Arts & Culture

The Evolution of the Jewish Comedy Nerd

In his series of guest blog posts, Saul Austerlitz, author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, discusses the evolution of the Jewish comedy nerd.  In a recent WTF podcast, comedian Marc Maron referred to Judd Apatow … Read More

By / October 11, 2010

In his series of guest blog posts, Saul Austerlitz, author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, discusses the evolution of the Jewish comedy nerd. 

In a recent WTF podcast, comedian Marc Maron referred to Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) as a "comedy nerd."  The reference was intended to be flattering, calling up memories of the teenage Apatow, whose mother worked for a comedy club, interviewing future comic icons like Garry Shandling and Jay Leno for his high school’s radio station.

Apatow describes how, as a 10-year-old in the days before the VCR, he would record episodes of Saturday Night Live on audiocassettes and transcribe the skits into notebooks.  I think it’s helpful to think of this entire generation of Jewish performers as comedy nerds, devoted to their craft and fascinated by its past.  It’s particularly relevant to the issue of Judaism and comedy, because in many ways, these performers and directors are reflecting on a previous generation of Jewish comedians like Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld. 

Where Allen and Seinfeld brought the mores of middle-class Upper West Side Jewry to a mass audience, they were self-conscious about their religious roots.  Seinfeld is a show about four gabby, self-absorbed Jews in which three of its main characters are transformed into generic non-Jews.  I mean, really: George Costanza?  And Allen made cracks about being Jewish, like the famous shot of Woody in Hasidic garb in Annie Hall (he’s being pictured by Annie’s WASPy parents), but it always felt defensive, as if Woody were afraid of what might result if he failed to acknowledge the obvious.

The generation of Jewish comedians raised on the likes of Allen and Seinfeld are far less self-conscious about strategically using Judaism for laughs.  I’m thinking of Ben Stiller awkwardly saying grace at his Gentile girlfriend’s parents’ table in Meet the Parents; Adam Sandler summoning a boatload-better make that two boatloads-of cheesy Israeli stereotypes, including, but not limited to, chai necklaces, hummus, and paddleball on the beach, for his You Don’t Mess With the Zohan; and Sandler ironically chiding protégé Seth Rogen for "hiding some Judaism" by changing his last name in Apatow’s Funny People.  Paradoxically, Judaism has become more present comedically because it’s less important culturally; these performers are more comfortable with Judaism as comic background noise than their predecessors.  Judaism is funny to the precise extent that it’s little more than a shared frame of reference.