"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 5 December 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

White Men Can't Joke


Last month, Saturday Night Live writer Hugh Fink appeared on the show's "Weekend Update" segment and offered up the shocking news that he is the only Jewish writer on staff. Fink likened this to finding an NBA team with only one black player. A little less recently, when Carl Reiner received the Mark Twain prize for American humor, he simply shrugged when asked the age old comedy question: "Why are Jews always the funny ones?"

The stock socio/psycho/cultural/hermeneutical answer has always been that Jews have suffered a great deal through the ages and have developed a sense of humor as a defense mechanism. This doesn't explain why, say, Chinese peasant humor doesn't dominate prime time sit-coms or why more New Delhi untouchables don't host more late night talk shows. Have you met a funny Tibetan lately? And why are the British so damn funny? Nine out of ten times, historically, aren't they the heel on the back of the neck and not the other way around? OK, OK, they have that obnoxious caste system, but shouldn't that make the Irish ten times funnier than the English?

And that age old equation of Jewish Suffering with Comedy explains only very recent history. Silent film's biggest comics were Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Fatty Arbuckle, and Buster Keaton — not a bagel in the bunch. And that in a business created and run by Jews. Looking over the rosters of the main comedy producers of the day, gentiles Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, Jews simply don't figure much into their two-reeler series of shorts starring the Keystone Cops, Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy, Edgar Kennedy, Mabel Normand, or Charlie Chase. Their staffs, which turned out brilliant comedy directors like Frank Capra, Clyde Bruckman, and Leo McCarey, were quite light in the Hebrew department. Even today you'd be hard pressed to say movie comedy is a going Jewish concern, since its biggest stars are Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and a Jew or two, like Adam Sandler.

In vaudeville, we tend to think of the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, or Burns and Allen as owning the field. But they didn't — they starred in radio, television, and movies much later, which is why we remember them. Vaudeville featured hundreds of headlining goyish comics like Clark & McCullough, WC Fields, Moran & Mack, Frank Tinney, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Will Rogers, Fred Allen, The Karno pantomime troupe (Chaplin's original company), The Three Keatons (Buster's family act), Bob Hope, and countless others. Jews were one funny ethnic group among many funny ethnic groups. In other media, Jewish humorists made their mark, but never to the point where you asked: Gosh, why are all the funny _____ (cartoonists, musicians, poets, playwrights) Jewish? And in other countries, do Jews dominate Russian, French, British, or anyone else's humor? In a word, no.

And yet, sometime in the 1920s, American comedy got circumcised. While the Jewish Suffering theory works in thousands of "Why Does Man Laugh?" Ph.D. theses, there's a much more practical reason than latent fear of the czar — though that may indeed dictate the content of Jewish humor. But the form of Jewish humor, that's the Word. Say what you will of the effect of pogroms on the pratfall, but Jewish culture has always been a literary one. Its religion, legends, philosophy, and yes, humor, are about words. Its Talmudic heroes are almost always rabbis idealistically outwitting or outreasoning tyrants and enemies with nothing but words.

That said, by the mid-1920s, a literary form of humor created by some very funny Jews came out of vaudeville: stand-up. The modern stand-up came from the pairing of a young writer, Al Boasberg, and a young comic, Jack Benny. Benny had been a less than stellar comic violin player for years, but in 1925 he hired Boasberg to redesign his act. They made the violin a prop for Benny who now simply told jokes. Jokes, one-liners, and gags were, at that time, considered the garnish that comics used between their featured set pieces (sketches, songs, dances, juggling, rope tricks, and violin playing) but they were now Benny's main course. With his minimalist choice to appear in street clothes as plain ol' "Jack Benny" (and not some wild Groucho or Chaplin like character), Benny shifted his humor to the purely conceptual while still in the purely physical world of the theater. He wasn't the first to do any one of these things, but he was most likely the first to fuse them all into one act. Benny become what we now call a modern stand-up comic.

And Benny didn't exactly set vaudeville on its ear, especially when competing with the Marx Brothers or Sophie Tucker in 2000 seat theaters that had no PA system. Critics kidded him for looking more like a doctor than a comic. Other acts thought him too dull to make it. Despite that, he gradually became a respected headliner through the 1920s, until 1932, when he took a job as an emcee introducing bands on a radio show.

If we can ever see comedy convert to the Orthodoxy, it's with the advent of radio — where all a comic had were words. Within a few years all the costumes, physical schtick, and style of delivery needed to sell comedy to the nose bleed seats at the Palace were obsolete. And the comics who succeeded on radio believed in the Word: Burns and Allen, Phil Baker, Fred Allen (a Boston Irish Catholic), and Al Boasberg's WASP masterpiece, Bob Hope. Hope, whose initial instincts put him in blackface and a bright green suit, dropped the make-up, song, and dance for Boasberg's minimal style, and the two created the "Bob Hope" we know today.

Radio humor played to Jewish culture's word fetish. Old stage pros like Boasberg, David Friedman, Billy K. Wells, and J.P. McEvoy found themselves working side by side with wunderkinds Irving Brecher, Nat and Sam Perrin, Neil and Danny Simon, Norman Lear, Mel Brooks, Milt Josefberg, and Nat Hiken, who could rattle off pages of jokes a day. It came so easily that by the '40s and '50s, Jewish teens like Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen had network staff jobs. Not all gag men were Jewish, but so many were, and so out of proportion to Jews in the actual population, that Jews appeared to have the patent on the punchline.

