May 19, 2013
A German reporter walks into Cannes… and asks an arcane question about Jewish humor
When I woke up Sunday morning and turned over to my iPhone I was baited by an email from TheWrap.com with the subject: “Cannes; What is Jewish Humor? Justin Timberlake ‘Smells a Trap’ for Coen Brothers.”
Intrigued, I clicked, and up came the strangest article: It was about a press conference held in Cannes yesterday about Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which premiered at the film festival this past weekend. The movie stars the 33-year-old actor Oscar Isaac in an apparently breakthrough role, and the actress Carey Mulligan, who is currently making Leonardo DiCaprio swoon in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.” According to reports, it tells the story of a struggling musician set against the backdrop of New York’s 1960s folk music scene. Actor/musician Justin Timberlake, who was present at the Cannes press conference, also plays a supporting role.
But that’s not what I write. This is:
TheWrap.com’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman had this to report on the much-publicized press conference:
I haven’t seen the film, since it premiered in Cannes and I am stuck in a far corner of the other Riviera known as the California coast -- so I don’t know if the question about Jewish humor was related to the content of the film itself or was just a random culture-specific question put to the Coens about their work. But I’m a little confused as to why it was “awkward.” It seems a perfectly reasonable and genuine question, one, I might add, I’ve asked of countless Jewish artists, in some form or another in order to ferret out the way Jewishness has informed their work.
But when the German reporter tried to explain himself, he was shut down yet again. This is what Waxman reports happened next:
For some reason, Waxman (who is Jewish and should know better) reports the scene with a weird gloating complicity that makes it seem as if the question was preposterous -- or weirder, preposterous because it came from a German.
The whole scene comes off as odd and frankly, a little bit disappointing. Though I give Timberlake credit for his ready sensitivity. Still, it is mystifying to me why this exchange was portrayed with such suspicion and cynicism. I don’t see anything wrong with asking about the qualities that comprise “Jewish humor” and if the ethnic specificity of this question offended Waxman as well as the Coen brothers, they could use a little brushing up on the long, colorful and very real history of Jewish humor.
Though I don’t typically recommend trusting the word of Wikipedia, it does seem significant that it contains an entry (and a massive one) devoted entirely to the subject of -- you guessed it -- Jewish humour. (That’s exactly what it’s called -- but with an elegant British “u”.)
For brief edification, here’s the first paragraph:
Several years ago, I watched a comedy special about American comedians, which I wrote about for this blog. It is admittedly a task to elucidate what exactly “Jewish” humor might be – that’s a job for a scholar who might study the work of Jewish humorists closely and could then dare to draw some general conclusions. But at the very least, anyone who has watched their fair share of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Joan Rivers, Nora Ephron, even Judd Apatow and on and one -- might be able to hazard a guess at a definition, or at least a simple theory as to why Jews have had a devoted historical and cultural penchant for comedy (see, for example, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book “Jewish Humor”).
Borrowing from a 2009 HJ blog post, here’s a smattering of what some prominent Jewish comedians have had to say about the inscrutable subject: