Books March 2018
Jewish for the jokes
A review of Jewish Comedy: A Serious History by Jeremy Dauber.
As an habitué of Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth knew the line in Our American Cousin’s third act sure to get a laugh so huge it would drown out the crack of a Derringer in the presidential box. “Well,” the play’s plain-spoken protagonist sneers at a shameless social climber, “I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap.”
How much has American humor changed from that time to this? The kind of joke that once made a theater full of sophisticates roar is found today, if anywhere, on reruns of Hee Haw.
So what happened? Simple—with the rise of mass culture, Jews took over the humor business. As noted Steve Allen, who many would be surprised to learn was not Jewish, in today’s America comedy is “a sort of Jewish cottage industry.”
With the rise of mass culture, Jews took over the humor business.
This is the story, or part of it, that Jeremy Dauber tells in Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. Dauber is a professor at Columbia, and in some ways it is a highly irritating book. He is at once intellectually show-offy, exhaustively seeking to root the likes of Lenny Bruce and Sid Caesar in Jewish Biblical and social tradition, and ever eager to come off as hip, “with it,” and non-judgmental. Yes, he reveres the Talmudic canon and the patriarchs, but he also loves a good dirty joke! He’s a big fan of Lena Dunham and Jon Stewart, and—does anyone have to ask?—takes cheap shots at Fox News. Then, too, pathetically ignorant secular Jew that I may be, Dauber gets enough wrong on the familiar contemporary stuff that it’s hard to take his Old Testament expertise at face value. Mike Nichols was famously a refugee from Nazi Germany, not Russia. And even the most indifferent Woody Allen fan knows the old lady in the classic Annie Hall scene who turned Alvy Singer into a Hasid was Grammy, not Granny Hall.
Still, along the way, there’s plenty that’s thought-provoking in the book, even if they’re not always precisely the thoughts Dauber hopes to provoke. Like, for example, the relationship of Jewish humor to contemporary politics.
In the twenty-first century, Jews—and in all that follows, we’re talking secular Jews— occupy a unique position in American life. We are as a group inordinately successful professionally, and especially influential in those spheres that shape public perceptions and mores: entertainment, journalism, and academia. We are generally regarded as smart, and Jewish men are widely seen as good husband material. (Jewish women have a somewhat dicier reputation, largely due to Jewish male comedians). Indeed, it is fair to say that today seemingly no position of influence or power is beyond our reach, up to and including the presidency. (Bernie Sanders’s Jewishness was the least of his problems.)
And yet, to a remarkable degree, we insist on seeing ourselves as outsiders, imagining ourselves to be secretly, or not so secretly, scorned by the larger community.
If nothing else, this intense sense of alienation has always made for laughs. As the Marx Brothers’ mayhem was invariably at the expense of the wasp establishment of their day—poor Margaret Dumont, Groucho’s perpetual foil, reportedly never even got the joke—so, too, and even more explicitly, is the robust humor of figures as diverse as Larry David and Philip Roth often grounded in Christian misunderstanding of Jews—and very much vice versa. It is as if the intervening decades never happened.
The difference, of course, is that at one time Jewish defensiveness was entirely reasonable. In a time when anti-Semitism was both pervasive and potent, there was real resonance to the joke about two Jews before a firing squad. When one asks for a blindfold, the other whispers “Shh, don’t make trouble.”
Back then—we’re talking the period between the wars—Jews were getting it on both ends, simultaneously portrayed, as Dauber observes, “as secret capitalists who controlled the world’s economies and the anarchist communists dedicated to overthrowing those economies.” (Why, reading that, did my mind wander to some of today’s progressive entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley?) And that’s before we got to the Ivy League quotas and—this was within my Boomer memory—the Westchester communities and country clubs that barred Jewish admission.
But the change was dramatic and, in retrospect, remarkably swift. While 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Gregory Peck’s reporter went undercover as a Jew, may have stretched credulity—the film’s moral, cracked Ring Lardner, Jr., was “never be mean to a Jew, because he might turn out to be a Gentile”—the film had great impact, winning the Oscar for Best Picture.
The arrival of television around the same time not only increased the Jewish presence on the popular culture scene but, more meaningfully, vastly amplified the Jewish urban sensibility. This was nowhere more the case than on Saturday nights on nbc, where the Sid Caesar show was must-viewing for an ever increasing audience. That classic show’s roster of writing talent is enshrined in myth: among others, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen—full disclosure: also my father, Joe Stein—and they were almost all young, first-generation New York Jews who grew up poor, knowing only others like themselves. Now, out of nowhere, they were flashing their smarts not just for one another but for millions nationwide. Brash, ironic, quick on the uptake, and more than a little cynical, as steeped in the popular culture of the day as would be the Not Ready for Prime Time Players a generation later, they not only parodied commercials, other TV shows, and current films—including, amazingly, foreign ones, in convincing Italian or Japanese double-talk—but made light, gently, of societal norms and institutions, including marriage. Mild as it was by today’s standards, such irreverence was revolutionary at the time.
Anything can be funny, nothing is by definition off limits.
Indeed, they established a template for humor that we continue to abide by today: the notion that anything can be funny, nothing is by definition off limits. (Brooks, the most gifted of the bunch, repeatedly tested that dictum over the decades that followed, shocking/delighting audiences with material like “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers or the cowboys breaking wind around the campfire in Blazing Saddles; and he has a worthy successor in Larry David.)
