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.

Sacha Baron Cohen, Isla Fisher donate $1 million to help Syrians


British actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and his wife, actress Isla Fisher, have donated some $1 million to help Syrian children.

The couple is giving about half the sum to the Save the Children charity to pay for measles vaccinations for children in northern Syria and the rest will go to the International Rescue Committee to help refugees in Syria and in neighboring countries. The latter donation will help pay for health care, housing and sanitation, the French news agency AFP reported Sunday.

Cohen, who is Jewish, starred as Borat in the movie of the same name and in other films. Fisher converted to Judaism when she married Cohen.

The New York-based IRC is run by former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is Jewish.

Sacha Baron Cohen bails on Freddie Mercury biopic


Plans for Sacha Baron Cohen to portray a character who is both mustachioed and flamboyant (a hybrid of Borat and Bruno, one might say) have fallen through.

The Jewish actor has cancelled his plans to play Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in an upcoming biographical film, Deadline.com reports. Apparently he is not on the same page as the remaining members of Queen, who have creative control over the project. The band’s vision is a PG movie, while Cohen was pushing for a “gritty R-rated tell-all centered around the gifted gay singer.”

It’s too bad they couldn’t make things work, as they’re going to have a hard time finding someone who looks more like Mercury than Cohen does.

Academy Awards threatens to ban Sacha Baron Cohen


Actor Sacha Baron Cohen will be banned from the Academy Awards if he arrives at the Red Carpet dressed as The Dictator, a character from his upcoming film.

Paramount’s awards staff said Baron Cohen would not receive his tickets to the Oscars unless he assures the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences ahead of time that he will not arrive in costume and not promote his movie on the Red Carpet, Deadline Hollywood reported.

Baron Cohen has a part in the Best Picture-nominated film “Hugo.” His plan was to come to the Oscars dressed as The Dictator and then change into a tuxedo and attend the awards show.

He previously was asked to be a presenter at the Oscars, but declined to do so when his request to do it in character as Borat was denied, according to Deadline Hollywood.
“The Dictator” is a spoof about the “heroic story of a Middle Eastern dictator who risks his life to ensure that democracy never comes to the country he so lovingly oppressed.” It is set to be released in May.

The Academy Awards ceremony will take place Feb. 26 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

Stars expected to shine at Israel Film Festival


Adam Sandler and Borat (a.k.a. Sacha Baron Cohen) turned out to fete the Israel Film Festival last year, and more celebrity surprise guests are expected to speak at the gala dinner kicking off the 2008 festival June 12-26 (honorees include ICM’s Jeffrey Berg).

It’s a sign of just how far the event has come in the last two decades, mirroring the increased profile of Israeli cinema on the international scene (Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” competed for the top prize at Cannes this month).

But “Waltz With Bashir” won’t be on the program this year; Israeli films in competition at Cannes often make their North American debut at major international festivals (think Toronto or Telluride).

“That can be frustrating, but there are more important things than competing with other festivals,” said Meir Fenigstein, founder and director of the Israel Film Festival.

“Because of the two intifadas, there has been almost no American productions in Israel over the last 20 years,” he continued.

At the gala dinner, he might get to unveil a possible government incentive to lure Hollywood directors back to Israel. “I’m hoping to announce something very big,” he said.

Borat, Seriously


Following the massive success of the movie “Borat,” there is bound to be an equally massive deluge of punditry on what it all means.

I defy you to watch the movieand not cramp up from laughter. And by all means, continue laughing when the pundits say “Borat” reveals something dark, ugly or frightening about America. Taking “Borat” seriously is seriously ridiculous.

As the erstwhile Kazakh journalist Borat, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen travels across the United States, goading the common man and woman into shocking, sometimes hilarious, sometimes just shocking situations.

I saw it on a Monday night in Santa Monica, during the second sold-out show. There were unexpected comic moments that hit the audience like an amusement park plunge — we all screamed as one. There were also unexpectedly touching moments of comic brilliance — director Larry Charles did “Seinfeld” as well — as close to a Charlie Chaplain movie as any film with sound.

There’s also the racism and anti-Semitism. Part of the humor and shock in the movie is how easily it seems Borat can coax a heap of Jew-hating out of Middle America (well, mostly Southern Middle America).

At a gun store near Dallas, he asks the proprietor for the best gun for killing Jews, and gets an unblinking recommendation. Later he hitches a ride with some college frat boys, one of whom confides that the Jews are taking over the country.

There’s also the infamous scene from Cohen’s HBO series in which the journalist gets the patrons of a Tucson roadhouse to sing along with him the word to a “famous Kazakh folksong.” The customers laugh and sing in giddy unison: “Throw the Jews down the well/So my country can be free.”

The idea of setting people up to reveal their true selves on tape isn’t new. First there was Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera,” a much kinder, gentler “Borat.” Then Howard Stern, who has used the same technique on unsuspecting celebrities for years, and now Cohen.

