In the latter half of the twentieth century, American comedy just was Jewish comedy, even if the Jewishness had to be tamped down to appease mainstream audiences. It was often said of Friends that it was written as if for six old Jews, and then cast with six young attractive people. In Seinfeld, that most Jewish of sitcoms, there was only one codified Jewish character, but that’s simply because the extremely Jewish Elaine and absurdly Jewish George were handed other ethnic identities (WASP with “Shiksappeal” and Greek, respectively) to keep the networks calm....
Instead, Jewishness in comedy – what, in other words, is actually Jewish about the comedy of these secular Jews – is elusive, a bit like Judaism’s conception of the afterlife. Sahl, when first approached with the idea that his act was pervasively Jewish even though he rarely drew on his ethnicity directly, is quoted as saying, “If the role of the Jew is to rock the boat and to be inquisitive – intellectually curious, that is – fine. Classic role”. It is an interesting concept: that Jewishness in comedy is subversive but also something that can be identified in comedians whether or not they wear it on their sleeve...
The complexity is the point: so, too, the obscurity. Dauber talks of how Seinfeld, created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, with its endless discussion of the invisible rules of life – “what are the boundary lines in nebulously defined situations? What consitututes the limits of social acceptability? When does this status change to that one?” – was described by Larry Charles, the show’s producer, as “a dark Talmud”. Except dark is possibly the wrong word: Seinfeld was never a show about nothing, it was a show about small things, about the minutiae and microscopia of everyday, modern life, and as such the one thing Seinfeld never was, was dark. Because dark means weighty, deep, gravitas-achieving. Jewish comedy depends on bathos, on bringing things down to earth – which specifically tends to be the Jewish earth: whether it be with a well-chosen Yiddishism, or a comic-sounding Jewish name, or a reference to the mundane worlds of work, food, money, sex and, well, Jewishness. A joke with a four-word punchline that is quoted by Dauber neatly bears this out: when the Dalai Lama meets his mother she tells him, “Sheldon! Enough is enough”
To come back, then, to what appeared to be a passing, but was not, point about the afterlife: Christianity, and most other religions, are all in the clouds, in the great hereafter – Judaism tends to concentrate on the here and now, and indeed its rules. But in minutiae, there is humanity: it is in reaching after the grandiose things in life that civilization gets skewed. To be microscopic, comically, is to create engagement: these people, the joke says, are like you, because like you, they sweat the small stuff.
Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Jews in comedy
Some interesting takes on modern American comedy and its dominance by (largely secular) Jews in this review of a book at the TLS. Some extracts: