So, why is Jewish humor funny?

Television

November 29, 1990|By Michael Hill

So what is it about Jewish humor that makes it so funny? Explain to me please why everybody is laughing so hard, even the Gentiles who don't know what the guy is talking about?

Such questions are addressed tomorrow night on PBS in yet another groundbreaking Great Performances, "The World of Jewish Humor" which will be on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock.

So the show can't answer such deep questions during its 90 minutes. So who cares? Everytime it gets stumped, it tells another joke. You laugh, you feel better, you don't worry so much about these questions.

"The World of Jewish Humor" starts and ends in New York's lower east side where the Jewish immigrants to America created their own world. Everybody asked seems to have a joke to tell. It's a place that's alive with smiles and frowns, laughter and yelling, tastes and smells.

Some of the experts on the show trace Jewish humor back to the festival of the Purim when it is permissible make fun of everything, the community, the rabbi, even the Torah. It's noted that this is a lot like Mardi Gras. So why is it that we don't have a lot of French standups?

Well, as you listen to the amazing string of comedians in this documentary tell their jokes and talk about their work -- Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Shelly Berman, Alan King, Joan Rivers, Carl Reiner, Billy Crystal, Jackie Mason, Jan Murray, Robert Klein, Neil Simon, David Steinberg, and others, including clips of Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers and Lenny Bruce -- you realize that there is something special going on with the Jewish people and humor.

Jan Murray has a great description of making a living in the Catskills several decades ago, how the staff of the hotel learned to improvise from the first night the guests -- who stayed for weeks at that time -- got there, keeping up the patter as the same crowd gathered for activities night after night. The group expected it. The WASPS up in the Adirondack lodges didn't expect humor every night, but the Jews in the Catskills did. It was a part of their culture.

But why does Jewish humor so dominate what is perceived as funny in this country by all ethnic groups? It's noted in this program that though Jews make up only 2.5 percent of the population of the United States, they have about 65 percent of the jobs in the humor industry, writers, performers and such.

And it is clear that Yiddish phrasing contains the rhythm and beat that we laugh to. How else could Yakov Smirnov (who unfortunately doesn't appear, though Woody Allen is the most notable omission) so easily transcend this seemingly insurmountable barrier to humor, coming to this country from Russia. It was because he was Jewish, he spoke the international language of jokes.

But there is another aspect that might explain the universal acceptance of Jewish humor. It's something that's briefly mentioned in this show in a reference to Jews always feeling that they are looking through the window at the rest of society. It is because Jews -- perhaps more than any other immigrant group because of their history of being separated from whatever culture they lived in -- are at once completely a part of this country's society, and thus intimately familiar with all the details needed to make jokes, and yet apart from it, which allows them to step back a bit, gaining the perspective necessary for insightful comedy.

There's another reason that Jewish humor might have found such success, a bit more ominous one. It is noted in this program that it was around 1960 that Jewish comedy began to be fully accepted by mainstream America. It's also pointed out that Jews used humor through the ages because they always felt so threatened by the outside world that laughter was needed to relieve the tension.

Well, it was around 1960 that the seriousness of nuclear war seeped into the American consciousness. Now, we all felt

threatened with annihilation and we needed something to alleviate the burden. The Jewish people had generations of experience in this area which they shared with the rest of us. And we are all richer for it.

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