Wizards of Wit
by Arie Kaplan
Part I: 1950-1969 From Self-Caricature to Self-Confidence
Jews have revolutionized American comedy. The comic books you collected, the funny movie or the sitcom you saw the other night–all have been shaped by Jewish humorists who have transformed the comedy industry since the 1950s. Jewish writers, in particular, have been the driving force in rocking the comedy boat, fueled by their “outsider” vantage point, street-smart creativity, and outsized chutzpah.
From “Jew Comics” to Jewish Comedy
“With the collapse of vaudeville, new talent has no place to stink.”
Before World War II, the Jewish presence in the comedic entertainment world was marked by humiliating self-caricature. Jews such as Jack Pearl, who played radio’s Baron Munchausen, and Al Shean of the comedy team “Gallagher and Shean” performed on the radio and in vaudeville, often wearing the accoutrements of the baggy-pants clown. “There were comedians called ‘Jew Comics,'” explains legendary comedian and filmmaker Carl Reiner. “They wore derbies and talked with a thick accent.” Such self-caricature was acceptable “until Hitler came along,” Reiner explains, “and then all of the Jewish accents disappeared, because we realized we were giving fodder to the enemy.” This fear of being laughable spread to the forefront of the Borscht Belt itself, explains writer and historian Moshe Waldoks, co-author with William Novak of The Big Book of Jewish Humor. “In 1947, there was a debate in The Contemporary Record [the magazine that preceded Commentary] between [comedians] Myron Cohen and Sam Levenson on the subject of dialects. Sam Levenson thought the Jewish dialect was demeaning, particularly after what had just happened in Europe. Myron Cohen’s retort was basically, ‘It’s only demeaning if you’re trying to demean,’ which he never did, with his use of accents.” As apprehension over the use of accents persisted, dialect comedians such as Myron Cohen became an increasingly rare breed.
It was this fear that kept Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks from recording “The Two Thousand Year Old Man,” who had a strong Yiddish accent. For ten years the two had been performing the act privately at friends’ houses. “‘The Two Thousand Year Old Man’ was a perfect example of how we felt about Jewish acts,” Reiner says. “Nobody ever heard it except Jewish people and friends of the Jews who wouldn’t think it was antisemitic, just that he was very funny.” Reiner and Brooks turned down numerous offers from fellow Jewish performers to make it a more permanent work. “George Burns said, ‘You gotta put that on tape, or I’m gonna steal it!'” Reiner recalls. “And Edward G. Robinson said: ‘Make a play out of it! I wanna play that man on Broadway!'” Finally, in 1960, Steve Allen, a non-Jew, convinced Reiner and Brooks to record the routine. “He offered to pay for the recording session,” Reiner remembers, “saying, ‘You guys listen to it; if you don’t like it, burn it or throw it away. But at least put it down.’ And the next thing you know, it’s up for a Grammy!”
Beyond the Borscht Belt
“Jews of my era don’t know what it would be like to be a Norman Rockwell non-Jew. We grew up feeling like outsiders. It’s the difference between being in the ballgame and sitting in the bleachers.”–Larry Gelbart
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, new avenues opened up for Jewish artists. Longtime MAD magazine writer/cartoonist Al Jaffee, for example, had been relegated to kiddie comic books before the war, but after 1945 he started to get magazine work for publications such as Trump, Humbug, and The Realist. “Before World War II,” he explains, “ten thousand Ku Klux Klanners could march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington with impunity. Banks didn’t hire Jews, and hotels would post ‘Restricted’ signs, which meant ‘No Jews Need Apply.’ Suddenly, the peacetime economy kicked in. Jews were running into much less discrimination. That’s when Jews started to break away and get into advertising, radio, and early television.” In the late ’40s, Jewish road comedians were an obscure breed; with the advent of television, they could became instant celebrities. But performing in virtually every American household forced them to adapt their acts for a more “mainstream” audience. “Borscht Belt humor in the Catskill Mountains resorts of New York had been a more regional kind of comedy,” explains Waldoks. “Post-WWII, it became ‘de-Jew-ified,’ or ‘Pareve-ised,’ to reach out to a larger audience. From a sociological point of view, in many ways this shift represents the beginning of America becoming more Jewish and Jews becoming less Jewish.”
