May 2, 2002
Funny Because It’s Jewish
Nothing much happened on the way to the temple. But a funny thing happened inside.
A laughter-filled evening, with a bit of insight thrown in, was a sure bet as the popular Writers Bloc series brought together actor-comic Jerry Stiller, Vegas legend Shecky Greene, uber-comedy writer Shelley Berman and "youngster" Jeffrey Ross.
The funnymen sat down with author Lawrence Epstein ("The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America") at Temple Emanuel to talk about Jewish comedy. Barry Glassner, of USC's Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, moderated.
"What is Jewish Comedy?" was the question of the evening. But for the answer, you'll have to read Epstein's book. With four professional comedians in front of a packed house, this Writer's Bloc evening brought out the shtick. Stiller got some of the biggest laughs of the night with an out-of-the-blue a cappella impression of the Nicholas Brothers dancing to Jimmy Durante singing "Inka-Dinka-Do."
At one point, Ross announced "I gotta pee" and walked off stage. He returned with a paper toilet seat cover around his neck. It was that kind of night.
Writer's Bloc founder Andrea Grossman started the evening off right with "a moment of applause and laughter" in honor of the recently departed Milton Berle. Then Glassner gamely tried to start a civil conversation about comedy. But checking the stage and finding four comics and two professors, Ross complained, "We can't get started, we don't have a minyan." Still, once things did get started, the audience got some answers. Greene and Berman agreed that Jewish comedy is about the comedian, not the jokes. "If a Jewish comedian tells a joke, it's a Jewish joke," Greene said.
Berman added, "I didn't bring Jewishness into my act, I brought a Jew into my act."
Ross offered his view that a Jewish joke is "a joke about alienation, an outsider's point of view."
Stiller, recalling his own childhood facing anti-Semitism and general awkwardness, summed up his own path to a comedy career and the history of Jewish comedy, saying, "When life was threatening, you found humor was a way that people started to like you."