What is it that makes your humor recognizably Jewish?
Philosophically, I’d say Jews are a long-suffering people. We have suffered many pogroms, many anti-Semitic periods, and I try to remind the world of this in a funny way. In History of the World, Part I, I have a whole middle section devoted to the Inquisition. It’s not in good taste, but it’s a good reminder that the Jews were tortured. I do the same thing in The Producers with Springtime for Hitler. You gotta keep it funny no matter what. I once said that there’s got to be one meshugenah for every 10 Jews to keep them laughing so they won’t sink into total depression. Comedy was very important for the Jewish people. Otherwise it could be just dark clouds over your head all the time, and that’s no good.
What makes Jewish humor funny?
I don’t know. I think sometimes the Jews are very cruel and I’m very cruel because we make fun of cripples and misfits. Hickadicka, I think that means hunchback. The Ritz Brothers had this guy Harry Ritz who would do misfortunates. This tradition may have come from Ukraine, where Jews had fun making fun of stutterers and doubletalkers and missteppers. Anyway, Harry Ritz was very funny, and following in his footsteps were Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis and people who did funny faces and physical comedy. Strangely enough, Jerry Lewis’s crazy funny walk stems from this. This tradition comes from Yiddish theater too.
Have you ever encountered anti-Semitism?
I felt sorry for anybody who wasn’t Jewish when I was a little kid. When there was a Polish Catholic kid or a German or Italian in my neighborhood, I really felt sorry for them, these minorities. I thought Christians were a minority, I really did. Morning, noon and night all I ran into were Jews. It’s true. Then when I grew up and was in the army, I was amazed at how many people were not Jewish, I just couldn’t get over it. My sergeant isn’t Jewish, my captain isn’t Jewish, my colonel, what the hell is going on here? It was a rude awakening. I was sent down from Brooklyn to Virginia Military Institute, part of the Army specialized training program. Everybody in Virginia was gentile, I couldn’t believe it. Finally I went to Richmond and there was a synagogue and I said, “Oh my God, there’s some sanity here.”
Did people treat you differently because you were Jewish?
Some did. There wasn’t so much anti-Semitism in Virginia, strangely enough, because they just didn’t experience Jews, so therefore not knowing them they didn’t have to hate them. Nobody asked, “Hey, are you Jewish?” because they didn’t know there was such a thing. But I found anti-Semitism in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
What form did anti-Semitism take?
You’d hear things like “You dirty Jew,” “You kike.” One time I had just finished putting my mess kit in hot water and soap when this guy behind me said, “Come on, you dirty Jew, move it.” Without thinking I turned around— I’m lucky he was wearing his helmet liner—I smashed him over the head with all my might with my mess kit and I knocked him out. I was brought up on charges, but when the lieutenant heard what had happened, he said, “OK, forget about it.” No one bothered me after that. I was a tough Jew from Brooklyn.
Did your time in the army form or change your sense of humor?
No, no, I still entertained the troops. One time we heard Germans just across the river and their loudspeaker was on. They were singing in their camp. I got on a megaphone and started singing Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye. I think I heard applause from the other side, I think they liked it. My guys went crazy. They loved me serenading the Germans.
Was being in the Army your first time entertaining non-Jews?
Of course, I had a wide audience from all over the country, so I had to find enough ubiquitous stuff to make them all laugh, enough universal ideas. It helped me a lot in forming my kind of humor. When I began writing for Your Show of Shows, human frailty was the basis of my humor or the human condition or what humans have to go through and suffer. So that was how we wrote sketches for Sid Caesar. We never wrote jokes. When he did a stand-up, he would do an impression of a person and a situation. He never just said, “I met a girl who was so skinny, the waiter said check your umbrella.”