The Sid Caesar Legacy
Brad Darrach: “Is it true that everybody hated you on Your Show of Shows?”
Mel Brooks: “Everybody hated everybody. We robbed from the rich and kept everything.” –Playboy interview, 1975
Meanwhile, a versatile young musician-turned-comic named Sid Caesar was starring in a series of ambitious revues in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains produced by the brilliant comedy impresario Max Liebman. In 1949, Caesar and Liebman were tapped by NBC to adapt their show for television. The result, the Admiral Broadway Review, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, ran for only nineteen weeks–but from its demise emerged Your Show of Shows. “The new show took that remarkable energy that Jewish comedians had to have in the Borscht Belt,” says Waldoks. “A lot of the sketches were part of that manic zaniness.” Bolstered by a powerhouse group of writers (including Mel Brooks and Neil Simon) who will go down in history as the Round Table to Caesar’s King Arthur, Your Show of Showsfeatured everything from sly social commentary to parodies of highbrow culture, such as opera and foreign art films. A half century later, it remains the standard by which all other sketch comedy shows are measured. While Your Show of Shows never directly addressed Jewish issues or topics (very few television shows did at the time), the sketches often contained Jewish references. “Caesar did a Japanese character named ‘Taka Meshuga,'” Waldoks says, “which in Yiddish means ‘Really Crazy.’ Of course people in Iowa had no idea what Taka Meshuga meant. It sounds Japanese. So it was a wink, a way of coming out every week and saying, ‘We know you’re out there. And we’re here.'” One of Caesar’s cardinal rules of comedy was never to mock the powerless or downtrodden, as illustrated in this anecdote from the early days of Your Show of Shows: “[At this] time of spaced-out progressive jazz,” Caesar writes in his 1982 memoir, Where Have I Been?, “we did our usual slight exaggeration and came up with a new running character for Your Show of Shows, ‘Cool Seas.’ He spoke gibberish and wore thick glasses that looked like the bottoms of Coke bottles. The first time I did ‘Cool Seas’ on the air, I got a letter from a teacher somewhere in the Midwest. She said she worked with children who had poor sight, all of whom loved my show, and that it hurt them that I was making fun of people who had to wear powerful eyeglasses in order to see…So I got off a letter of apology to the teacher, assuring her that we’d change the character. And we did. Our Be-bop musician now became ‘Progress Hornsby.’ He was exactly the same as ‘Cool Seas,’ except that he didn’t wear glasses. ‘Progress Hornsby’ became as much of a favorite with the public, maybe even more so.” Of course, Caesar had no problem picking on powerful types, such as corporate tycoons and Hollywood executives, but he felt it was wrong to poke fun at someone who was down and out. As a Jew, he knew what it was like to be ridiculed for something over which you had no control. Your Show of Shows was replaced in 1954 by Caesar’s Hour, and Larry Gelbart (later known for the TV series M*A*S*H and the film Tootsie) joined the writing team. The Jewish background of most of the writers had a significant influence on the show, Gelbart says. “Whatever makes us what we are, that’s what worked its way in–that sense of irony, a sense of caustic wit, of defensive wit, offensive wit, all the tools that three thousand years of getting kicked in the yarmulke will instill in you.” Carl Reiner, who starred in both of Caesar’s shows and also collaborated in the writing, agrees. “No question, I think Jews have had two things going for them: they were persecuted and they have a big thrust towards knowledge. And the combination of being downtrodden and smart, those two things make you funny.”
