Getting to the heart of Jewish humor

April 24, 2002|By Martin Miller | Martin Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOS ANGELES - What makes a joke told by a Jewish comedian different from all other jokes?

Sometimes not much - funny is funny. Sometimes, a lot, thanks to a rich joke-telling tradition that reaches back decades to the vaudeville acts working the Catskill Mountains, and centuries to Eastern Europe.

A self-defense mechanism against anti-Semitism, Jewish jokes typically demonstrate a skillful use of language, frequently focus upon the comedian's personal problems, and almost always contain a strong element of alienation.

That's one of the more serious conclusions reached last week by a quartet of distinguished Jewish funny men - Jerry Stiller, Shecky Greene, Shelley Berman and relative newcomer Jeffrey Ross - participating in an ongoing author series sponsored by the nonprofit group Writers Bloc.

The foursome were kept, somewhat successfully, on a scholarly track by de facto straight men Barry Glassner, a University of Southern California sociologist, and Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America.

"If you got Gentiles to laugh," said Epstein to a standing-room-only crowd at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, "they weren't going to go after your throat."

Berman, an actor, playwright and comedian since the 1950s who teaches humor writing at USC, offered this classic joke:

"For the three Jews out there that haven't heard this one," began Berman, slipping in a hint of a Yiddish accent at the appropriate times.

"An old man is dying. He smells something wonderful. He says to his son, `Sheldon, Sheldon, what is that wonderful smell?' Sheldon says, `Ma is baking a honey cake.' The dying old man says, `Oh, Sheldon, go tell Ma I want a piece of honey cake.' Sheldon runs off. He comes back a few minutes later and says, `Ma says it's for after.'"

Soon, Berman was on a roll. "The Irishman says, `I'm so tired, I'm so thirsty, I want a whiskey.' The Jew says, `I'm so tired, I'm so thirsty, I must have diabetes.'"

But the night wasn't just about laughs. It carried a fair amount of insight and introspection, particularly when it came to how Jewishness influenced comedy.

Stiller, best known these days for his grumpy father characters on Seinfeld and King of Queens, said "humor was sometimes a way that you not only deflected anti-Semitism, but people started liking you."

Martin Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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