Jewish Comedian Jerry Seinfeld (Times of Israel)

Jewish Comedy Over the Years

Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Sarah Silverman, Larry David, Bette Midler, Andy Samberg… We all know and love these famous comedians, and secretly take pride in the fact that they are Jews. Jews have always had a large presence in comedy. According to Time Magazine, in 1978, Jews made up 80% of all stand-up comedians in America. Why is this?

Comedy is a form of coping for many. Jews have a lot to cope with, such as the lack of a sense of belonging in society, the oppression they faced throughout time, and the neurosis, anxiety, and guilt that consume many Jews’ minds. From the shtetls and anti-Semitism to stereotypical Jewish figures and cultural norms, comedy has served to uplift and lighten the Jewish spirit over the years. Writer, actor, and director, Carl Reiner, once stated, “Jews have had two things going for them: they were persecuted and they have a big thrust toward knowledge. And the combination of being downtrodden and smart, those two things make you funny.” 

Having to endure all of the mental, emotional, and physical torture in the Holocaust is unthinkable. Jews were robbed of their identities and completely dehumanized as a result of the absurd abuse and torment. They looked for any coping mechanisms to prevent them from going insane in the camps and to try to preserve a piece of their spirit and the small part of humanity left inside of them. A known joke or saying from this time used to cope with the mortality and trauma was, “If we do not laugh at ourselves, it is the grim reaper who is going to laugh.” Although seemingly inappropriate based on the dark and tragic situation which the Jews were faced with, humor was often used to help them cope with the utter humiliation and dehumanization they endured during the Holocaust. One example of a joke made during the Holocaust was after all of the prisoner’s heads were shaved, one survivor recounts, “…suddenly I saw some girlfriends of mine that I’ve known for a very long time… many cried. They cried after long hair and then I started laughing and they asked ‘what, are you out of your mind, what are you laughing about?’ I said: ‘This I never had before, a hairdo for free? Never in my whole life’, … And I still remember they looked at me as if I was crazy.” Laughter has the ability to temporarily distract from reality and lighten the burden of tragedy.

Amongst other aims, humor was used by the Jews in the Holocaust as a way to mentally destabilize the Nazis. The Jews had no power in the Holocaust, and yet they still found a way to throw the Nazis off guard. The Nazis had a goal to torture and humiliate the Jews in the most brutal ways possible. They had full control over the Jews, but when the Jews told jokes, it made a mockery of the Nazis. This was one thing that the Nazis had no control over. The Nazis became extremely embarrassed when the Jews were turning their torment into comedy, they felt like their torment was no longer valid. 

In the late 1900s, Jewish stand-up-comedians often talked about their experiences of being a Jew in America and feeling out of place in society. Their content revolved around being Jewish and their stereotypically awkward families. This is similar to the substance of the well-known TV show, “The Goldbergs.” One could surmise that, in addition to bringing light to a dark situation, a reason that the Jews utilized self-deprecating humor was because they felt it was better to mock themselves than be offended when others mocked them. After his daughter was not allowed to swim in a pool at a country club because she was Jewish, Groucho Marx commented, “But my daughter’s only half-Jewish. Can she go in up to her waist?” 

The 2017 Amazon Prime series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, created by Jewish writer Amy Sherman-Palladino, features Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a bold and free-spirited 1950’s Jewish housewife and a stand-up comedian. The show grapples with the concept of New York City Jews fitting into 20th Century America. Maisel’s style of comedy is unrefined and rooted in self-depreciation; her routines perfectly encompassing the essence of Jewish American comedy. Sigmund Freud once wrote, “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

What started out as Jewish humor has over time become the standard of American humor. Jews laid the groundwork of sketch comedy, improv, satirical writing, and stand-up comedy in a variety of television and literature outlets. As a persecuted minority, Jews often feel powerless. Comedy has been and continues to be a tool to help instill power in the powerless, lighten the mood, and bring laughter into the lives of Jews and non-Jews alike.

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