Jewish Stand-up Comedians Throughout the Eras
January 9, 2016
For my major paper, I have been researching Jewish stand-up comedians throughout the years. Comedy has always been part of the Jewish culture. Even in the Torah, the name of Isaac, Abraham’s son, means “he laughs” because, according to the Torah, Abraham laughed when he learned he and his wife were going to have a child at the age of around 99. Here, Abraham was laughing at the absurdity of his situation, which is still something we do today. Jews have a history of being persecuted, and one way to cope with that persecution is by making fun of it. As Jewish writer, Saul Bellow, once said, “Oppressed people tend to be witty.” In the 1900s, when many Jews immigrated to America, the style of comedy they presented was making fun of a situation. Whether that situation was their own persecution or even just their wives (most of the Jewish comedians at the time were men), they were making fun of it. I researched how that style evolved over the years.
The first time period I looked at was the Catskills era. The Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York (also known as the Borscht Belt) was the place where Jewish stand-up comedians got their start. From the 1930s to late 60s, large resorts brought millions of predominantly Jewish families there to vacation. As Larry King, a stand-up comic from the Catskill era, put it, “It was a breeding ground for the stand-up comic.” Many of those comics were Jewish, such as: Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Larry King, Jack Benny, Buddy Hackett, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield, and Joan Rivers.
Henny Youngman is referred to as the king of one-liners. His stand-up comedy consisted of just 20 minutes of one-liners. They were about absolutely nothing. Sometimes they would fall under a specific topic (usually his wife or mother in-law), but usually he simply made up an absurd scenario. For example, one of his one-liners was, “My step-brother became a life guard at a car wash.” Rodney Dangerfield had a similar style. He also only did one-liners. His most famous quote was, “I don’t get no respect.” This quote set the premise for most of his one-liners. For example, “I was drowning and I was yelling ‘Help! Help!’ The lifeguard ran over and said ‘hey buddy can you keep it down.’” In this era of stand-up comedy, there was an obvious pattern of one-liners with no real set up to the joke. Most of these one-liners were making fun of themselves or the people around them, specifically family members. They created a funny scenario and used that to make fun of something, or in many cases, themselves. Even though these one-liners are not particularly Jewish, they still have a Jewish sense to them because at the time, it was only Jewish comedians who were making these types of jokes. Therefore, looking back on these jokes, they seem Jewish not because of the content of the joke, but because of who was telling it.
From there I moved on to the late 60s to 90s. This era included Jewish stand-up comedians such as Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jon Stewart. The style of the comedians of this era was observational humor. Woody Allen’s style, being somewhat of a transition into the 90s, was to tell a story with multiple punch lines within that story. This style was a combination of the Catskills and the 90s era. Many of his stories were self-deprecating in that they portrayed him as a weak, very nebbishy person. In his comedy, he often played into Jewish stereotypes as a way to laugh and make fun of his own, often offensive, stereotypes. One of his most famous bits was called, “The Moose.” **Play “The Moose”** As you can see from this classic example of Allen’s stand-up comedy, it was a story with multiple punch lines, but the last punch line related to a former issue of Semitic exclusion. Though it is a former issue for us, the joke still works because the issue of anti-Semitism is a part of our history and we can still relate to it. So the question is, do you have to be Jewish to find this funny? As long as the non-Jew is not anti-Semitic, they could find it funny too. This is because even though it’s not necessarily their history, they can still relate to the sense of exclusion.
In Jerry Seinfeld’s style of comedy, he would use his observational humor to give a sarcastic delivery and make funny remarks about places or establishments. He wouldn’t specifically make fun of a situation; he would explain it in a funny way, which, in some cases, is a form of poking fun at something. **Show clip of “Best man tuxedo” from I’m Telling You for the Last Time**. In an interview with screenwriter and comedian Judd Apatow, Seinfeld describes his humor as taking an observation and developing it to become a routine. We saw this in his bit about men wearing tuxedos. During the interview, he describes a past routine and says, “I’m doing this routine about this guy that… caught a bullet between his teeth. … I think, what job did he have before he got into doing that? What made him go, you know, ‘I’d rather be catching bullets between my teeth?’ I have a whole routine about it.” He took an observation, which on its own is already weird or interesting, and developed it to make it funny. Many times, Jewish comedians use this strategy to take something that wouldn’t normally be funny, such as their own persecution, and develop it into a weird and funny scenario. It’s like they are dis-arming the situation and then adding humor to it.
