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Why Jews Laugh

In such a serious moment in which everything is politicized and partisan, and in which so many of us have become self-righteous about our politics and ideologies, maybe we have an even greater responsibility to laugh.
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October 20, 2021

These are serious times in America. Seasonal fires rage, like clockwork, in California and elsewhere up the Pacific coast. Hurricanes and floods, persistently taunting the Gulf Coast and beyond, are no longer the purview of the biblical Noah, no longer metaphors for collective cleansing and redemption. Mass shootings, though they don’t always make the news these days because we’ve grown accustomed to them, are part of the new American fabric. Last year, we recorded the highest increase in the national rate of homicide in modern history. We are, literally, killing each other more than ever before. Violent hate crimes against religious and ethnic minorities, including and especially Jews, are becoming more brazen. And while the pandemic continues, hope for its inevitable end ebbing and flowing, so do the culture wars that prove our penchant for hate rather than tenacity. 

Almost nothing remains bubbling under the surface anymore. We keep very little at bay. Hate, violence, fearmongering, division—no longer simply percolating, they have become our default mode, our most apparent and distinctive feature. We are Americans, and our world is a ticking time bomb.

The antidote may feel elusive, but in the meantime, there’s something we can do: We can laugh.

One might say that making others laugh is a mitzvah; one might also say that laughing at ourselves is an even greater mitzvah.

It sounds insensitive, I know. But in the expanse of such a dark horizon, it’s easy to forget the great Jewish tradition of finding humor in things. In such a serious moment in which everything is politicized and partisan—we are all right, all of the time—and in which so many of us have become self-righteous about our politics and ideologies, maybe we have an even greater responsibility to laugh. One might say that making others laugh is a mitzvah; one might also say that laughing at ourselves is an even greater mitzvah. When we laugh at ourselves we are telling the world that we know how to be introspective, that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Self-reflection is truly an under-appreciated quality.

We could all take ourselves a little less seriously. But Jewish comics are in the lead when it comes to this race.

“Why we laugh, I’m not quite sure. But why we MAKE people laugh is because you can’t get girls when you’re under six feet, have a deviated septum, flat feet and gastrointestinal issues. So you’d better have good jokes.” — Dan Ahdoot

Dan Ahdoot is a stand-up comic, podcaster, and actor best known for his role as Anoush in the Emmy-nominated global hit series “Cobra Kai.” His show “Raid the Fridge” premieres on Food Network December 28. I asked Dan to tell me why Jews laugh, and he said: “Why we laugh, I’m not quite sure. But why we MAKE people laugh is because you can’t get girls when you’re under six feet, have a deviated septum, flat feet and gastrointestinal issues. So you’d better have good jokes.”

Dan Levy, television writer/showrunner, stand-up comic, and co-host of “House Hunters: Comedians on Couches” had a similar response to my question: “Jews laugh because we are self-aware and self-deprecating. We also love to get laughs because we are self-involved.”

Comedy—at least, good comedy—is about truth-telling and honesty. It’s transparency at its finest. When unbridled and unrestrained by political correctness it is the ultimate cultural commentary. It says the things we cannot say, but often want to or should say. And, in many cases, we are all better because of it, if for no other reason than we have agreed to be honest with each other for a moment. It’s an unwritten contract that’s a win-win for both parties. No compromise.

“The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But survival, and what it takes to survive, there can be humor in that.” — Rob Reiner in the documentary “The Last Laugh”

But, as most Jewish comics will tell you, it’s also about darkness in many cases. I’ve written in various places, including for the Journal, about how some of the most traumatic and insidious moments in history have given rise to some of the wildest explosions of humor. Whether it’s the Holocaust, the events of 9/11, the pandemic, or anything else that saddens us, distresses us, or makes us feel afraid, many of us—both Jews and non-Jews—feel the impulse and even the palpable need to laugh. Filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein, director of the documentary “The Last Laugh,” told me that humor “has always been a coping mechanism, a means of resistance, and a way to fight back for the oppressed, so it’s not a coincidence that humor has long been associated with the Jewish people.” She continued: “As Rob Reiner says in ‘The Last Laugh’: ‘The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But survival, and what it takes to survive, there can be humor in that.’” 

