Got a favorite joke? Chances are, Sam Hoffman has heard it before.
In early 2009, Hoffman, with business partner Eric Spiegelman, launched the web video series “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” Inspired by his own experiences at the family dinner table, where, he says, “It was more important to get the line out at the right time than it was to actually chew your food,” Hoffman enlisted his father, a retired New Jersey judge, as casting director for the series. In an era of high-concept entertainment, here was something blissfully simple: just some older Jewish folks telling stories about flatulent doctors and grasshoppers named Stanley.
The very singular premise of “Old Jews Telling Jokes” primed it to become a viral sensation. In its first few months, the site garnered more than 1.5 million plays and became a top-10 video podcast on iTunes. Now, nearly two years after its launch, the site currently features more than 200 jokes told by 130 elderly Jews — including bold-faced names like that of former New York mayor Ed Koch and filmmaker Sidney Kimmel — and averages 700,000 plays a month. In addition, “Old Jews Telling Jokes” has been adapted into a book, released on September 7.
Needless to say, Hoffman has heard a lot of jokes over the past two years. Still, if you ask him which is his favorite, he is ready with an answer: “Herschel the Magnificent Jew.” In case you’re unfamiliar with the joke, it goes like this: Herschel works in a sideshow, where he cracks walnuts using only his enormous penis. Twenty years pass, and Herschel is still hard at work, only now he’s cracking coconuts. Why the change? Herschel’s eyesight “ain’t what it used to be.”
Hoffman appreciates this joke, he says, because it speaks volumes about the Jewish persona. “To me, that’s really about how Jewish men like to perceive themselves: ‘You may look at me as a freak, as old, as weak, but I’ve got this secret. It’s really loaded.’”
Of course, jokes are only half a successful formula; the site wouldn’t work without the old Jews. After all, who would want to watch a 25-year-old recite “Herschel the Magnificent Jew”? Each video includes a brief character sketch, a celebration of the joke-teller as much as of the joke itself. Subjects are filmed against a stark white background, in a style Hoffman describes as “Avedon light” — invoking the spirit of the late celebrated photographer Richard Avedon. The simplicity of the framing draws attention to the physical hyperboles that come with old age: pants worn too high, eyebrows grown too bushy.
These authentic details are essential to the website’s charm, says Hoffman. “[The joke-tellers] would come in and they would have a big cell phone holster on the side of their belt. My cameraman would say, ‘Do you want them to take off the holster?’ And I’d be like, ‘Are you crazy? That’s exactly who this person is.’”
Though some of the jokes — like “Dr. Drobkin” and “A Flea Goes on Vacation” — are masterpieces of the genre, just as many are groaners. Reading them on the page, one can practically hear a rim shot (on the website, the jokes are punctuated with klezmer music, which has the same effect). As Hoffman readily admits, “A lot of these jokes were probably built in the Catskills.”
The gags are schticky, corny and stale, and that’s precisely the point. The jokes provide a connection to a Jewish-American experience that is largely foreign to younger generations. Many of the joke-tellers had parents or grandparents who spoke only Yiddish. The particular anxieties of the immigrant experience — which many of the jokes illustrate vividly — have largely been forgotten.
Then, too, joke-telling is an antiquated craft. Contemporary comedy tends toward the post-modern. Punch lines are obscured by layers of irony and self-consciousness, not emphasized by canned laughter. To modern comedic sensibilities, there’s something almost unseemly about the old-fashioned ritual of telling a joke in order to make people laugh; it’s just so obvious. In this sense, jokes have become to comedy what cell phone holsters are to fashion: clunky, old-fashioned and appropriate only if you’re 60 or older.
Inevitably, some of the website’s vitality and immediacy has been lost in its translation to the printed page. Watching a retiree tell a joke about syphilis is inherently more entertaining than reading the joke on the page next to a black-and-white photo and a brief biography of the joke-teller. But what “Old Jews Telling Jokes” — the book — does quite well is to identify tropes of Jewish humor.
To his credit, Hoffman doesn’t belabor questions of Jewish identity or turn a celebration of the tradition of Jewish humor into a joyless academic inquiry into the nature of comedy. Each chapter begins with a brief introduction in which Hoffman identifies an important element of Jewish humor — and, by extension, Jewish culture. Naturally, the book begins with a chapter on Jewish mothers (and a quote from Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”); there are also chapters on food, rabbis and sex. Hoffman’s tone is breezy but not irreverent, celebratory but not sentimental. For example, in what could have been a heavy chapter — “Who Are the Jews?” — Hoffman writes, “The stories in this section illuminate this quintessential conflict at the center of the Jewish persona: the persecuted elitist, the foreskin-free pugilist, the Chosen Underdog.” Though ideas about the origins of Jewish humor abound, Hoffman accepts the tradition mostly at face value. “You wouldn’t say that we’re musical like the Irish or we can cook like the Italians. But we can definitely tell a story. And that’s joke-telling.”
Last year, New York Magazine ran a cover story — inspired, in part, by “Old Jews Telling Jokes” — about the supposed end of Jewish humor. As Jews have assimilated into American society, they have less to feel freakish — and therefore, be funny — about. Though a disproportionate number of Jews still fill the ranks of the professionally funny, their work is less identifiably Jewish than that of their forebears. Judd Apatow, Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman are not as Jewish as Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Don Rickles, or so the theory goes.
Hoffman isn’t entirely convinced. Just because Jews no longer have to mask their Old World accents or vie for admission into restricted country clubs doesn’t mean their lively comedic tradition is in danger. After all, Hoffman says, “There’s always something new to be ashamed and anxious about.”
Meredith Blake is a freelance writer living in New York. She is a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Daily News and The New Yorker’s book blog.