From King David to Larry David: A New Look at Jewish Humor

For better, and for worse, Jeremy Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History tells the story of Jewish comedy as the story of Jewish civilization.

Nov. 1 2017
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 

One could feel sorry for authors competing for an American Jewish book award against Jeremy Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. Winsomely erudite, this newly released book is a pleaser. Although analyzing humor is notoriously capable of killing it—“You want a joke book, buy a joke book,” Dauber warns at the start—his serious history of Jewish comedy is engaging and historically informative even when it’s not ha-ha funny. Which is not to say that it’s free of shortcomings; but these can wait.

A professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University, where he also directs its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Dauber is the author of several excellent monographs on Yiddish and Hebrew literature and a fine biography of Sholem Aleichem. But all along, he reports, he has been thinking about Jewish humor. To his mind, as he writes in this book’s preface, the story of Jewish comedy—“if you tell it the right way”—is nothing less than the story of Jewish civilization.

To tell it the right way, Dauber traces seven thematic threads that he finds running throughout Jewish comedy over the centuries: comedy as a response to anti-Semitism; as a vehicle for internal social critique; as a reflection of Jewish intellectuality and book-centeredness; as a celebration of Jewish vulgarity and body-centeredness; as metaphysical questing and questioning; as a spotlight on ordinary Jewish experience; and, finally, as a meditation on—and often an enactment of—the sometimes elusive nature of Jewishness itself. Each thread receives a chapter unto itself, and each chapter illustrates its theme in chronological fashion, with examples that range from, as it were, King David to Larry David.

The result, if not the story of Jewish civilization, embraces a great deal more than jokes. The first chapter, for instance, surveys the ways in which Jews throughout history have used comedy as a response to enmity, persecution, and powerlessness. In pursuing his quarry, Dauber finds occasion to touch on ancient rabbinic culture’s grappling with imperial Rome, Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages, the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and modernization in 18th- and 19th-century Europe, and the acculturation of Jewish immigrants and their descendants in the United States. Deftly jumping from the book of Esther, to medieval animal fables and the anti-Christian parody Toldot Yeshu, to modern humorists like Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, and Mel Brooks, he offers a global tour through much of Jewish political history.

Similarly, the second chapter, which focuses not on comedy directed at external enemies but on comedy revealing tensions within Jewish communities themselves, provides a generous helping of, in this case, Jewish social history. Here Dauber moves from biblical conflicts between prophets and kings to medieval conflicts between rabbinic and commercial elites. Coming to the modern period, he shows how shifts in the nature of Jewish satire reflect the disintegration of traditional sources of communal authority. And so forth.

The great talmudic authority Saul Lieberman, speaking of academic research into the subject of Jewish mysticism, once famously remarked: “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is science.” Dauber’s history of nonsense is scholarship of a high caliber, impressive in its sweep while attentive to historical and cultural specificities, and never fusing Jewish history into a single sentimental stew. In the chapter on the subversively vulgar side of Jewish comedy, for instance, his discussion of scriptural parody and wordplay zooms through the biblical book of Jonah and the apocryphal Ben Sira, medieval Purim plays, send-ups of talmudic tractates from Renaissance Italy and 19th-century America, and onward briefly to ḥasidic writings, early-modern Hebrew parody, and modern Yiddish literature. Elsewhere. he moves from a discussion of Kafka to the Marx Brothers, along the way gathering up Marcel Proust, Henri Bergson, the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, Soupy Sales, and the film There’s Something About Mary—all in three pages.

I especially appreciated Dauber’s fresh takes on the by now well-trod subject of postwar American Jewish humor. Thus, he reminds us of the influence of Harry Golden (“an underrated transitional figure”), salutes now-forgotten queens of dirty-joke LP’s like Belle Barth and Pearl Williams, and doesn’t hesitate to reassess canonical saints (“[Lenny] Bruce’s routines don’t hold up well on recordings”).

Throughout the book, Dauber sensibly avoids reductive theories and clunky methodological scaffolding, relying instead on critical intelligence, infectious enthusiasm, and a good ear. While the analysis is not always sustained, the insights are plentiful and the style, with its frequent asides and conversational interruptions, is clearly drawn from his stand-up subjects and Yiddish precursors themselves. He’s having a good time.


Yet, as promised, the book does have its shortcomings. Some seem merely a matter of emphasis. Israeli and Soviet materials, for instance, are sparse, certainly in comparison with the chapters devoted to them in Ruth Wisse’s 2013 No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, an influence Dauber graciously acknowledges.

A more general flaw is the book’s lack, not of some rigid explanatory theory of Jewish comedy—there can be none—but of an argument. In this connection, his nod to Wisse inadvertently serves to remind us, by comparison, of the latter’s powerfully incisive thinking. The lack is especially evident in the sections on contemporary American Jewish humor and what it can tell us about the self-conception of American Jews. The conceptual space that might be inhabited by such an argument is taken up instead by a quiet tendency toward political partisanship, and at times by a palpable reluctance to draw unpleasant conclusions about the state of Jewish culture today.

