Emily Grotta UAHC Department of Communications 212.650.4221 email@example.com
Magazine Begins Three-Part Series on the History of Jewish Humor
This month, Reform Judaism
magazine takes a detailed look at how the unique Jewish perspective on comedy -
anchored by Jewish comedy writers' roles as street-smart outsiders - has
transformed the way all Americans laugh. The first installment of "Wizards of
Wit," a three-part series that examines the history of Jewish humor in the 20th
century, appears in Reform Judaism's Winter 2001 issue, exploring how talents
such as Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen revolutionized
comedy in the decades following World War II.
With the recent publication
of several books on the subject - including Lawrence J. Epstein's The Haunted
Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians - Jewish humor is as popular now as it was
in the heyday of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. According to "Wizards of Wit"
author Arie Kaplan, much of this has to do with Jewish comedians' ability to
turn adversity into a source of laughter. "Jews have had two things going for
them: they were persecuted and they have a big thrust toward knowledge. And the
combination of being downtrodden and smart, those two things make you funny,"
states writer, director, and actor Carl Reiner.
Equally important was the
ability of Jewish comedians to see the world from a skewed, "outsider" vantage
point, as evidenced by the Jewish bent toward social satire in the 1950's and
60's. During these years, Jewish writers and actors helped create a number of
comedic institutions, including television sketch comedy, the modern humor
magazine, the stand-up routine, and contemporary improv theater. Traditional
Jewish jokes found their way into Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie sketches, MAD
magazine's popular parodies, and the films of Jerry Lewis.
According to Kaplan, the
Jewish presence in comedy before World War II was marked by self-caricature -
thick Yiddish accents, baggy pants, and derby hats. After the war, such comedy
was perceived as insensitive, and a new type of Jewish humor began to take its
place. Intelligent and urban, it reflected the formal education of the people
who supplied it. MAD magazine, the satirical, iconoclastic monthly founded in
1952 by Jewish cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, was a prime example of this new
humor. Featuring contributions by Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Tom Lehrer, and other
Jewish writers and comedians, "MAD fulfilled the role humor should serve in the
Jewish community," commentator Moshe Waldoks tells Kaplan. "It punctured
pomposity. It let us see the other side of the way things are. Like the role of
the prophet, it got us to look at ourselves."
On television, Sid Caesar
helped revolutionize the form of sketch comedy, borrowing elements of vaudeville
and updating them for a more intelligent new audience. With a writing staff
including Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and Woody Allen, Jewishness informed many
of the jokes, and a Jewish sense of social responsibility pervaded the show as a
whole. "One of Caesar's cardinal rules of comedy was never to mock the powerless
or downtrodden," Kaplan writes. "He felt it was wrong to poke fun at someone who
was down and out. As a Jew, he knew what it was like to be ridiculed for
something over which you had no control."
In film, comedians such as
Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen took the character of "the outsider" to new heights.
While Lewis's movies tended to "stake out a middle ground between crowd-pleasing
clown[ing] and social commentary," Allen "embraced the neurotic, analytic,
intellectual model carved out by his peers in the stand-up and short-form improv
world and melded it into a believable, sustainable, Jewish screen persona that
was both contemporary and old world," Kaplan writes.
"In the past, when we felt
politically powerless, humor was a tool," explains Jewish humor writer Rabbi
Joseph Telushkin. But by the late 60's, the Jews' status in comedy changed. As
cartoonist Paul Peter Porges says: "We created a very unique American Jewish
humor style, which now, in our day and age, is no longer Jewish humor, it's
The second installment of
Wizards of Wit will appear in Reform Judaism's Spring 2002 issue. This article
and others can be read online at http://uahc.org/rjmag/.
magazine is published quarterly by the Union of
American Hebrew Congregations, the central body of the Reform Movement in
North America. The UAHC represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900
congregations in the United States and Canada, and offers its members programs
including music and book publishing, youth camps, adult education programs,
outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, and the Religious Action Center in Washington,