It didn't hurt that most national radio broadcasts came from New York City with its heavily Jewish population. The explosion in Jewish jokers in the '30s and '40s might be likened to the way rap and hip-hop music came off the streets of New York in the '80s. Whatever the reasons that young, urban, African-American culture created rap, it impacts pop music today the way Jews did comedy in the Depression. Radio and early talkies, like sampling and scratching, became the new technological outlet for a mix of old cultural habit and very young people.

Jokes, jokes, jokes: In 1932 the gold mine of gags and one-liners prompted The New Yorker to interview Boasberg for its "Talk of the Town" section. He now made $75 thousand a year in Depression-era dollars on pure garnish. But Benny, the innovator, quickly saw that a half hour program of nothing but gags would wear on an audience. Benny's new writer, Harry Conn, expanded Boasberg's conceptual humor even further by creating a completely conceptual world for Benny to live in, a brand new literary format which Conn called "group comedy." That is, the sit-com. Benny's show, full of gags, catchphrases, insults, a cast of regulars, and situations rather than physical schtick, became the model. The structure it gave Benny allowed his writers to write all the jokes they wanted within the bounds of the characters, a format still working today on Third Rock >From the Sun and The Simpsons.

Not that Benny's former profession of stand-up didn't have a home in radio. Bob Hope, mentored and coached by Boasberg for years, now shifted to radio, opting almost exclusively for monologues and jokey sketches. Hope popularized stand-up far more than Benny, and Hope's style — topical, crammed with more jokes per minute and delivered fast — soon became the model for everyone from Johnny Carson to David Letterman and Jay Leno today. And with vaudeville theaters now being replaced by smaller, more intimate nightclubs with PA systems, the physical side of comedy retired in a big way by the 1940s. Generations that followed, like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl's, expanded stand-up in that Jewish intellectual tradition of exhaustive reasoning and questioning, rabbis outwitting the world.

Hope, of course, isn't Jewish, but his quick adaptation to this new kind of humor is similar to the way, say, the Beastie Boys picked up on rap by the mid-80s. Like the Beasties, Hope soon owned stand-up and is arguably its key transitional figure in bringing the form to the mainstream of American culture. His radio work made it the standard for modern humor, just as the Beasties brought rap to the biggest audience it had yet seen with Licensed to Ill. The best in American culture is almost always a cross-pollination, and Hope became the first gentile schpritzer, just as Elvis was our first rock 'n roll wigger. Hope, like Fred Allen, never ventured into the literary sit-com, but preferred a more traditional variety show format to his radio shows, bringing in wild characters, singers, bands, etc., to support his written comedy. And over the years, gentile comics like Steve Allen, Carson, Letterman, Leno, Arsenio Hall, and Conan O'Brien did better with variety show formats than did Jews.

Television meant a return to more physical humor and featured comics like Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason whose often Jewish writers created sit-coms around their physical presence. Perhaps the best match of physical and literary comedy ever came from Jewish Sid Caesar's show, which featured a legendary writing room of young New York Jews (Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, among others) equally matched by Caesar's physical gifts as a performer.

Over the decades, stand-up and sit-com shifted from offshoot Jewish culture to mainstream American culture. Bruce, Sahl, Woody Allen, and other Jews pushed the intellectual boundaries of stand-up, but it's equally safe to say that there have never been better stand-ups than Bob Hope or Richard Pryor. Just as white musicians took over rock and excel at hip hop, joke oriented stand-up and sit-com have few clear ethnic divisions today.

We've become so used to wisecracking stand-up and cross-fire insult sit-coms that we forget to look at them as specific genres of comedy, not Comedy Itself. If you look at stand-up as a specific form of comedy coming from a specific culture, it not only answers the question of why Jews own it, or used to, but also the age old sexist attitude that Women Aren't Funny. If Jewish men invented stand-up, it's as much a male instinct as a Jewish one. Except for stand-up, women never get labeled unfunny — not in theater, TV, movies, writing, or music. And yet, until recently, women never got to where Roseanne or Brett Butler or Kathy Griffin got through stand-up. Again, it's not women or gentiles who are comically challenged. It's a specific kind of comedy that comes from one specific kind of person, to which other groups have had to adapt, and have. Has there been a better stand-up driven sit-com than Roseanne?

Assuming that ethnicity equals Funny is a mistake made with Canadians, too. In the last thirty years Canada turned out Mike Meyers, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, SCTV, Dave Thomas, Catharine O'Hara, Andrea Martin, Martin Short, Rick Moranis, and The Kids in the Hall. Yet, can anyone name a funny Canadian who came along _before_ Chicago's Second City theater opened a branch in Toronto? 99% of the above are Second City alumnae. Second City introduced a tried and true sketch and improv format to the cultureless Canuck and provided Canada with a true comic outlet. When Second City opened in Chicago, did anyone assume Chicagoans were funnier than New Yorkers? No, just that a specific theater taught all sorts of clever, funny people how to do it professionally.

So, it's no wonder Hugh Fink sits alone in the Saturday Night Live writers room on Good Friday. SNL, SCTV, Letterman, Leno, Conan O'Brien, Mr. Show — how many of these shows have been run by mostly Jewish writers and performers? None. It's not a Jewish thing anymore, it's an American thing.

Then again, how funny is Saturday Night Live these days, anyway?


courtesy of Bertolt Blecht


pictures Terry Colon

Bertolt Blecht