Arts & Culture

Jewish Humor and Comic Books

Asa youngster growing up in a markedly non-Jewish section of New Jersey, Ihad a great deal of insecurity about being a Jew.  All of my friends were non-Jewish, which didn’t mean much of anything until high school, when all of … Read More

By / May 18, 2010

Asa youngster growing up in a markedly non-Jewish section of New Jersey, Ihad a great deal of insecurity about being a Jew.  All of my friends were non-Jewish, which didn’t mean much of anything until high school, when all of the sudden, it became an issue.  It was as if the years listening to the their parents occasional, bigoted, upper-middle class comments, were starting to sink in.  Although it was never truly malicious, shots at me as a Jew were used often to take me down a notch,even when I was really up a notch.  Anything I couldn’t do that they could, would be directly attributed to the big J.  I wasn’t good at sports or fixing things because I was a Jew.  I was bad at math because Iwas a Jew (really.)   On the other hand, the things I was good at, creative expression, talking to girls and making jokes, was also becauseI was Jewish, but in a bad way, a scheevy, sleazy way that somehow, I didn’t really deserve.

The thing was that these shots at my abilities, attributed to my heritage, themselves always came in the form of jokes.  So I dealt with it the way any Jew would, the way Jews have for centuries, with laughter, and more jokes. The occasional comment never turned into anything too serious, because they knew I would just laugh, or make a joke myself.  Besides when they’d get hung up and desperate for advice on how to talk to so and so, the girl they’dbeen making all those mix tapes for, suddenly it didn’t matter in the least that I was a Jew. 

Funnyman (Feral House), the forthcoming book about Superman creators Siegel and Shuster and their lesser known series about a Jewishsuper hero comedian is as much about comics as it is about the Jewish peoples’ relationship to humor throughout history.  Contrary to today’s somewhat stereotypical view of the Jewish kibitzer, the hero points out that Jews were once seen as wholly, un-funny.  The book sites a British journal that in 1893, referred to the Jewish people as, "Sternly moral, hard working, family oriented and hygienic, but lacking a healthy tongue-cheek disposition."  The book then goes on to try and explain howwe went from being a good smelling, hard working bunch of sticks in themud to dominating the comedic world.  In 1978 a UPenn professor calculated that Jews made up 82% of the highest paid writers, performers, etc in the comedy world. Sigmund Freud formed the first theory in the book, at beginning of 20th century.  He asserted that Jewsgravitated toward humor early on because of their nomadic ways, a reaction to being strangers in a strange land.  However, we certainly weren’t the only ones in that position.  If immigrants were natural comedians, America would be the funniest place on earth.  This theory seems way too simple. 

The next major theory is that Jews have always been laughing tokeep from crying, as they say, funny as a defense mechanism against constant persecution, disenfranchisement and attempted genocide.  But the argument against is similar to the argument against Freud’s theory, why don’t other oppressed people react the same way.  Why isn’t Darfur synonymous with slaphappy comic fun?

Somebelieve that Jews were just born funny from the very start.  Before Abraham, Isaac, and the like, we were a funny people.  However, there’s no evidence that any of these people were the least bit funny, the firsttestament provides almost no comic laughs, not even like ironic, "did he really almost just murder his baby?" type laughs.  It wasn’t until long after those days that Jews started to find their funny.  Even during medieval times, the Jewish people were associated most with anxiety, suffering and shit luck.

The final, and perhaps most interesting, explanation as to why Jews are funny has to dowith the Judaism’s self-questioning nature.  Jews believe themselves tobe "chosen" but for countless generations of wandering, oppressed Jews,it seemed that all they were chosen for was to be screwed every which way.  Therein lies a serious dilemma for any believer.  In having to question the contradictory nature of something at the center of their being, Jews became attuned to the contradiction endemic to so many facets of existence.  It’s contradiction that lays the groundwork for satire and sure enough, some of histories greatest satirists, political and otherwise, were Jewish.  The final theory then, put simply, is that Jews became funny as a result of constantly asking themselves, "Why is god always f-ing with me?"

Funnyman goes on to describe some of the specific aspects of Jewish humor, from scatological to self deprecating, to a section specifically dedicated to the inherent humor of the Yiddish language (the word scmuck needn’t a punch line.)  In this chapter lies detailed analysis of Jewish humorists tendency toward the dark aspects of existence and itserves to explain why dark subject matter can be so integral to comedy itself.  The book also lays out a detailed history of Jewish humor.

The rest of the book is about "Funnyman," the superhero that uses only his humor and wit to fight bad guys.  He’s like Batman, but funny and not rich.  Ok, he’s nothing like Batman. 

Maybehumor is just something that we Jews understand naturally.  Humor helpsus cope with pain and combat adversity.  It always worked for me.  It worked for my grandfather too. 

My grandfather had been suffering for a long time when I last saw him, almost completely unable to walk, speak above awhisper or stay awake.  My mother, father, sister and I went to visit him for Passover in Florida.  Throughout dinner my mom tried to involve him in the proceedings, holding the Haggadah up for him to read, helpinghim with his food.  My sister and I, both in our twenties did the four questions and the afikomen.  My mother passed my grandfather the afikomen for him to hide and he just passed it back to her, unable to get up.

My sister, Rachel, quickly found the afikomen, hidden right beside the dinner table.  She tried to hand it tomy mom.

"You’ve got to bargain with Grandpa for the afikomen," my mom said.

My sister walked up to my grandfather who was half asleep.

"How much?" she asked him, forcing enthusiasm.

My grandfather, not hearing her, almost asleep, didn’t respond.

"DAD,"my mom shouted, "YOU"VE GOT TO BARGAIN WITH RACHEL FOR THE AFIKOMEN.

"What?"My grandpa said.

"YOU"VE GOT TO BARGAIN FOR THE AFIKOMEN SO WE CAN FINISH THE SEDER," She shouted, then gestured to my sister, palms down, brushing her fingers toward her, as if to say, "go on."

"What’sit worth to you?" Rachel said, looking uncomfortable.  He didn’t respond, eyes fixed like he was watching a non-existent television.

"Louder,"my mom mouthed.

My sister rolled her eyes.

"WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO GIVE ME FOR IT?"

My grandfather’s eyes then moved, sharply, deliberately and then fixed.  Suddenly it was like he was somehow looking at everyone at the table at once, my sister standing there uncomfortably, my mom prodding my sister,my dad playing with his iPhone and me watching them all.

He cleared his throat, opened his mouth, voice cracking. 

"What am I going to give you for it?" He said, everyone’s eyes widening.  "I’ll tell ya what I’ll give you for it.  A potch in the panam!"

My mom’s mouth gaped.  My dad played with his iPhone.  My sister and I looked at each other confused. 

"What does that mean?" I whispered to my mom.

"A smack in the mouth," she said, still shocked.

My sister chuckled and I cackled loud and inappropriately, ignoring the look of shock on my mom’s face.  Slowly, my mom laughed too, eventually my dad as well.  At one point the entire table was almost in tears, matzoh flying everywhere.  Once we were all finally able to stop, we finished the service, but the earthquake of laughter that my grandpa started had a bunch of aftershocks throughout, giggles that lasted all the way until the end of the goat song.