Why Jewish Com­edy Is Funny

In his new book, scholar Jeremy Dauber tries out the role of comic sage.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Adam Rovner By Jeremy Dauber

Jews are hi­lar­i­ous. We know this, or at least think we do. Just look at all the Jewish cut-ups out there. At the mo­ment, Judd Apa­tow, Jenji Ko­han, Amy Schumer and Sarah Sil­ver­man are some of the top per­form­ers and writ­ers on the con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can scene. The out-sized achieve­ments of comic Jews have spawned a decades-long search to ex­plain our suc­cess.

Re­cently, we’ve had “No Joke: Mak­ing Jewish Hu­mor” (2013), “God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Hu­mor” (2014), and “Kvetch­ing and Sh­pritz­ing: Jewish Hu­mor in Amer­i­can Pop­u­lar Cul­ture” (2015). A spe­cial is­sue of a schol­arly jour­nal ap­peared un­der the ti­tle “A Club of Their Own: Jewish Hu­morists and the Con­tem­po­rary World” (2016). I warn you, it’s not very funny.

Then there are the cin­e­matic ele­gies to Amer­i­can Jewish hu­mor, “When Jews Were Funny” (2013) and “When Com­edy Went to School” (2013). Now, Columbia Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Jeremy Dauber fol­lows up on his award-win­ning 2013 bi­og­ra­phy, “The Worlds of Sholem Ale­ichem,” with his own at­tempt to tell the story of Jewish hu­mor. Soon we’ll need a book or a film (or at least this re­view) to ex­plain the ap­pear­ance of all th­ese books and films.

Dauber ex­am­ines how Jews in dif­fer­ent places and eras have re­sponded with hu­mor to a va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing anti-Semitism, as­sim­i­la­tion and life in the Di­as­pora. His chap­ters are all vari­a­tions on themes, or, as he calls them, “con­cep­tual rubrics.” That phrase is one of the few in­tru­sions of academese into a work that man­ages to be both eru­dite and breezy in its han­dling of his­tory.

Short ex­cur­sions into Jewish his­tory are leav­ened by his retelling of nu­mer­ous jokes through­out. And Dauber can be down­right funny him­self. At one point he char­ac­ter­izes Philip Roth’s “Op­er­a­tion Shy­lock” as “John le Carré if ev­ery­body in­volved had gone to… City Col­lege rather than Oxbridge.” Dauber deftly sum­ma­rizes is­sues that would threaten to bog down a less ca­pa­ble writer. Rab­binic de­bates, me­dieval po­et­ics and Nazi ju­rispru­dence all re­ceive eco­nom­i­cal treat­ment that pro­vides con­text with­out over­whelm­ing the reader. I teach a course on Amer­i­can hu­mor, yet Dauber’s breadth left me breath­less and his depth left me in his debt.

Dauber con­tin­u­ally deep­ens the reader’s en­gage­ment with the bib­li­cal Jewish com­edy of er­rors, while also demon­strat­ing con­nec­tions be­tween re­cent com­edy and an­cient well­springs of hu­mor. The nar­ra­tive form of “Jewish Com­edy” is un­usu­ally com­pli­cated for a gen­eral au­di­ence book, but it has the ben­e­fit of con­vey­ing a ver­sion of the tra­di­tional Jewish sense of cir­cu­lar time. As its full ti­tle prom­ises, this is a pro­foundly Jewish and se­ri­ous — though never stiff — work.

Dauber’s fi­nal and per­haps best chap­ter, “Jewish Com­edy — Hold the Jewish­ness,” opens with a dis­cus­sion of how Esther “spends much of the book that bears her name in dis­guise.” He sug­gests that this con­ceal­ment ul­ti­mately re­veals the im­pos­si­bil­ity of “at­tempts to de­fine and iso­late the na­ture of Jewish iden­tity.” From this rather meta­phys­i­cal spec­u­la­tion on Jewish essence, Dauber winds his way through an earthy dis­cus­sion of Re­nais­sance-era He­brew farce, a Yid­dish chival­ric tale, Sholem Ale­ichem’s “On Ac­count of a Hat” — which he calls the “great­est Jewish short story ever writ­ten” — and on to Franz Kafka’s ab­sur­dist hu­mor of hor­ror. Dauber even man­ages to com­pare Gre­gor Samsa’s em­bar­rass­ment at his meta­mor­pho­sis to the ex­cru­ci­at­ing sight of Ben Stiller’s gen­i­talia stuck in a zip­per in “There’s Some­thing About Mary.” And that’s only half the chap­ter.