Jon Stewart had a very similar style of comedy; he often used observational humor like Seinfeld. The similarity was most likely caused by the fact that George Carlin, who also did observational humor, influenced them both. One difference, however, is that Stewart used observational humor to mostly make fun of politics or current events. This political humor led to him taking a job as host of the fake news show The Daily Show on Comedy Central. On the show, even though it wasn’t stand-up comedy, he used that same style of observational humor to make fun of specifically right-wing politics. Sometimes he would use his observational humor in his stand-up to make Jewish jokes, which pointed fun at many stereotypes of Jews. **Show clip of “Jews and blacks fighting” from Unleavened**. At the time of this performance in 1996, African-American and Jewish tensions were high. In 1991 there were the Crown Heights riots. These riots resulted in the murder of an orthodox Jew by a black mob. Stewart’s style is to take current conflicts or events and turn them into his acts. In this particular bit, he makes fun of the Black-Jewish conflict by pointing out that both ethnicities have a lot in common and really have nothing to fight about.
The last time period I looked at was modern day Jewish stand-up comedians. Their style is also observational humor, but it is mostly observations of themselves. I looked at comedians such as: Alex Edelman, Elon Gold, and Amy Schumer. Alex Edelman is a 26-year-old comedian who has already won the Edinburg Comedy Award for Best Newcomer. He was the first American to receive that award since 1997. He is also an Orthodox Jew. His comedy centers around his religious upbringing and oftentimes his own experience of being an Orthodox Jew. He often uses observational humor to poke fun at his religion.
Elon Gold focuses less on Jewish stereotypes and more on ethnic stereotypes in general. He uses his observational humor and skill of impressions to act out ethnic stereotypes and make fun of them. For example, in one comedy bit, he describes the different types of neck movements of different ethnic groups.
Amy Schumer uses humor in order to make fun of herself. She often talks to members of the audience saying things such as, “You’re so much prettier than me.” She jokes about her social life, specifically dating. By doing this she often makes fun of the social standards for women. In an article in the New York Times entitled “The Sneaky Power of Amy Schumer,” Michele Schreiber, a teacher of film and media at Emory University, states that Amy Schumer’s comedy is “perfectly suited to a changing cultural landscape in which the word ‘feminism’ is slowly losing its negative connotations,” adding that she “dispels the most persistent point about feminists, which is that feminists can’t take a joke.” Amy Schumer was acknowledged for this and spoke at the 2014 Gloria Awards honoring Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday. In her speech she spoke about her own experience in life and about dealing with the challenges she’s faced from social environments where she was criticized and lost her confidence because of social standards. She talked about how her confidence can be shattered just from a rude comment on Twitter. However, she ended her speech by strongly saying, “I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story… I stand here and I am amazing, for you. Not because of you… I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you, and I thank you.” From all three of these comedians, we see a type of humor in which by making fun of themselves, they are dispelling a social stereotype.
We can clearly observe that Jewish stand-up comedy has evolved since the Catskills era. It has gone from one-liners about nothing to a type of observational humor that is used to combat many social or even political positions by breaking down barriers and promoting a progressive social agenda. Perhaps the reason for this change is that in the time of the Catskills era, Jews were either immigrants or first generation Americans and therefore did not have as strong a voice. However, now, Jews are a part of American society and culture. Therefore, the tradition of comedy can be used as a voice. A current example of how humor is being used, in this instance, to bring together two groups who have been fighting for centuries are Muslims and Israelis. In a recent comedy tour, rabbi and stand-up comedian Bob Alper teams up with Azhar Usman, a lawyer, community activist, and Muslim stand-up comedian in order to bring together two groups who have been fighting for centuries by being able to laugh together. **Show Holy Humor clip**. Personally, this is my favorite type of stand-up. Of course I love the type of comedy that’s about nothing and all the silly stuff. But to be able to laugh at something that if it were coming from anybody other than a comedian would not be a laughing matter is amazing. I believe comedy and humor are the best forms of communication and in this type of stand-up comedy, they’re laughing at their situation and sending a message as a solution. As Sid Caesar said in the documentary When Comedy Went to School, “If you can laugh at your situation, wow what a gift!”