Shtick Figures

Jewish Comedy: A Serious History BY Jeremy Dauber. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 384 pages. $28.

The cover of Jewish Comedy: A Serious History

On a recent episode of the web series Norm Macdonald Live, Jerry Seinfeld told a joke he promised only Jews would understand. This is a bold claim to make in 2017, after more than a century of shtick and oversharing from the borscht belt to Broadway to Broad City (and those are just the B’s!), small globs of Yiddish rising like schmaltz to the surface of the great melting pot. To suggest that there might be a cultural stone still unturned, some crumb of samizdat humor unknown to the goyim, seems like the kind of provocation that keeps conspiracy-minded anti-Semites up at night, clutching their copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And yet, Seinfeld was right.

The joke: Two gentile businessmen meet on the street. One says, “How’s business?” The other says, “Great!”

Non-Jewish readers: Please allow a moment for your brows to furrow in confusion.

To be fair, Macdonald’s Jewish cohost, Adam Eget, didn’t get it either. The correct answer, as my Episcopalian wife—a ten-year veteran of the Wilson seder table—instantly understood, is that no Jewish person would be so enthusiastic; no matter how well things are going, there is cause for complaint.

But while the basic logic’s easily deduced, the larger question of what makes this a Jewish Joke (Seinfeld called it the greatest he’d ever heard) is more difficult to parse. Is it the joke’s strange structure, with its sucker-punch punch line that arrives prematurely, hitting before you’ve raised your dukes in defense? Is it the discomfiting ambiguity of who’s being laughed at: The goy in rose-tinted Ray-Bans? The Jew whose glass is always half-full of low-sodium tsuris? Or is it the joke’s cultural impenetrability, its confident reliance on the particular worldview of its intended audience? These are the kinds of questions asked by Jeremy Dauber in his sharp and wide-ranging Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, and if the answers he provides sometimes feel inconclusive, rest assured that this is by design. Dauber is participating in another Jewish tradition: answering questions with questions.

Fittingly, he begins with a lengthy apologia regarding the impossibility of his project. “Any attempt to define a specifically Jewish humor is doomed to futility. . . . Writing a book that tries to touch on all of it . . . as well as offer some explanatory power, is a pretty tall order.” To which I might add a question of my own: Why try?

The answer can be found in the text, though not before another three pages of caveats: that “analyzing comedy runs the risk of killing it”; that humor doesn’t age well, it isn’t always funny, it’s sometimes offensive. Nothing kills a laugh like a trigger warning either. “You want a joke book, buy a joke book,” Dauber chides, and certainly there are plenty out there. But this doesn’t mean Jewish Comedy isn’t filled with jokes, or that it isn’t funny. Dauber—a professor at Columbia University and the author of three other books, including a highly praised biography of the foundational Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem—is a historian foremost, and his primary focus, as well as his strength, is spotting trends and charting their movements. For example, Dauber sources the archetype of the schlimazel—the Yiddish word for an “avatar of Jewish misfortune,” whose “only power, is the right to complain”—to medieval Spain, where the scholar Abraham ibn Ezra bemoaned that if he were to “undertake to sell candles, the sun would never set.” A direct line is drawn between ibn Ezra’s laments and those of modern “schlimazel par excellence” George Costanza. But Dauber is more than a historian—he’s a Jewish historian, which means that his “serious” history isn’t content to present its research in a dry, straightforward manner; it’s filled with asides and tangential commentaries. Throughout my reading, I was reminded of an idea my father had after being yelled at for talking in an Amtrak train’s Quiet Car: that there should be a separate Quiet Car for Jews in which a little bit of talking is allowed.

To Dauber’s credit, the digressions make for some of the book’s best parts, such as basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain’s parenthetical appearance as a teenage bellhop at a Catskills resort, or an anecdote about Universal Studios refusing to green-light The Producers unless Mel Brooks softened its opening number by calling the song “Springtime for Mussolini” instead. One of my favorite stories—about Alan Dershowitz sending an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (in which Larry David sleeps with a Palestinian woman who yells anti-Semitic slurs during sex) to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu—is saved for the endnotes.

Between these bits of pop-culture ephemera—added up, they could fill a short book of their own, or at least a Jewish edition of Trivial Pursuit—lies a densely packed trove of scholarship on subjects including Biblical scatology, medieval fables, and the Yiddish theater. Dauber finds comedy in unexpected places. The Book of Esther is his urtext for many comic traditions, and he sees the Bible’s first dick joke in Genesis, when Sarah laughs at God’s promise that her hundred-year-old husband will seed her a son. I always thought the laughter referred to Sarah’s own aged state, but Dauber posits that Abraham is the target, the first in a long line of emasculated Jewish men. More convincingly, he traces the humor of self-hate to the Haskalah, a secular movement that began in late-eighteenth-century Germany. The movement’s internalization of European anti-Semitism made it a kind of ground zero for Jew-on-Jew joking. Like Woody Allen (“I may hate myself, but not ’cause I’m Jewish”), Dauber is wary of the self-hate tag, explaining that the haters “were generally expressing their hatred of constituencies of Jews they weren’t part of.” It’s an interesting distinction. For Dauber, so-called self-hate is a defensive move intended to retarget bigotry elsewhere, at other Jews.