Thus, Dauber ends his chapter on communal satire with a rather overheated encomium to Jon Stewart, whose presence on the Daily Show conveyed, in Dauber’s description, “just enough fire to let you know that he honestly cared—deeply—that what he had to report actually matters, and that he hoped to change some minds along the way.” These meticulously bland words will be news to those who recall Stewart’s mugging and snark, his role in inaugurating our Twitter-era nastiness by serving up ideological red meat to his howling audience and by showering contempt upon—and sometimes deceptively editing—those guests, usually on the conservative side of the spectrum, with whom he disagreed.

It is not simply that Dauber overrates Stewart’s importance for the ages, but that he enshrines him in a pantheon of Jewish satirists without ever mentioning the specific politics about which “he honestly cared—deeply” and that were central to his shtick. He is nowhere near so shy about the politics of certain others, taking pains, for instance, to identify the novelist Saul Bellow as a “conservative.” When it comes to Stewart’s humor, by contrast, its partisan political content—or even the fact that it is political—goes uncited as Dauber sings his gratitude for Stewart’s “insightful and clarifying” artistry. The same treatment extends to other contemporary darlings of the left like Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham, whose comedic gifts Dauber similarly overrates even as his discussion of their cultural significance skips adroitly over the centrality of Democratic-party politics to their careers.

A different kind of studied reticence is on display in the book’s final chapter, which raises the contentious questions of Jewish continuity and cultural loss. What happens to the Jewish “comedy of disguise,” Dauber asks—referring to the way that Jewish humor has captured, often through mockery, the pains of assimilation into a dominant culture—at a time when, as he puts it, “disguise is no longer necessary or, maybe, even possible” and when Jewishness itself has grown attenuated, insubstantial, and insignificant? It is a good question, although one that he conspicuously avoids answering, concluding instead with a romp through recent American comedy from Jerry Seinfeld to the films of Judd Apatow and a coy bon mot:

[I]f many of these last examples rarely, if ever, explicitly mention Jewishness at all—well, is that a sign of the end of an era of Jewish comedy? Or just a new iteration of the cycle of Jewish disguise? Ask Queen Esther; maybe she’d have something to say on the matter.

Two pages later, in a brief epilogue, he again wonders about the effects of a hollowed-out American Jewishness not only on Jewish comedy but on Judaism itself. In the recent Pew Survey of American Jews, he notes, “42 percent of respondents felt that ‘having a good sense of humor’ was part of ‘being Jewish in America today,’ 14 percent more than ‘being part of a Jewish community’ and 23 percent more than ‘observing Jewish law.’” His sole verdict on that elevation of “a sense of humor” over collapsing allegiance to community and faith is this:

Many generations of Jews would have thought that this was swapping the cart for the horse; many might have thought of it as, well, as a joke. . . . What the punch line of that joke is still remains to be determined.

In truth, both of these issues—the substitution of political faith for religious faith and the desuetude of the old “Jewish comedy of disguise”—are two sides of the same debilitating coin, and one can’t help wondering whether Dauber, thinking of his readership, may have intuited that the prudent course was to tackle neither of them directly. In any case, the results are unfunny. For if one of the signal features of waning Jewish identity in today’s America is its mutation into Democratic-party progressivism—the vehicle through which many American Jews understand and anchor their Jewishness—the “good sense of humor” that constitutes the only other remaining glue for 42 percent of professing American Jews is also increasingly centered around politics, if largely of the cultural variety, and the element of “disguise” in it is wholly missing.

Relevant in this connection is a trio of films that are not examined in Dauber’s book. The first takes us back almost 40 years. In Harold Ramis’s 1980 Caddyshack, Rodney Dangerfield portrays an overtly Jewish nouveau-riche member of a tony golf club. This arriviste achieves his triumph over the prim and proper old Wasp establishment (in the person of Ted Knight’s Elihu Smails) by ebulliently violating every last shred of taste and thereby reducing his upright, uptight target to sputtering impotence.

If that portrait was already seriously dated in 1980, it was still being played for (far fewer) laughs two decades later in the pair of in-law movies starring Ben Stiller, Meet the Parents (2000) and its sequel Meet the Fockers (2004). In both, Wasp rectitude (Robert de Niro, incongruously enough) is again duly defeated by with-it American Jewishness, personified in the second movie not only by the goofball Jewish groom Greg (Stiller) but also by his parents, an aging boomer progressive (Dustin Hoffman) eager to “stick it to the man” and a yoga instructor/ let-it-all-hang-out sex therapist (Barbra Streisand).

Behind the smug hijinks in all three movies one might dimly sense a lingering Jewish fear of the threat posed to self-satisfied liberalism by the specter of Christian conservatism, for which superannuated Wasp proprieties serve as a lame stand-in. This trope, too, has long since become pathetically irrelevant, if not hallucinatory; but, answering as it does to a fashionable anxiety, it has yet to find a replacement. To say the least, it hasn’t made for good art. Worse still is what it says about the content of contemporary American Jewish identity—not to mention the species of humor so effusively and uncritically expounded by its gifted chronicler.

More about: Arts & Culture, History & Ideas, Jewish humor