Jewish Comedy: A Serious history
W. W. Norton & Company
2017, 384 pp., $28.95
So glad to be discussing Jeremy Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History with one of my favorite comedy buffs, one of my top two brothers. You’re always pointing out funny stuff—in literature, on YouTube—so maybe you can help me figure out this book, which traces Jewish comedy roughly from the Book of Esther through Sarah Silverman.
Dauber is a Columbia professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture, whose accessible style also enhances his recent biography of Sholem Aleichem. His interest in Jewish literature skews comic, and he knows Yiddish and Hebrew as well as English, so he’s the right person to attempt this treatment of Jews and funniness from Sinai to Sandler. There have been biographies of individual Jewish comedians before, mostly American (Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Allan Sherman). There was Ruth Wisse’s excellent 2013 study of modern Jewish humor, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, and Lawrence Epstein’s creepily titled book about Jewish American comedy, The Haunted Smile, but there’s been no book as comprehensive as this one.
As one might expect, there is no one thesis stretching across the millennia, but rather a bunch of mini-theses. The arguments that stick out in my mind: Jews have a long history of absurdity and irony in our literature, going back to Torah; when oppressed (like most of the time), we often turn to jokes; we have never shied away from “embodied” humor, including the sexual and scatological; and, to paraphrase Freud, we are unique in so often turning our humor on ourselves.
My own experience as somebody who likes to laugh tells me that Dauber is largely right, especially about self-deprecation, which, if you think about it, is an umbrella for many of our comedy’s other features: If you can laugh at yourself, you’ll produce better humor about sex and the body than if you only aim your humor at others, in which case you’ll pretty quickly just seem cruel. A powerful moment in Dauber’s book comes when he writes of how, in 2006, an Iranian newspaper hosted a competition for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic cartoons. As Dauber tells it, “Amitai Sandy, an Israeli illustrator, announced a second, similar competition, this one open to Jews only: ‘We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew-hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!’”
Indeed, no aspect of Jewish culture makes me prouder than our facility with self-deprecation. It’s not always pretty; for example, I never liked the “Jewish American Princess” jokes so popular in the 1980s, which demeaned women but really demeaned the insecure men who told them. But it says something good about a people that we don’t locate any sacred cows in our own herd. Just this summer, after some Zionist marchers were expelled from the Chicago Dyke March, some local Jews began planning a Chicago Kike March. I thought, “Yeah, that’s my people.”
Dauber’s book left me with some unanswered questions, which maybe we can take up, such as: Are Sephardi or Mizrachi Jews as funny, or funny in the same way, as us Ashkenazim, who seem to carry the entire tradition of which Dauber writes, at least since the Enlightenment? To what extent did we corner American comedy because it was a lowbrow profession—and if so, why did the blacks join us in the gutter, while the Irish largely stuck to police work? And what’s up in England, where comedy is largely the province of lapsed Anglicans who speak the Queen’s English?
Yours in fraternity,
Good to be talking Jewish humor with you as well, you big Jew. Before I respond directly to your questions, I want to mention the two moments when I found myself compelled to put down the book and go to YouTube to watch something Dauber had referenced.
One was Amy Schumer’s skit, “The Museum of Boyfriend Wardrobe Atrocities,” which mocks both the conventions of Holocaust museums and the tragic style choices that boyfriends can make. It ends with a tour group gasping at the horror of a multi-colored mountain of old Crocs as if they’re the discarded shoes of gassed Jews at Auschwitz. “There are 5,200 pairs of crocs in front of you,” says the voice of the audio tour guide. “Each one represents a relationship that was real and tangible until poor judgment tore it apart.”
A little girl looks up at her mother and asks, “Did this really happen?” The mother squeezes her little girl’s shoulder. “It did, Gabby…It did.” Then the color drains out of the frame, leaving everything black and white except for the little girl’s blood-red jacket, as though it’s the book jacket of a young adult Holocaust novel.
The whole thing is delicious. My favorite moment comes in the Hall of Sighs, when a bearded white dude—a bad wardrobe denier—interrupts the solemn reverie of a woman to say, “I don’t think this many guys wore this stuff. These numbers are exaggerated.”
The second time I had to drop what I was reading and go directly to YouTube was when Dauber described Gilbert Gottfried’s telling of the joke “The Aristocrats” at Hugh Hefner’s Friars Club Roast on September 29, 2001. It was, writes Dauber, “one of the seminal moments in the history of offensive American comedy.”
