May you turn into a lulav, so I can shake you for seven days and put you away for the rest of the year.

May your husband’s father marry three times so you’ll have three mothers-in-law.[11]

And, just the right amount of Yiddish inflection is necessary to tell this joke:

After the waiter sets the bowl down on the table, the man asks him to try the soup, and the waiter says, “Is it too hot?” The man says, “No, just try the soup.” The waiter says, “Is it too cold?” The man says, “No, just try the soup, please.” “Does it need more seasoning?” “No, no, just try the soup.” The waiter finally agrees and says, “Where’s the spoon?” The man says, “Aha!”[12]

Many of the classics came out of Vaudeville and the Borscht Belt. Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye – all got starts as pool tummlers, “resident offstage entertainers at Jewish mountain resorts, mostly after lunch.”[13]

As Howie Mandel reminisced, “I played the Concord. I still have the menu, it said Brisket, Soup, Howie Mandel. I’m on the menu. Comedy is like part of the weekend. You eat, and you laugh. Laughter is part of the Jewish diet.”[14]

And there were the stars of the early days of television, especially The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show.

That’s where we get Henny Youngman’s finest one-liners, like:

You know, tonight, ladies and gentleman, you’re looking at a guy who’s been married for 34 years, and I’m still in love with the same woman. And if my wife ever finds out, she’d kill me.

I’ll never forget our wedding night. God knows I’ve tried.[15]

My doctor says to me: You’re sick. I say: I want another opinion. He says: Okay, you’re ugly, too.[16]

The great standup comedian, Myron Cohen, tells the classic about an older Jewish man in Miami who suffers a heart attack right on Collins Avenue and is helped to a stretcher by a young Jewish nurse, who puts a pillow under the elderly man’s head and asks: “Are you comfortable?” The old Jew responds, with a Yiddish inflection, “I make a living.”

Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Bea Arthur, Bette Midler – the list of influential Jewish performers is enormous.

For many of the earliest creators of popular culture, it was virtually impossible to separate their work from their Jewishness. Robert Klein, in the 70’s, felt that if you were going to draw on your own life for your comedy, and your own life was Jewish, then you were going to have to incorporate Jewishness into your own routines, no more – but also no less – than other aspects of your identity.[17]

Norman Lear, arguably the most important figure in the history of the sitcom – would in shows like All in the Family and Maude, take on the issues of the day and place them in the mouths of ordinary Americans. Though Lear’s characters weren’t explicitly Jewish, Lear insisted that many of the interactions and situations in his sitcoms were influenced by ones he had heard and experienced in his own home.[18]

Film and Television became integral transmitters of Jewish humor and a certain Jewish sentiment, even when this humor was controversial or even bordered on offensive. Mel Brook’s film, The Producers, revered and beloved today, was actually a critical and commercial flop when it came out. In the many interviews he’s done, Brooks suggests consistently that The Producers was part of a strong, aggressive, deliberate strategy of getting revenge on Hitler and Nazism by reducing it to ridicule.[19] It was a way to fight back. You can see the way that today’s comedians like Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer’s irreverent comedy are direct descendants of this comedic lens: take something oppressive and reduce it to something ridiculous.

Sasha Baron Cohen takes delight in displaying hypocrisy in the US and the UK, especially related to racism and anti-Semitism. He did this brilliantly with his “Bruno” and his “Borat” characters. Most memorably, and uncomfortably, Borat leads a real-life audience at a Country and Western bar in a rousing rendition of the Kazakhstani classic, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”[20] The crowd’s eager participation in the sing-along is distressing, but also exactly Baron Cohen’s point.[21]

Seinfeld, and then Curb Your Enthusiasm, are both famous for being about normal everyday life (or even shows about “nothing”). Larry David found himself in more overtly, and potentially offensive, Jewish situations than did Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George, but the clever Jewish lens is undeniable in both series.

On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart frequently injected a Yiddish word, or acquired a Jewish vocal inflection or inserted a reference to his Jewishness. One of the funniest moments took place at the Emmy Awards in 2003, where Stewart brought his writers onstage to accept an award.[22] As a line of homogenous white men stretched out behind him, Stewart made fun of the group: “I’ve always felt that diversity is the most important part of a writing staff. I don’t know if you can tell, but Steve has a beard, and J.R. isn’t Jewish.”[23] Note, as well, that there wasn’t a single woman on that entire writing staff, but that’s a story for another day.

