“Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” by Jeremy Dauber

Here’s the Amazon blurb for the new book Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (2017) by Jeremy Dauber, professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University:

In a major work of scholarship both erudite and very funny, Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber traces the origins of Jewish comedy and its development from biblical times to the age of Twitter. Organizing the product of Jews’ comic imagination over continents and centuries into what he calls the seven strands of Jewish comedy―including the satirical, the witty, and the vulgar―he traces the ways Jewish comedy has mirrored, and sometimes even shaped, the course of Jewish history. Persecution, cultural assimilation, religious revival, diaspora, Zionism―all of these, and more, were grist for the Jewish comic mill; and Dauber’s book takes readers on the tour of the funny side of some very serious business. (And vice versa.)

In a work of dazzling scope, readers will encounter comic masterpieces here that range from Talmudic rabbi jokes to medieval skits, Yiddish satires and Borscht Belt routines to scenes from Seinfeld and Broad City, and the book of Esther to Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song.” Dauber also explores the rise and fall of popular comic archetypes such as the Jewish mother, the Jewish American Princess, and the schlemiel, the schlimazel, and the schmuck, and the classic works of such masters of Jewish comedy as Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, Franz Kafka, the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Philip Roth, Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, and Larry David, among many others.

Jewish comedy, as Dauber writes, is serious business. And precisely what it is, how it developed, and how its various strands weave together and in conversation with the Jewish story: that’s Jewish Comedy.

From the book’s Introduction:

The first time I walked into a Columbia University classroom to teach a course on Jewish comedy, Seinfeld had just gone off the air and Lena Dunham was entering high school. Judd Apatow was a respected television producer who no one outside the industry had ever heard of; and The Producers was still a movie, though there was talk of taking it to Broadway. I was a little nervous—a wet behind the ears twenty-seven-year-old assistant professor, lecturing to the largest class I’d ever had (apparently this was the kind of course that could attract a crowd), and I looked down at my notes to focus myself.

Jewish comedy is serious business, I’d typed across the top. And so it is.

Over the last fifteen years or so of teaching the subject, lots of things have changed—although, thanks to the magic of syndication, Seinfeld never really did go off the air—and my syllabus has changed with it; but the top line hasn’t, along with the two central realizations that accompanied it.

First: The story of Jewish comedy was almost as massive in scope, as meaningful in substance, as Jewish history itself. In fact, I realized as I refined and developed the class, I was looking at a tradition. One with a history that could, and should, be studied. The story of Jewish comedy—what Jewish humor did and meant for the Jews at different times and places as well as how, and why, it was so entertaining—is, if you tell it the right way, the story of American popular culture; it’s the story of Jewish civilization; it’s a guide to an essential aspect of human behavior. The fact that it also happens to be immensely entertaining to read, talk, and teach about is something of a bonus.

But second: You can’t include everything. Or even close. And so what you did include, I realized, had to work not just as a catalog of Jewish comedic production, but as an argument about what precisely Jewish comedy consists of. But even before you get to the cataloging and taxonomizing, there has to be some defining. Some inclusion and exclusion. Is the raw stuff of Jewish humor so capacious that it includes anything written by a Jew that might raise the faintest scintilla of a smile? Well, no. That would be, if not entirely ridiculous, at least ridiculously unhelpful. And literature is littered with brilliant comic thinkers who have warned against trying to define comedy too precisely: Samuel Johnson’s “Comedy has been unpropitious to definers” is the most famous, though I kind of prefer Swift’s rhyming couplet that “What Humour is, not all the tribe/ Of logic-mongers can describe.” But this logic-monger would like to set two conditions nonetheless.

First: Jewish humor has to be produced by Jews. Maybe this is obvious, maybe it isn’t, but it’s part of our ground rules. How someone defines their Jewishness is a notoriously tricky subject—and, counter to some people’s thinking, has been since the beginning of Jewish history—but anyone who defines themselves as Jewish in any way is potentially part of our subject; others, even if sometimes mistaken for Jews (Charlie Chaplin, looking at you), are out. This said, comedy—especially in performance media—is of course often collaborative, and oftentimes a great work of Jewish comedy is crafted in concert with non-Jews; this material is very much included.

The second, trickier condition: Jewish humor must have something to do with either contemporary Jewish living or historical Jewish existence. Jewish history is very long, and Jewish life extraordinarily diverse, both geographically and culturally. It would be surprising if all examples of Jewish comedy looked the same—and they certainly don’t. But all those different times and places featured Jews commenting on what it meant to be a Jew in that culture. Usually, since most of Jewish history is diasporic history, as some kind of cultural outsider; but even if not, almost inevitably with that sidelong, half-immersed half-alienated glance so crucial to comedy. And frequently, they used those comic instincts to participate in long-running discussions that crossed centuries and continents about the meaning of Jewish history, theology, and destiny. Some of the examples we’ll treat in this book are explicit about those discussions; some assign them to the spheres of subtext or allegory; some are snapshots of a lived present whose movement into the past render them part of the discussion despite their apparent intent. But they’re all grist for the mill: as opposed to, say, a killer knock-knock joke written by a Silverstein or a Schwartz. (Unless, I suppose, there’s some fairly potent allegorical or metaphorical component within.)

That’s it. Certain subthemes will emerge again and again across the varying strands, of course—a particular playfulness with language, especially befitting the changing linguistic (and frequently multilingual) circumstances in which Jews lived; a contemplation of power and the lack of it; the relation of those two themes to questions of masculinity, along with the presence and absence of female voices. But those are more provocative preoccupations rather than essential parts of the definition. That still leaves a tremendous amount to wrangle, though, and the solution I’ve come up with, the one that serves as the organizing structural principle of this book, follows the Maggid’s approach: Take a look at the long history of Jewish literature and culture, suss out the funny stuff that meets our definition, and then draw a defining circle around it—or, as I’m going to suggest, draw seven of them. Because, as it turns out, when you canvass the material—the entire breadth of the history of Jewish comedy, from the Bible to @crazyjewishmom’s Instagram account and look for commonalities, seven major conceptual rubrics—seven strands—suggest themselves.

Immediately, I hear the cry: “Why not eight? Why not six? Your seventh is really a modified version of number four!” Look, this isn’t a precise science; the writers and performers who produce this stuff aren’t theoretical constructs, they’re working artists trying to get a laugh and use multiple techniques at once; and comedy tends to blur boundaries anyway. So these are guidelines, ideal types.

And here they are, without further ado:

1.  Jewish comedy is a response to persecution and anti-Semitism.

2.  Jewish comedy is a satirical gaze at Jewish social and communal norms.

3.  Jewish comedy is bookish, witty, intellectual allusive play.

4.  Jewish comedy is vulgar, raunchy, and body-obsessed.

5.  Jewish comedy is mordant, ironic, and metaphysically oriented.

6.  Jewish comedy is focused on the folksy, everyday, quotidian Jew.

7.  Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself.

This entry was posted in Culture, Humor, Jewish. Bookmark the permalink.