Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America

Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America

Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America

Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America


When wielded by the white majority, ethnic humor can be used to ridicule and demean marginalized groups. In the hands of ethnic minorities themselves, ethnic humor can work as a site of community building and resistance. In nearly all cases, however, ethnic humor can serve as a window through which to examine the complexities of American race relations. In Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America, David Gillota explores the ways in which contemporary comic works both reflect and participate in national conversations about race and ethnicity.

Gillota investigates the manner in which various humorists respond to multiculturalism and the increasing diversity of the American population. Rather than looking at one or two ethnic groups at a time--as is common scholarly practice--the book focuses on the interplay between humorists from different ethnic communities. While some comic texts project a fantasy world in which diverse ethnic characters coexist in a rarely disputed harmony, others genuinely engage with the complexities and contradictions of multiethnic America.

The first chapter focuses on African American comedy with a discussion of such humorists as Paul Mooney and Chris Rock, who tend to reinforce a black/white vision of American race relations. This approach is contrasted to the comedy of Dave Chappelle, who looks beyond black and white and uses his humor to place blackness within a much wider multiethnic context.

Chapter 2 concentrates primarily on the Jewish humorists Sarah Silverman, Larry David, and Sacha Baron Cohen--three artists who use their personas to explore the peculiar position of contemporary Jews who exist in a middle space between white and other.

In chapter 3, Gillota discusses different humorous constructions of whiteness, from a detailed analysis of South Park to "Blue Collar Comedy" and the blog Stuff White People Like.

Chapter 4 is focused on the manner in which animated children's film and the network situation comedy often project simplified and harmonious visions of diversity. In contrast, chapter 5 considers how many recent works, such as Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the Showtime series Weeds, engage with diversity in more complex and productive ways.


In one of his many oft-quoted routines, Lenny Bruce provides some unexpected distinctions between Jewish and goyish cultures:

Now I neologize Jewish and goyish. Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray
Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish.
Marine Corps—heavy goyim, dangerous. Kool-Aid is goyish. All Drake’s cakes
are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish.
Instant potatoes—goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish. Macaroons are very
Jewish—very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jello is goyish. Lime soda
is very goyish. Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won’t go near them. Jack Paar
is very goyish. Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are
Jewish. Mouths are Jewish. All Italians are Jewish. Greeks are goyish—bad sauce.
Eugene O’Neill—Jewish; Dylan Thomas—Jewish.

The objects of Bruce’s humor are multiple. On one level, he is clearly making fun of goyish culture—presented here as bland and tasteless—and privileging Jewish culture, which he presents as much richer. the humor of this bit, though, lies not in the specific commentary that Bruce provides about Jewish or goyish tastes but rather in the unexpected manner in which Bruce redefines, or “neologizes,” his terms. in the mid-1960s, when this bit was initially performed, audience members, particularly Jewish ones, would have been very familiar with Jewish/goyish distinctions between items like white bread and pumpernickel. the African American musicians Ray Charles and Count Basie, however, are not Jewish at all. Eugene O’Neill is Irish American, and while some Sephardic Jews are indeed Italian, all Italians, by any recognized definition, are not Jewish. For that matter, the entertainer Eddie Cantor, born . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.