As good Jewish parents, my mom and dad introduced me and my brother to the finer things in life. Namely: potato knishes, bialys, kasha varnishkes…and comedy.
Today, thanks to the miracles of YouTube and other online video archives, it’s even easier to find a smörgåsbord of Jewish comedy, which helped me a LOT while I was working on my new novel All Three Stooges. It’s a middle grade novel (for ages ten and up) about Noah and Dash, two Jewish boys who are best friends and comedy junkies, and the family tragedy that threatens to end their laughter as well as their friendship. I watched as many comedy clips as I could, and put many of them in the book. This experience led me to create this slightly subjective and far-from-complete list.
The Stateroom Scene: The best bits from the Marx Brothers’ films may seem familiar because many comedians have paid homage to them by repeating or riffing on their routines. Here’s one famous example:
Coffee Tawk (Saturday Night Live): One of the most famous Jewish characters on Saturday Night Live, Linda Richman, the host of “Coffee Tawk,” was created by (non-Jew) Mike Myers as a tribute to his Barbara Streisand-obsessed Jewish mother-in-law. Her signature catch-phrases (“it’s like buttah” and “tawk amongst yuhselves”) were delivered with studied – and hilarious — realism. It should be noted that the real Jewish First Lady of SNL was, of course, Gilda Radner. Her inventiveness and willingness to make fun of herself made her a role model for many.
Seltzer Fight: Unlike the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges were not all actually brothers. However, as Adam Sandler notes in “The Hanukkah Song,” ALL Three Stooges were in fact Jewish. The Three Stooges made close to 200 movies, mostly from the 1930s – 1950s. Their physical comedy is based largely on slapstick and other Vaudeville traditions. Some find their frequent bouts of injury and associated histrionics off-putting. Many, myself included, find them hilarious.
Seinfeld: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom, which dominated the screen in the 1990s, may be off the air but lives on in the streaming universe. The show created an extremely Jewish (and extremely funny) New York-centric universe for the world to see, enjoy, and imitate.
Young Frankenstein: Want to see a Jewish comedy horror movie? Try Young Frankenstein. A Jewish comedy Western? Blazing Saddles. How about…Well, you get the picture. Mel Brooks, who was the Jewish comedic genius behind these and many more classic comedy films (many of which starred Jewish actors, like Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein) is why these films exist. Full disclosure – some of the humor in some of Mel Brooks’s films can be off-color, raunchy and/or dated, but most of Young Frankenstein stands the test of time.
The Princess Bride: Thanks to Rob Reiner’s direction and the contributions of many hilarious Jewish actors (including Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal and Carol Kane), this film – based on a book that is as awesome, if not more so — is not only a comedy classic, but one with a distinctly Jewish sensibility. Have fun storming the castle!
The Hanukkah Song: Adam Sandler’s classic, which he’s updated regularly, is comic gold as well as the definitive list of cool and interesting folks you never realized were Jewish. (Captain Kirk AND Mr. Spock? Yup!)
National Brotherhood Week: Tom Lehrer gets my vote for the funniest satirist (and best rhymer) who ever lived. This song is extremely biting and dark in its sarcasm…and very funny. I also appreciate his work for “The Electric Company,” a fantastic educational television show of my youth. My favorite of his “Electric Company” songs is about adverbs, called simply “L.Y.”
Funny Girl: This 1968 film is a two-fer, since it stars Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, the pioneering Jewish comedian. It is funny and lovely to watch how Fanny was able to take the very things that allegedly stood in her way as an actress (her “ethnic” nose and looks) and use them to catapult herself to stardom simply by being willing to embrace them and celebrate what made her different and special and, well, Jewish.
Erica S. Perl’s middle grade novel, All Three Stooges, won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and a 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award Silver Medal. Erica also writes picture books, early readers, chapter books, and plays. She loves working with young readers and writers (and creative people of all ages). She has received writing fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Yiddish Book Center, and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.