Is it any coincidence the masters of this craft — Funt, Stern and Cohen — have been Jews?

The quintessential outsiders can’t help but wonder what they are saying about us behind our backs. How tempting it is to get them to say it to our disguised faces. That’s a technique as old as Jacob dressing up as Esau to fool Isaac, as clever as Shakespeare’s Shylock, out to prove “a goodly apple rotten at the heart.”

To many people, including Cohen himself, these vignettes point to something deeply wrong about America.

Cohen came out of his character closet this week to address his critics not as Borat, but as Cohen. He told Rolling Stone, “I think part of the movie shows the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether it’s hatred of African Americans or of Jews.”

In a 2004 National Public Radio interview, he told Robert Siegel, “That’s the really interesting thing with Borat. People really let down their guard with him…. They feel much more relaxed about having their outrageous, politically incorrect, prejudiced opinions come out.”

Commentators are already warning that such satire can unleash latent, ancient hatred. Robert Wistrich, head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Israel’s Hebrew University, told the New York Times that, “using the stereotypes can actually perpetuate them. It doesn’t matter that Jews are indulging in it.In fact, it can seem more deadly when it comes from a Jew.”

Deadly? Please. Looking to learn something about American anti-Semitism from “Borat” is like trying to study medicine by watching “Patch Adams.”

The movie is perhaps not as raw and revealing as Cohen, or anxious sociologists, want us to believe. As The Forward newspaper pointed out last year regarding the Tucson incident, the aired footage was a fraction of what was shot, and the bar’s accountant — herself a Jew — claimed that everybody in the place was onto the comedian long before the sing-along.

What also doesn’t appear in the final movie only reaffirms the point. On the Internet I found a Borat outtake in which he asks a Southern animal control officer if he can adopt a dog that will “attack Jews.” “Jews are Jesus’ children,” the woman shoots back. The dog, she says “probably loves Jews.”

The lesson of Borat isn’t that Americans deep down hate Jews, it’s that Americans should learn 1) never sign a blanket release form, and 2) never get in front of a video camera unless someone you trust is behind it, especially when you’re plastered.

But the other lesson grows out of one astonishing, little-remarked upon fact: Borat speaks Hebrew. I sat there in the theater understanding every Kazakh word without the subtitles because Cohen, an observant Jew who lived for a year on a kibbutz, just spoke Hebrew most of the time. If Americans are too geographically challenged to know anything about the real Kazakhstan, they surely won’t be able to tell Hebrew from Kazakh.

In one brilliant scene, Borat awakes in the home of two kindly old Jews to find a pair of cockroaches. Panicked that the Jews have shape-shifted, he throws dollar bills at them to shoo them away and screams at them in Kazakh; that is, in Hebrew.

So here’s the truth about Jews in America in 2006: The No. 1 comedy of the year features a Jew playing a buffoonish anti-Semite who curses Jews in a language which real anti-Semites long ago left for dead.

That is seriously funny.

If Borat has offended … then he’s done his job


Virtually everyone who has already seen the comedy “Borat” at film festivals and invitational screenings has found the film uproariously funny.

But with its nationwide opening set for Friday, the question now is whether a mass, mainstream audience will also get the film’s satiric sensibilities, or, rather, be offended by its political incorrectness and by its lead character, who is a raging anti-Semite.

“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” is a “mockumentary” starring British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev, a cheerfully impudent, male-chauvinistic Kazakh journalist. He road-trips across America, speaking comically mangled English and constantly doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. His interactions mostly are with unwitting, everyday Americans who have been led to believe by filmmakers that Cohen’s alter ego, Borat, is the real thing.

The humor in the film, which is directed by Larry Charles, is sometimes raunchy, especially a nude wrestling match between Borat and his heavyset producer, Azamat Bagatov (Kenny Davitian). And it is sometimes bitingly politically satirical — “We support your war of terror,” Borat tells a rodeo crowd before massacring “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Borat fears Jews so much he has nightmarish hallucinations when forced to board with an elderly Jewish couple. He and his producer also choose to drive across America because they’re scared Jews would hijack their plane, “like they did on 9/11.”

Cohen, 35, is a modern-day Ernie Kovacs in his ability to subsume his personality in his comic creations. He is best known in the U.S. for playing the gay French NASCAR driver Jean Girard in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” But in Britain he became a star as the obnoxiously slow-witted rapper/talk-show host Ali G, which acquired a cult U.S. following when HBO’s “Da Ali G Show” was broadcast in 2003. Borat was a character on that show.

Because “Borat’s” anti-Semitism is so flagrant, the film raises some ethical questions. Is Cohen, who is Jewish and studied history at Christ’s College at Cambridge, crossing a line with his character’s anti-Semitism? And is his rendering of the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan as a stewpot of anti-Semites, child abusers, prostitutes and generally crude people too cruel?