Part of the reason they got away with it, aside from the fact it was funny, is that to the naked, untrained eye, none of it seemed especially Jewish. And why would it? Proud as they were of their Jewish roots, the creators of this comedy, most of them recent veterans of the war, were just as proudly American. Liberal/Left as were their politics, in the blacklist era there was never a hint of this fact on the tube. If they were remaking popular culture in their own image, they were doing it so subtly even they didn’t know it; it was an inadvertent by-product of their fierce intramural competition to produce the best work.
Of course, by then there was a long tradition of what Dauber calls the comedy of Jewish disguise—one which in its most obvious manifestation turned the likes of Leonard Alfred Schneider, Jack Roy Cohen, Mendel Berlinger, and Allan Stewart Konigsberg into Lenny Bruce, Rodney Dangerfield, Milton Berle, and Woody Allen. But starting in the fifties, entire sitcoms were populated by Jews in mufti. Perhaps the most obvious of these were a pair of classic shows created by the brilliant Nat Hiken, Sergeant Bilko and Car 54, Where Are You?, wherein assorted wise-ass veteran Catskill comics reconvened in, respectively, an army motor pool and a New York precinct house. But there was also Carl Reiner’s legendary Dick Van Dyke Show, explicitly based on the writer’s room of the Caesar show, in which every attitude and impulse is identifiably New York Jewish, but not a single character. Indeed, the impulse to pretend Jews weren’t on screen persisted into the nineties when, as Jerry Stiller observed of Seinfeld, there was “a Jewish family living in the witness protection program named Costanza.”
But then, again, not only was that show’s title character Jewish, but the fact was sometimes a key plot point. For by then TV executives, mostly Jewish themselves, had long since come to recognize that, far from snapping off the tube at the sight of a Jew passing for Jewish, many viewers saw Jewish-inflected comedy as guaranteeing a certain minimal level of smarts. For instance, Taxi was a show with a distinctly Jewish feel; Married with Children—uh-uh.
Still, it is a measure of how pervasive Jewish influence had become in the universe of network half-hour comedy that not only were both those shows created by Jews, but running down the roster of the past half-century’s classic sitcoms—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, Cheers, Family Ties, Roseanne, Friends, The Office, Everybody Loves Raymond, Arrested Development, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory—it’s hard to come up with any that weren’t.
Dauber points to a surprising transitional figure in the audience’s growing acceptance of overtly Jewish material: Allan Sherman, whose shtick album, My Son, the Folk Singer, was a breakout comedy smash in 1962. He also makes note of another vastly influential popular phenomenon of the time, one which quietly planted the seeds of irreverence and insubordination that would shortly blossom into outright generational rebellion: Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad Magazine.
A number of Sherman’s comedic contemporaries emerged as sharp social satirists
At a time when Shh, don’t make trouble was increasingly a relic of a happily bygone era, a number of Sherman’s comedic contemporaries—Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Tom Lehrer—emerged as sharp social satirists, unburdened by the diffidence of their forebears. Quick-witted and endlessly original, working on the assumption their audience picked up on references that once would have been considered arcane, they were engaged in the vital enterprise of throwing off the mental shackles of gray flannel– suited, conformist America.
Vietnam greatly accelerated the politicization of humor, with a pair of veteran comedy writers– turned-producers on the cutting edge. In 1971, Norman Lear’s All in the Family changed the very character of the sitcom, unapologetically going full bore after the blue-collar Nixon voter, in the person of the bigoted, muddle-minded Archie Bunker. A year after that, Caesar vet Larry Gelbart created the straightforwardly anti-war M*A*S*H, which arguably had an even greater long-term impact on the public mind.
Indeed, over the years since, comedy in its various manifestations, disproportionately created by Jews, has had much to do with maintaining the Left’s stranglehold on popular culture.
Like many politically conservative Jews, I am as disproportionately vexed by this as my non-Jewish conservative friends tend to be baffled. I have grown so weary of trying to explain the inexplicable—why Jews are so overwhelmingly on the Left—I’ve taken to telling them to just pick up Norman Podhoretz’s book on the subject. Let him try to convey some sense of our confreres’ self-hating compulsion to identify with even the most rabid “underdog,” or their ludicrous fixation, in the age of bds, on the perpetual threat of right-wing (and especially Christian!) anti-Semitism!
While we’re on the subject, no one from without can fully grasp that, sophisticated as urban Jewish cognoscenti take themselves to be—think the characters in a Woody Allen film or, hey, Woody himself—they are as provincial as the small-town Southerners they reflexively scorn.
Well, no, I guess Saul Steinberg’s iconic drawing of New Yorkers’ view of the world from Ninth Avenue did a pretty good job of explaining that one.
What to do? How to mobilize humor in the service of the other side? Short of getting the Koch brothers to buy up a network or two, and giving us rightwing Jews a crack at, say, a sitcom set on a contemporary college campus, I don’t see it. Our opposite numbers on the Left are hardheaded and will learn, if they ever do, only the hard way. There’s a joke in the book that applies. It is post-revolutionary Russia—a revolution, lest we forget, widely supported by Jews—and an anti-Semite yells “Jew bastard!” at a Jew peaceably walking down the street. “Ay,” mutters the Jew, “if only there were meat in the shops, it would be like czarist times.”
The saving grace, as always, is that even when liberal Jews are desperately, pathetically wrong—hell, even when we’re the target—they can still be funny. Take the popular internet meme these days called Yiddish Curses for Republican Jews. It solemnly decrees: “May your child give his bar mitzvah speech on the genius of Ayn Rand.”
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 67
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