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The Jewish Joke--It's Humor With a History

Not just for laughs, four funny men banter about their distinct brand of comedy.

April 22, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What makes a joke told by a Jewish comedian different from all other jokes?

Sometimes not much--funny is funny. Sometimes, a lot, thanks to a rich joke-telling tradition that reaches back decades to the vaudeville acts working the Catskill Mountains, and centuries to Eastern Europe. A self-defense mechanism against anti-Semitism, Jewish jokes typically demonstrate a skillful use of language, frequently focus upon the comedian's personal problems, and almost always contain a strong element of alienation.

That's one of the more serious conclusions reached last week by a quartet of distinguished Jewish funny men--Jerry Stiller, Shecky Greene, Shelley Berman and relative newcomer Jeffrey Ross--who were participating in an ongoing author series sponsored by the nonprofit group Writers Bloc.

When not launching into another joke, one-liner or put-down, the foursome were kept, somewhat successfully, on a more scholarly track by de facto straight men Barry Glassner, a USC sociologist, and Lawrence Epstein, author of "The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America."

"If you got Gentiles to laugh," said Epstein to a standing-room-only crowd at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, "they weren't going to go after your throat."

Berman, an actor, playwright and comedian since the 1950s who now teaches humor writing at USC, offered this classic Jewish joke:

"For the three Jews out there that haven't heard this one," began Berman, slipping in a hint of a Yiddish accent at the appropriate times. "An old man is dying. He smells something wonderful. He says to his son, 'Sheldon, Sheldon, what is that wonderful smell?' Sheldon says, 'Ma is baking a honey cake.' The dying old man says, 'Oh, Sheldon, go tell Ma I want a piece of honey cake.' Sheldon runs off. He comes back a few minutes later and says, 'Ma says it's for after.'"

Huge laughs from the heavily Jewish audience whose average age probably hovered around 60. Once he got going, Berman was on a roll. "The Irishman says, 'I'm so tired, I'm so thirsty, I want a whiskey.' The Jew says, 'I'm so tired, I'm so thirsty, I must have diabetes.'"

Not to be outdone, Greene, who made his reputation as a Vegas nightclub act, got a few off too. "Frank Sinatra saved my life in 1967," said Greene, who has appeared on dozens of television shows ranging from "The Love Boat" to "Northern Exposure." "Five guys were beating me up, and Frank said, 'That's enough.'"

But the further jokes strayed from Jewish roots, the fewer laughs they seemed to elicit. At one point, Ross--a comic popular on late-night television and Comedy Central--interrupted one of the panelists to announce he had to go to the bathroom. (He used more graphic language.)

These days, a plot like "young comic interrupts elders to go to the bathroom" could get a guy a development deal at a major studio, but this mature crowd wasn't in on the joke. When Ross returned with a toilet-seat cover around his neck, there were some laughs, but nothing compared with Greene's shticky imitation of 1930s film star Wallace Beery.

But the night wasn't just about laughs. It carried a fair amount of insight and introspection, particularly when it came to how Jewishness influenced comedy.

Stiller, best known these days for his grumpy father characters on "Seinfeld" and "King of Queens," talked about the importance of his marriage to actress Ann Meara. Stiller credited Meara's decision to convert to Judaism for finally getting him to fully embrace his religion, something that would benefit him personally, spiritually and professionally.

When you're his age, Stiller said, and you're trying to memorize lines for something like "Seinfeld," which change daily, it helps to pray.

Stiller went on to relate a vivid memory about being Jewish and funny. He was 12 years old on the way home from temple. Suddenly, he was surrounded by a bunch of kids. One asked if he were Jewish, and Stiller replied that he was.

"You killed our Lord," said the boy.

Without missing a beat, Stiller remembers replying: "Would you like a stick of gum? I chew Wrigley's."

Stiller's wit allowed him to escape a tense situation.

"Humor was sometimes a way that you not only deflected anti-Semitism," he said, "but people started liking you."

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