The End of Jewish Humor

By Anthony Weiss

Published June 03, 2009.
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Uh oh. Judaism is dying. Again.

The cover of the June 1 “New York Magazine” is devoted to an article declaring “the end of Jewish humor.” The proof? Woody Allen’s new movie, “Whatever Works,” starring Larry David. Allen and David supposedly represents the last of the old generation of Jewish humor rooted in existential discomfort and insecurity. The new Jews have become too secure. Their humor isn’t really Jewish. Jewish humor is dead!

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It’s all a bit overblown and underanalyzed. Still, let’s concede the point halfway — Allen and David are remainders of a disappearing style of Jewish humor, one that was both coarse and intellectual, rooted in complaint and neurosis, a style that clearly had an accent. Today’s generation of Jewish comics are far more assimilated, comfortable in their skin and in American society, and not nearly so identifiably Jewish.

But think about how Woody Allen looked to the older generation when he was a rising young comedian. He had some recognizably Jewish accent, but he grew up speaking English, not Yiddish, so it wasn’t particularly thick and his cultural touchstone was more likely to be Ingmar Bergman than Sholom Aleichem. How must he have looked to the older comedians who had come up through the Yiddish theater and spoke Yiddish in the household, some of whose parents had, like Allen’s grandparents, come over wearing peyeses and long beards? Woody Allen? What’s Jewish about him?

Not much, according to no less an authority than Woody Allen, who tells “New York,” “I have a blind spot there. Because I wouldn’t see what I do as Jewish humor. I would see it as funny if you think it’s funny, or not if you don’t. But I never think of it as Jewish in any way.”

With the exception of novelty acts, Jewish comedians have thought of themselves primarily as comedians. Their end, their goal is to make people, not just Jews, laugh. What makes for Jewish comedy, as opposed to just comedy? The distinction has never been that sharp. When Groucho took a pratfall, was it any more Jewish than when Chaplin did? Is Chico’s outrageous Italian persona somehow Jewish? When Mort Sahl riffed on the news of the day, was he somehow more Jewish than when George Carlin talked about Vietnam? When Carlin mused upon the subtleties of language, how was his parsing any less “Talmudic” than Lenny Bruce’s?

And for that matter, look at the big names in comedy today. Let’s see, there’s Judd Apatow, easily the most influential impresario of feature comedies. There’s Jon Stewart, one of the biggest names in television comedy, as well as the godfather of the modern revival of the art of satire. There’s Sacha Baron Cohen who is arguably the largest comic phenomenon in the world (just ask Eminem how large he is). And when “Vanity Fair” recently had a cover story on the new generation of big comic talent, it featured Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Jonah Hill. And that’s not to mention stand-up comedienne Sarah Silverman, or Adam Sandler, who is, according to one Forward editor, perhaps our most incisive Jewish commentator.

What do all these folks have in common? You guessed it, membership of the tribe. And more than that, they have all forged an unmistakably modern and distinctive brand of comedy that, like Allen and David’s humor, can be both outrageous and subtle, coarse and intellectual, silly and razor sharp. So what, exactly, is dying about Jewish humor?

What is dying is a specific generational style and set of concerns. It’s true, Jews generally don’t speak with accents (although their characters might), and they generally don’t feel like outsiders. Woody Allen doesn’t feel quite so relevant, but neither do all those jokes about Jewish mother or bagels and lox or Jews who say “Oy,” (if they were ever funny at all). But it is still entirely possible to write Jewish humor that is topical, fresh, and hilarious.

So what is Jewish humor? How do we know it when we see it? How can we preserve it?

“The way to write American music is simple,” American composer Virgil Thompson once said. “All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish.”

As neat a parsing as you’ll see from any Talmudist. And to think – he wasn’t even Jewish.


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