According to answers.com, Cohen was born in the London-adjacent suburb Staines to a middle-class Jewish family — his father, originally from Wales, was the owner of a London menswear shop. Cohen has what the site calls an “active Zionist background,” including involvement in the Jewish youth movement Habonim Dror. His mother is an Israeli-born Iranian, and, according to answers.com, he told NPR in a 2004 interview that he wrote his college thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement.

Borat’s anti-Semitism has folkloric, fantastical roots in his nation’s culture, as depicted in the film. It envisions, for instance, a “traditional” Kazakh “Running of the Jew” event, similar to Pamplona’s “running of the bulls.” And the Kazakhs are portrayed as simple, backward peasants — Borat mistakes a hotel elevator for his room in New York and carries a chicken onto the subway.

“I saw the movie yesterday,” said Roman Y. Vassilenko, an ambassadorial assistant and press secretary for Kazakhstan’s U.S. embassy, when interviewed last week. “Like Jonathan Swift wrote ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and invented a country, Lilliput, to make a satire of England, this is the same thing. He invents a Kazakhstan in order to make a satire of a very different country.”

Just to make sure the public realizes that “Borat’s” Kazakhstan is not the real one, the embassy has released an official statement on the movie. It reads in part: “Kazakhstan, a Muslim majority country, is home to 130 ethnic groups and 40 religious faiths. Pope John Paul II, who visited Kazakhstan in 2001, called our country ‘an example of harmony between men and women of different origins and beliefs.'” (The nation has a sizeable Russian Orthodox minority.)

Cohen himself isn’t talking. Or, rather, he’s talking only in character. Two weeks ago, he came to Santa Monica’s Shutters on the Beach resort hotel for a “Borat” press conference, standing at a podium with an official-looking Kazakhstan emblem on it. Tall and dressed in a neat if staid suit, bearing a bright smile to contrast with his dark bushy brows and hair, he did what amounted to a comedy act. Questions had to be submitted in advance.

“Good evening, gentleman and prostitutes,” he began, in halting, bumbling, heavily accented English. He said he admired “mighty warlord George Walter Bush” as a “very strong man but perhaps not as strong as his father, Barbara.”

Asked whom he’d most like to meet, he mentioned “fearless anti-Jew warrior Melvin Gibsons. We in Kazakhstan agree with his statement Jews started all the wars. We also have evidence they killed off the dinosaurs. Hurricane Katrina, too. They did it.”

Cohen’s satiric target may well be America and its anti-Semitism, believes Joel Schalit, managing editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun. And in “Borat,” he may be drawing from world history to get at it.

“I see a film like ‘Borat’ as a very roundabout, tongue-in-cheek way of exploring that,” Schalit said.

A parallel can be drawn between Cohen’s imaginary Kazakhstan and the early 20th-century Russian peasants who accepted the fraudulent, anti-Semitic “Protocols of Zion” (which told of a Jewish plot to run the world) as truth and staged pogroms. (Kazakhstan, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, gained its independence in 1991.)

“By evoking that example, Cohen’s timing couldn’t be better,” Schalit said. “There remains a populist strand of anti-Semitism in the U.S. that is the parallel of pre-Bolshevik Russian anti-Semitism. And it’s emanating from the quarters of the religious right.”

Josh Neuman, editor of edgy, youthful Jewish humor magazine Heeb, thinks American Jews will get Cohen’s “Borat” and not be offended.

“I think Jews understand the power of satirical narratives, because we understand the power of narratives in general,” he said via e-mail. “[There’s] a desire to poeticize the absurdity of stereotypes rather than arguing against them. I think the former is much more effective than the latter.”

And, Neuman said, Cohen also has another target.

I think [he] is satirizing how mainstream anti-Semitism is around the world, but also and perhaps more importantly I think he’s satirizing a Western bourgeois notion of people from distant lands, their customs and beliefs. I think that he pulls it off with immense subtlety and creativity.”

“Borat” plays in theaters starting Nov. 3.

‘Schmucks’ and Yucks


Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as the star of the eponymous “Da Ali G Show,” is in Hollywood preparing for his headliner turn in an upcoming movie with the felicitous title “Dinner for Schmucks.”

In the role, Cohen/Ali will portray a — well — schmuck, with the gift of ruining the life of anyone who spends a few minutes in his company.

The film is a remake of Francis Veber’s 1998 French comedy hit “Le Diner de Cons” (The Idiot Game), which introduces a French publisher who hosts a weekly dinner for his friends.

He challenges his pals to bring the most pathetic guests they can find to the gathering, with Cohen winning the honor hands down.

The scriptwriter for “Schmucks” is Jon Vitti, a frequent contributor to “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill” and “Da Ali G Show.” Distributor of the movie is DreamWorks, co-founded by Steven Spielberg.

Cohen was not available for comment, but Marvin Levy, Spielberg’s chief spokesman, said that the film will probably start shooting in early spring and be ready for release next fall.

Born in London and raised in an Orthodox home by his British father and Israeli mother, Cohen is reported to follow an observant Jewish lifestyle.

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