If old Jews telling jokes is a timeless phenomenon, it’s also one that, at the moment, offers very little insight into either the current state of comedy or the place of Jews within that field. This wasn’t always the case, of course: Jokes told by Jews in the 1940s, in Europe and America, were anything but trivial, and the puns swapped by assimilated fin de siècle Viennese wags assisted Freud in developing his theory of wit.
But I hereby submit that if you want to understand what today’s comedy reveals about Jews, the people to consult aren’t the ones retailing in-jokes to heymishe audiences, but rather our masterful goyishe comedians and the jokes they tell about us.
Jokes about Jews have long served as a crucial inspiration for non-Jewish American comedians, a point that was driven home on a recent episode of Marc Maron’s What the Fuck podcast, the massively popularcomedy-world analog of Inside the Actors Studio. The success of Maron’s show itself serves as a reminder of the continued prominence of Jews in American humor; Maron’s semi-narcissistic interview technique involves finding points of personal contact with his subjects. He’s so comfortable asking his guests whether or not they’re ambivalently “Jewy,” as he describes himself, that Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia, teased him a few weeks ago that WTF might be a feeder for Reboot. But it wasn’t in response to Maron’s probing for a Jewish angle that his listeners discovered, back in January of this year, that the first joke Steven Wright ever wrote was a Jewish one.
Wright, the celebrated master of the absurdist, near-monotone one-liner, was raised Catholic outside of Boston, and he explained to Maron that his first comic inspiration came to him while he was toiling away as a snow shoveler, in Aspen, Colo., in 1979. Longer than the typical Wright joke, this one begins with Wright meeting a girl on a bus, who tells him she just got back from seeing her analyst. “ ‘What’s the problem?’ ” he asks. “ ‘Well, I’m a nymphomaniac, and I only get turned on by Jewish cowboys.’ And then she said, ‘By the way, my name’s Diane.’ And I said, ‘Hello, Diane. I’m Bucky Goldstein.’ ”
Wright’s the closest that American stand-up comedy comes to non-referentiality; unlike confessional comics, his archetype-defining routines aren’t really about his parents or girlfriends or kids or jobs or vacations. They’re mostly, simply, about the conventions of language and behavior. He included this joke on his first album, I Have a Pony (1985), where it is the single explicit invocation of religion or ethnicity of any kind (unless you count the bit about renting out a pony, shaved except for its tail, to Hare Krishna family picnics). Which makes it all the more startling that his career began with a line about how a name alone can indicate a person’s Jewishness, and how being Jewish can mean as little as your last name being “Goldstein” instead of “Wright.”
Non-Jewish comedians have always done Jewish material, going back to the days of vaudeville, when plenty of the so-called “Hebrew comedians” were, off-stage, Irish or German. Nothing could have been more natural on the Borsht Belt than a touch of Yiddish, wherever you happened to have come from or which particular house of worship embittered your childhood. Some non-Jews’ Jewish jokes have always been backward-looking, an homage to the history of the field, like Eddie Murphy’s “Old Jew” character. That Murphy bothered to perfect an alter kaker accent demonstrated an awareness of the greats who preceded him and the audiences that supported them.
Another set of Jewish jokes, those that mock the zealous, work equally well for Jewish and non-Jewish comics. The sole difference is that Jewish comics can be meaner-spirited without getting in trouble, like when Moshe Kasher got a laugh on Conan recently for calling hasids “fat Amish bearded penguins.” Wright’s joke, by contrast, requires a non-Jewish comic to tell it: If Wright had been performing under a name like Cohen or Himmelfarb, renaming himself “Bucky Goldstein” would have been half-redundant.
Writing jokes from a goyish perspective isn’t easy, as it relies on what an audience knows about Jewishness. Wright’s joke works, that is to say, because just about all Americans will recognize that “Wright” isn’t a Jewish name, but “Goldstein” is.
Can a comic anticipate the average member of the audience at, say, Zanies in Nashville or Rooster T. Feathers in Sunnyvale knowing anything more than that about Jews? Sure they can. And don’t assume that any of these comedians harbor simplistic understandings of Jewishness either. They don’t. They work in New York and L.A., and they’ve encountered Jews of all kinds. Their job is to take an audience’s associations and transform them into surprising, laughter-inducing realizations.
Anthony Jeselnik, a young comic who brings a kind of algebraic precision to his joke-writing, includes the following line on his album Shakespeare (2010): “My body is a temple, but only because it hates Palestine.” This wordplay apparently goes over, making clear that Jeselnik’s audiences don’t recognize that Reform Jews—the ones who attend “temples” (and not “synagogues” or “shuls”)—are precisely the ones most likely, of all their American coreligionists, to be left-leaning. What Jeselnik draws upon here, like Wright, isn’t any depth of familiarity on the part of his audiences with what Jews are like or how they live. He exploits two distinct connotations of the word “temple” with the expectation that audiences will re-experience that word with a comedic frisson when “hates Palestine” conjures up the concept of “Jew.”
It’s a little sad that the association of “Jew” and “hates Palestine” recurs reliably enough to draw a laugh out of an audience, but the most skilled stand-up of our time—who happens to be a non-Jew—relies on an even baser connotation for laughs. On his 2010 special Hilarious, Louis C.K. remarks that the word “Jew” is “the only word that is the polite thing to call a group of people and the slur for the same group. … It’s the same word, just with a little stank on it, and it becomes a terrible thing to call a person.” What makes this funny—and C.K. kills with this bit—is hearing him toggle back and forth between the two versions: Jew. Jew. Jew.Jew.
What does an audience member need to know to be able to laugh at this? Only that Jews, like people in every other ethnic group in the United States, are perfectly respectable members of American society and, simultaneously, the targets of irrational hatred. Or, perhaps, they just need to have seen a Holocaust film or two featuring a slimy Nazi gleeful about his effective persecution of the subhuman people he refers to not with some slur, but, with a venomous Teutonic accent, as “dzhews.” Indeed, in an inspired bit from Conan last summer, C.K. imagined the auditions for the role of the little girl in Schindler’s List who screams “Goodbye, Jews!” with so much vitriol.
If non-Jewish Jew jokes suggest that mainstream American comedy audiences have internalized a vision of Jews who are identifiable purely by their names, who are radically hawkish on Israel, and who are targets of hate-speech, well, that’s just how Jews appear, right now, in the funhouse mirror of stand-up comedy. Which isn’t something we need to take seriously, unless it is.