From the Archives | Jewish Comics

From Benny to Lenny
Jewish comics - cover photo

This article was originally published in the January 1976 issue of Moment.

“Jewish” and “comic” are words that slot together like “Irish” and “cop,” “Chinese” and “laundry,” “Italian” and “tenor.” From the earliest years of vaudeville, from Weber and Fields, Dutch jokes and slapstick, to silent movies with Ben Blue and Charlie Chaplin, to the early radio, starring Ed Wynn as the Fire Chief, and later, Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny, to the talkies and the Brothers Marx and Ritz, to burlesque with Phil Silvers and Red Buttons, to Broadway revues with Bert Lahr, Willy Howard, Phil Silvers, and Zero Mostel, to night clubs with Joe E. Lewis, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, to the great days of television with Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, to the cabaret theater of Nichols and May, to the sick comics, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Woody Allen—they’ve all been Jews. 

Until about the 1950’s there was never any Jewish humor to be discovered in the American media. So many Jewish comics—and never a Jewish joke! Far from exploiting their identity as Jews, many comics did everything in their power to disguise the fact that they were Jewish. Look at the way they changed their names from David Kaminsky to Danny Kaye, from Joey Gottlieb to Joey Bishop, from Jerome Levitch to Jerry Lewis, from Murray Janofsky to Jan Murray. Look at how they tacked cute little pigtails on their names: Joe-y, Dan-ny, Sand-y, Len-ny, Hen-ny; at how they studied radio announcers’ diction so they shouldn’t nasalize, dentalize, glottal stop, and fall into that yeshiva-student singsong; nose jobs because people wanted to see a nice gentile face—no more beaks and popeyes; quiet, “tasty” clothes; cigarettes instead of cigars; flat-finished tuxedos instead of shiny mohairs. Why, some of those Jewish comics rubbed out so many Jewish features from their faces, cosmeticized their voices and speech so drastically, they wound up looking as if they had been molded in the same factory that makes Barbie dolls. “Ladies and gentlemen, the networks are proud to present Bob Blank! He isn’t Jewish—but then he isn’t human either.” 

Some of the comics might let down on occasion and do some Jewish material at a meeting of the Friars or Lambs (show-biz organizations) or at a big B’nai B’rith dinner or UJA banquet—not much, just enough to say, “Ich bin oich a Yid—I’m a Jew too.” Or if they were working “the mountains,” the Catskill resort area outside New York, they would adjust to audiences most comfortable in Yiddish. Apart from such old-fashioned ethnic enclaves, there was no room in America for Jewish humor, which was regarded as a dangerous and embarrassing commodity: something the goyim could never understand; something the Jews themselves—the successful, highly assimilated Jews—would be embarrassed to acknowledge. So your typical Jewish comedian, like Jack Benny, would pretend to be a typical American, a small-town skinflint from Waukegan, Illinois. Just in case you missed the point, he would bring on a caricatured old Jew out of the memories of vaudeville—a Schlepperman or Meester Kitzel—to play opposite him and bleach his already immaculate face a whiter shade. 

Jack Benny’s comedy—and that of most of his radio contemporaries—was emasculated comedy, comedy that insisted on being beyond reproach: a humor that would shock nobody, offend nobody, challenge nobody’s tastes or prejudices. Perhaps it was radio, the first mass medium, or perhaps it was the Great Depression, that forced American humor in the 30’s to enter a phase of white-on-white neutrality, that made it impossible for a Jewish comedian—or, for that matter, any comedian—to stand forth and speak his mind with the force and clarity of comic genius. 

Back in the days when Chaplin ruled the screen, American comedy had been the unfettered expression of the comic artist. Chaplin was an English Jew who was at pains always to deny or minimize his Jewish origins. At the same time his comedy was an abstract of Jewish humor, with the essential Jewish properties operating in their traditional Jewish manner, the only difference being that the Yiddish tags were removed so as to achieve a “universal” effect. The Little Fellow was the apotheosis of the schlemiel. His vulnerability and helplessness, his quick wit and ingenuity in self-preservation, his absurd affectation of dandyism, his infatuation with blond-haired, fair-skinned, voluptuously innocent maidens, whom he courted with eyes brimming with Jewish soul and sentiment, were the classic notes and signs of the Jewish comic hero.