Dark humor is a complex beast. It’s also subjective. Years ago when I taught a Holocaust literature and film class at UCLA, we discussed Holocaust humor. There were six students in the class who were grandchildren of survivors. All of them spoke with their grandparents about what was happening in class and reported back to me. The responses were split. Three of the grandparents were thrilled that humor was being used to confront the Holocaust. The other three were horrified, and said that the Holocaust is off-limits when it comes to humor. 

Both responses were correct. Humor is subjective. It can be deeply personal. But regardless of how we feel about it, the reality is that it’s a tool that people are going to use to make sense of the world and their place in it. You can cancel it, censor it, or outlaw it—but people will still use and rely on humor. They will still be drawn to it. It will flourish no matter what kind of guard rails are in place.

“When we’re doing comedy, we’re arguing and making analogies, and that’s what the Talmud is.” — Elon Gold

For Elon Gold, stand-up comedian and actor who will be featured in the upcoming season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the question isn’t why Jews laugh. “I can tell you that Jews, in fact, do not laugh,” says Gold, who jokes about the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. “When Jews laugh, it’s like a short, quick, reserved laugh followed by thinking and planning—‘he’d be good for a fundraiser we’re having next month!’—so we don’t give the full laugh.” The bigger question is about why Jews make others laugh. Where does this impulse come from? Why do we do it? “It’s because we have that observational eye,” says Gold. “When we’re doing comedy, we’re arguing and making analogies, and that’s what the Talmud is.” Jews have a long history of engaging with the world in this way. The Talmud is about argument and analysis—it’s about engaging with complex ideas and subjects and making sense of them. If you know anything about the Talmud, you know that in many cases disagreements are often left unresolved, and that’s the beauty of it. The value is in the process of analyzing an issue and confronting it, and in seeing it from various perspectives. In much the same way, comedy provides us with a way into some of the most pressing issues of our time, giving us a space for thoughtful analysis, even as we laugh and even if we disagree.

Jews have a long history of being persecuted and facing things like pogroms, genocide, and loss; and while the idea of Jews as comic geniuses may be somewhat recent, we can find traces of it since the beginning, perhaps gently foreshadowing what would come hundreds of years later. In Genesis, Sarah laughs when God reveals to her that she, an old woman, will not only enjoy sexual pleasure again with her husband Abraham, but also will bear a child. You’re hilarious, God, her laugh says. I’ve often wondered if this is the moment we learned it may be acceptable to laugh even at God sometimes; perhaps even God doesn’t need to be taken so seriously. Comedy and laughter can be lessons too. Sometimes we laugh because, deep down inside, we understand the absurdity of our situation, and laughing about it means we are being honest with ourselves.

Throughout the centuries things get pretty dark for the Jews, and while Jewish writing throughout the medieval and middle eras was mostly serious given the trials of the day—hello, crusades—the popular genres of animal fables (think Aesop’s Fables) and riddles were for both Jews and non-Jews an outlet for making jokes. Jeremy Dauber, in “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History,” gives a detailed accounting of this trajectory, but reminds us that as recently as the 19th century, Jews were not known particularly for their humor. Ruth Wisse, in her study from a few years prior to Dauber’s, recounts something similar, which raises the question of why Jews, in their American context, have become so synonymous with comedy.

