So I had an evening out, for the first time since Maxine’s birth. I attended “So Laugh a Little,” an evening of Jewish women’s comedy benefiting the Jewish Women’s Archive (jwa.org), an organization that supports research, fosters chick-power activism, and creates curricula about American Jewish women in history and today. My husband, feminist that he is, baby-sat both girls so that I could go. I was giddy that I’d actually get to wear a dress, since no one would require access to my breasts. (I mean, I would have offered, had anyone at the benefit needed a tipple.) Unfortunately, I haven’t lost the baby weight yet. (That would be the weight from the first baby, who was born in 2001.) And as many women know, breastfeeding turns the most modest of endowments into the Grand Tetons. Which I should have thought of before leaving myself five minutes to put on my fancy 1950s vintage dress. The used-to-be-too-big one. Which I hadn’t worn since August 2003. Fortunately, through a complex system of winches and pulleys, my husband, MacGyver, managed to zip me up the back. “Just don’t laugh,” he suggested. Uh oh.
My brother Andrew, a curator of media at the Jewish Museum, was my date for the evening. (I would adore him even if he weren’t blood; anyone who makes sure that episodes of “The Simpsons” are archived for posterity is a god among men.) As we noshed and I tried not to breathe, I asked him to ruminate on the defining features of Jewish female comedy. Is Jewish women’s humor inherently different from Jewish men’s?
“As with any minority group who has suffered some level of persecution, there’s a lot of source material to cull from,” he said. “Humor has always been key to survival. But I do think there’s a different women’s aesthetic than a male aesthetic. In Ashkenazic culture, women managed businesses, ran homes, took care of the details of everyday life, while men got to be creative, studying and debating. And comedy is a form of creativity. So there’s all this pent-up creativity that’s finally being released in recent years. But Jewish women’s humor is incredibly diverse; it’s hard to generalize.”
Some of that diversity is showcased in Joan Micklin Silver’s forthcoming documentary, “Only Faster,” clips of which were screened at the benefit. It profiles six legendary Jewish comedians: Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Molly Picon, Judy Holliday, Madeline Kahn and Gilda Radner. (The title comes from Radner’s observation, “Comedy is like drama, only faster.” Indeed.) Silver directed the wonderful “Hester Street” (1975) and “Crossing Delancey” (1988), the latter making thousands of American Jewish women pine for their very own pickle man.
I must admit I don’t know much about Tucker, Brice and Picon, beyond frozen black-and-white images. I think of them as relics, the humor equivalent of the Venus of Willendorf. (That was not a fat joke.) I don’t think most comedy ages well. (Okay, I’ll give you “Lysistrata” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) I’m not really interested in over-the-top, shtick-y humor — insult comedy, Borscht Belt rhythms, exaggerated Yiddish accents. (Well, since there’s an exception to every rule, I do love Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Jackie Hoffman — and I apologize to Miss Hoffman for putting her in canine company — who turn out hostility in a crazed, over-the-top art form, so lunatic that it doesn’t feel genuinely mean.)
So while I appreciate many of our comedic foremothers’ contributions, I don’t necessarily want to watch them. Hey, I’m happy to be proved wrong, and I hope Silver’s movie will do that. But the truth is, I find very few comedians, historical or contemporary, funny. They’re either selling too hard or working too hard to look like they’re not selling; it’s off-putting.
But I think Kahn’s and Radner’s work is timeless. They each had the ability to be both over-the-top (Lili Von Shtupp! Roseanne Roseannadanna!) and very real. Their comedy was grounded in humanity and human experience. My favorites of their characters (Kahn’s Eunice Burns in “What’s Up, Doc?” and Trixie Delight in “Paper Moon”; Radner’s nerdy Lisa Loopner and spazzy little Judy Miller) are tough but fragile, profoundly funny, but just as importantly, a little sad. The film’s title, “Only Faster,” actually reminds me of one of Radner’s most amazing sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” “Dancing in the Dark.” She’s sitting at a café table in a restaurant, where she locks eyes with a stranger, played by Steve Martin. Suddenly the rest of the room fades to black and the two of them begin a passionate, wordless, hilarious dance number that seems to encapsulate the entire course of a love affair. Then he gently deposits her back in her seat, the lights come up and the bustle of real life resumes. It’s uproarious, magical, slightly melancholy. True drama, only faster.
“Great comedy is specific,” says Lynn Harris, the author of the comic novel “Miss Media” (available on Amazon.com! Buy two!). Harris has been a standup comedian for 10 years. “You can’t say ‘Aren’t Jews funny?!’ and be funny; it’s like saying (she effects an oleaginous, hammy male voice), ‘Hey, men and women are so different; am I right?’ It’s too theme-y and reductive. Concepts aren’t funny. Well, except for Tu B’Shevat, which is comedy gold. But dogma isn’t funny; stereotypes aren’t funny. When a lesser comic does a Jewish mother, you’re either offended or put to sleep — ‘Never mind, I’ll sit in the dark.’ To make it work, you’d better be Judy Gold.”
Gold, who also performed at the benefit, is reliably terrific. She does indeed do Jewish mother jokes, but she knocks them out of the park. In part, it’s because she has perfect timing and her writing is tight. (She killed with “I had a yeast infection during Passover and wasn’t allowed to attend the Seder.”) But it’s also because she creates portraits — of herself, her kids, her mother — rather than stock characters, stick figures waiting for a punch line to be hung on them. (And her own mom isn’t the only Jewish mother she mocks. In a modern gloss on old stereotypes, she says wryly: “My kid has two Jewish mothers. Wouldn’t you kill yourself?”)
I’m unconcerned that the best women performers, both at the benefit and in the film, largely steered clear of political humor. It’s great when done well (big ups, Jon Stewart Lebowitz!), but it can also be polarizing, hard to calibrate and quick to sound dated. But being vulnerable, talking about family, food, the need to be loved — that stuff resonates with everyone. (Or so I hope, given what I do here.)
After the benefit, I headed out into the night, still safely packed into my dress like a schnitzengruben in a casing. I’m glad we live an era of diverse Jewish women’s comedy, when women don’t simply mine self-deprecation and self-hatred for humor, when we can be beautiful, ethnic and funny. And hmm, a guy on the subway couldn’t take his eyes off me. I thought: “I am flushed with laughter! I am beautiful, ethnic and funny!” Perhaps. But as I discovered when I got home, I also had a nursing pad poking out of the top of my dress.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.