The Aesthetics of Meaning:
Jewish Arts & Culture

Borscht Belt Memories and the Making of American Comedy
by David Chack

Review of Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comics of the 50's and 60's by Gerald Nachman
(Pantheon Press: New York, 2003) 659 pages.

So much has been written about Jews in popular culture that it is no surprise that Gerald Nachman's Seriously Funny, though not explicitly written as a book on Jewish comedians, is filled with almost nothing but Jewish comedians -- Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Alan Sherman and on and on and on. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, "yada-yada-yada."

Documenting in detail and with flourishes (as though he was getting us velvet wholesale) the lives and work of many comedians, Nachman, gives a good look at the time period, helping us to understand that the 50's and early 60's weren't as bland as they are commonly made out to be. He gives background and biography so that we understand, for instance, how Tom Lehrer, the comic folksinger, who wrote about the nuclear arms race in his routine "Who's Next?"

Egypt's gonna get one too, just to use on you know who.
Israel's getting tense, wants one in self-defense.
The Lord's our shepherd it says in the Psalm, but just in case- WE GOTTA GET A BOMB!

and about prejudice in "National Brotherhood Week" was able to leave the entertainment circuit and go back to Harvard academia. Or we learn how Shelly Berman fizzled out in the public eye, after his extreme anger was revealed in an incident where he viciously tore a phone off the wall (or off its cradle, there's some dispute about this), when it rang during his "set."

Now collected in one book are the stories of comedians who influenced the current generation of entertainers, television shows, and film, and made standup as well as sketch humor into a major industry. The road from the zany/straight man approach of Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello, made a quantum leap forward when it satirically depicted the nouveau riche of Nichols and May or exploded in the outrageous Jewish-outsider anger of Lenny Bruce.

Nachman has whetted our appetite with more than 600 pages (and too much time spent on superlatives and chattiness) on the lives of these comedians. He also includes non-Jewish comedians like Steve Allen, Bill Cosby, Ernie Kovacs, and Phyllis Diller. But it is the book not written that still waits in the wings.

Nachman continually and indirectly shows that it is the Jewish experience in America which breeds comedy. Even non-Jews compare themselves to Jews and their Jewish humor. Steve Allen refers to himself as a token "goy". Stan Freberg has to apologize that although he seems to have a Jewish name, and that Jews influence much of his humor, he is not Jewish. Bob Newhart likens his telephone humor to Lenny Bruce (without obscenities) and Shelly Berman, and throughout his career he used his Jewish friend, Don Rickles, as a foil for his jokes to extract the humorous contradictions between the WASP and the Jew.

Nachman's major blind spot leaves these questions unanswered: Why do so many Jews go into comedy (at one point estimated to be at least three quarters of working comics)? What is funny about the Jewish experience in America? And the question that he dances around but is too afraid to answer, is what is the "Jewish" approach to humor that is unique and different from any other ethnic group and how has that approach become so integrated into the culture of America that it is taken for granted and used even by non-Jews?

Nachman gives us tantalizing hints. Mel Brooks acknowledges Sid Caesar as his rightful mentor and as the antecedent to the very Catskills-honed, Yiddish-explicit humor of the "2,000 Year Old Man". Brooks says, "Ten years of Sid Caesar's brand of comedy on television had made American audiences-or at least a segment of them-hip enough to laugh just as much at this material as we all did." So when Mel Brooks does his spiel on Paul Revere and denounces him as "an anti-Semite bastard,"

Reiner the interviewer replies, "What do you mean?"
Brooks replies, "He said the Yiddish were coming, the Yiddish were coming. He thought they were moving into the neighborhood."
"No, no," Reiner says, "He said the British were coming."
"Oy mein Gott, I got to send his wife a note," Brooks moans guiltily.

This statement rightly credits Caesar with setting up the American audience for this humor and being the Moses at the Mount Sinai of comedy, taking God's revelation and passing it down to the next generations. Once Caesar tried out this Catskill humor on a mass audience, American comedy was never the same again. Unfortunately, Nachman doesn't attempt any historical or critical analysis of the material he's gathered, to show the Yiddish legacy of the tummler in the Catskills, coming out of the Jewish spielers and badchens who have practiced this art form since the Middle Ages, if not longer.

Nachman quotes Woody Allen as saying, when asked about his Jewishness, "I'm Jewish, with an explanation". Allen is not disavowing his Jewishness. He is placing himself squarely in the existential quandary of outsider-ness that is not only outside non-Jewish society, but in a Kafkaesque way, is outside the outsider-ness as well. Allen's double or triple-sided way of filtering the world, leads him to a surreal brand of comedy that can authentically be called Jewish humor.

This approach is also most readily apparent through the improvisatory art of Nichols and May. Nachman points out their seminal genius, influencing all comedy with their verbal, surreal flights of satiric commentary. Nichols, a child of German refugees from Nazi Europe, and May, weaned on Yiddish performance, come together in a synthesis of well-defined characters that indicts everything in its path and squeezes intellectual humor out of a tortured hilarity.

Here is part of one classic sketch commenting on New York Upper East Side psuedo-intellectual Jews, talking in bed after sex, leading into foreplay for another round.

May, (breathily), "There is always, another dimension to music. And it's apart from life. I can never believe that Bartok died on Central Park West."
Nichols, "Isn't that ugly?"
May, (strongly), "Ugly, ugly, ugly. Oh, I love this part! Listen." Nichols, (nearly weeping), "Almost hurts."
May, "Yes, beauty often does."
Nichols, "When I discovered Nietzsche, he said that, in a way." May, "In many ways, when I read Thus Spake Zarathustra a whole world opened for me."
Nichols (excitedly), "I know exactly what you mean!"
May, (quickly), Do you know what I mean?"
Nichols, "Exactly!"
May, "Did that happen to you?"
Nichols, "I know exactly what you mean!"

The humor of many Jewish comedians, be they from strong Jewish backgrounds or not, can be culturally traced to a Talmudic methodology of arguing every point, and then going back over the arguments to argue against the points they once supported. Jewish thought-processes have created a way of looking at the world that is: intellectual and language centered, surreal, aware of suffering and their outsider status, explosive and angry, concerned with social issues and social justice, psychological and self-critical, and story-like in its playfulness.

This legacy of Jewish comedy and a Jewish approach to American popular entertainment can be seen through the analogy of the Torah being passed down from Moses to Joshua to the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly who then left it to the rabbis is very apt. To this extent, Nachman's homage is successful. From Caesar to Sahl, to Bruce, to Second City, to Nichols and May, to Brooks and Reiner, to Allen, to the comedians and humorists of today like Jerry Seinfeld, Rita Rudner, Elayne Boosler, John Stewart, Larry David, and "yada-yada-yada."

Copyright 2004 by David Chack. All rights reserved.

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