Fun­ny, You Don’t Look Fun­ny: Judaism and Humor from the Silent Gen­er­a­tion to Millennials

  • Review
By – July 26, 2023

In this aca­d­e­m­ic deep dive, Jen­nifer Caplan reflects on Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ing, com­e­dy, and media in the last half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and the first decades of the twen­ty-first. A pro­fes­sor of Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincin­nati, and the author of numer­ous works on Judaism and pop­u­lar cul­ture, Caplan cites mul­ti­ple schol­ar­ly sources to back up her exten­sive­ly researched analy­sis. Her book’s focus is on humor that has some social or reli­gious target.” 

High­light­ing select­ed works by Jew­ish Amer­i­can humorists from the silent gen­er­a­tion, baby boomers, Gen­er­a­tion X, and mil­len­ni­als, Caplan con­sid­ers how atti­tudes toward Jew­ish reli­gious rit­u­als have changed over time, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the sec­u­lar Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. How­ev­er, because she cites numer­ous satirists whose humor tends to reflect more than one defined gen­er­a­tion,” her analy­sis, while fas­ci­nat­ing, can some­times get murky.

Caplan uses the unfor­tu­nate term thingi­fi­ca­tion” to describe satirists’ atti­tudes toward Judaism. This can be dis­tract­ing, but the ques­tions she pos­es are incred­i­bly thought-pro­vok­ing. Is Amer­i­can Judaism a use­less thing” as an orga­nized reli­gion, one that holds Jews back? Or are Jew­ish life cycle rit­u­als like cir­cum­ci­sion (which is the most sat­i­rized), bat and bar mitz­vahs, and shiv­as still use­ful and mean­ing­ful, capa­ble of bring­ing fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties together? 

Caplan argues that satir­i­cal engage­ment with Jew­ish reli­gious texts and rit­u­als has shift­ed over the past cen­tu­ry and con­tin­ues to do so. For exam­ple, Woody Allen and Joseph Heller, born dur­ing the silent gen­er­a­tion (1925 – 45), are doing midrash by tak­ing the form and con­tent of the Bible and rework­ing it in a par­o­d­ic fash­ion. They are active­ly reject­ing orga­nized reli­gion as use­less. On the oth­er hand, some GenX­ers and mil­len­ni­als have a dif­fer­ent take on reli­gion and where to direct their satir­ic barbs. From baby boomers such as Adam San­dler and Jer­ry Sein­feld, to mil­len­ni­al female comics like Amy Schumer, Abbi Jacob­son, and Ilana Glaz­er, a pos­i­tive view of Judaism as some­thing cool” and very much alive seems to be emerging. 

Nina Schnei­der is a retired Eng­lish & Media Stud­ies pro­fes­sor with exper­tise in cre­ative writ­ing and art history.

Discussion Questions