Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, by Jeremy Dauber (W.W. Norton & Co., 364 pp., $28.95)

Interviewed once on German television, the late Robin Williams was asked, “Why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?”

“Did you ever think,” Williams snapped, “you killed off all the funny people?”

Leave it to a Gentile to summarize the Jewish experience in seven words.

In Jewish Comedy, Jeremy Dauber takes 364 pages to come to the same conclusion. Still, along the way the Columbia University professor presents a cornucopia of worthy Biblical citations, historical insights and, most importantly, gags.

A bitter jest catches the essence of the ancient dilemma. A man sits on the outskirts of the shtetl, paid two kopecks a week to watch out for the messiah.

“Two kopecks?” he’s asked. “Not very much.”

“No,” comes the response. “But it’s steady work.”

At times, the academic in Dauber gets in the way of his work. A Hasidic rabbi tells his congregation that to ensure equality, he has prayed for the rich to give all their money to the poor—“And I can tell you that I’m halfway there!” The disciples rejoice. “Really?” they ask. “Yes,” the rabbi burbles. “The poor have agreed to receive the money!” A trenchant anecdote, but the prof cannot let kvell enough alone. “On the one hand, this is a joke about the limits of human nature; but it’s also a joke about the seeming incapacity or unwillingness of the divine to change people’s lives in the ways that matter the most.”

A lighter hand takes over as the narrative proceeds. Analysts have tried to track down the sources of Jewish humor, from the Middle Ages to Heinrich Heine to Kafka to Freud to the Ph.D. theses of contemporary academia. In his typical fashion, Mel Brooks cut to the chase: “If they’re laughing, how can they bludgeon you to death?”

Dauber notes that Hebraic and Yiddish comedy has always been pliable. Sometimes it took the form of mock submission: An iconic joke of the Czarist period involves “two Jews before a Russian firing squad, both offered blindfolds. One accepts, the other scornfully refuses. His friend urges him: “‘Shh . . . don’t make trouble.’”

Sometimes the humor presented the flip side of anti-Semitism. Two impoverished Jews see a sign in front of a church offering cash to anyone who converts to Christianity. The bolder one schemes to fake it, mumble the appropriate homage to Jesus, and buy dinner with the reward. Hours later, he emerges. “Did you get paid?” his friend demands. The scornful reply: “All you people think about is money.”

Sometimes the comedy challenged Genesis itself:

A man went to his tailor and asked him to make him a suit.

The tailor told him to come back in six days. “Six days?”

asked the buyer. “So long? Why, God was able to make the

world in six days!” “True,” replied the tailor, gesturing to his

samples. “But look at the world—and look at those pants!”

That Jewish joke enlivens Endgame, by the hyper-Hibernian Samuel Beckett, a borrowing that goes unmentioned. Happily, little else is overlooked. Dauber is at his best examining the crowning irony of the Jewish experience. The monstrous crime of the twentieth century was the Holocaust—the annihilation of 6 million Jews. Yet the century also saw the immense and enduring influence of Jews in the performing arts—particularly the arts that engender laughter.

Saul Bellow, for example, bitterly resented his placement alongside Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud as the “Hart, Shaffner and Marx of American literature.” But he cracked wise all the same. As for his colleagues, they also topped the bestseller lists with exuberant books, typified by the geshray in Portnoy’s Complaint: “Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I’m living it in the middle of a Jewish joke!”

In the sub-basement of film and theatrical comedy, Mel Brooks held forth with features like Blazing Saddles and The Producers, which danced and dumped on Hitler’s grave. Brooks’s colleague Woody Allen began at the main entrance with quirky comedies (Take the Money and Run, Bananas) but made his way to the penthouse with Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and a brood of New Yorker pieces laced with kosher salt: “Why pork was proscribed by Hebraic law is still unclear, and some scholars believe that the Torah merely suggested not eating pork at certain restaurants.”

These flourishes did not emerge full-blown from the head of Moses. There was a long march from the badchens—clowns—of the Eastern European shtetls to the slapstick actors of the Yiddish Theater to the tummlers of the Borscht Belt to the standup soloists of nightclubs and prime-time television. Dauber affectionately embraces them all, with particular attention to such influences as Lenny Bruce (Leonard Alfred Schneider), whose self-described approach was an amalgam of “the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish.” Echoes of Bruce, who died in 1966, could be found decades afterward in hundreds of locations, among them the cartoons of Jules Feiffer, the deadpan routines of Rodney Dangerfield (Jack Roy Cohen), and the manic onslaughts of Joan Rivers (Joan Molinsky). Lenny, Rivers wrote, showed her, as so many others, that outrageousness can be cleansing and healthy. She became “the ironist locating American and Jewish womanhood at the corner of eros, commerce and domesticity—‘My mother is desperate for me to get married. Outside our house she put a sign: Last Girl Before Freeway,’” and continuing the self-abnegation with “Dress by Oscar de la Renta, body by Oscar Meyer.”

That was only the beginning. Outrage has since gone mainstream, with the famously successful Larry David (co-creator of “Seinfeld”) playing Larry David the fictive uber-neurotic of Curb Your Enthusiasm, using hitherto untouchable themes like the Holocaust for laughs and, when accused of being a self-hating Jew, defensively replying, “I hate myself, but not because I’m Jewish.”

The odd thing, Dauber suggests, is that the old rules of Jewish humor are changing as we watch. The appeal of such comedy used to be insular, full of attitude delivered with rimshots. “But is that true in America today?” Dauber asks, “where the best jokes aren’t about Jewish failure, but about Jewish success?” The answer will appear in clubs and on screens soon enough. Funny how that happens.

Photo Hulton Archive/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next