Magazine MADness and the New Comedy
“I predict that in time Paul Krassner will wind up as the only live Lenny Bruce.” –Groucho Marx
While Caesar’s Hour was busy establishing the model for modern sketch comedy, the mold for the modern American humor magazine was being cast in downtown Manhattan. MAD made its debut in 1952 as a comic book (it became a magazine in 1955 to avoid censorship) founded by Jewish “red diaper baby” Harvey Kurtzman, an eccentric iconoclast who inspired fierce loyalty among his admirers. “Before Harvey created MAD,” says Al Jaffee, “there was almost no opportunity to do humorous comic books. There was no underground press.” From the start, says longtime MAD contributor and New Yorker cartoonist Paul Peter Porges, MAD had its roots in a proud tradition of Jewish American comedy. “When you analyze it, Jewish humor in America is distinct for one simple reason: it’s urban. And urban immediately means smart-ass.” MAD‘s satirical irreverence proved to be an immediate hit among children and young teens, much to their parents’ dismay. One of these children was Moshe Waldoks. “MAD fulfilled the role humor should serve in the Jewish community–our social conscience,” he reflects. “It punctured pomposity. It let us see the other side of the way things are. Like the role of the prophet, it got us to look at ourselves.” This pulpy ten-cent comic magazine influenced an entire generation of burgeoning hipsters and future hippies who didn’t yet have a counterculture to call their own. “Remember,” says Porges, “this was the period of McCarthy hearings, the Cold War; those kids were Leave It To Beaver kind of people. And that’s the first time they really knew that parents, teachers, people lie. MAD parodied advertisements, commercials, and told you that you were being lied to. And kids loved it.” Later in the ’50s, adults would come to love the magazine as well, not least because of contributions by Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Tom Lehrer, and other Jewish comedic geniuses. In 1953, a new magazine called Playboy opened another channel for young Jewish comics, among them Lenny Bruce, whose brash humor shocked audiences. In one of his most famous routines, first printed in Playboy, Bruce differentiates between “Jewish and Goyish”: “In the literate sense–as literate as Yiddish can be, since it is not a formal language–‘goyish’ means ‘gentile.’ But that’s not the way I mean to use it. To me, if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish…. Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word. Mr. and Mrs. Walsh are celebrating Christmas with Major Thomas Moreland, USAF (Ret.), while Mr. and Mrs. Bromberg observed Hanukkah with Goldie and Arthur Schindler from Kiamesha, New York.” “People in our industry who knew what Bruce was talking about were absolutely enthralled with him,” says Carl Reiner. “We read his Playboy articles voraciously and discussed them.” Bruce’s brand of comedy–along with Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May–took comedy to a new edge. “It was beginning to be more than just insults about your mother-in-law,” comments Larry Gelbart. “Comedy began to reflect the formal education of the people who supplied it. The original comedy writers of burlesque and vaudeville and early radio tended to be street guys, first generation, invariably Jewish, who weren’t as conversant with themselves or the world around them as subsequent generations proved to be. Through education, through psychoanalysis, through becoming insiders rather than outsiders, commenting on the national scene–that’s when it happened. Stand-up comics began to address issues in comedy that formerly hadn’t been done at all.” In 1960, having severed his ties with MAD, visionary magazine impresario Harvey Kurtzman created a new humor magazine entitled HELP! with the aid of two eager young assistants, Terry Gilliam (who would go on to Monty Python) and future feminist icon Gloria Steinem. “Harvey and Terry and Gloria had no compunctions whatsoever about phoning the biggest movie stars and celebrities to be part of the fumettis,” says Al Jaffee, referencing an Italian term for “photo-comics,” a form of visual storytelling Kurtzman had imported from Europe. Many rising young stars made their print debut in the HELP! fumettis, among them Gilliam’s future Monty Python castmate John Cleese and ex-Caesar’s Hour writer’s assistant Woody Allen. Underground cartoonist Robert Crumb (who would later draw comics about his secret desire to be Jewish) also published some of his first comic strips in the magazine. HELP! lasted only until 1965, but it jump-started more careers than any other humor magazine, and its photo-funnies would be emulated years later by National Lampoon. In 1958, stand-up comic and future Lenny Bruce biographer Paul Krassner created The Realist, which gained a huge following among the urban counterculture crowd. The humor magazine featured satirical essays, columns, and cartoons on topics such as McCarthyism, gays in the military, and drug addiction among Vietnam veterans; its Jewish writers included Max Shulman (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), Shel Silverstein (Where The Sidewalk Ends), Sam Gross (National Lampoon), Mort Gerberg (The New Yorker), and Art Spiegelman (Raw). “What The Realistsaid was, ‘You can make fun of the things that seem so sacred. There’s no stopping you!'” says comedian Lewis Black of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The Realist also contained frequent contributions by two of Krassner’s more controversial friends: Lenny Bruce, who wrote scathing pieces on censorship; and antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did not take kindly to Krassner. In 1968 he organized a smear campaign against the publisher and other Jews associated with The Realist, including radicals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, printing their likenesses on a WANTED poster decorated with swastikas. The Realist finally folded in December 2000, outlasting Hoover by decades.