The comedy of the Marx Brothers was also Jewish farce manque. If Chaplin distilled the self-pitying comedy of the schlemiel, the Marx Brothers brought to intense focus the other great mode of Jewish humor: the anarchic mockery of conventions and values, which crumble to dust at the touch of a rudely irreverent jest. “Subversive” was the word for the Marx Brothers, as it has been the word often since employed both as condemnation of and tribute to the work of Jewish humorists who refuse to be trammeled by the conventional pieties, delighting instead in demonstrating the fragility and preposterousness of much that passes as social law and order. (The Jew is not only exceptionally adroit at assimilating the values of other cultures, but stubbornly skeptical about the value of many of these values.) So the essential dynamic or working power of Jewish comedy operated powerfully in America without declaring itself as such—until it was throttled by the age of the corporation-sponsored, family-entertainment gag. Gag indeed! 

Meanwhile, in the American ghetto, pure, uncut Jewish humor continued to play the vital role it has played in Jewish life wherever Jews have lived or however they have fared. Surely no other people in history has made greater use of humor to assuage its pain, assert its pride, exhibit its wit, consolidate its sense of identity, buoy up its spirits, intensify its sexual attractiveness—even allowing it to blaspheme against its God—without taking any more responsibility than a man who makes an innocent joke! To tabulate all the ways in which humor functions in the Jewish community would be virtually the same as tabulating all the ways in which Jews are Jews. 

When I first moved to Jewish Brooklyn in the early ’50’s (having been reared in a wholly gentile community in western Pennsylvania), I was stunned by the audacity, the intensity, the originality, the sheer abundance and ubiquity of humor among the young people of the neighborhood. Getting together in ritual staging sessions at the backs of candy stores, in parked cars or in some well-barred bedroom, they would perform for hours, much like professional stand-up comics but with vastly greater freedom in the use of obscene language and references, in Yiddish and English, pouring ridicule equally on the feared, admired, and despised goyim and on the Jewish family and society that surrounded them and infected them with the disgusting taint of Jewishness. The Jewishness of their humor lay precisely in its obsessional concern with the fact of Jewishness, a fact as ineluctable and irritating as the piece of grit inside the oyster, and just as productive of the pearl-like luster of gleaming wit.

What these laughtermakers were doing was exorcising the Jewish evil spirit, the dybbuk, from their souls by screaming out the curses of a particularly hysterical and obscene self-mockery. They were all schlemiels puffed up with a great sense of their own importance, but at the same time painfully deflated by the endless discovery of weaknesses, failures, and stupidities in themselves that militated against the cherished self-image. Eager to purge themselves before suffering another’s criticism, they made endless verbal confessions of weakness, folly, and depravity, not only forestalling criticism but distancing their true “good” selves from the selfish, mean, stupid little beings they had been in the past. Theirs was the Jewish psychological predicament in America, the exaggerated demand upon the child by his parents that he attain some wonder of achievement, undermined at the same time by a rearing so fondly indulgent and devoid of frustration that the child never developed the discipline and self-control necessary for great accomplishments. Hence the solution provided by humor, that marvelous device of fantasy that enables us to fail and be forgiven, to attack and not be resented, to assert ourselves to the height of our bent and never have to deliver anything more substantial than a laugh to a receptive and sympathetic clique. 

Jewish humor in mid-20th-century America, I soon discovered, was not a gentle, ironic, Sholem Aleichem folksiness; nor was it a sophisticated Heinesque intellectual wit; nor was it the one-two-three, laff! pattern of the professional joke huckster. It was the plaint of a people who were highly successful in countless ways, yet who still felt inferior, tainted, outcast, and needed some magic device of self-assertion and self-aggrandizement. Humor was for modern urban American Jews as basic and necessary as food and drink. It was their stimulant, their narcotic, their secret weapon. It was also the only channel through which their imaginative and creative energies seemed to flow with fable-like fluency in countless “bits” and “shticks” and uproariously funny narratives of the schlemiel and his endless discomfitures. 

