Jew­ish Com­e­dy: A Seri­ous History

Jere­my Dauber
Final­ist for the 2018 Natan Book Award

  • Review
By – May 16, 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.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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