Paying Homage to Comedy’s Matriarchs
‘Did you know that when you go out with a gentile he never tells you how much the meal costs?” comedian Cory Kahaney jokes in her stand-up act. “If I don’t know how much the meal costs, I don’t know how much to put out! At least with Jews you know where you stand.”
The female Jewish comic is thriving. From Judy Gold’s one-woman show, “G-d Doesn’t Pay Rent Here,” to Sarah Silverman’s upcoming film, “Jesus Is Magic,” to Susie Essman’s sidesplitting appearances as a sharp-tongued agent’s wife on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to Jackie Hoffman’s role in the new FX series “Starved,” female Jewish comedians today are everywhere — be it television, film, theater and, of course, the comedy club stage. As the comedic terrain they occupy grows, we — the audience — become like the Jewish women of Kahaney’s joke: We don’t know where we stand.
And so with a knack for timing her fans already know well, Kahaney, who herself earned a devoted national following two years ago as a contestant on the NBC reality series “Last Comic Standing,” developed “JAP: The Princesses of Comedy,” a sort of primer on female Jewish comics. From early pioneers, such as Jean Carroll, to such still-thriving matriarchs as Joan Rivers, “JAP” shines a duly deserved light on Jewish female comedians. The show will have a one-night-only workshop performance at the Museum of Jewish Heritage this week, before jetting off to Florida. Between rare archival footage and radio recordings of such comic geniuses as Belle Barth and Betty Walker, comedians Kahaney, Marion Grodin, Karen Bergreen and Dina Perlman will perform stand-up and sketches. The tone of the show features the full range of comic styles, from slapstick to intellectual, silly to clever.
If one is to understand Jewish humor as “outsider” humor, then Jewish female comics today are the last true practitioners of the art. As Jewish males now make up the establishment, it seems they no longer possess the comedic “double consciousness” (to borrow a phrase from W.E.B. DuBois) that Jewish females still have. Brandeis University historian Joyce Antler argued that Jewish females “may be seen as the new ethnic ‘others,’ negative caricatures whose Jewish essence, magnified and openly mocked, contradicts the positive strides” made by males in the field.
In the early 20th century, Jewish females performed onstage in Burlesque and improv; few performed what now would be considered stand-up. “JAP” pays tribute to those pioneers. Jean Carroll, who rose to prominence in the 1940s and ’50s, was one of the first three females known to perform stand-up. Her act was quite clean, as she complained about her husband’s foibles and about shopping and suburban life. Her appearance was feminine; her onstage presence, soft spoken. Carroll managed to get approval for an eponymous network television show, but it was quickly pulled and she retired soon thereafter.
Unlike Carroll’s savvy with mainstream audiences, Barth and Pearl Williams were so bawdy — so “blue” — that clubs would only let them on for late-night shows. Their explicit language, emphasis on sexual freedom and candid remarks about Jewish culture earned them formidable followings and record sales. Williams released nine records, and Barth made 11. Barth’s sensibility is perhaps best captured in this bit: “I’m 65, I’m fat, I can still take five guys a night. I pay them now, but it’s okay.”
Though they bravely took the stage during World
War II, early female comics never really got their due. In part there is little archival material about these women, but this is also because of their minority status. During the post-Cold War era, as Jewish assimilation grew, angry, pushy, “ethnic” humor was replaced by more subdued, ironic voices. Today, Jewish female comedians embody a little of Carroll and a little of Barth. “JAP” hones in on the fact that Jewish women in comedy have come full circle.
That said, female comics answer to a different set of rules than males — rules that, in many cases, one would associate with a bygone era. Before her debut at the Montreal Comedy Festival, young comic Rachel Feinstein was told to change her name, as it sounded “too Jewy.” When Kahaney started out, she, too, was encouraged to become more marketable and to perform a Jew-free set. Handlers wanted her to craft a more urban, New York persona in lieu of a distinctly Jewish one. Her new show has enabled her to “stop hiding being Jewish. The doors are always wide open to me in the Jewish community; I figured why not go where you’re welcome, for a change.”
The world from which Kahaney was looking for change was the comedy club and its chauvinism. Women are a distinct minority in stand-up. Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedian,” a documentary about the comic’s return to stand-up, was telling both for what it showed and what it didn’t — namely, female comics. Last year, four male comedians spearheaded the New York Comedian’s Coalition, the stand-up comedians’ union, but the union does not, as of yet, address sexual harassment, homophobia, racism or sexism, all of which are prevalent in the business.
In looking at sexism in comedy, one must bear in mind that the business is composed not only of comedians but also of club owners, managers, agents and studio executives. One female comedian, who wished to keep her name off the record for fear of hurting her career, said, “Most of the comedy managers in New York are notorious for sexual harassment, and there is nothing I can do.” Female comics have fewer options when looking for representation, a necessity in the business.
Another stumbling block for women in comedy is that their points of view are often seen as one undifferentiated whole. There is no need to have too many women, the thinking goes; they are all saying the same thing anyway. But if there’s anything that Kahaney’s “JAP” proves, it is that women in comedy offer an array of voices and styles, from Carroll’s demure sensibility to the bawdier brand practiced by Barth and Rivers. If anything, what women will complain about is that promoters to studio executives limit what women can and cannot do onstage. Women will be actively discouraged from doing “dating and relationship material” or from “being too aggressive” — and this is on a stage that’s already been littered with sexist bravado. Kahaney is excited to perform “JAP” in theaters, she said, in part because it will be refreshing “not to follow some guy doing anal sex jokes for me to then discuss raising my teenage daughter.”
But despite many brutal challenges, female Jewish comedians are getting their doors knocked on, both to reinvigorate stereotypical characters and to build fresh, original ones. Hollywood still does not entirely know how best to use smart, funny women. This is, in large measure, why Kahaney went out and made a show of her own. Kahaney argues that while men can get away with being mediocre, women cannot. And as female comics grow in number, there are ways they can make the business easier for future generations, namely by reaching out to one another and to younger comedians, as well as producing their own work.
“JAP” does just that. The show features several sharp female comedians, each unique in her viewpoint. In “JAP,” Bergreen deadpans, “I love Starbucks but they don’t have a slogan so I wrote them one: It’s really expensive, and there is a long line.” Grodin quips, “If you go by spam as a reflection of what’s going on in this country, there is nothing but men with small penises trying to refinance their mortgages.” And Perlman jests, “I love dating Israeli men because they are so subtle.”
“JAP” may not give the definitive answers to what Jewish humor is or what female humor is, but the show offers a resounding “Yes” to the question of whether women can be funny. They are hilarious, and not simply in relation to men but all on their own. As Wendy Leibman, one of the most successful female comedians today, adroitly sums it up: “People subconsciously assume a male comedian is funny… but a female comedian isn’t…. If she proves them wrong, they laugh more… they’re also laughing at themselves for assuming wrong… it’s even more satisfying to see a funny woman.”