Inevitably, as the generation to which these young people belonged made their way into the entertainment industry, some of this potent and explosive but hitherto unacknowledged Jewish humor began to leak out through the media. One of the first manifestations was the comedy of Sid Caesar, the great television comic of the ’50’s. Caesar was a master of travesty, taking off from some typical Hollywood film type or some familiar social situation to soar into vastly exaggerated burlesques that substituted for the object of satire a grotesque satiric myth of the sort in which a cruder and half-illiterate Swift might have rejoiced. Caesar blew up the hoodlums and cowboys and ethnic stereotypes of American folk consciousness to monstrous dimensions and produced a cathartic laughter that was the comic counterpart to the catharsis of terror and violence triggered by his Hollywood originals.Though there was nothing decisively Jewish about his paranoid imaginings, there was often a sly insertion of Jewishness in his skits. The characters in his Japanese movies bore names like Takah Mishiggah or Prince Shmatah (literally, “Really Crazy.” “Prince Rag”). The barrister in his British court scene would complain. “Your honor, the defendant opened such a mouth to me!” Sid himself bore plainly the stamp of the urban Jewish scene in his accent, gestures, and facial grimaces. He was the newly assimilated American Jew: no longer a shuffling, stoop-shouldered character epitomized by the Yiddish actor Menasha Skulnick, but a young man of prodigious size and power. Mel Brooks, Caesar’s principal writer, quipped: “Sid was the strongest comic in history. He could punch a Buick in the grill and kill it.” The last great Jewish comic of the old tradition, the tradition of infusing Jewish fantasy and soul into the universal forms of low comedy, Sid Caesar provided at the same time the direct inspiration for the first great Jewish comedian of the new style, the explicit comedy of the Jew as Everyman. 

Lenny Bruce was a comic genius who revolutionized his art by insisting that the tightly impacted humor of the New York ghetto be made the common property of the American people. Driven by the twin screws of talent and chutzpah, Lenny blasted into the open the golden veins of comedy that for many years had lain hidden behind tons of shame and self-consciousness and fear of self-assertion. Reared in a totally gentile environment on Long Island, Lenny discovered Jewishness when already a grown man. Fascinated by the difference between Jew and gentile, he was fond of ticking off—like God with a wet pencil stub in his mouth— the entire creation into Js and Gs: 

All Drake’s cakes are goyish. Instant potatoes are goyish. TV dinners are goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish. Macaroons are very, very Jewish! Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish. Titties are Jewish. Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won’t even go near them. Chicks that iron your shirt for you are goyish. Body and fender men are goyish. Cat boxes are goyish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Al Jolson is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. 

Lenny’s obsession with Jewishness proved prophetic of the whole period of the ’60’s: the Jewish Decade. Overnight, the Jew was raised from his traditional role of underdog or invisible man to the glory of being the most fascinating minority in America. Benefiting from universal guilt over the murders by the Nazis, stiffening into fresh pride over the achievements of the state of Israel,  reaping the harvest in America of generations of hard work and sacrifice for the sake of “the children,” the Jews suddenly burst into prominence in a dozen different areas of national life. They became the new heroes of commerce, art, and intellect. They scaled the social heights. Characteristically, they celebrated their triumph in a rash of Jewish jokes that ran the gamut from advertising slogans to masterpieces of oral and written humor. 

At the high point of the phenomenon you could walk into a bookstore and find it stacked with such entertainments as: How to Be a Jewish Mother, Kosher Kaptions, Oy Oy Seven: Jewish novels in various shades of humor—sick, black, and blue—by Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, Wallace Markfield, and Norman Mailer; plus collections of Jewish jokes, humorous Yiddish expressions, absurd posters (a bearded Chassid wearing Superman’s costume), and the collected works of such Jewish humorists as Jules Feiffer. David Levine, and the various comedians, headed by Lenny Bruce, whose paperback collection of bits and pieces was a best-seller in New York and on college campuses all over the country. What you couldn’t find in the bookstore, the authentic oral intonations and accents and “timing” of Jewish humor, you could obtain in record stores, which displayed albums by Nichols and May. Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner, to name just a few. Leaving the record store and descending into the subway, one stared at huge posters of a Chinese or a black proclaiming, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye.” Switching on the radio or TV, you were amused by the clever concoctions of the Jewish advertising writers eager to keep pace with their colleagues in show biz. Yiddish, once a dying language, received a shot of adrenalin as it was picked up and exploited by journalists. Even the kind of Jewish joke that was once confined to the garment district suddenly surfaced in the privileged purlieus of the Jet Set. 

