After a recent screening of “Funny People” at The Writers Guild, The Journal asked Judd Apatow if he uses the same Jewish ensemble over and over again because—just maybe—those actors’ shared heritage makes for better onscreen chemistry. “Maybe,” Apatow replied. “It’s just a sensibility that’s almost an unspoken, unconscious thing. You can’t quite put your finger on why.”
Then he said something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, “I’m not a religious person, but I couldn’t be more Jewish.”
The idea that someone can be—not simply ‘Jewish’ but really Jewish—without participating in Jewish religious life seems like a contradiction. How can someone “be” Jewish without actively doing Jewish things like keeping kosher, going to shul and observing Shabbat? Yet the sentiment is widely shared in Hollywood. Again and again, people in the industry tell me they strongly identify as Jewish but their religion is making movies.
So what exactly does it mean to be Jewish but not religious?
Mel Brooks has an answer. There was a comedy special on KCET Tuesday night that I happened upon accidentally. And lo and behold, it was about American comedians who’ve “lampooned politics and/or pop culture through the years.” And guess what? Most of them were Jewish. Mel Brooks, Jon Stewart, Sid Caesar, Billy Crystal, Roseanne Barr and on and on. Nowadays, I think Judd Apatow might fit into that crew.
“Ethnic groups are attracted to comedy. When the Jews were in the ghetto, they became the comedians because they were outsiders,” said comedian/director David Steinberg.
“It’s how everyone got out of the tenements by doing their special brand of humor, because if you talk about it out loud, it can take away the curse of it all,” added producer Bernie Brillstein.
Roseanne Barr, whose portrayal of an unglamorous suburban housewife won her awards and a 9-year series run, said: “If you make fun of your own in front of the dominant culture here, you can live next door to them.” In other words, if you self-deprecate you can assimilate.
But Mel Brooks never tried to belong. He has famously said, “My comedy comes from the feeling that as a Jew, even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.” Brooks, who was never religious, took Judaism seriously. So seriously in fact, that he regards his Jewishness as a primary motivating factor in his most important life choices. “One of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler, because how do you get even? There’s only one way to get even: you have to bring him down with ridicule,” Brooks said. In other words, being critical gives you power.
“Yes, I am a Jew,” he pronounced to his interviewer. “What about it? What about it!” he shouted, as if it should mean nothing when it means everything.
Apatow’s brand of comedy is decidedly different from that of Brooks’s generation, but what they share is a Jewish sensibility. For them, being Jewish is a distinct way of reacting to the world around them. It’s about the attitudes, beliefs and personality traits that have developed out of a shared outsider status and a history of persecution. Apatow’s angsty male stoner culture could be seen as a reaction to overwhelming Jewish ambition, the need for success and wealth and power, which in itself, is a response to never having had any. Let’s not mention the role of the oppressive Jewish mother in all that.
What Apatow may have meant when he said, “I couldn’t be more Jewish” is that Judaism informs the way he negotiates the world. Or as Roseanne put it, “the dominant culture.” (Hollywood, by nature, is a response to the dominant culture so it’s very Jewish in that way too.) And while Apatow’s movies are beloved by the larger culture, they are mostly about people on the fringes. People who are quirky and weird and unordinary. People who crack jokes because they’re smarter, but they’ll never belong.