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.” 

Award-winning American director Mike Nichols dies at 83


Mike Nichols, a nine-time Tony Award winner on Broadway and the Oscar-winning director of influential films such as “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Graduate,” and “Carnal Knowledge,” died on Wednesday at age 83.

The prolific director passed away at his home of cardiac arrest, his spokeswoman said. A private service for the family will be held this week, followed by a memorial at a future date.

No director had ever moved between Broadway and Hollywood as easily as Nichols, one of the few people to win the Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy Awards.

Nichols, whose career first blossomed with a comedy partnership with Elaine May in the late 1950s, was married to Diane Sawyer, former anchorwoman of ABC's “World News Tonight” broadcast.

ABC News President James Goldston announced Nichols' death in a memo to staff, saying he “passed away suddenly on Wednesday evening.”

“In a triumphant career that spanned over six decades, Mike created some of the most iconic works of American film, television and theater,” Goldston said. “He was a true visionary.”

In memory of Nichols, marquees on Broadway theatres in New York will be dimmed on Friday evening for one minute.

“Legendary director Mike Nichols shared his distinct genius for storytelling through the worlds of stage and film. Throughout his celebrated career in many mediums that spanned decades, he was always in awe of the thrill and the miracle that is theatre,” Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the Broadway League, said in a statement.

Fans and colleagues took to Twitter to express their sorrow.

“Funniest, smartest, most generous, wisest, kindest of all,” actress Mia Farrow tweeted. “Mike Nichols, a truly good man.”

Actor Tony Goldwyn said Nichols was the greatest of the great. “What a gigantic loss!” he added.

Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, where his parents had settled after leaving Russia. He came to the United States at age 7 when his family fled the Nazis in 1939.

He grew up in New York feeling like an outsider because of his limited English and odd appearance – a reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine had caused permanent hair loss. As a University of Chicago student, he fought depression, but found like-minded friends such as May.

In the late 1950s, Nichols and May formed a stand-up team at the forefront of a comedy movement that included Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters and Woody Allen in satirizing contemporary American life. They won a Grammy in 1961 for best comedy album before splitting, partly because May liked to improvise and Nichols preferred set routines.

In the mid-1960s, Nichols came to be a directing powerhouse on Broadway with “Barefoot in the Park,” the first of what would be a successful relationship with playwright Neil Simon. Later he would stage Simon's “The Odd Couple,” “Plaza Suite” and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” and Time magazine called him “the most in-demand director in the American theater.”

In all, he won best-director Tonys for his four collaborations with Simon, as well as for “Luv” in 1965, “The Real Thing” in 1984, “Spamalot” in 2005 and a revival of “Death of a Salesman” in 2012, and best musical award as a producer of “Annie” in 1977.

TURNING TO HOLLYWOOD

Nichols also made an impact on American cinema with three influential movies in a five-year period.

The first, a 1966 adaption of the Edward Albee play “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was nominated for an Oscar in all 13 categories in which it was eligible and won five of them, although Nichols did not take the best director award.

He followed that up a year later with “The Graduate,” starring then little-known Dustin Hoffman as an aimless college graduate seduced by Anne Bancroft as an older woman before falling in love with her daughter. Nichols won an Academy Award for his direction and the movie, which thanks to several memorable lines and the music of Simon and Garfunkel, became a 1960s cultural touchstone.

In 1971, Nichols put out “Carnal Knowledge,” which created a sensation because of its sexual nature. The manager of a movie theater in Georgia was arrested for showing the film and had to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court before being exonerated.

Sometimes Nichols' movies did go off the road. “Catch-22,” “Day of the Dolphin” and “The Fortune” were generally considered commercially unsuccessful and he did not make a feature film from 1975 until 1983, rebounding with “Silkwood,” for which he was nominated for another Oscar.

In the second act of his movie career, Nichols also directed “Heartburn,” Simon's “Biloxi Blues,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Regarding Henry,” “The Birdcage,” “Primary Colors,” “Charlie Wilson's War” and “Working Girl,” which earned him another Oscar nomination.

