Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Face of Farce: Jewish Humor in American Film

There’s an old Yiddish joke I recently heard for the first time. I think it’s absolutely hilarious, but only one other person I know finds it even remotely funny, and believe me, I’ve tried it out on more people than I like to admit. It goes as follows:

“What is purple, whistles, and hangs on a wall?”

“I don’t know. What?”

A herring.”

 “But a herring isn’t purple.”

 “So? Paint it purple.”

“But a herring doesn’t hang on a wall.”

So hang it on a wall.”

“But a herring doesn’t whistle.”

 “Nu? For one little technicality you ruin my joke?”

I know, I know. It’s an example of what my sister calls “Kvetch humor,” or a joke that revolves around whiny people being petty. Honestly, I like to think of it as working around obvious problems to try to make a fit, albeit an unnatural one, but maybe that’s stretching it a little. And now that you’ve all had a good groan, it’s time to get to my post here.

My relationship with Jewish jokes is as love-hate as the stereotypical marriage said humor often depicts. As with all types of comedy, I believe the Jewish kind has its hits and misses. Some examples make me laugh with familiarity, while others make me cringe in a sort of defensive shame. What can I do, it’s targeting an ethnicity, and one I’m rather invested in. Naturally, there are situations when its very use is offensive and inappropriate.

But I’m not talking about anti-Semites making snide comments, a pun at a funeral, or a race joke gone too far. What’s to ponder there? I’m speaking more about that sort of mark of Judaism, at least in American media. It’s been pointed out before by various people that a seemingly inordinate number of Jews go into show business, or more specifically, comedy. 

(Note: This post specifically addresses Jewish Humor in modern American film, not literature or the original Yiddish works, which are rich and amazing in their own way, but I don't know nearly enough about to discuss here.)

We’ve got the greats, like the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld, Gilda Radner… the list goes on and on. Then there are the token Jewish characters on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, Friends, and The Simpsons. It seems that the Jewish relationship to humor is natural and deep-rooted.

And yet, if we watch these shows without any real knowledge or experience with Jewish culture, a rather nasty stereotype emerges. Heck, a visitor to Earth learning about mankind through these TV shows would assume there were only three kinds of Jews in the world.

The well-meaning, but ultimately clueless authority figure (see below, the Rabbi in ‘Radio Days’):

The overbearing mother (see The Big Bang Theory, Friends, The Nanny, Dharma and Greg, every single show, comic, or movie to feature a Jewish mother):

The nebbish nerd/hypochondriac who still lives with said overbearing mother (see The Big Bang Theory, Scrubs, any Woody Allen movie):

All of these are Kvetchers/complainers and neurotic. In fact, these stereotypes are so widespread one has to wonder whether the nebbishes and rabbis all marry each others’ mothers, since apparently all Jewish females are lox-eating, spanx-wearing mamas in their sixties.

Sometimes I wonder whether the repetition of the old jokes and characters of our culture have helped or hurt us in the eyes of the world. Have they made us more accessible? Sympathetic? Or have they just made us look like a bunch of whiny buffoons and Disney sidekicks? 

Like any good joke, I believe the reaction depends on how well (and with what intention) you tell it. 

Let’s compare two greats of the genre, shall we? Contemporaries, who have been lauded by critics and audiences alike…and leave aside their personal lives and career bests and worsts. Let’s have a look at Allen Konigsberg and Melvin Kaminsky, better known as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.

Oh, Woody. Never has there been a writer I so long to both laud and slap upside the head. If you’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie, I recommend you do so, and soon. Just make sure it’s one of the “good ones,” and that you aren’t too defensive about your Jewishness. You see, Woody Allen is the stereotypical nebbish case, a little guy with a stammer and thick glasses, the ugly duckling surrounded by tall, beautiful, New York WASPS. His humor ranges from gross and lowbrow to intellectual and refined (I strongly favor the latter), and his writing, when it’s good, is top notch.

If only, if only, he weren’t so...well, Jewish. Woody Allen has the seemingly uncontrollable tendency to bring up his background in embarrassing and needlessly cruel ways, in places where it doesn’t belong. It’s like he just wants the world to know that yes, he was born this way, but only because he didn’t have a say in it. Take, for example, an otherwise good movie called ‘Radio Days,’ a nostalgic look back at New York City in the 1940s, the world in which Allen Konigsberg grew up. A Jewish mother catches her young son listening to the radio, and worries about the effect it will have on his studies. So off she drags him to the rabbi, who instantly asks, “Have you been hitting him?”

Unabashed, the woman replies, “Yes, but it hasn’t helped.”

“So hit him harder.”

