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The Haunted Smile

May 9, 2009 | by

From vaudeville to the movies to television, how Jewish comedians transformed American entertainment.

Jerry Seinfeld was standing in front of a live audience. "I grew up in Massapequa on Long Island," he began. Pausing for a second with the comic timing he had perfected, he then explained. "It's an old Indian word meaning 'by the mall.'" When the laughter died down, he continued, "My folks just moved to Florida this past year. They didn't want to move to Florida, but they're in their sixties and that's the law."
The audience loved his jokes, but it wasn't always so easy for Seinfeld. In his early twenties, on the same day he graduated college, he made his first stand-up comedy appearance at New York's Catch a Rising Star. It was open-mike night, and the young comedian had his chance. He walked up to the microphone and froze. He managed to blurt out the subjects of his would-be jokes but not the jokes themselves. He stood there saying words: "The beach. Driving. Shopping. Parents." Unable to continue, he left the stage.

Seinfeld's story, as all American television viewers know, had a happy ending. That is so, in part, because Seinfeld had enormous talent, incredible determination, and a desire for perfection. His comedic talents simply wouldn't be denied.

But Jerry Seinfeld also had another weapon: the rich wealth of the tradition of Jewish comedy. Seinfeld was his generation's follow-up to Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, and literally hundreds of others.

This embarrassingly rich crop of American Jewish comedians defies common sense. In 1979, for example, Time estimated that whereas Jews made up only 3 percent of the American population, fully 80 percent of professional comedians were Jewish.

The story of Jewish comedians in America is one of triumph and success. But their stage smile is tinged with a sadness. It is haunted by the Jewish past, by the deep strains in American Jewish life -- the desire to be accepted and the concern for a culture disappearing, by the centuries of Jewish life too frequently interrupted by hate, and by the knowledge that too often for Jewish audiences a laugh masked a shudder. The comedians' story in America includes bitter encounters with anti-Semitism and the lures of an attractive culture along the way. The jokes these comedians told, their gags, and their nervous patter need to be set alongside the obstacles they overcame.

The story of Jewish comedians in America is one of triumph and success. But their stage smile is tinged with the sadness of the Jewish past.

However haunted the smile might be, though, ultimately it was a smile that won America's heart. Jewish comedians have achieved unprecedented acceptance. George Burns, Milton Berle, Fanny Brice and their contemporary heirs -- Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Seinfeld -- stand at the very center of American humor. Not only are their individual achievements etched in our collective cultural consciousness, but as a group these comedians occupy a crucial place in contemporary American culture as well.

Beyond being extremely talented entertainers, however, Jewish comedians have fulfilled a special mission in American life, serving as the most important mediators between Jews and American culture. They exemplified two great themes of American Jewish life: assimilation and the search for an American Jewish identity. The comedians gained for Jews acceptance from an alien Gentile culture and did so in a way that was not threatening to middle America. They had power and control over an audience when such authority wasn't yet available to Jews in the wider society and, by doing so, illustrated that other Jews could also eventually achieve such authority. They also provided a cultural identity for the many nonreligious American Jews.

But the Jewish comedians did more than just bring the American community to the Jewish one. They brought the Jewish community to the wider American culture, ultimately completely transforming the very nature of American comedy.

The attractions of Jewish comedy for the wider American audience are more elusive than for the Jews themselves. Still, even as the comedians used their humor to separate Jew from Gentile, even as the nebbishes, schlemiels, kibitzers, and gonifs of Jewish humor found their way into American homes and hearts, even as Jewish antics and chaotic routines strangled reason, American audiences loved the humor. Traveling far from the homey folksiness of a Mark Twain or a Will Rogers, American humor gathered in its Jewish influences and changed completely.

The major reasons for this embrace of Jewish humor involved the changes in American society itself. Searching for a way to deal with the emerging anxieties of the modern age, America turned to the Jews, the masters of handling history's troubles. Jewish humor, so useful in helping generations of anxious Jews, was called to action to serve the similar needs of the wider American community. An immigrant generation found in the Jews a people repeatedly practiced in starting over again in a new place while feeling marginal and scared. A depression generation saw in the Jews a people who had stared poverty in the face for two thousand years and survived, families and pride intact. After World War II, the United States confronted a seemingly invincible Soviet threat, a threat that included the ever present possibility of nuclear annihilation. The United States eventually grew into a society marked by generational, racial, and gender conflicts. It became a society divided by an unpopular war in Vietnam. Americans felt increasingly confused by divorce, the physical and emotional separation of families, a political structure they increasingly believed corrupt, a changing racial mix, the radical change in the role of women in the society, drugs, a transformed sexual ethic, and much else.

Such a society understandably had profound anxieties. At the same time, though, the transformations were to some extent deeply wanted. Forbidden words and ideas could finally be expressed. Taboo but long-sought actions could be undertaken.

