July 19, 2019

Are Jews Still Funny?

“Politicians and people on Twitter are currently debating the use of the term “concentration camps,” while Jews roll their eyes. Haven’t we been talking about the Holocaust in questionable taste since the Holocaust? Jews have always been the first to poke fun at our bleak history. It’s how our comedians mastered the art of self-deprecation — from the Borscht Belt to Broad City. Perhaps it’s because laughter is our only coping mechanism against eons of persecution (and survival), a way of shrugging off a cultural input far disproportionate with our tiny population, or a way of processing our insecurity as an oppressed minority that can still cash in on white privilege. So who better to make a Jew joke than an actual Jew?

But as anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate crimes resurge, is it still funny for us to be our own punching bags? Is it safe? In joking about money, neuroses, and the demasculinized Jewish man, are we subverting stereotypes or playing into them? We spoke with 13 Jewish comedians about telling Jew jokes in the age of Trump and how to turn cultural punch lines into sources of power.

Sandra Bernhard: Anytime I do anything about being Jewish, it’s more naturalistic because, I mean, by the dent of my lifestyle and how I approach my religion and spirituality, it’s not cliché. I don’t think it’s helpful to paint this sort of neurotic, crazy picture of how being Jewish pulls you one way or the other. I love being Jewish — my grandparents came from Russia. There’s a connection and there’s so much history to it. I’m fascinated by it. I love what’s good in it; I reject what I think is controlling and gets in the way of modern evolution. So it’s a funny sort of balance I have with it, and an interesting dance. But I’ve never done anything — as a woman, as a Jew, as someone who walks the line of many variants sexually — I’ve never been the kind of person who goes for the joke or the cliché in any of those different kinds of elements of who I am.”

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