Dauber is nothing if not erudite, and the connections he makes between seemingly disparate texts can be thrilling. At times, however, the breadth of material overwhelms. No distinction is made between genres or mediums, which sometimes leads to unfair comparisons, as when he pits Sarah Silverman’s theological outlook against novelist and memoirist Shalom Auslander’s. The book is organized into seven sections (“Why not eight?” Dauber imagines his reader might reply. “Why not six?”), each of which corresponds to an aspect of Jewish humor. Each chapter proceeds chronologically, repeatedly lingering on Dauber’s twin obsessions, the Book of Esther and the Haskalah. The more recent past often gets short shrift. A paragraph on the “pegging” episode of Broad City is so coyly and prudishly described that it’s hard to make sense of what’s been said, and Dauber’s claim that the feminist show’s “delight in delving into New York’s underbelly . . . powerfully evokes” sexist shock jock Howard Stern feels frustratingly reductive. So does his ultimate takeaway: “To be truly offensive and blasphemous, to be deeply vulgar, is easy and artless. To be meaningfully so, in a way that enlightens—that has a long tradition. And it’s done with love.” I would have liked more space devoted to mid-twentieth-century literature; Philip Roth and Saul Bellow receive consideration, but important figures like Grace Paley and Stanley Elkin are mentioned only in passing, and others, like Leonard Michaels and Mordecai Richler, aren’t mentioned at all.

Drew Friedman’s illustration of Sonia Kalish (Sophie Tucker). From Even More Jewish Comedians (Fantagraphics Books, 2011).
Drew Friedman’s illustration of Sonia Kalish (Sophie Tucker). From Even More Jewish Comedians (Fantagraphics Books, 2011).

But these are minor quibbles. Besides, what’s a Jewish text if it doesn’t prompt debate? The larger question is how these varied threads add up. Mostly, Dauber wants to challenge the accepted narratives about the roots of Jewish humor. He’s skeptical of the “lachrymose approach to Jewish history”—the theory that all Jewish culture emerges from suffering, is “one long trudge through a vale of tears.” And while I’m not sure I buy the Book of Esther as high-comic farce, Dauber’s right that its anxiety about anti-Semitism and its interest in Jewish masking and unmasking predate the Crusades, pogroms, and death camps from which these thematic fixations are supposed to have emerged.

In a sense, this is also a history of both Jewish assimilation and the repeated refrain of its failure. Dauber quotes an old joke on the subject, about a Jewish couple’s attempt to join a country club that refuses their kind. The couple spend months studying up. They take etiquette classes and surgically alter their appearances. When all’s said and done, they ace the country-club interview only to falter on the final question, a formality: What religion are you? “I, my good man, am a goy!” As Dauber explains, “The ineffable trace of Jewishness persists.” I thought of the bold declaration of assimilation that opens Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago born.” The lady doth protest too much.

I also thought of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the chants of “Jews will not replace us.” I was only half kidding when I said that jokes like Seinfeld’s keep anti-Semites up at night. Which may be the point. For Dauber, humor’s not just a balm for pain, but something “far more jagged, a way of probing at the gaping wounds.” As an example, he cites the satirical songs and plays targeted at Hitler during the occupation of Poland. The thin-skinned führer set up “joke courts” to silence his detractors; one wonders how he would have done with a Twitter account. A later section on The Daily Show, however, laments Jon Stewart’s failure to “restore sanity” to a nation gone mad, concluding that all we can do is “thank Stewart for trying.” I disagree. The Daily Show to me feels like proof of the opposite, evidence that comedy can change the national conversation; its relentless pointing out of political hypocrisy helped create a generation of well-informed skeptics. Or take another of Dauber’s canonical texts, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film To Be or Not to Be, about a theater troupe who pose as Nazis to serve the Polish Resistance and avoid arrest. For Dauber, the film’s takeaway is the failure of satire, its “insufficiency” against the historic tide. He’s right, but not entirely. The Germans aren’t vanquished, but the Resistance lives to fight another day, and the troupe manages an escape to Britain. Humor can’t end atrocity, but it sometimes saves lives.

Adam Wilson is the author of two books, including Flatscreen (Harper Perennial, 2012), which was a National Jewish Book Award finalist.