One of my current heroes is Rachel Bloom, whose show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is a hilarious, real, heartfelt, absurd comedy, and each episode contains multiple musical numbers (which is of course why I love it). One of the most memorable scenes takes place in the 2nd season when her character, Rebecca, returns to her Jewish family in Scarsdale, N.Y. for a family Bar Mitzvah. She’s upset that her non-Jewish boyfriend is having fun at the occasion, while she is miserable. When the guests dance a hora at the reception, Rebecca explains to Josh that the song doesn’t mean that the people are happy. To prove the point, the rabbi, played by Patti Lupone, and Rebecca’s mother, played by Tovah Feldshuh, break out into a klezmer piece called, “Remember That We Suffered.”[24]

 [RABBI]
Now it’s time to celebrate
Grab a drink and fix a plate
But, before you feel too great
Remember that we suffered

Nights like these are filled with glee
Noshing, dancing, singing, whee!
But we sing in a minor key
To remember that we suffered

[PARTYGOERS]
Being happy is selfish
Remember that we suffered

[RABBI]
You have no idea what pain is

[PARTYGOERS]
Remember that we suffered
Hey!

Bringing all of these strands, eras, personalities, and influences together, I really appreciated how comedian and producer Mark Breslin summed up Jewish comedy:

“Comedy [is] Jewish Jazz. It was our people’s way of expressing our powerlessness and our intelligence at the same time. All comedy, I think, comes from frustration. People say it comes from pain, but I don’t want to go that far, ‘cause it’s not quite true. We feel we have to say something. We have to talk about this. We have no choice….[and] We don’t care what people think of us in quite the same way, ‘cause we’ve got our community to back us up. We’re able to say things that the gentile community only wished they could say. The history of 20th century humor is Jewish. Period.”[25]

And Michael Krasny, in Let There Be Laughter, writes, “In the end, the jokes and humor feed memory, emotion, nostalgia, identity, community, and longing. Perhaps, as important, they can bring wisdom and meaning. The world will continue to change, often in ways that challenge, plague, and haunt us. But my hope is that the jokes and the humor will remain an ongoing part of many lives…”[26]

Look, at this time of year, we are at our most self-critical. And, it’s by design – it’s the point of these 10 Days of Awe. We turn these inherited observational skills inward, and we don’t always like what we see. Our crystal clear recollections of mistakes and wounds churn within us. I hope that, in the spirit of our people’s clever comedians, we all take things with a grain of salt – but not too much salt, remember your blood pressure. Maybe we’ll even allow ourselves to laugh when remembering something challenging, awkward, or embarrassing. Humor, laughter, and irreverence are as much a long-standing part of our tradition as study or prayer.  Like Mel Brooks, or Sarah Silverman, use humor to be brave, to make a statement, to challenge the status quo, and to stare down tyranny. And when we inevitably face life’s hardships and trials, we can tap into generations of strength, creativity, and resilience, as our people have done for centuries.

I’ll close with one last joke, one which pokes fun at Reform Rabbis (After all this, I should be the target of one of the jokes, yes?):

Three modern rabbis are arguing about which of the three is the most progressive.
“I am definitely the most progressive,” says the first rabbi. “We allow smoking during services.”

“That’s nothing,” replies the second rabbi. “We serve pork spareribs during Yom Kippur.”

“Not bad, replies the third rabbi. “But I have you all beat. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we post signs at my temple – Closed for the Holidays.”[27]

Shanah Tovah!

 


References:

Dauber, Jeremy. Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

Krasny, Michael. Let There Be Laughter. New York: William Morrow, 2016.

Maccoby, Hyam. The Day God Laughed: Sayings, Fables, and Entertainments of the Jewish Sages. London: Robson Books, 1987.

Novak, William and Moshe Waldoks, eds. The Big Book of Jewish Humor. New York: HarperPerennial, 1981.

When Jews Were Funny. Dir. Alan Zweig. Perf. Rodney Dangerfield, Gilbert Gottfried, Marc Maron, Bob Einstein. Sudden Storms Productions, 2013. Amazon Prime, September 4, 2018.

[1] Let There Be Laughter, p. 222
[2] LTBL, p. 12
[3] LTBL, p. 2
[4] Jewish Comedy, p. xii
[5] Big Book, pp. xx-xxi
[6] Jewish Comedy, p. 3
[7] Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/59044/whats-deal-whats-deal-did-seinfeld-actually-say-it
[8] The Day God Laughed, p. 136
[9] When Jews Were Funny
[10] Jewish Comedy, p. 117
[11] Big Book of Jewish Humor, p. 152-153
[12] LTBL, p. 246
[13] Jewish Comedy, p. 162
[14] When Jews Were Funny
[15] When Jews Were Funny
[16] LTBL, p. 170
[17] Jewish Comedy, p. 93
[18] Jewish Comedy, p. 94
[19] Jewish Comedy, p. 165
[20] Retrieved at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vb3IMTJjzfo
[21] Jewish Comedy, p. 48
[22] Retrieved at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0achuXf3fg8
[23] Jewish Comedy, p. 100
[24] Retrieved at https://genius.com/Crazy-ex-girlfriend-cast-remember-that-we-suffered-lyrics.
[25] When Jews Were Funny
[26] LTBL, p. 279
[27] LTBL, p. 135

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