I es­pe­cially ap­pre­ci­ate Dauber’s au­dac­ity at com­par­ing Kafka to gross-out hu­mor. I like to point out to my own stu­dents the simian par­al­lels be­tween Kafka’s famed short story, “A Re­port to an Academy,” and a fa­vorite episode of “The Phil Sil­vers Show,” called “The Court Mar­tial” and star­ring Zippy the chimp. Here are Kafka and slap­stick again. But in­con­gruity, as any hu­mor scholar knows, is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for hu­mor.

Dauber reads (and watches) widely and well, and is will­ing to go against the grain of aca­demic deco­rum in or­der to chal­lenge re­ceived wis­dom. Even the foot­notes to “Jewish Com­edy” sur­prise: The Jewish co-writer of “An­nie Hall” came up with the Swedish Chef for the Mup­pets? Will Rogers learned Yid­dish? Tom Lehrer might have in­vented the Jell-O shot?

Yet de­spite my gen­uine ad­mi­ra­tion, the book fails to ask, let alone an­swer, a ques­tion that should be at the heart of any dis-

cus­sion of the topic by an Amer­i­can scholar steeped in lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture. ure. What is it about Jewish hu­mor humo — how­ever broadly we de­fine it, and D Dauber b d de­fines it ex­tremely broadly — that has made it so pop­u­lar in the over­whelm­ingly Chris­tian United States? How is it that “Port­noy’s Com­plaint” plays in Peo­ria, Illi­nois? I think the an­swer has to do with the for­tu­itous co­in­ci­dence be­tween the cen­tral char­ac­ter-type of Amer­i­can hu­mor in the late 19th cen­tury — the bum­bling, put-upon, luck­less “lit­tle man” — and the dom­i­nant char­ac­ter-types of Yid­dish folk and lit­er­ary hu­mor at the time: the schlemiel, the schli­mazel and the luft­men­sch. Sim­ply put: Jewish hu­mor and Amer­i­can hu­mor in­ter­mar­ried about 120 years ago. But where Dauber sees the per­sis­tence of Jewish hu­mor across the sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions, I see an in­dif­fer­ence to Jewish par­tic­u­lar­ity.

If Dauber is the Hil­lel of hu­mor, I hold by hu­mor’s (non-Jewish) Sham­mai, the late Bri­tish scholar Christie Davies. Decades ago, Davies con­ducted a con­tent anal­y­sis of jokes and con­cluded that there re­mains lit­tle iden­ti­fi­ably Jewish about Jewish hu­mor, ex­cept the threat or fear of no longer be­ing iden­ti­fi­ably Jewish due to apos­tasy, as­sim­i­la­tion or mas­quer­ade. In other words, Jewish hu­mor is just like every other kind of hu­mor, ex­cept for its ob­ses­sive con­cern over Jews dis­ap­pear­ing. And if that’s the case, this ex­plains the re­cent ap­pear­ance of all those books and films by schol­ars and doc­u­men­tar­i­ans who ex­plain the phe­nom­e­non of Jewish hu­mor. They work against the grow­ing shadow of a van­ish­ing tra­di­tion of iden­ti­fi­ably Jewish hu­mor.

Adam Rovner is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of English and Jewish lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Den­ver and the au­thor of “In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Be­fore Is­rael” (NYU Press, 2014).

MOV­ING IN HU­MOR­OUS CIR­CLES: Clock­wise from top left: Amy Schumer, Phil Sil­vers, Sarah Sil­ver­man, Philip Roth, Franz Kafka and Sholem Ale­ichem.

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