Did You Hear About the Book on Jewish Comedy?


In “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” (Norton), author Jeremy Dauber makes it clear that — at least in his opinion — Jewish jokes are no laughing matter.

“The story of Jewish comedy was almost as massive in scope, as meaningful in substance, as Jewish history itself,” Dauber writes about what he discovered when he started teaching a course on Jewish humor at Columbia University, where he is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture. “The story of Jewish comedy — what Jewish humor did and meant for the Jews at different times and places, as well as how, and why, it was so entertaining — is, if you tell it the right way, the story of American popular culture; it’s the story of Jewish civilization; it’s a guide to an essential aspect of human behavior.”

I hasten to add that the book is always lively and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Dauber’s sources range from the Preacher of Dubno (an 18th-century Chasidic rabbi) to Sholem Aleichem (“the man who invented Tevye”), from Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to Howard Stern and Amy Schumer. Indeed, although Dauber proposes that roots of Jewish comedy go all the way back to the Bible — he uses the Book of Esther as a touchstone of Jewish humor — he also argues that America is the place where Jewish humor reached its highest expression, with Yiddish literature its seedbed.

“As the lingua franca of Eastern European Jewry, Yiddish was the vehicle for the most somber eulogies as well as the earthiest jokes, lyrical poetry along with shaggy doggerel or comments about gastrointestinal distress,” he explains. After Jews carried Yiddish to America, it became an ethnic marker for American comics such as Lenny Bruce, who once described his banter as a mixture of “the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish.”

Dauber finds a weighty subtext in every variety of Jewish humor.

Most impressive of all is Dauber’s ability to create a sky chart in which every Jewish comedy star can be fixed in place, not only Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye — both of whom were tummlers in the Borscht Belt — but also such highly sophisticated comics as Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He includes not only practitioners of low comedy like Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar but also such elevated humorists as Jules Feiffer and Joseph Heller. And he reminds us of fading or wholly forgotten personalities like Mickey Katz and Belle Barth, while pointing out that the Jewish founders of Mad magazine “created that seminal countercultural satire by framing it Jewishly, through Yiddishized parody.”

Dauber repudiates what he calls “the lachrymose theory of Jewish history” and reminds us that Jewish humor always has sustained Jewish life, even at the grimmest moments. Writing shortly after the end of World War II, Irving Kristol argued that “Jewish humor died with its humorists when the Nazis killed off the Jews of Eastern Europe.” But Dauber proves that Kristol was wrong. Larry David, Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen, all of whom have dared to tell jokes about the Holocaust, “mark the position of confidence and strength Jews have in American culture,” he writes.

Dauber finds a weighty subtext in every variety of Jewish humor. He describes Philip Roth, for example, as “our great comic cosmic writer of the modern period, the one who understands that telling jokes is in no small part a way of trying to deal with staring into the void, of grappling with the crisis of meaning.” Even Tony Kushner’s play about AIDS and homosexuality, “Angels in America,” he insists, “has its share of Jewish comic elements: the stereotypical Jewish male jokes, the use of Yiddish as punch line, and the transformation of the God-arguing tradition into something mixing the sublime and the ridiculous.”

“Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” is intended to be a work of scholarship.  Dauber, however, never takes himself or his subject too seriously.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing  attorney, is the Jewish Journal’s book editor.

New HBO doc explores Mike Nichols’ journey from Nazi Germany to Hollywood


In 1939, a 7-year-old Jewish boy named Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky left Nazi Germany and, accompanied only by his 4-year-old brother, arrived in New York with an English vocabulary consisting of two phrases: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”

By the early 1960s, the refugee boy, renamed Mike Nichols, had taken Broadway by storm with his improvisational comedy skits with Elaine May, and he went on to become an iconic American theater and film director.

When Nichols died in 2014 at 83, Variety headlined the obituary, “Mike Nichols: Émigré to Eminence.”

Despite the urging of friends, Nichols never wrote an autobiography. However, two months before his death, he sat down with his old friend and colleague, theater producer/director Jack O’Brien, for two extended interviews, one before a live audience and the other private.

