Jewish Comedy: A Serious History

W. W. Norton & Company  2017

 

Jeremy Dauber rightly sees the history of comedy—and Jewish comedy in particular—as no laughing matter, and he has chronicled it in this appropriately serious book.

Unlike many other writers who have tackled the same subject, Dauber is a scholar by profession and by temperament. His study is far from a collection of jokes, but a thorough historical examination of Jewish comedy written in an accessible style that leavens the theoretical constructs of Bergson and Freud with the occasional wisecrack worthy of Mel Brooks or Milton Berle.

Dauber defines Jewish comedy as humor produced by Jews that deals with either contemporary or historical Jewish existence. Although this definition can be restrictive at times, it gives him plenty of grist for his analytical mill—from biblical and Talmudic stories, to haskalic literature, the works of Sholom Aleichem, and postwar American comedians ranging from Sid Caesar to Sarah Silverman.

Dauber’s study is organized around seven overlapping themes that run through the texts he considers: the use of humor as a defense mechanism against anti-Semitic persecution; satires of Jewish social and religious norms; the use of intellectual wit in the service of humor; burlesque treatments of the gross and vulgar side of life; the value of metaphysical irony; the use of comedy to document the quotidian aspects of Jewish life; and comedy’s value as a way to probe the nature of Jewishness itself.

Dauber devotes a chapter to each of these seven themes, dealing with the history of each in turn. This structural scheme has the virtue of reinforcing the historical sweep that Dauber discerns in his subject as a whole, but the conjoined vice of repetitiveness, as some key texts are dealt with more than once from different perspectives. For example, while the several distinct analyses of the Book of Esther — which Dauber rightly sees as a wellspring of Jewish humor — are each astute, this reader at least would have welcomed a more straightforward chronological approach, providing a comprehensive analysis of Esther before moving on to other texts.

Inevitably, any study of so broad a subject will also be noteworthy for what it must leave out, and these omissions give rise to tantalizing speculations. Here, the most significant such omission arises from Dauber’s decision to define Jewish comedy as humor that deals with specifically Jewish experience. Comedic artifacts as varied as “Duck Soup,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and the stand-up routines of Mort Sahl, for example, all grow out of a distinctly Jewish sensibility, but since they only glance at Jewish experience (if they treat it at all), they don’t fit squarely into Dauber’s schema. It is left to the reader to puzzle out what, if anything, makes them uniquely Jewish, and to ponder the purpose, value, and self-imposed limits of Jewish satire and parody of Gentile life and culture.

But these are minor shortcomings in a work that is most welcome for taking a long and careful look at a subject that is all too often treated with affection and levity but little sense of its importance. At bottom, Dauber sees the Jewish comedic outlook as a vital function without which the Jewish people would never have survived. In this, Jewish humor may well stand out as unique among all other ethnic humors in the world, and it makes Dauber’s subject especially worthy of the seriousness with which he treats it.

Jeremy's Visiting Scribe Posts

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