November 15, 2001
Something to Laugh About
An insider's look at the world of Jewish comedy.
"The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America" by Lawrence J. Epstein (Public Affairs, $27.50).
"I'll tell you. I don't get no respect. My mother stopped breast-feeding me as a kid. She told me she liked me like a friend." (Rodney Dangerfield)
For as long as I've been a comedian, I've been asked two questions over and over:
Why are there so many Jewish comedians? And why do you think Jews are so funny?
In "The Haunted Smile," Lawrence J. Epstein attempts to answer these questions by chronicling the history of Jewish comedians in America.
During the silent film era, for example, none of the top comedians were Jewish. Why? Because Jews need to be verbal to be funny, Epstein says. (Imagine your mother as a mime: Not funny.) He uses "Seinfeld" to illustrate that point: Many of their scripts were 20 pages longer than most other TV shows. The excess language betrays nervousness -- a distinctly urban and Jewish approach to dealing with anxiety. In real life, Seinfeld is not nearly as wound up.
Psychologist Samuel Janus is quoted as saying in the book that an astonishing 92 percent of Jewish comedians come from families in the lowest socioeconomic class. (I knew one family that was so poor that after dinner, the mother would count the kids.)
The great comedian Alan King had many routines about his "big-shot rich doctor" brother. In the audience's mind, this lowered King's own status a notch or two so they could relate to him. A comic cannot go on the stage and complain about the color of his Porsche or talk about his summer home outside of Paris. I myself grew up in a sixth-floor walk-up in the Bronx. I lived in such a poor neighborhood, rainbows came in black and white.
Most of the comedians that made us all laugh in the 1950s, '60s and '70s were Jewish. Jerry Lewis and his effect on other Jewish comedians are clearly under-appreciated, Epstein says.
One encounter Lewis had with anti-Semitism was when he was in high school. After being sent to the principal's office, Lewis was asked why he behaved the way he did, and he said he didn't know. The principal then said, "Is it because you're a Jew and don't know any better?" Lewis then hit the principal, who fell against his desk and lost two teeth. He was expelled.
And dig this fact -- Moe Howard (born Moses Horwitz) from the Three Stooges was the first American actor to portray Adolf Hitler in the 1940 film short, "You Natzy Spy." In the 1941 sequel, "I'll Never Heil Again," Curly (aka Jerome Horwitz) played a field marshal who reports to Moe, a dictator, "We bombed 56 hospitals, 85 schools, 42 kindergartens, four cemeteries and other vital military objects." That was pretty powerful for the Three Stooges.
Many Jewish comedians got their start in the Catskill Mountains -- aka, the Borscht Belt. It was almost a substitute for the shtetl, Epstein explains. The familiar food, the presence of families and other Jews and the warm environment offered a deep sense of security.
When I started doing stand-up comedy in New York in 1978, we created our own little shtetl. All I saw every night, either walking the streets or in a comedy club, was mostly other Jewish comedians. About 80 percent of the comics I worked with were Jewish. I personally knew a therapist that was treating 10 different Jewish comics at the same time. (One time, when a comic was leaving therapy and another was waiting to go in, the therapist said, "You're on next.")
Two things we all had in common were: we all knew we were funny, and we all had to express ourselves in ways we were not permitted to when we were growing up. Many nights after our shows, we would go to diners and hang out till 4 o'clock or 5 o'clock in the morning. Those were the days when it was still legal to drink real coffee at 3 a.m. And I've personally eaten more than 2,000 blueberry muffins.
The problem with the 21st century, Epstein says, is that the newly assimilated Jewish comedians may not be as funny as their ancestors, because they are too far away from their original roots.
My old Uncle Louie would eat fish all day, smoke cigars and ask his wife why she was always sniffing him.
I ask you: Are the new grandparents, aunts and uncles of today half as funny as the ones from the older generations?
In 356 pages, Epstein does a wonderful job of covering the subject of Jews in comedy, using "laugh out loud" stories about the lives of these comedians.
And tonight, as I write this review, I am in a hotel room in Kansas City. I am waiting for Jerry Seinfeld to get ready so we can head over to The Midland Theatre, where the two of us will perform in front of 5,000 people.
And when all is said and done, and all the reasons why Jews are funny are put aside, tonight will be just another night when funny people get up on stage in some strange city and make the people laugh. And what do we hope to accomplish? That when people drive home tonight, they say to each other, "Boy, those guys are really funny."
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