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Just In Time for Purim, YIVO Will Launch Free Online Comedy Course

Comedians and academics contribute to “Is Anything Okay? The History of Jews and Comedy in America.”
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March 17, 2024

In the last few months, Jews have shed many tears, but a new free online class from YIVO, “Is Anything Okay? The History of Jews and Comedy in America,” will launch on March 21 and should provide some laughs.

“There is definitely a need to laugh, even when times our bad,” comedian Modi Rosenfeld, one of comedians featured in the class, told the Journal. “At my shows, we have a good time, but we don’t forget what’s going on and we end with ‘Hatikvah.’”

Rosenfeld — whose first special, “Know Your Audiences” premieres later this month — will be joined by comedians Lewis Black, Judy Gold, Alan Zweibel and academics including Jennifer Armstrong, author of “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything” and Jeremy Dauber, Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University.

Among the topics discussed are what was the first joke in the Torah? When is it too soon to joke after tragedy?

The first of seven episodes will be “Roots: Jewish Humor in Traditional Ashkenazi Jewish Life” and the last one will be “Contemporary Jewish Comedy” while others will explore the Catskills’ and internal Jewish conflict. The course will continue with a new episode dropping every week.

YIVO’s Director of Education, Ben Kaplan told the Journal comedy has been an important tool throughout Jewish history in America.

“One of the central themes of the class is how comedy has been utilized throughout Jewish history to process oppression, discrimination, antisemitism, to cope, to understand the world around us,” Kaplan said.

He noted that African American comedian W. Kamau Bell will speak about how it is that many of the best comedians are Jewish and Black Americans, and how it may relate to similar discrimination. Kaplan also said the class will explore how comedy was an avenue that was open to Jews when many others were not.

There are some amazing coincidences: some old Yiddish essaysdiscuss topics including how we should not touch each other’s clothing and be overly familiar; some of these notions ended up on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“Did Larry David know that he was indirectly quoting 19th century Yiddish literature,” Kaplan asked.

There will be lectures given by scholars and academics; Jewish comedians, writers and producers will also share their insights,. While it will focus on Ashkenazi Jewish humor, there will be some detours to the humor of Sephardic Jews.

“We see comedy as this back-and-forth dialogue … to work through the transformation of Jewish identity,” – Ben Kaplan

“We see comedy as this back-and-forth dialogue … to work through the transformation of Jewish identity,” Kaplan said. He called “Curb,” with its multiple Jewish references, the most Jewish comedy show ever.

The course will examine different angles on the way Jewish humor developed and how some things have changed.

“What was funny even five, ten years ago may not be funny now,” he said.

Kaplan also said the class will explore some complex and controversial topics, including “JewFace.” While the term today means non-Jews using prosthetics and make up to look like Jewish characters, Kaplan explained that starting in vaudeville, performers would wear big noses and glasses.

“Some Jews liked it and started doing JewFace,” he said.

He said he hopes it will inspire people to look at the rich history of Jews in comedy, from Joan Rivers to Robert Klein to John Stewart.

Eddy Portnoy, author of “Bad Rabbi”and  YIVO’s director of exhibitions, said the class was designed to appeal to all ages and will even examine how Yiddish played a role in the development of Jewish humor.

He added it will show how Jewish humor was not only a means of entertainment but one of survival, especially as newcomers in America.

“There was certainly an element that Jews could use humor to assimilate, be liked and to show they fit in,” he said.

The class will look at the evolution of how one “makes it” — it used to be a great set on Johnny Carson and now it can be through TikTok or of course landing a Netflix special.

While he could not guarantee the class will produce a string of new comedians, Portnoy hopes it will plant the seeds in the minds of some who watch it that they may want to try performing or writing comedy

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