He won an Emmy in 2001 for “Wit” and another in 2003 for “Angels in America,” a TV miniseries about the AIDS epidemic.

In the mid-1980s, Nichols suffered a psychotic breakdown, which he said was related to a prescription sedative, that made him so delusional he thought he had lost all his money.

Despite his urbane, intellectual manner, Nichols once had a reputation as an on-the-set screamer. Meryl Streep told The Hollywood Reporter, “He was always the smartest and most brilliant person in the room – and he could be the meanest, too.”

The actress said that changed after Nichols married Sawyer, his fourth wife.

Nichols had three children from his earlier marriages.

Well Versed


The trouble with reading Judith Viorst’s delightful new book of verse, “Suddenly Sixty, And Other Shocks of Later Life,” is that you recognize another decade has gone by in her life and so, presumably, in yours as well. “Suddenly Sixty “follows on the high heels of those earlier guideposts – “It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty,” “How Did I Get to Be Forty,” and “Forever Fifty” – and like them charts the changes and new quirks in her life as another 10 years flit by.

Her books of light verse have always seemed to me a form of social commentary, ongoing sketches of the American cultural scene that put her in the company of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Jules Feiffer and Nora Ephron: On stage, in cartoons, on film and in light verse we are treated to snapshots, often with an edge, of the author (and by extension, of ourselves) responding to the latest manners and mores of our time. We witness the social exchanges with lovers and spouses and parents and children and friends. The subtext could just as easily read, “The Psychoneurosis of Everyday Life.”

Is it a surprise that Nichols and May, Feiffer, Ephron and Viorst are all Jewish?

Reading “Suddenly Sixty,” I have to admit life kept intruding, kept elbowing aside Viorst’s wry lines. The fact is I know the author and her husband, Milton Viorst. When I read one of her poems about marriage, “In the Beginning,” I can’t resist comparing verse with the real thing.

What I remember, though, is a description of their early courtship. Judy and Milton had dated briefly in college in New Jersey and then gone their separate ways. (He is a little caustic about her preference for fraternity types during those years.) About 10 years later, one Sunday evening, Milton, on his way home to Washington, D.C., from Martha’s Vineyard, called his old girlfriend from college days.

It was about 1 a.m. Judy, of course, lived in Greenwich Village. She was still under 30.

The preliminaries on the telephone did not take very long, though I believe she said something like, “Do you know what time it is?” They met a half hour later at a Village coffee bar. It took about 10 minutes of how are you, what have you been doing with yourself these 10 years, do you remember what’s her name, before Milton somewhat delicately said something like, “Let’s cut all this. Do you want to have kids, and if so, how many?” Three months later they were married.

Another poem, “So My Husband and I Decided to Take a Car Trip Through New England,” also makes me smile (actually there are many).

I feel sure this poem is from experience and from the heart. It was the summer of 1976 and we all were in Boulder, Colo., determined to find a wonderful Italian restaurant for lunch that Milton knew, about an hour or two away, somewhere west of the city. And so we all embarked – husbands, wives and six children, three of theirs, three of ours.

We eventually, after some difficulty, found the restaurant – and without asking directions. The food was a tad less than wonderful, as I remember it, and afterwards, as a treat for the children and a way of walking off the lunch, we went climbing and hiking in the nearby woods and rocky hills.

Judy had designer boots, as I recall. There was much falling and sliding on one’s rump, and occasional tears from one or another child, and finally a sit-down strike with a declaration by one of the adults that holidays should be spent in Paris, not sliding on your ass in some godforsaken Colorado wilderness. I leave that for another book.

The point is that the verse is witty and speaks to our vulnerable side precisely because we recognize the truth of the writer’s feelings. Viorst is a keen observer of the social details that make up our fragile and different identities. That’s what the poems are about. And their stamp of authenticity is a reflection of a life that has been well and humanely lived, not just observed.

Gene Lichtenstein is founding editor of The Jewish Journal.

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