It’s easy to say that Jews laugh because it’s a way of dealing with persecution—that it’s a coping mechanism. And, sure, that’s true in some cases. But the subtext of that perspective is the story of Jews as perpetual victims, and that’s not who we are. Laughing in the face of persecution doesn’t mean it’s coming from a place of victimhood. To be able to laugh in the face of adversity or tragedy can also signify mastery over a person or subject or history. It can be a way to take back the story from the oppressors or perpetrators—to own it. Humor has often flourished in oppressive regimes (as shown in Rudolph Herzog’s book “Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany,” for example). We instinctively understand the potential for comedy and laughter to rob the most horrific atrocities and disasters of their power to frighten and control us. But American Jews in particular have really nailed it when it comes to laughing in the face of tragedy and disaster. The question is why. What is it about America that has brought out the impulse to laugh, to tell jokes, and to frame everything we encounter in the context of humor?

Laughter is freedom. But the freedom to laugh, and to make others laugh, isn’t something that should be taken for granted. There is power in laughter. When we laugh at something we think is ridiculous, we bring it down. We show that it doesn’t define or control us. Jeff Ross, stand-up comedian, author, actor, and writer/producer best known as The Roastmaster General, had a straightforward response to my question of why Jews laugh: “In my opinion, Jews laugh because it keeps us from crying.” Emmy award-winning comedy writer Rob Kutner had a similar answer: “Because if we didn’t, we’d never be able to stop crying.”

Making a joke about something dark or something about which we’re self-conscious puts us in a position to own the story, rather than allowing the story to own us.

Making a joke about something dark or something about which we’re self-conscious puts us in a position to own the story, rather than allowing the story to own us. Some might think that laughing instead of crying is about escaping, about not dealing with something. But I disagree. Humor isn’t always about looking away. It’s about facing something directly, confronting and acknowledging it. It can, in fact, be the most authentic way to confront sensitive or distressing material.

Sometimes that makes people feel uncomfortable. And we happen to be living in a time where the growing sentiment is that no one should ever feel uncomfortable. Every space should be safe. Jokes should be at no one’s expense. The recent controversy over Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special, “The Closer,” in which he makes a number of jokes about transgender people, is an example of this. But whether Chappelle’s or anyone else’s humor is appropriate or not shouldn’t be the question. Instead, we should be asking why there is a growing movement to curtail comedy by censoring what we can and can’t laugh at. The answer seems fairly obvious: It’s about power. A comic standing on stage in front of tens of thousands of people (not to mention their likely millions of Twitter or Instagram followers) has power.

Making jokes about things that seem off-limits is an unusual freedom. In America, we have a history of taking pride in our freedom. As Americans, we love our rights. We love having the freedom to speak our minds. We love being able to laugh at anything and everything, whether it’s appropriate or not. This is increasingly true of younger generations. A former student at UCLA once told me: “I love our generation. We make everything hilarious.” It’s not only college students; it’s teenagers and younger children as well. My 8-year-old son tells me that his peers talk and laugh about memes constantly. And most of these young people probably have no idea that the kinds of jokes they laugh at every day would be illegal in some countries.

Will they soon be illegal in ours as well? It’s hard to imagine. And yet.

Some people call what’s happening “cancel culture.” Others mock these accusations and suggest that nothing of the sort is happening. Either way, as veteran comedy director Jay Karas says, “It’s on everyone’s mind. Many comics are treading cautiously on stage, and it’s only a few brave souls who are putting their acts out there, unfiltered, exactly the way they want to right now.” 

The idea that some comics—historically the people we could count on to tell it like it is—are self-censoring is bad news for all of us. In the short term we might convince ourselves that self-censorship and political correctness makes places and spaces safer, and that watching what we say is a hallmark of a compassionate society. But the truth is the more we work to curtail authentic comedy, the closer we are to finding ourselves in a society that is untenable. The things we laugh at might not always be appropriate, and we certainly have a right to say that. It’s also true that not everyone will agree on what kinds of jokes work. But the important thing is that we keep trying, that we keep giving comics and writers the space to fail and fall short. Even jokes that fail or upset people have a purpose. They, too, tell us something about who we are. And those who want to shut down the comedy they find offensive—well, history is littered with stories of people who want to silence the prophets and truth-tellers, lock them away. But those people rarely emerge as anything other than villains.

