A German reporter walks into Cannes… and asks an arcane question about Jewish humor

On Sunday morning, I was baited by an email from TheWrap.com that began: “Cannes; What is Jewish Humor?…”

Intrigued, I clicked, and up came the strangest article: It was about a press conference held in Cannes yesterday about Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which premiered at the film festival this past weekend. The movie stars the 33-year-old actor Oscar Isaac in an apparently breakthrough role, and the actress Carey Mulligan, who is currently making Leonardo DiCaprio swoon in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.” According to reports, it tells the story of a struggling musician set against the backdrop of New York’s 1960s folk music scene. Actor/musician Justin Timberlake, who was present at the Cannes press conference, also plays a supporting role.

But that’s not what I write. This is:

TheWrap.com’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman had this to report on the much-publicized press conference:

Justin Timberlake stepped in to save an awkward situation when directors Joel and Ethan Coen were asked at the Cannes Film Festival about Jewish humor by a German reporter on Sunday.

“I smell a trap,” quipped Timberlake at a news conference for Joel and Ethan Coen’s sardonic drama about a folk singer, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” where a German reporter asked about the nature of “Jewish humor.”

I haven’t seen the film, since it premiered in Cannes and I am stuck in a far corner of the other Riviera known as the California coast — so I don’t know if the question about Jewish humor was related to the content of the film itself or was just a random culture-specific question put to the Coens about their work. But I’m a little confused as to why it was “awkward.” It seems a perfectly reasonable and genuine question, one, I might add, I’ve asked of countless Jewish artists, in some form or another in order to ferret out the way Jewishness has informed their work.

But when the German reporter tried to explain himself, he was shut down yet again. This is what Waxman reports happened next:

“The Germans are not really known for humor,” said the reporter, who suggested that the Second World War and the Holocaust might have robbed the German people of their humor and, perhaps, Jewish wit.

He then asked: “Jewish humor, does it exist? If so what does it consist of?”

For some reason, Waxman (who is Jewish and should know better) reports the scene with a weird gloating complicity that makes it seem as if the question was preposterous — or weirder, preposterous because it came from a German.

She writes:

After Timberlake stepped in to deflect the question for the (presumably Jewish) Coens, and music supervisor T. Bone Burnett interjected a few remarks to make the question go away, Joel Coen stepped up.

“There’s nothing like the Holocaust to put the stake in a certain kind of humor,” he deadpanned, before moving on […]

The whole scene comes off as odd and frankly, a little bit disappointing. Though I give Timberlake credit for his ready sensitivity. Still, it is mystifying to me why this exchange was portrayed with such suspicion and cynicism. I don’t see anything wrong with asking about the qualities that comprise “Jewish humor” and if the ethnic specificity of this question offended Waxman as well as the Coen brothers, they could use a little brushing up on the long, colorful and very real history of Jewish humor.

Though I don’t typically recommend trusting the word of Wikipedia, it does seem significant that it contains an entry (and a massive one) devoted entirely to the subject of — you guessed it — Jewish humour. (That’s exactly what it’s called — but with an elegant British “u”.)

For brief edification, here’s the first paragraph:

Jewish humour is the long tradition of humour in Judaism dating back to the Torah and theMidrash from the ancient mid-east, but generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal,self-deprecating, crude, and often anecdotal humour originating in Eastern Europe and which took root in the United States over the last hundred years. Beginning with vaudeville, and continuing through radio, stand-up comedy, film, and television, a disproportionately high percentage of American and Russian comedians have been Jewish

Several years ago, I watched a comedy special about American comedians, which I wrote about for this blog. It is admittedly a task to elucidate what exactly “Jewish” humor might be – that’s a job for a scholar who might study the work of Jewish humorists closely and could then dare to draw some general conclusions. But at the very least, anyone who has watched their fair share of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Joan Rivers, Nora Ephron, even Judd Apatow and on and one — might be able to hazard a guess at a definition, or at least a simple theory as to why Jews have had a devoted historical and cultural penchant for comedy (see, for example, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book “Jewish Humor”).

Borrowing from a 2009 HJ blog post, here’s a smattering of what some prominent Jewish comedians have had to say about the inscrutable subject:

“Ethnic groups are attracted to comedy. When the Jews were in the ghetto, they became the comedians because they were outsiders,” said comedian/director David Steinberg.

“It’s how everyone got out of the tenements by doing their special brand of humor, because if you talk about it out loud, it can take away the curse of it all,” added producer Bernie Brillstein.

Roseanne Barr, whose portrayal of an unglamorous suburban housewife won her awards and a 9-year series run, said: “If you make fun of your own in front of the dominant culture here, you can live next door to them.” In other words, if you self-deprecate you can assimilate.

But Mel Brooks never tried to belong. He has famously said, “My comedy comes from the feeling that as a Jew, even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.” Brooks, who was never religious, took Judaism seriously. So seriously in fact, that he regards his Jewishness as a primary motivating factor in his most important life choices. “One of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler, because how do you get even? There’s only one way to get even: you have to bring him down with ridicule,” Brooks said.