“I can’t remember a single coherent sentence Paul Sills said. But as it often happens with talented directors…somehow he got his message across.” –Alan Arkin
In the late ’50s, after helping to create television sketch comedy, the modern humor magazine, and the stand-up routine, Jewish writers invented yet another comedic institution: contemporary improv theater. Founded in 1959 and named for an article about Chicago in The New Yorker by A. J. Liebling, Second City attracted the University of Chicago’s best and brightest. Under the direction of Jewish theater instructor Viola Spolin and her son, Paul Sills, Second City would, over the next decade, launch the careers of numerous Jewish celebrities, including Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, George Segal, Ed Asner, and David Steinberg. In 1963, continuing in the politically aware, satirical tradition of The Realist and Second City, The Committee emerged in San Francisco as the comedy troupe for the hippie counterculture. Appearing frequently on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and in its own self-titled concert film, both in 1968, The Committee included such future Jewish comedic lights as Rob Reiner, Gary Goodrow (a Beat poet and future co-author of the first two Honey I Shrunk The Kids movies), and Carl Gottlieb (screenwriter of Jaws and The Jerk, among other films).
Fumbling & Filmmaking
“I’m nine, going on sixty-nine!” –Jerry Lewis
While Jewish comedians were breaking new ground in the world of improvisation, Jerry Lewis was staking out a middle ground between crowd-pleasing clown and social commentator. Film historian Leonard Maltin notes in his book The Great Movie Comedians that Lewis almost single-handedly carried the banner of film comedy throughout the ’60s, as most of his colleagues migrated to television. As writer, producer, and director of his own movies, Lewis wanted to make a statement about the plight of the “little guy.” While his comedy had nowhere near the sting of Lenny Bruce, it was more critical of society than the antics of Sid Caesar. Jerry Lewis’s role as socially conscious comedian is perhaps delivered most poignantly in his directorial debut, The Bellboy (1960). Lewis’s character, Stanley, a lovable loser in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin, is an absurdly overworked bellhop at a luxury hotel. However, there is something different about this “loser.” With his frizzy, unkempt hair and pervasive sense of melancholy, he elicits a strong hint of the ethnic “other.” Lewis paints Stanley in broad slapstick strokes, but, in the final scene, the audience discovers another dimension of the bellboy. The hotel’s owner, Mr. Novak, has been yelling at Stanley, who has not said a word throughout the entire picture. Taking Stanley’s silence as a sign of insolence, Novak screams: “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you talk?” Stanley ponders this question for a moment, leaving the audience spellbound: WILL HE TALK? He does, and is well-spoken: “Well, certainly I can talk. I suspect that I can talk as well as any other man, Mr. Novak.” Calmed by his employee’s respectful tone, Novak asks, “Well, in that case, how is it we never heard you talk before?” Stanley thinks a moment, and then it dawns on him: “Because no one ever asked me!” And with that, he resumes whistling his trademark tune and putters onto his next menial task, leaving the audience to ponder the subtext: “Because no one ever asked a lower-class Jew like me.”
Jewish Jokes on Sesame Street
“I’ll sing you a tale of Wernher Von Braun, A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience, Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down, ‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher Von Braun.” –Tom Lehrer “Wernher Von Braun”
The political culture of the late 1960s found its way into children’s programming with the creation of Sesame Street, a show that reflected progressive themes such as ecology and multiculturalism. The show’s Jewish writers included musical satirist Tom Lehrer, former Caesar’s Hour scribe Gary Belkin, and future National Lampoon writer (and son of humorist Bennett Cerf) Christopher Cerf. And, as Waldoks and William Novak relate in The Big Book of Jewish Humor, some of the show’s Ernie and Bert sketches were reworkings of traditional Jewish jokes, such as the following: Reb Isaac and Reb Jacob were fundraisers for competing yeshivas. Finding themselves having tea together at the home of a wealthy benefactor, they soon became involved in an intricate discussion of talmudic law, and were interrupted only by the arrival of the hostess, who brought their tea. A moment later she returned with a platter containing two cookies. Both cookies were substantial, but one was considerably larger than the other. Observing the rules of etiquette, both men continued talking, and did their best to ignore the cookies. But before long Reb Isaac reached over and grabbed the larger cookie, devouring it in three swift bites. Reb Jacob looked on in astonishment. “I can’t understand this,” he said. “How can a great scholar like you be so ignorant of table manners?” Reb Isaac looked surprised. “Wait a minute,” he said. “What would you have done in my place?” “What any gentleman would have done,” replied Reb Jacob. “I would have taken the smaller cookie.” “So what are you getting excited about?” replied Reb Isaac with a grin. “Isn’t that what you got?”
