Woody Allen. David Schwimmer. Mel Brooks. Adam Sandler. Larry David. Ruby Wax. Sacha Baron-Cohen. Groucho Marx. Ben Stiller. Sarah Silverman. Stephen Fry. You might not realise it, but many of the most successful comedians of the past century have been Jewish.
But the strong link between Judaism and comedy is not a recent one, dating back to the origins of the religion itself. One of the important Jewish texts, the Talmud, which discusses customs and ethics, employs absurdly complicated arguments and comic situations in order to define religious law. Over the past centuries, Eastern European Jewish humour was preoccupied with defending the poor against upper class exploitation, often via the comic character Hershele Ostropoler, who was a common staple of jokes in which he outwitted authority figures in the community. Even Freud analysed the science behind Jewish humour in his work ‘Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious’.
However, the golden age of Jewish humour began between the 1920‘s and 60‘s, when the tourism industry in the Catskill mountain region in New York State boomed. Thousands of American Jews flocked to the holiday resorts there, so much so that it was colloquially referred to as ‘the Borscht Belt’. In the evenings, the guests were entertained by some of the finest comedic talent of the time, who were mostly Jewish themselves. The Borscht belt became a platform for performers such as Jerry Lewis, The Three Stooges, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Joan Rivers.
Since then, the presence of Jews in comedy has continued to be strong, with the growth of the film and television industries introducing consequent generations to the works of these prolific comedians as well as many more recent writers and stand-ups like Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld.
So what defines this Kosher brand of humour? Rather than being a distinctive genre in itself, Jewish comedy is unified in its shared themes and personas, many recognisable outside of Jewish comic tradition. Adam Lebovits, producer of the Oxford Revue, is himself Jewish, and suggests that ‘comic archetypes’ such as the ‘neurotic’, or the ‘academic’ are often considered as Jewish stereotypes, but also cross over with Western ideas of humour. He adds ‘A lot of Jews over-analyse…and that’s the root for a lot of where comedy comes from in general.’
Having watched ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’, two programs broadcast by the BBC last year, it struck me how much of the pensioners’ humour was based on self-deprecation or hypochondria, and exaggerated the part of the overbearing Jewish mother, often using heavily-accented voices or Yiddish words. The book accompanying the series divides the jokes into sections which give an indication of the content inside: Jewish Mothers, Food, Success, Rabbis, Husbands & Wives, Sex, Illness, Death and Oral Sex.
But why the apparent connection between Judaism and comedy? Perhaps the prominence of Jewish-American comedians is in some part due to their immigrant status in the USA post-WW2: the challenge of cultural integration was eased by making people laugh. However, many writers, including Lebovits, propose the role of anti-semitism in the development of Jewish humour. Mel Brooks, creator of comedy-musical ‘The Producers’ said: ‘’Feeling persecuted, feeling that the only way you can deal with the world is to laugh…that’s probably what’s responsible for the Jews having developed such a great sense of humour’.
For Lebovits personally, this wasn’t the case: ‘I can’t exactly say my own interest in humour intersects with any kind of triumph against adversity – the particular Jewish community I grew up in was a bit too comfortable and suburban to enable laughter in the dark, and I feel understandably short-changed by that. For modern, non-religious Jews, more assimilated into society and without as strong a need for ghetto or gallows humour, it’s probably just a sense of inheriting what you see by watching or listening to older Jewish comedians.’
Sam Hoffman, creator of ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’, also values the role of older Jewish comedians: “One of [our] rules…is that you can’t tell a joke unless you’re over 60 years old. So the people who tell jokes have at least had some first-hand experience with parents who, or maybe grandparents… who came from the old country, who maybe spoke Yiddish. And their ideas, their ways of storytelling and the cadence of their speech is all … affected and inflected by that knowledge. It’s something that we don’t have anymore.’
Stephen Fry, in his language series, ‘Fry’s Planet Word’, considered the role the Yiddish language played in history of Jewish comedy: ‘‘it’s more a mindset than a language…a joke can be Yiddish even when it’s told in English…Yiddish is the language of emotion, and of sex and of failure and of hilarity, whereas Hebrew is a language of seriousness and ceremony.’
Although Yiddish is now an UNESCO endangered language, the tradition of Jewish comics does not seem to be under threat. Perhaps the enduring popularity of Jewish humour is that it’s impossible to tire of, because it mimics and ridicules everyday life with needle-sharp precision and a hefty dose of pessimism to which we can all relate. Or maybe it’s simply just funny.