And an exchange ensues, which I assume is supposed to be funny, in which the rabbi and these parents argue over who can hit the kid harder. This exchange left me wide-eyed with confusion and revulsion, but not surprise. In most of his films, Woody Allen’s biographical character is one to be pitied, intelligent in spite of his background, and yet somehow, always notably full of sexual stamina (you read that right. I wonder if he wants to prove anything).  

So why do I bother with his movies at all? Well, it’s because he’s produced some excellent stuff, mostly when he’s behind the camera, and especially when he doesn’t make any mention of Judaism at all (see “Midnight in Paris”).

On to Mel Brooks. If Woody Allen has his highbrow moments… well, Brooks doesn’t. His work revolves around film parodies and body-function humor, often with gratuitous mention of certain anatomical areas. But where Allen prefers the company of the rich, Fifth Avenue crowd, Brooks surrounds himself with his fellow Jews. Some of his best works star the likes of Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, and Madeline Kahn, all comic greats of the Hebrew Nation. And where Woody’s Jew-jokes are often spiteful, Mel’s seem to ring with a genuine affection. When the wise Rabbi Tuckerman in Robin Hood, Men in Tights exclaims “Let’s bless things ‘til we get feshnickered!”, we don’t feel guilty laughing about it. And while he also takes every occasion to take at a stab at his background, he’s also an equal-opportunity offender. Brooks isn’t pointing out Jewish ridiculousness, just ridiculousness in general.

In both cases, I believe the directors do their best Jew-humor when it’s subtle, that is, not labeled as “Jewish”. Take, for example, the opening scenes of Allen’s Annie Hall and Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. 

In the former, a worried-looking Allen looks directly at the camera and summarizes his life in two old jokes:

Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.”

 “The other important joke…is usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud's "Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,"…"I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." That's the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships…” 

 There’s something to be said for the great use of these two clearly Jewish jokes to illustrate a broad topic, without actually screaming from the rooftops that this is the Jewish experience.

In Young Frankenstein, the film opens on a college biology classroom, where Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the infamous scientist’s great-grandson (played by the incomparable Gene Wilder), is discussing the central nervous system. A student raises his hand and addresses the doctor as “Dr. Frankenstein.” Frederick turns from the blackboard and, with a wild-eyed look of revulsion only Mr. Wilder can pull off, hisses:

Something about the defensiveness of the remark speaks volumes about the minds who came up with it. A man who wishes only to be judged for his own work, and not that of his ancestry, is so bogged-down and jaded that he cannot stand to even share a pronunciation with that well-known relative. If that one sentence doesn’t echo the new-immigrant in America experience, I don’t know what does. Not a single character in Young Frankenstein is labeled "Jewish," and yet it drips with the flavor of Jewish humor (a result, no doubt, of both writers and most of the actors being members of the tribe).

I’d make that a rule of thumb: when in doubt, the flavor of Jewish humor goes a lot farther than the stereotypes and the direct finger-pointing. Some of my favorite bits of Jewish humor in comedy come from decidedly non-Jewish characters and sources. Futurama’s resident giant lobster, Dr. Zoidberg is a paragon of Jewish nebbishness, despite literally being treif (“Friends! I finally found a new shell! It looks just like my old one, and it was in the same dumpster, but THIS one had a live raccoon in it!”). The old man in the barbershop of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America closes the film with one of the most fabulously terrible bits of Kvetch humor I’ve ever heard.

But my favorite bit of pure Jewish comedy gold must come from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, where the fairy tale characters end up at the home of the mystic Miracle Max, played in layers of makeup by Billy Crystal. Miracle Max and his wife Valerie have only one short scene, and yet display one of the most impressive old-married-couple arguments in all of film. (Watch that link. Really.)

Gold. In my opinion, it just doesn’t get better than this.

But as for Jewish humor on the whole, what can I say? On the one hand, I genuinely love that we are a group known for its humor (there are far worse things to be known for, after all). But on the other, I sometimes flinch at how that humor is used, and at the way we Jews are viewed because of it. This misuse or negative spin used to disturb me so much that I couldn’t even sit through Blazing Saddles. It took me years to appreciate Jewish humor for what it is, a legacy of using laughter to get through some of the more difficult parts of reality. 

It’s kind of a grown-up version of what our parents taught us in Kindergarten: if your classmates are teasing you, you can sit and cry (which will only encourage them), or you can laugh with them and shut them up good.  And when your history is as sad and scary as ours and it seems like people hate you for no good reason, your choices are limited. You can become depressed, removed, and bitter, or you can try to laugh at the absurdity and hope for, someday, a miracle. 


  1. Haha. LOVE Miracle Max. Great piece!

  2. This post is pure brilliance, if only for that Princess Bride panel alone. The Princess Bride is probably one of the greatest things in the world...except for an MLT, of course. :)

    Amazing job, as always!

  3. Now that you've written this, take a look at the Cracked article about why we Jews are so freakin' hilarious!


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