Gottfried hadn’t intended to tell the joke that night. But his opening joke, about the attack on the Twin Towers a few weeks before, had elicited boos. “Too soon,” yelled someone from the audience. Rather than back away, Gottfried doubled down. His comic intuition told him that where there was tension and taboo, there was also the potential for laughter. So he didn’t just tell “the dirtiest, most tasteless joke ever told,” he told a particularly raunchy version of it.
I’d seen this clip before, in the documentary about the joke, but not for a while, and Dauber tells only a sanitized outline of the joke in the text of the book. It’s simply too filthy to repeat, out of context, without running the risk of alienating vast swaths of your audience. So I had to watch it again.
And Dauber was right. It’s great. But what’s interesting, in the context of our discussion of his book, is that it is a Jewish joke only in an indirect way. There are no Jews in Gottfried’s version of the joke. No Jewish references. Had Colin Quinn told it, it wouldn’t have been a Jewish joke. It would have been an Irish American joke, or maybe just a dirty joke. But Gottfried is Jewish, exaggeratedly so. The Friars Club, like the whole of American comedy, has been deeply influenced by Jews and Jewish culture. And the set-up of the joke, which involves a family pitching its live act to a talent agent, has a Jewish flavor to it. There’s no date or place on the encounter, but it feels like New York City in the vaudeville era.
It’s a Jewish joke, in other words, if we grant what Dauber says in his introduction, which is that the story of Jewish humor is fundamentally the story not of a type or class of humor, but of a tradition, with themes and through lines but no universal timeless essence. Humor can be uniquely Jewish by virtue of either its explicit content—the name of a protagonist, a Talmudic reference, etc.—or its organic relationship to the tradition. And it’s the tradition, more than the content, that gives jokes their real punch and meaning and humor.
To answer your question, then, about why Jews have been so influential in American humor, you’d have to answer so many related questions about Jewish and American history. Where and in what patterns did we settle? What kinds of professions did we practice? Why and how did we go into the entertainment industry in New York and Los Angeles? Where did we go for summer vacation, and what role did comic performers play as audience draws in the competition between Catskills resorts? And also, of course, what did we bring to America from the Old World when we came?
If Dauber’s book is a success, and I agree it is, it is no small part because he gives himself the freedom to consider many of these questions without requiring himself to answer all of them, or to provide an over-arching thesis of Jewish humor through the ages. He’s pretty loose, which enables him to be smart and proportional.
One question back at you, though, now that we’ve agreed that this is a good book. Where do you think it falters? When does it fail to persuade?
Okay, I’ll dive right in and answer your question. If there’s a big flaw in this totally enjoyable book, it’s that Dauber commits the blurbalist fallacy, so named because examples of it so often come as blurbs on the back of books. You know what I’m talking about: “Hilarious! A comic romp of the first order!” Or, “An absurdist journey, a witty human comedy that will give you the giggles!” And then you read the book, and maybe you smirk or grin once or twice, but you never, not once, break into a real laugh. Dauber wants to call the Book of Esther’s dramatic and cosmic irony “funny,” but it’s not funny in the same way that stories about the fools of Chelm are funny—and those stories aren’t funny the way Woody Allen, Nichols and May and Joan Rivers are funny. The first category is the wry nod, the second a big grin, the third a belly laugh.
Dauber is attuned to these distinctions, but he seems to say that the important category is a general disposition to funniness and irreverence, as if the fact that we could laugh at God in the Talmud meant we could laugh at our rabbis in the Middle Ages, and laugh at our Jewish mothers, and the rest of the world, today. I think there’s something to that, but the book would have benefited from one sustained section in which Dauber delved into the voluminous literature about humor, how it works and how it differs across times and cultures. Because, while I feel kinship with those ancient Jews, I actually don’t think we’d laugh at much of the same stuff.
Or is laughter even the point? I was talking to a second-generation American friend the other day, and she was saying that her immigrant father never laughs—at all. She said that a man like him, well born in his particular culture, just wouldn’t be caught guffawing. You can walk through haredi Jewish neighborhoods and it seems, to the uninitiated eye anyway, that the black-hatters on the streets don’t smile much, let alone laugh. Are their interior lives different—less humorful?—from the lives of urban black teenagers who laugh easily and whose culture competes with ours as an incubator of comedic talent? Dauber didn’t set out to explore these phenomenological questions, but I think he might have glanced at them.
