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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

Contact: Emily Grotta
UAHC Department of Communications

Reform Judaism 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 American humor!"

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

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Reform Judaism 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, DC.


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