“Had I done ‘The Inquisition’ as a movie in 1492, I would’ve been in a lot of trouble.”— Mel Brooks in the documentary “The Last Laugh”

And, anyway, in a world in which people are not allowed to be offended, what happens to the hallowed and indispensable Jewish tradition of laughter? When classic Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Mason died recently, my social media newsfeed was filled with polarizing responses. Some lamented the loss of such a comedic giant, while others said good riddance, citing his many offensive and arguably inappropriate jokes about various races and ethnicities. What may have been funny two decades ago is no longer funny to some people. And that’s okay. Time changes how we tell stories and jokes; it also changes how we read and hear those stories and jokes. As Pearlstein says, “The political context is always changing, and the line about what is fair game for comedy is ever-shifting. For the Holocaust in particular, humor about it is much more prevalent than it was a decade or even five years ago. Time is a subject that comes up in ‘The Last Laugh’ quite a bit. Mel Brooks jokes that, ‘Had I done ‘The Inquisition’ as a movie in 1492, I would’ve been in a lot of trouble. But five centuries had gone by, and so it was okay. Time opens up different avenues of thought and acceptance.’”

Just think: what may not be funny today, has a good chance of being funny 10, 20, or 100 years from now. So maybe the only thing we need to do now is to laugh, or at least to allow others to laugh even if we don’t think what they’re laughing at is funny. There’s a lot of freedom in laughter, for both the one telling the jokes that inspire the laughter and those who laugh. And the space to tell jokes that may or may not land in their intended place is one of the safest we can find.

Without this freedom to laugh and to tell jokes, the Jewish story would be very different. The story of Jewish laughter is the story of Jews.

Without this freedom to laugh and to tell jokes, the Jewish story would be very different. The story of Jewish laughter is the story of Jews.

Esther D. Kustanowitz, award-winning comedy-adjacent writer, chronicler of #TVGoneJewy, and The Bagel Report podcast co-host, tapped into the idea of the Jewish story in her answer to my question: Why do Jews laugh?

“Why do Jews laugh? Because our survival was so unlikely that we have no choice: we have to tell our story. A band of desert travelers who grumbled on their way out of slavery and into a promised land encounters conflict after conflict, arguing with each other all the way while making contribution after contribution to every field imaginable. Our story prompts an existential shrug-sigh that often becomes laughter—until someone gets offended. Lather, rinse, repeat. We love comedy until we are offended by it. We’re loving and inclusive until we’re not. We’re demanding and understanding and then demanding again. Plus, we have God’s writers’ room throwing us situations that test our mettle, sanity and humor at all times: people plan, and the angels provide the studio audience. We’re the best surreal meta-historical sitcom out there, and everyone from Larry David to The Jews Are Coming knows it. Laughter forces air into and out of our lungs … it keeps us alive and motivated even in the worst of circumstances.”

If violence, wild fires, and pandemics—the world as we currently know it—aren’t the worst of circumstances, I don’t know what is. 

Austin Winsberg, prolific writer/producer and creator of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” gave me a few different answers to my big question, but his final thought was one that stuck with me: “All this question has done is made me wonder why I don’t laugh more.”

Indeed. Why aren’t all of us laughing more? Rather than policing laughter and attempting to dictate what is and isn’t funny, perhaps we should be focusing on laughing at the jokes and stories we do find funny. Perhaps we should be making sure that the world we leave for the next generation is one where the freedom to laugh and to tell jokes (even if they’re offensive or inappropriate) is an unquestionable right. In his famous essay “Laughter,” philosopher Henri Bergson cautions us against attempting to imprison the “comic spirit” in any one definition. His insistence that we “regard it, above all, as a living thing” speaks to its significance as a signifier of all things human. We want to be more human, not less human. We want to laugh.


Monica Osborne is Editor-at-Large at the Jewish Journal. She is a former professor of literature, critical theory, and Jewish Studies, and is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.” Follow her on Twitter @DrMonicaOsborne

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