So I’d like to posit a theory: Is it possible that we make people laugh because we ourselves like to laugh? “A Nazi sees a Jew walking toward him,” begins one of my favorite jokes in Dauber’s book. “As the Jew passes by, the Nazi says, ‘Schwein.’ The Jew tips his hat and replies, ‘Cohen.’” What’s great about that joke is, first, its sophistication—you have to be bilingual just to get it, at least outside of Germany—and, second, its economy. But the joke’s success also derives from the juxtaposition of the mocker and the mocked: The Nazi can insult the Jew, but the Jew can ridicule the Nazi, who, we may infer, doesn’t even get the joke.
Which calls to mind Robin Williams’s great line about funny people versus unfunny people. “I was on this German talk show, and this woman said to me, ‘Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?’” But Williams isn’t done yet. “And here’s where it got interesting,” he went on. “She didn’t bat an eyelash. She just went, ‘No.’ At that point even God’s going, ‘DO YOU GET IT?’”
Maybe Jews give it because we get it?
I agree. I don’t think he ever made clear what he meant by “funny” or “humorous.” The benefit of this ambiguity was that he was able to include a lot of material that was historically interesting or relevant but wasn’t exactly funny or humorous. It cost him something, though, in terms of clarity and consistency. You could sense the strain, sometimes, when he was trying to cram that square history into the round hole of comedy. (That would be a great title for a Nicholson Baker novel, by the way: The Round Hole of Comedy.)
I suspect that on some level he really wanted to write a history of Jewish American humor, with some background on its antecedents, and some room to include emigres like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The writing came alive most when he was dealing with the more American, more contemporary material. But he made the decision to include the whole megillah, and so he was bound by that.
So not a perfect book, but a very good one. And maybe, to give him the benefit of the doubt, it was just an unsolvable problem because funny is almost always so contextual. What was hilarious to the Pharisees is almost certainly not going to be funny to us, unless it involves one of them getting kicked in the balls (which is timeless). Generally, the farther you are in time and space from the culture that produced the comedy, the less likely it is you’ll find it funny. And of course the ancient Israelites couldn’t film themselves. They may have been hilarious in all sorts of ways, but when they sat down with their scrolls, it wasn’t the funny stuff they chose to preserve for posterity. So precisely the source material that would have allowed Dauber to draw the straightest lines from then to now is the least plentiful.
We can’t answer, then, the question we really want to answer, which is whether Jews have always been funny, and if so, why? But I wonder if we can say something slightly different, less about humor and comedy per se than about the roles that Jews have played, at various times and places, within gentile cultures. And I’m going to refer, as you may have guessed I would sooner or later, to Leslie Fiedler’s great essay, “Master of Dreams: The Jew in the Gentile World.”
The argument is too complex to detail too fully here, but the important point is that Jews in the diaspora, for Fiedler, have compulsively, mostly unconsciously dedicated themselves to understanding their complex Jewish identities in exile, and also their relationship to the lands to which they’ve been exiled, in which they are minorities, often despised and oppressed minorities. The dialectic that results, between the Jewish alien and the culture that sees his as alien, ends up producing not just profound insight into the Jewish soul but into the depths of the alien culture as well. As Fiedler writes, “the Jewish Dreamer in Exile, thinking only of making his own dreams come true, ends by deciphering the alien dreams of that world as well.”
“Dreams,” for Fiedler, aren’t literally dreams. They’re visual art, literature, film, poetry, even philosophical science of the sort that someone like Sigmund Freud did. And, though he doesn’t focus on it too much, comedy.
You write, “Is it possible that we make people laugh because we ourselves like to laugh?” From the Fiedler perspective, the answer is a very profound yes. In wrestling with our own diasporic Jewish demons, and processing them and bringing them to the surface in the form of humor, we are somehow doing a similar kind of work for our gentile hosts. Which of course adds an additional layer of interest and poignancy to that great Robin Williams story. Maybe the Germans didn’t just kill all the funny people. Maybe they killed us because we were funny.
P.S. Was there ever any way we weren’t going to end on the Holocaust?
Mark Oppenheimer is editor at large for Tablet, for which he hosts the podcast Unorthodox.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a filmmaker and the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.