These Serious Jests: American Jews and Jewish Comedy

Article excerpt

For Freud jests, especially Jewish jests, were serious (Peter Gay)(1)

Had Freud followed his dreams he surely would have been a stand-up comic. Imagine: a dark room in a comedy club in Vienna and here is this bearded comic rattling off his favorite schnorrer, schadchen, and schliemiel jokes. But alas, Freud's one and only gig was in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, and there he not only tells us jokes, but tells us why he tells us jokes. So much for the scientist as comedian.

For Freud, jokes were the expression of subconscious thoughts, and Jewish jokes in particular emerge from historical and personal constraints. Jokes provide an indirect means for circumventing an obstacle. No wonder that the Jews became such skillful practitioners at using this passive/aggressive device to meet the hurdles of history. In Jewish mouths, jokes became a weapon, a defense mechanism, a way of defining the world, but with laughter.

Laughter is the key, definition with a smile. And so the Jews gave to Europe, and then to America, the gift of laughter. When we laugh, it is most often a Jewish joke that we are laughing at, told by a Jewish comedian, with a Jewish inflection, in a Jewish accent, and no doubt written by a Jewish writer. Jews crossed the ocean with jokes in their trunk, and it didn't take long for the jokes to come spilling out.

Jokes were in the genes, and by the time of the second generation, would-be violinists, cellists, siding salesmen, garment manufacturers, secretaries, rabbis, and doctors turned to comedy instead of to the more serious and sacred professions of their ancestors. What made them do it? Surely it was not because of their parents who wanted them to be anything but - though they were usually blamed for their neuroses - more likely their peers, and most likely of all their peculiar personalities, that amalgam of Jewish wit and American alienation that helped form the Jewish American comic.

Had they not been born Jewish, they would probably have become kvetchers without craft; had they not been born in America, their humor would probably have been confined to the insular society of their ancestors. But America broadened their target, and Judaism gave them the ammunition, and growing up first in the city and then in the suburbs allowed them to tell their comic stories to other Americans who shared their fears, their hang-ups, their difficulties. From new immigrants talking to other recent arrivals, the Jews became the voice of the American norm, speaking a language that over and over again reminded us all how difficult it was to be not only Jewish but American.

Their breeding ground was the Catskill Mountains, where the young Jews on the way to becoming comics worked as underpaid tummlers, poolside pranksters, and would-be entertainers, all the time learning how to make people laugh. In the Borscht Belt Jewish American comedy was developed. The Catskills became the training ground for the stand-up comic, the sad-sack nebbish whose troubles are greater than life, and whose kvetch is cosmic as well as comic. While vaudeville comics often needed an accent and a costume, these stand-up comics needed only the power of speech, their singular ability to capture their complaint in verbal music, in a torrent of words, a shpritz, that was to develop into a Jewish jazz.

Neither the comic nor the cosmic kvetch was new to Jewish comedy. In nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, Sholem Aleichem's Tevye had shaken his verbal fist at an unrelenting God. But the Catskill comics were talking to a different audience, Jewish Americans like themselves, whose Jewishness was now tempered by the culture of the American street and school. Their argument was not with the God of history, but with the everyday reality of growing up with two often-conflicting identifies; their difficulties came from the two-way street on which they found themselves: caught between old-world love and new-world needs. …