Not that it should come as any surprise, but Vulture’s recent list of “The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy” merely affirms the widespread assumption that much if not most of what passes for contemporary humor was and remains directly or indirectly forged out of the tragicomedy of Jewish culture. With roots going back to the Old World badkhns through Yiddish vaudeville and Catskills tummlers, today’s comedy is Jewish through and through.
Vulture’s list affirms this. By my count, fully half of the jokes on the list were written and/or delivered by Jewish writers and comics (well, actually, 48 out of 100, but I’m rounding up). Present on the list are of course all the usual suspects, including the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, and Amy Schumer.
The list includes classic routines, lines, or sketches by George Burns (Nathan Birnbaum), Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky), Henny Youngman (Henry Yungman), Jean Carroll (Celine Zeigman), Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, Nichols and May, Don Rickles, Rodney Dangerfield (Jacob Rodney Cohen), David Brenner, Albert Brooks, Elayne Boosler, Andy Kaufman, Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Ben Stiller, Jon Stewart, Andy Samberg, Judd Apatow, and Lena Dunham.
The list also includes a few surprises. For example, the article highlights dialogue from Frank Capra’s screwball comedy, “It Happened One Night,” starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, whose “smart, sexy sensibility” Vulture credits with influencing “a host of other lightly bawdy screwballs and … would-be paramours, from Moonlighting’s David and Maddie to Archer and Lana from Archer.”
As with most of Capra’s films of the 1930s, the dialogue was written by Robert Riskin, a Yiddish-speaking native of the Lower East Side who worked on 14 films with Capra, whose signature protagonists were more a product of Riskin’s leftist sensibility than Capra’s own right-wing ideology. The productive partnership collapsed by the end of the decade due precisely to those political differences, as well as to Riskin’s sense that Capra devalued his creative contribution to their collaboration, famously brandishing 120 blank pages in Capra’s face and saying, “Put the famous Capra touch on that!”
Another famous and perhaps unlikely comedic moment occurred when comedian Ed Ames made one of his frequent appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show. This time out, the sketch called for Ames to demonstrate for Carson his newfound skill tossing a tomahawk. Ames threw the weapon at an outline of a cowboy, where it landed — presumably unintentionally — right between the unfortunate cowboy’s legs.
After a long pause for voluminous laughter on the part of the audience, Ames, and Carson, the host improvisationally quipped, “I didn’t even know you were Jewish.” In fact, Ames – born Edmund Dantes Urick to Russian immigrants outside of Boston – was indeed Jewish, which presumably neither Carson nor the audience knew.
Watch the video of the hilarious moment here:
Seth Rogovoy is a frequent contributor the Forward’s arts section.
Marx Brothers and horror fans unite?
Rob Zombie, musician turned film director, will direct the film version of Raised Eyebrows (1996), a book focusing on the final years of Groucho Marx, Deadline reports. Oren Moverman will write the screenplay.
The story comes from author Steve Stoliar, who worked with Groucho Marx as his personal secretary and archivist starting when he was a student at UCLA. Over his years with Groucho, Stoliar also met the rest of the Marx brothers, as well as screen siren Mae West, George Burns, Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, S.J. Perelman, Steve Allen, and others.
An odd choice for Zombie, most famously known for “House of 1000 Corpses,” two “Halloween” films, and “Lords of Salem.” Zombie told Deadline, “I have been a huge Groucho Marx fan ever since I was a child and have read countless books on the comic legend, but after reading the book Raised Eyebrows, a totally new perspective on Groucho’s life emerged.”
He added: “It is a sad, funny and very dark tale of one of Hollywood’s greatest stars’ final years.”
It’s been 100 years since four brothers — Leonard, Arthur, Julius and Milton — sat down at a table and, with the assistance of a fellow vaudevillian, reinvented themselves as Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo. The centennial anniversary of that comic rebirth will be celebrated with Marxfest, a month-long series of screenings and discussions taking place in May.
Noah Diamond is one of six committee members running the events. They are “mostly New York theater people and media people who were sort of passionate about the Marx Brothers,” he said.
Why this obsession for comics long gone? “I think the simple answer is that they were so funny. If you watch their films today, they are still so surprising and so fresh.”
Diamond, an actor and writer who has performed as Groucho, noted that many of the events are free and others are moderately priced. “Hopefully if we sell a reasonable amount of tickets we won’t lose money.”
The brothers were Jewish, though not observant. Diamond says that in “The Cocoanuts,” Groucho is credited with being the first actor to speak in a natural New York/Jewish accent rather than the sort of high-tone faux British accent typical of the time. Harpo donated his harp to the State of Israel.
More information about events is available at marxfest.com
Comedy, explained Aristotle, has a vague history, because at first no one took it seriously. We cannot know for certain if Aristotle was deadpanning, but his observation would amuse Saul Austerlitz. According to Austerlitz, American film comedy has not been taken seriously, either. In fact, the author quips, it is American film’s “bastard stepchild.” With his latest book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” Austerlitz gives us a broad survey of the genre, hoping to spark debate.
There were few Jewish comedians in Aristotle’s day, but in American comedy, Austerlitz notes, Jews are “the only minority group overrepresented.” The title of his book is taken from a catch phrase by the gentile comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy, but on the cover of the book, it is Jewish comedians, The Marx Brothers, who are making a mess. For Austerlitz, the Marx Brothers are the embodiment of Jewish humor — “anarchic, absurdist, and ebullient” — existing in the face of a hostile or dismissive power structure.
Fifty-five years ago today, union activist and thespian Philip Loeb checked himself into the Taft Hotel in Midtown Manhattan under a false name and took a fatal dose of sleeping pills. Targeted by the insidious blacklist, Loeb could no longer find work in his beloved acting profession and had reached rock bottom.
Tonight, a panel of those who knew or have studied Loeb — including myself — will commemorate his career at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Loeb’s suicide was especially devastating considering how greatly he had fallen. Known as an actor’s actor, Leob taught his craft to the likes of Kirk Douglas, Rosalind Russell and Don Rickles. He also performed in such Broadway hits as “Room Service” with the Marx Brothers, and directed its signature food delivery scene.
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