The recognition of the huge role that Jews have played in the history of American humor raises such a natural question: does the phenomenon of “Jewish humor” exist at all? And if there is, then the following question, which has been asked by more than one generation of Jewish elders about everything under the sun: is it good for Jews?
Let’s start with the first question. Obviously, it would be foolish to claim that there is only one style of humor that unites the various artists mentioned above, not to mention all the comical Jewish performers who have fallen in love with us over the past decades. (For example, did you know that Peter Sellers, the actor from The Pink Panther movie, was Jewish? This name also needs to be added to our list of comics, although Sellers does not fit into a predefined template.) Nevertheless, many experts have noticed that there are intonations, attitudes, and worldviews that determine the characteristic Jewish manner of laughing at oneself and at the world.
According to some experts, Jewish humor is, in fact, a strategy of protection from the pressure of a hostile world.
Wordplay, wit and irony are just defensive weapons. With this view, Jewish humor turns out to be a street version of the love of erudition, which has always been characteristic of our people. A rabbi is a brilliant thinker who thoroughly knows religious teaching and is therefore able to unravel even the most complex ethical and moral dilemmas. And the comedian is a witty fellow with a well-hung tongue, thanks to which he can get the better of any opponent in a discussion, so that an anti-Semite will wonder for a long time how he was pricked and ridiculed.
In two famous lines from comedian Groucho Marx, this strategy of using humor as a weapon is succinctly outlined: “I will never want to belong to a club that agrees to accept me as a member” and (when his family was not allowed into the swimming pool at one “exclusive” country club) “My daughter is only half Jewish. Can she go into the pool up to her waist?” The first joke uses a paradox to ridicule the snobbery that Jews have always had to contend with, and the second absurd conclusion reveals the absurdity of discrimination. In both cases, after Groucho’s caustic witticisms, anti-Semitic snobbery is no longer taken too seriously.
Other people say that Jewish humor shows the suffering and pain that a person experiences, being an eternal stranger in this world. Such a description is suitable, for example, for the characteristic character of Woody Allen – an ordinary neurotic mattress, so accustomed to refusals that he no longer knows how to perceive “yes” as an answer. Or to the style of television actor, comedian and producer Larry David, who strongly disagrees with the definition given to him “a Jew who can’t stand himself.” To this Larry replies: “Yes, I am disgusted with myself, but not at all because I am a Jew.” However, the brash Mel Brooks, the buffoonish George Berne or the eccentric Gilda Radner do not look at all suffering from “alienation”.
Even if it is difficult to determine exactly what is so special about Jewish humor, many people agree: this humor is special. Therefore, several generations of television and Hollywood actors and directors listened to a warning from their producers not to make films and shows “too Jewish” so as not to alienate the mass audience. (There is a widespread strategy: saturate the script with Jewish humor, but then recruit actors without characteristic Jewish manners and appearance. As the cinematic saying goes, “write in Yiddish for British actors.”) However, if there is no concept of “Jewish humor”, how can the show be “too Jewish”? There is a clear logical discrepancy here.
For the sake of continuing the discussion, let’s assume the existence of a Jewish style of humor, even if it is difficult to pinpoint it.