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What’s So Funny About a Jewish Deli?

Delis are funny places. Have you ever sulked out of a delicatessen feeling like the world is hopeless? Heartburn…sure. Twelve pound heavier…of course. Shortchanged…often. But I defy you to walk into a Jewish deli and walk out frowning. Because delis … Read More

By / October 19, 2009


Delis are funny places. Have you ever sulked out of a delicatessen feeling like the world is hopeless?

Heartburn…sure.

Twelve pound heavier…of course.

Shortchanged…often.

But I defy you to walk into a Jewish deli and walk out frowning. Because delis are comedic petri dishes, a place where the shtick seems to grow within, cultured and fed by schmaltz both metaphorical and literal.

Comedy in Jewish delicatessens was a natural thing. Considered that most Jews in the early 20th century saw the deli as a safe refuge outside of synagogue and the workplace, it was probably a wonderful place to vent. Where better to gripe about the uppity rabbi or your sweatshop foreman than over pickles and a knish at the lunch counter? Where better to unleash that classic Yiddish sarcastic wit, full of double entendres, punch lines, and reverse wishes, than in the neighborhood deli.

Deli humor comes naturally, and seemingly out of nowhere. First, it’s inspired by the setting; bright, boisterous, loud places. Second, it’s encouraged by the service; quick, sharp-witted waiters, who aren’t afraid to tell the customer what do order. Once loosened up, the final blow is delivered by the food: large, sloppy portions with funny sounding names (kreplach, kishke, kugel) that defy any pretense of formality.

The very atmosphere of it seems to say "It’s ok, you can be a little loud in here, and don’t worry what everyone else hears, they’re in on the joke."

The result? Geniuses, like deli regulars Sid Caesar, Woody Allen, and Larry David. The gold of Milton Berle ("Anytime someone goes into a Jewish Delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere, a Jew dies."), and the quips and stories of Damon Runyon, who wrote that there are two kinds of people in this world, "Delicatessen people, and those I don’t associate with."

Would the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally have been as funny if it happened in a pizza shop or a diner? If Meg Ryan was screaming Yes Yes Yes over a split pea soup or club sandwich, would it have had the same effect? I don’t think so, but to clarify, I asked comedic great Mel Brooks for his opinion. As a lifetime deli eater, who grew up at delis in Brooklyn, cut his chops at the Stage, and now holds court at Factor’s and Junior’s in Los Angeles, he had the perfect analysis of why delis nurtured comedic genius.

"It’s very important." Brooks answered, "Because there are no tablecloths you don’t feel that you’re dining. At a deli you don’t waste a lot of time ordering the wines and eating. A deli is always en-route to something. You don’t spend two hours there, and if you’ve got things to do, deli is great…. There’s nothing like a deli meeting. Deli food keeps the brain cooking. I much prefer a plastic topped table to one with linens," Brooks said, hinting at the secret of deli comedy. "Delis are magnets for Jews, and Jews, in order to survive emotionally have developed tremendous humor. They don’t have to be professionals. Every Jew is a good storyteller, and delis are bound in Jewish humor. Also, delis seem to be happy places. I’ve never seen anybody weeping at a table in a deli. I’ve seen them in cafes and smart restaurants dabbing their eyes, but I’ve never seen anyone crying in a deli. Never in a deli! No one ever has a bottle of Dom Perignon with their lover and says ‘This isn’t working out’. Cel-Ray tonic doesn’t cut it."

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