This is a guest post by Doctor Dease that looks at Lawrence Epstein’s 2001 book, The Haunted Smile: The Story Of Jewish Comedians In America … and more.
Doctor Dease is a retired Sydney and London-based journalist, whose newspaper and magazine career spanned 40 years. He lives in Sydney.
Half a lifetime ago, during an extended stay in New York City, I took a shine to a smallish, convivial bar on Prince St in SoHo, where a large part of the attraction was a running dialogue between the two wisecracking bartenders, who seemed armed with an endless supply of ancient jokes delivered in that quintessentially acerbic Noo Yawker style …”How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb?” would come from one end of the bar, and instantaneously from the other end, the response “Don’t bother, I’ll sit here in the dark!” To which there’d be a chorus of sardonic groans from the regulars, mixed with chuckles from the likes of me, to whom the joke was either new or long forgotten.
I marvelled then at how these two clowns managed to sustain this repartee for so long, but quickly realised such joking was endemic in NYC culture. For instance, on the comics/puzzle page of the New York Post, tucked in the top corner was a tiny column, about 300 words, tops, by comedian Joey Adams, a veteran of the Borscht Belt (the string of Jewish resorts in the nearby Catskill mountains).
Adams would pick a topic and string together a stream of one-liners he’d gleaned from decades on the circuit (“Tight? He was so mean he kept all his toys for his second childhood!“). And this would happen day after day. Clearly, never a shortage of material for everyday citizens to riff on, which many did, and it partly explains why much of New York humour is Jewish humour.
But that’s just part of a much bigger story … I think the first Jewish comedians to make me laugh were almost certainly the Three Stooges, back in the dawn of television (here in Australia) in the late 1950s of my childhood. Then, probably, Jerry Lewis … and then, in the 60s, the floodgates opened (at least to my childhood/adolescent eyes and ears). George Burns, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, the Marx Brothers, Shelley Berman, Buddy Hackett, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, among dozens of others, were knitting together my comic sensibilities without, of course, me realising then they shared a commonality: they were all Jewish.
Two other seminal influences back then … one was Mad magazine, which introduced me to satire, and, again without me grasping at the time, was produced by a predominantly Jewish staff. Had I been more acute, I would’ve looked beyond the chucklesome digs at the foibles of mainstream America at all the Yiddish words that themselves were filtering into American English, too many to list now, but my all-time favourite remains “chutzpah“.
The other was at age 14, when I saw the legendary Jack Benny on stage at Sydney’s Theatre Royal. Benny was the absolute maestro of timing, and could score as many laughs out his dolorous 20-second pauses as from any line of his verbal shtick (another Yiddish word). His metier of course was playing the tightwad (in stark contrast to his generous nature in real life) and one of his more famous gags involved him being mugged, and in response to the robber’s demand of “Your money or your life!” Benny would go into his statue-stare. “Well?” the robber would say, to which Benny would reply, “I’m thinking it over …“
(On the subject of satire/social commentary, I should mention two other influential 60s Jewish comedians, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, both of whom I didn’t become aware of until adulthood. Bruce, often persecuted and even jailed for profanity in his stand-up act, died prematurely. I did eventually see Sahl’s act at Kinsellas in the 80s, in which he riffed off news stories in The Australian, which he toted on stage in his back pocket.)
Sorry, forgive all this self-indulgent reminiscing. Put it down to cabin fever … as another great Jewish comedian, Groucho Marx, said, it’s just me and my memories here at Casa Doctor.
But I’ll get to the point now. Last month’s death (at 93) of veteran Jewish comic Jackie Mason prompted me to reshuffle my lockdown reading pile, and I’ve just finished re-reading Lawrence Epstein’s The Haunted Smile, a history of how Jewish comedians shaped American comedy throughout the 20th century.
It’s a remarkable history that begun with the mass migration of Jews to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how they formed tight-knit communities in New York’s Lower East Side and, later, Chicago.
It traces the rise to dominance of Jewish comedy through successive mediums, beginning with Vaudeville, then radio, talking pictures and television, with side trips to the aforementioned Borscht Belt and stand-up comedy venues across the nation.
It’s a story of the drive for assimilation, and eventual acculturation into mainstream America, often against heavy and sometimes hateful odds which forced many to downplay or conceal their core religious identity.
While anti-Semitism in the US never reached the catastrophic levels it did in early-century Europe, it was still abhorrently potent, and had enough political clout to affect US immigration laws in the 1920s, with dire consequences the following decade for thousands of Jews seeking asylum from the rise of Nazism.
But it is also a tale of triumph. In seeking to forge an identity that straddled both Jewishness and middle America, Jewish comedians not only dominated but redefined American comedy. So much so that by 1980, Jews comprised just 3 per cent of the US population, but 80 per cent of American comics were Jewish.
There are way too many to list here, and I’ve been remiss in not mentioning any women so far. Sophie Tucker and Fannie Brice were there at the start of course, but for a long time women were largely unheard in the comedy domain.
Judy Holliday had a brief but glorious Hollywood run in the 50s, but it wasn’t until Joan Rivers, with her trenchant, confrontational style, kicked the door open enough to allow new generations of female Jewish comics to enjoy centre stage.
Anyway, enough already.
Should my recap of The Haunted Smile give the impression it’s a dry read, it’s anything but, peppered as it is with sometimes dated but mostly hilarious snippets of the comedians’ routines.
Jokes? For you, we’ve gottem wholesale!
The Haunted Smile, by Lawrence J Epstein. Published by Public Affairs, The Perseus Books Group, 2001.
- “Take my wife … please!” from Henny Youngman.