The result is a 75-minute film, “Becoming Mike Nichols,” which HBO will premiere on Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.

The film’s opening hits a high and nostalgic note with some Nichols and May skits, which were akin to unrehearsed high-wire acts, in which neither partner knew what the other was going to say.

One classic example has May as the ultra-Jewish mother phoning her son, the rocket scientist, to ask why he never calls.  

In another, Nichols suddenly asks about the title song for “The Brothers Karamazov” (Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great philosophical and spiritual novel) and, without missing a beat, May comes up with both melody and lyrics.

The Nichols-May act broke up in the early 1960s because of what Nichols described as his “very controlling” attitude.

Soon after, Nichols took in a performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and was overwhelmed. He decided that the theater was for him -— not as an actor, but as a director.

After Broadway successes with Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple,” it was time for him to switch genres again, becoming a movie director. Without any experience in the medium and only an informal three-day crash course as preparation, Nichols, as usual, started at the top.

His first two films became instant classics: The first, directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), followed by “The Graduate” (1967).

In the HBO film, Nichols recalls his second movie by adding a few nuggets of information to the already much-studied masterwork. After interviewing hundreds of young actors without finding the right one for the title role, he says, he came across a young actor he had seen in an off-Broadway production playing a transvestite Russian fishwife. The actor’s name was Dustin Hoffman, and the rest is history.

“The Graduate” benefited immensely from its musical score by the folk-rock duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, but Nichols pressed them for one more song. At first stuck, the duo remembered one of their uncompleted songs, titled “And Here’s to You, Mrs. Roosevelt.” They switched the name to “Mrs. Robinson” and a hit was born.

By the end of his life, Nichols had received one Oscar, four Emmys, nine Tonys and a Grammy.

In an interview with the Journal, O’Brien described Nichols as not only an immensely talented artist, but also a real mensch.

“Mike had the fuse of life burning within him,” O’Brien said, “but he was also a phenomenal friend. He had a genuine love of people, and in company somehow made you feel that you were the smartest person in the room … perhaps his greatest gift, as an artist and a person, was that he made you better by seeking out the best in you.”

“Becoming Mike Nichols” has been praised as “a master class” in the craft of the theater, but Nichols speaks more in terms of emotions and attitudes than how-to bits of advice.

On directing: “One minute, you don’t know, then suddenly, you get it. That’s the thrill, that’s why you are here.”

On plot lines: “There are three types of scenes … negotiations, seductions and fights.”

On making successful movies: “You get lucky in many strange ways.”

Aside from a few sentences about Nichols’ departure from Nazi Germany, there is no mention of his Jewishness.

“The topic never really came up,” O’Brien said. “Our discussions focused almost entirely on the theater and Nichols’ career.”

Except for an occasional dinner, in which Nichols’ wife, former TV news anchor and reporter Diane Sawyer, joined in, O’Brien said he knew little of his friend’s private life.

In any case, “Mike treated me as [if] I were Jewish, or simply thought of me as an Irish Jew,” O’Brien said.

For readers eager to learn more about the Jewish aspect of Nichols’ life, a good source is a chapter on him in Abigail Pogrebin’s book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” which was excerpted in the Nov. 20, 2014 issue of Tablet’s online magazine.

Asked in the excerpt whether his Jewishness related to his sense of being an outsider, Nichols replied, “This is tricky, because I think there are two different things: One is Jewishness and one is refugee-ness.

“The second one being what you might call the ‘Sebold Syndrome’ … namely that your guilt about the Six Million finally comes up and gets you. … By definition, whether you are a refugee or not, you are a member of a group that has been hated by a large number of people through all history. It’s impossible not to be aware of that hatred.”

When O’Brien asks why so many comedians and comedy writers have been Jewish, Nichols responds, “Jewish introspection and Jewish humor are ways of surviving. Not only as a group, but as individuals. If you’re not handsome, and you’re not athletic, and you’re not rich, there’s still one last hope with girls, which is being funny. Girls like funny guys.” 

+