American society turned to the Jews to use humor in order to deal with its own anxieties and to vindicate its desires. Jewish comedians could draw on a tradition of dealing with anxiety-ridden lives, of mastering close family and communal ties in the face of those troubles, and of exploring the widest ranges of language to express their deepest feelings.

In each generation, Jewish comedians were able to find in Jewish tradition, culture, and history a way to express the feelings of the wider American culture in which they lived. They drew on their heritage in ways they themselves didn't always understand. As they used that heritage to find ways to express truths about America, they transformed American culture, making Jews and Jewishness acceptable, even enviable.

Jewish comedians had several valuable assets to aid them in this effort. They had an expansive linguistic tradition that prized and rewarded quick thinking and a quicker tongue. The Yiddish cultural tradition they inherited nurtured both self-mockery and the mockery of the powerful. As history's most famous outsiders, the Jews had developed a survival instinct, an alertness bred from a fear that was almost always justified, an early warning system of the feelings of the majority culture. This instinct could often help them see where a society was going before it went there. In America, this survival instinct was not so much needed to predict, forestall, or prepare for organized acts of hatred against Jews as it was used to heighten Jewish sensitivities to majority-group anxieties.

Jewish comedians could sense majority anxieties early and transform them into humor, giving these anxieties a shape and a name as well as a way to cope

Jewish comedians could sense majority anxieties early and transform them into humor, giving these anxieties a shape and a name as well as a way to cope. In America such insights would allow Jewish comedians to identify and meet the audience's deepest emotional needs. Only in America could Jewish comedians -- indeed, Jews in general -- have succeeded as they did. After all, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich has suggested, the very basis of American history was that insecure immigrants came to settle the land. Jews, the most insecure, the most common of immigrants, could understandably serve as a symbol for Americans as they could for no other people.


Yiddish entered American comedy through individual expressions rather than as a complete language. The words chosen by comedians were sometimes vulgar whereas other words were selected because the sound of the word itself was funny, so that audiences identified Yiddish as inherently comic. Of course, Yiddish was more than just a particular vocabulary. Its words were spoken with what became known as Jewish rhythm. This rhythm was frequently characterized by answering one question with another, framing a rhetorical question and then answering it, talking in a singsong cadence that emerged from the method students used to study the Talmud together, and using a syntax dependent on inverting words in a sentence.

Jackie Mason is among the most famous Jewish comedians who still employs a virtually undiluted Jewish rhythm. In one routine about psychiatry Mason mocks the analyst's attempt to have him search for his real self. Mason wonders, "What if I find the real me, and I find that he's even worse than I am? I don't make enough for myself -- I need a partner?" The psychiatrist then asks for a payment of 75 dollars. This sets Jackie off again; he says to the analyst, "What if you're the real me? Then you owe me 75 dollars." The defeated psychiatrist finally says, "If you promise never to come back, we'll call it even."

Jewish humor did not just emerge from a particular language, of course. Jewish culture is by its nature extraordinarily verbal. Words form the center of study, of prayer, and of entertainment. The emphasis on language and on the argumentative patterns of Talmudic reasoning provided Jews with a style of thinking.

Of course, many people ascribe the particular pathos of Jewish humor to the suffering the Jews underwent and the marginal existence they led in various countries. It is a common understanding that humor appealed to Jews in Eastern Europe as a form of therapy, a way to manage the stresses of daily life. That life was routinely lived in poverty and separateness and was sometimes cruelly punctuated by violence and death. Such an existence engendered humor, this explanation goes, as an outlet, a way of releasing the tensions.

Comedy did have certain unique virtues in this respect. It provided Jews with acknowledgment, acceptance, approval, and applause, all experiences that Jews rarely felt when confronting Gentile cultures. Comedy therefore played a psychological, even political, role in helping the Jews deal with majority cultures.

The stresses of immigrant life played a similar role in shaping especially the first generation of American Jewish comedians in the early years of the twentieth century. As the children of immigrants, they were neither insiders, privy to power or easy passage through American life, nor outsiders, living in a foreign country dreaming of America as the Golden Land. This precarious identity provided a particular perspective, a skepticism about life in general, a distrust of institutions, and a palpable anxiety that sometimes found its way into humor.


Little did the Jewish comedians before the 1960s know it, but American audiences would ultimately joyfully accept overtly Jewish types, language, and humor, and Jewish comedy would reconfigure the very shape of American humor.

Jerry Seinfeld, then, was not alone on that stage at Catch a Rising Star. Like the Jews themselves, he wouldn't quit. The world saying no became just an incentive to go on. Seinfeld became a great success in America, but in the tradition of his people, he continues to search for what to make of that success.

The story of the ultimate triumph of Jewish comedians can best begin by going back to the turn of the twentieth century, back to a time when Jews in large numbers were arriving in the Golden Land, and when those Jews were about to make their explosive entrance onto the American comedic stage.

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