Yes, but Is It Good for the Jews? By Jonny Geller Bloomsbury, 208 pages, $15.95.
“Our Pal, G-d” and Other Presumptions: A Book of Jewish Humor By Jeffry V. Mallow iUniverse, Inc. 192 pages, $16.95.
Oy! The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes By David Minkoff St. Martin’s Press, 432 pages, $22.95.
Funny is hard. Everyone knows that. And everyone, including Freud (especially Freud — what a joker!), knows that funny is not about what you say. It’s about how you say it. What nobody knows, and it’s a scandal, is how to bottle it, how to get it just right. It’s easier to figure out where and why it goes wrong.
Take “Yes, but Is It Good for the Jews?” (please). The premise is that we can calculate, using a complicated algorithm, just how good anything is for the Jews. Kyoto, K-Y Jelly, Alan Greenspan. It’s all there, in an odd mixture of yuks and Jewish trivia. (Who knew that Michael Bolton is Jewish? I didn’t. Now I know, do I care?) Only trouble here is that the yuks are just, well, yucky. They’re forced, badly timed and sometimes just bitter. You don’t get any of the great deflationary zeal (“Customer: Waiter! I’ve seen fresher fish. Waiter: Not in this restaurant you haven’t”), any of the surprising wordplay or any defeated expectations of the great Jewish jokes of yore. All you get is a kind of sour aggression. If you’re going to use stereotypes, play with them, don’t just parrot them, especially when the stereotypes are so tired they could plotz. (Women just wanna shop? Jews can’t play sports? Pope Benedict, who is German, says “Heil Marys?” C’mon.) Look at Sarah Silverman. She embodies all sorts of clichés and then smashes them over the audience’s head. (The now classic “I was raped by a doctor. Sort of bittersweet for a Jewish girl” still makes me cringe. But in a good way.) You don’t have to be Jewish to do this. Dave Chappelle is pretty good at it, too.
“Yes, but Is It Good for the Jews?” is a little slim. “Oy! The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes,” on the other hand, could use a good diet. Author David Minkoff appears to have raided his Web site (www.awordinyoureye.com) and then arranged the jokes roughly according to theme. And the going is rough. Perhaps it would have been better not to have arranged them at all — that way the reader wouldn’t get bored of looking at similar jokes, one after the other. Hell, the reader might not even notice that Minkoff has told the same joke more than once. But let’s be honest, you’re not really supposed to read “Oy!” You’re supposed to consult it. It is a reference work, an encyclopedia of jokes. And they aren’t all Jewish, not by a long shot. (Just giving a character a Jewish name doesn’t mean that the joke is Jewish.) That’s not to say that there aren’t some good Jewish jokes in here. There are. You just have to find them.
But the problem with “Oy!” is timing and tone. It is long and just a little too mean. Check out the suggestions for funny speeches at the end. Old insults without that Don Rickles flair. (It actually takes wit to call someone a hockey puck. Minkoff could learn from a pro like that.) Minkoff, like Geller, likes to trade in clichés. You’ve heard them before, and they weren’t funny then, either.
Jeffry Mallow, a physicist and stand-up comic, has, like Minkoff, put together a collection of Jewish humor. But these are all real and recognizable Jewish jokes, and Mallow, bless him, doesn’t mistake good old-fashioned Yiddish aggression for meanness. Because he is interested in the current state and the future prospects of Jewish identity, Mallow has edited out the tired clichés. But wait, there’s more. He includes Jewish jokes from other countries and traditions. (We knew the French could be funny. But the Moroccans?)
But seriously, folks. “‘Our Pal, G-d’ and Other Presumptions” also shows the extent to which that good old-fashioned Jewish aggression is not simply a frustrated reaction to a hostile universe. It is also ultimately a form of cunning, a smart way of beating the bullies. It is the kind of thing you see in fairy tales, when the witch’s curse gets turned back on herself. So, not only are Mallow’s jokes pretty good but they are also, in the end, rather interesting. And that is a refreshing surprise. (Truth in reviewing: Mallow serves as the treasurer of the Forward Association, and thus he ultimately signs the checks. Integrity and professional pride forbid me from mentioning that he is also strong, handsome and kind to animals.)
No one knows how humor actually works, so I’ll give it a shot. Jokes perform all sorts of functions, but primarily they lift the bar, not just on repression but also on all our taboos, distinctions, categories and divisions. They mix it up, make a mish-mash of the sacred, the profane, the disgusting. That’s why we love them — they open up the world. At the same time, though, jokes close down the world. They create social cohesion by setting up new taboos, distinctions, categories and divisions. In Jewish jokes, we lampoon all manner of folks, the goyim (if we’re Jews), the Galitzianers (if we’re Litvaks), Jewish mothers and JAPs (if we’re men), even ourselves (if we’re crazy).
Nah, you don’t have to be crazy to go in for self-mockery. There are all sorts of reasons for making fun of yourself. One of them is masochism combined with guilt. Another, as I have already suggested, is cunning. And perhaps the most important one is to establish solidarity. Throw a little Yiddish in the joke, make a crack about some special Jewish ritual or custom, and you’ll have ’em rolling in the aisles, because you’re really just claiming kin. If you can do all this and do it indirectly — disparage those who aren’t your kith or kind in the act of insulting your own — so much the better.
The best Jewish jokes and the best Jewish comedians can work all these ingredients, hit the trifecta, knock one out of the park or whatever. The worst merely reinforce outmoded stereotypes and divisions. They aren’t all that dangerous, because they aren’t all that funny. They don’t do much other than remind us that we’re Jewish in some way or another. And if you think about it, that is not a particularly good reason to keep them around.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.