As the Jewish Mama and the Jewish Boy and the Jewish Princess and the Jewish Doctor became the familiar dramatis personae of American humor, lo and behold! a cultural miracle was wrought. For the first time in modern times the minute particulars of a little minority’s life-style suddenly proved out as the “universals” of American culture. Far from regarding the jokes of the Jewish humorists as offensive or self-serving or unintelligibly parochial, Americans embraced Jewish humor and the Jewish schlemiel as a perfect rendering of themselves and their own problems. Portnoy’s Complaint, the masterpiece of the genre, became one of the greatest best-sellers in the history of American publishing; and its author, after years of trying to write distinctly American fiction, was acclaimed as  one of the greatest living American writers on the strength of his depiction of a hopelessly neurotic and hysterical Jewish boy.  

Time has shown that this embrace of Jewishness was just the first in a series of minority-group identifications that has now stretched to include the Negro, the hillbilly, the American Indian, and other despised or proscribed groups. In making such identifications, Americans are motivated by a complex mixture of emotions ranging from profound feelings of guilt and penitence through their own sense of alienation, persecution, and self hatred to the simple longing to belong to a group small enough and tight enough to provide its members with a true sense of personal identity. Being simply an American has not satisfied many souls; however, nobody is willing to be patronized as a member of a minority; hence the characteristic modern way of having your social-cultural cake and eating it too: the flight into ethnic masquerades via jokes, jargon, costume, and music.  

Today the Jew is losing some of his prominence in American culture, his fad having worn itself out and his own identity showing signs of yet further transformations through the continuing process of assimilation. (Today’s Portnoys typically marry their gentile sex goddesses instead of worshiping them from afar; the resulting offspring are not apt to suffer from having been reared by a Jewish mother.) Having scored heavily in all the cultural and social occupations to which they once aspired, American Jews are now eager to excel in pursuits that would have seemed startlingly alien to their ancestors. The most idealized Jewish hero of the early 1970’s has been neither a scientist, businessman, entertainer, nor artist: He was Mark Spitz, a sensuously beautiful swimmer, the male equivalent of the traditional shikseh “cheesecake”—what is now called “beefcake.”  

The golden age of modern humor has also come to an end as American culture enters upon a new Utopian phase in which the sense of impotence and the baffled anger that breed great satire are supplanted by the philosophy of activism and social amelioration preached by countless ecologists, conservationists, consumer protectionists, woman’s libbers, etc., etc. The role of the comedian or humorist in this new social order is obviously far less important than it was in the days of Eisenhower stagnation and apathy. The once familiar figure of the nightclub comedian has virtually vanished along with the clubs in which he entertained. The cabaret theater has also disappeared. The big TV comedy shows have given way to situation comedies with their neatly formulated plots and trivializing attitudes. Only in an occasional film by Woody Allen does one still see anything of the genius of Jewish comedy. Philip Roth has continued to extend the resources of black humor in books like Our Gang, the mordant satire on Richard Nixon, and The Great American Novel, a burlesque of American baseball myths and stereotypes; but Roth’s finely honed satire of Jewish society—perfected in a long sequence of brilliant tales and novels, from Goodbye,  Columbus to Portnoy’s Complaint—seems to have finally worn itself out for lack of fresh material. 

How far, how wide, how deep the impact of the latest outburst of Jewish humor has reached in terms of the enduring structure of American culture is a matter on which it is still too early to pronounce. Nothing ages more rapidly than jokes; nothing is more ephemeral than a cultural fad. Yet there is no denying the basic fact that the current crop of Jewish comic geniuses has attained through the obsessive assertion of their own Jewishness precisely the same breadth of appeal and universality of interest that was achieved in previous generations by comics who didn’t dare even to hint that theirs was the perspective of a special and persecuted minority. Everything that was once strictly taboo in the comedy business is now routine, accustomed, and almost positively enjoined. The determination to smash through the remaining barriers to a total expression of the once shamefully repressed fantasies of the modern urban Jew remains strong largely because it has been so strongly endorsed by the society as a whole. 

This may be a good thing for the Jewish comic or writer, if he has anything left to say. It certainly is not such a good sign for Americans. The word “paranoid” is on every one’s lips today. Precisely! What greater evidence of the paranoia of the average American could be found than the fact that he identifies so glibly with the Jew?

Top photo: Jack Benny and the cast of his radio show in 1946. Credit Wikimedia.

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