Jews are Funny People?
Let’s face it: the story about the time the Jews of ancient Persia were saved from genocide doesn’t sound like a recipe for hilarity. Yet every year, we celebrate the festival of Purim to commemorate that important victory. In doing so, we also acknowledge the significant role humor plays in the Jewish faith.
The lasting appeal of the Purim story, or megilah, owes a great deal to its split-second reversals of fortune, called hippuch in Hebrew. A potential tragedy turns triumphant just in time, when, in an ironic twist, the evil villain Haman ends up being executed on the very gallows he’d built to hang the Jews. The Purim story, with its upside down punchline of an ending, is the taproot of all Jewish humor, which traditionally links the tragic with the comic, and the bitter with the sweet.
But with all the tzurus in the world, what is there for today’s Jewish comedians to joke about? The answer is: plenty. Where the rest of us see a seemingly endless parade of misery and woe, the comic genius sees potential material for his next great joke. And luckily for us all, a veritable army of next generation Jewish jesters are on the scene, ready to slay the world’s modern day Hamans with their wit.
I write all about this new generation in my new book Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century. Sure, we all know how Jew performers and writers dominated the comedy scene in the 20th century – think of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and all those Catskill stand ups in the Jackie Mason mode. However, today’s generation – such as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Jewfro’d movie stars Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill — don’t play down or apologize for their heritage. They value acceptance of their own heritage over assimilation into the broader culture. The resulting “shtick shift” in sensibility brings a whole new flavor to Jewish comedy that daring, edgy and, of course, often hilarious.
While we’re on the subject of Purim, let’s look at For Your Consideration (2006), an indie movie-within-a-movie. Presumably to satisfy non-Jewish viewers, the low-budget movie in question, Home for Purim, gets changed to Home for Thanksgiving. As the studio exec played by Ricky Gervais suggests, “Tone down the Jewishness so everybody can enjoy it… I don’t go around saying ‘I’m a gentile.’”
Inside-showbiz lines like that demonstrate the new “shtick shift” sensibility, and show how far we’ve come from the days when TV execs nixed any overt Jewish content to safeguard the real or imaginary sensibilities of (gentile) American audiences. Gervais is not a real studio executive, and “Home for Purim” isn’t an actual movie, so the film’s “Jewishness” isn’t really being “toned down” at all. By actually raising the issue for the sake of a punch line, the creators of For Your Consideration (that is, Jewish director and co-writer Christopher Guest) are in fact “toning it up.”
Sacha Baron Cohen, best known for his controversial Borat character, personifies that sort of in-your-ponem attitude. In his next big budget film, he’ll switch to a new character: Bruno, a flamboyantly gay fashion stylist. Like Borat, Bruno often “interviews” serious, real-world figures, with unpredictable results. A rumored scene in Baron Cohen’s upcoming movie features Bruno interviewing former Mossad agent Yossi Alpher about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Bruno seems to think is actually between Jews and Hindus. This leads him to confuse “Hamas” with “hummus” and to attempt a shallow gesture of “solidarity”: “Yesterday I had to throw away my pita bread because it vas dripping hummus. It’s too high in carbohydrates.”
Entering into even more provocative territory, director Harold Ramis takes on the Old Testament in Year One, a biblical comedy film produced by Judd Apatow, the young talent behind such hits as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
In the upcoming movie, Jack Black goes looking for the meaning of life and along the way meets Sephardic Hank Azaria, who has fun sacrificing his first-born son Isaac, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (better know as Nerdy McLovin).
“Jews with attitude” aren’t restricted to comedies. Look at two serious films set during the Second World War. First, Edward Zwick’s recently released Defiance, is about four Jewish brothers from Poland who escaped the Nazis and go on to rescue fellow Jews. As an English Jew, I have to admit I got considerable nachas seeing Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James Bond) kicking Nazi tuchas alongside Liev Schreiber!
This summer, Quentin Tarantino will release his remake of Inglorious Bastards, in which Brad Pitt leads a team of Jewish prisoners-turned-soldiers on a mission to fight the Nazis. Among them is director turned actor Eli Roth as Sgt. Donnie Donowitz, “a baseball bat-swinging Nazi hunter” known as “The Bear Jew,” who some of the Nazis fear is really a vengeful golem.
Today’s generation likes its Jewish heroes tough, an attitude captured in the comedy Knocked Up, in which Seth Rogan’s Jewish character praises the controversial Stephen Spielberg drama, Munich.
“Every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed,” he enthuses to his friends. “Munich flips that on its ear!”
Speaking of which: This summer, Seth Rogan returns in Judd Apatow’s third movie comedy, called Funny People. The cast includes many of the stars of the “new age” of Jewish comedy: Adam Sandler, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman. They’re starring alongside Eric Bana – who, while not Jewish, did play the leader of the Mossad assassins in – you guess it! — Munich. The trailer shows Seth Rogen wearing a t-shirt with the Superman logo in a Star of David (Is Superman Jewish? Don’t even get me started on that – check out my book on the subject, Up, Up and Oy Vey instead.)
Lest you think I’m blowing the importance of comedy out of all proportion, let me leave you with a little lesson from the Talmud. (What kind of a rabbi would I be if I didn’t?)
We learn in the Babylonian Talmud that Rabba, the eminent sage of his generation, began his classes with a humorous observation. He didn’t just do that to entertain his students or “break the ice.” His higher purpose was open his students’ minds and make them into eager receptacles for wisdom.
Now let’s face it: today’s racy, offensive Jewish comedians don’t tell the sorts of jokes Rabba would steal for his classes. But in a nation where some of the most prescribed drugs are anti-depressants, it’s obvious that we all need a good laugh, and not just at Purim, either.
Simcha Weinstein is an internationally known best-selling author. His first book, Up, Up and Oy Vey! received the Benjamin Franklin Award for the best book of 2007. He has appeared on CNN “Showbiz Tonight,” and NPR, and has been profiled in leading publications including The New York Times, The Miami Herald and the London Guardian. He is a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post and Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at the renowned New York art school, Pratt Institute. His latest book Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st century (Barricade Books: 2008) is on sale now.