Thursday, December 14, 2006

Laughing all the way to the bank: The Morning News wants to know why Jews are funny -- and why they're mostly funny in America. Adam Gopnik had a good answer, from Through the Children's Gate:

What was left [in my family] of overt, nameable Jewishness was the most elemental Jewish thing, and that was a style of joking. My grandfather, who ran a small grocery store in a black neighborhood, lives in my memory, apart from Sunday-morning fish, mostly in his jokes, a round of one-liners as predictable as the hands on a clock, and yet, weirdly, getting funnier by the year: "Joe Banana and his bunch? The music with appeal." and "I used to be a boxer. In a shoe store." And "I used to sing tenor, but then they traded me in for two fives." And "Feel stiff in the joints? Then stay out of the joints."


But the unstated condition [of Seinfeld, et al.] is that there be absolutely no mention of the "J" word, while the most Jewish character, George, is given an Italian last name, Costanza. This is not because Jewishness is forbidden but because it is so obvious. Jewishness is to Seinfeld what the volin was to Henny Youngman: the prop you used between jokes, as much for continuity as for comedy. The Jewish situations are mimed by rote, while the real energy of the jokes lies in the observation of secular middle-class manners. In the old Jewish comedies, it had been just the opposite: The manners of the middle class were mimed by rote -- the suits and ties, the altered names, Jack Benny's wife called Mary -- while the energy of the jokes lay in the hidden Jewishness. (The comedy of Phil Silvers's great Sergeant Bilko almost scandalously derives from the one thing that no one on the show is allowed to mention, which is that Bilko is a clever New York Jew dominating a kind of all-star collection of dim Gentiles.) New York Jewishness was now the conscious setup rather than the hidden punchline.

Yet Wayne Gladstone, writing in The Morning News, thinks that Jewish humor derives from the ... tense status of Jews as white minorities. In the same class as Italians or Poles, you might say. Gladstone says:

So I decided to give my friend [who asked why Jews are funny] the politically correct answer: that the Jews had been forced into comedy by the downsizing of the Zionist government and continued outsourcing of baptized-baby blood-drinking jobs.


In America, Jews are a white minority. Think about that: We can live comfortably, practice freely, and bowl adequately. But being a Jew in America is like using left-handed scissors: You can make it work, but it just doesn’t feel right. This is Jesusland. Always has been, always will be. So perhaps what makes Jews so funny is not Judaism, but Christianity—and the American Jew’s constant immersion in it. Don’t believe me? Who could blame you? It’s easy to accept that Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, and walked on water, but believing he begat the funniest fuckers on the planet would take a true leap of faith.


But sometimes Christianity’s über-majority status becomes empowering to the point of perversion. Either that or they must be handing out testicles at Mass, because some Christians actually have the balls to complain about “Jewish paranoia”—as if six million Jewish men, women, and children weren’t rounded up, shipped out, tortured, and killed in the middle of the 20th century. Calling Jews “paranoid” is like giving shit to Christians in Ancient Rome for acting “kinda jumpy” around lions.

So, yeah, that’s being a Jew in America. It’s not heartbreaking, it’s not debilitating, and it’s clearly not as difficult as being a non-white minority—though it’s had its moments. And while 2,000 years ago we might have gotten all Judah Maccabee on your ass, now all we have is Jon Stewart (and he’s not as good with a hammer as we hoped). So what else can we do except joke about it? Besides, comedy can be powerful; humor can undo some deeply held beliefs. Just look at Jerry Lewis. How else, but through comedy, could the French be fooled into loving such a greasy Jew?

But is that all Jewish comedy really is? A way of complaining? A subtler form of throwing a punch? A cry for acceptance? For some, sure, but those guys never seem to make it past a couple of Letterman appearances. There’s more to it than that because the truth is, we’re not sore losers. We haven’t even lost. Look it up. There’s never been a race between Judaism and Christianity to see who could amass the greatest numbers of souls. Judaism has always been an invitation-only affair, a reward that’s unsettlingly similar to a punishment. Like when the schoolteacher picks the good kid to help clean the erasers after class, Judaism is something of a burden. And that accounts for a need for humor as much as anything else.

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