The End of an Era
“If only God would give me a clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.” –Woody Allen
At the end of the 1960s, a startling transformation occurred in the comedy world. One of the new comics of the nightclub circuit became a movie star without having to submit to the “de-Jewification” of his Borscht Belt predecessors. In Woody Allen’s directorial debut, Take The Money And Run(1969), a faux “documentary” about inept bank robber Virgil Starkwell, audiences finally saw a Jewish film protagonist who shed the vaudeville “toomler” (clown) persona of a Danny Kaye or Jerry Lewis, while remaining the outcast. Allen’s character embraced the neurotic, analytic, intellectual model carved out by his peers in the stand-up and short-form improv world (such as the team of Nichols and May, and Lenny Bruce) and melded it into a believable, sustainable Jewish screen persona that was both contemporary and old-world. In the words of Paul Peter Porges, his “verbally nimble nebbish” character is “built on a kind of talmudic wisdom that argues points.” “Allen was the first stand-up comedian to transfer his stage persona successfully to film,” observe authors Christopher Claro and Julie Klam in The Comedy Central Essential Guide To Comedy. He transplanted whole chunks of his stand-up act into the film’s dialogue, as in Virgil’s narration while he walks through the park with his girlfriend: “I know I was in love, because first of all, I was very nauseous. I never met such a pretty girl, and I guess I’m sensitive, because real beauty makes me want to gag.” By the end of the ’60s, the presence of Jews in comedy had evolved from the road-trip vaudevillian acts of yesteryear to the open world of the late 1940s and 1950s to the forefront of radical, turbulent social change. Jewish perspectives on life would have a profound effect on the American psyche, even as America continued to be, ironically, a breeding ground for antisemitism–a point well illustrated in this traditional Jewish joke of the period: During World War Two, one day, a sergeant at an army base in the Deep South gets a call from a woman. She says, “Sergeant, for Thanksgiving, we’d like to entertain five soldiers at our house.” He says, “Fine, we’ll send them over, and thank you for your hospitality.” And she says at the end, “And Sergeant, just please don’t send any Jews.” He says, “I understand, ma’am.” Thanksgiving day comes, there’s a knock on her door, and the woman opens up the door–this is the Deep South–to her utter shock, there are five black soldiers there. And she says, “What are you doing here?” And they say, “We understand that you invited us for Thanksgiving.” She says, “What are you talking about? This is a terrible mistake.” And one of the soldiers says, “No, Sergeant Goldberg never makes a mistake.” –Rabbi Joseph Telushkin Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews “In the past, when we felt politically powerless, humor was a tool,” explains Rabbi Telushkin. But by the late ’60s, the Jews’ status in comedy changed. As Paul Peter Porges says: “We created a very unique American Jewish humor style, which now, in our day and age, is no longer Jewish humor, it’s American humor!”
Arie Kaplan is a freelance writer who has written for MAD magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Bop, and Teen Beat, among other publications. Illustration by Drew Friedman.
Wizards of Wit – Part 2
Henny Youngman: “I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up… they have no holidays.”
Rodney Dangerfield: “I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous; everyone hasn’t met me yet.”
Groucho Marx: “Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who wants to live in an institution?”
George Burns: “This is the sixth book I’ve written, which isn’t bad for a guy who’s read only two.”
Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is if you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Oscar Levant: “A politician is a man who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it.”
Woody Allen: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Marty Feldman: “The pen is mightier than the sword, and considerably easier to write with.”