Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Jewish Comedy"

This specialized topic comes to mind following my lament at the departure of universal comedy, where we were all laughing at the same thing. 

What’s the connection?

Jewish comedy was fundamentally universal comedy. 

And why was Jewish comedy fundamentally universal comedy?

Jewish comedy was fundamentally universal comedy, because Jewish comedy’s comedic targets were never another nationality, religion, ethnicity or culture, but was instead the universal human condition, with which we all identify and which we all of us endure.

Why did Jewish comedy take this particular form?

Partly because of Judaism’s longstanding humanistic perspective.  But also because of this.

When you are an endangered minority, the smart move “survival-wise” is make light of the universal condition, or poke fun at yourself, rather than stick an aggressive finger in the Majority’s eye, especially when the Majority’s got more muscles than you do, and they are in a less than ecumenical frame of mind. 

Exception:  Israeli Jews, in which case all bets are off.  Israeli Jews looked at the options “being funny” and survival, and they judiciously selected survival.  However, as a consequence – no memorable Israeli comedians. 

During the fifties and sixties, the national platform for comedy was The Ed Sullivan Show.  If you are “made” today because of a youtube video gone viral or a guest shot on The Tonight Show, that is a fraction of the recognition you would have garnered from a single appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a CBS Sunday evening requirement, watched by virtually everyone in North America.  (Which explains why I saw very little of Maverick, which aired on ABC at the same time.  Having only one TV in our household, the riverboat rang its bell without my personal attendance.)

During its one-hour variety show format – which included acrobats, opera singers, Elvis Presley and an Italian mouse hand puppet – Ed Sullivan offered at least three comedians every week.  And the majority of them were Jewish.

A Note Concerning A Fact You Most Likely Already Know:  Comedians, like boxers, emerge almost exclusively from the ranks of the minorities – Jewish, black, Hispanic, Eskimo {though they are considerably less well known}, owing to show business being a comparatively classless meritocracy and to the discrimination in other lines of endeavor.   

What does the Majority have to joke about anyway?  “We’re in charge of everything, and it’s going quite nicely, thank you” is hardly a comedic “Launching Pad.”

Unlike the confrontational black comedy of the sixties, the Jewish comedy of its era reeked of screaming non-threateningness.  The unrivaled king of non-threatening comedy:

Sam Levenson.

Sam Levenson – even his name sounds unthreatening – was a benign, round-faced former school teacher, who told stories of his family’s struggles during the Depression, which he observed personally as a youngster.  Though psychologically insightful, Levenson’s comedy was about as lacerating as a soap bubble.

I recall one story he told about a Thanksgiving dinner at a time when money was short and they had to pinch pennies to purchase the traditional Thanksgiving Turkey.  Little Sammy Levenson was given the honor of carrying the cooked turkey into the dining room.  Unfortunately, when he accidentally lost his footing on the way to the table, the precious turkey he was carrying slid off of the platter and dropped unceremoniously onto the floor.

The Thanksgiving gathering was understandably in shock.  But Levenson’s mother, with her savvy and compassionate “Mama’s Wisdom” instantly salvaged the disastrous situation.

“Sammy” his mother instructed him, “pick up the turkey from the floor, and carry it back into the kitchen.  Theh-en, bring in the ‘other’ turkey…”

The joke made me laugh, because I did not see it coming.  Also, as they say in the movies, “No person or entity of any kind was damaged during the execution this joke.”

The damageless joke rescued little Sammy from humiliation and shame.  (In contrast to Little Earlo’s own experience of having the enormous watermelon I was carrying splatter onto the sidewalk and hearing an angrily remonstrating “You told me you could handle it.”)  

Moving on…

Myron Cohen had a recognizably Jewish moniker, to go with a shiny, bald pate and a hawkish proboscis.  But he always dressed super-elegantly, in immaculately tailored suits and an impeccable white shirt and cufflinks.  His erudite elocution and lofty vocabulary deftly complemented his upscale attire.  A joke he related would begin,

“A couple of Yiddish gentlemen were perambulating the thoroughfare of Miami Beach Florida…”

Myron Cohen’s material – again unthreatening to the Majority – often highlighted the pretensions of the upwardly mobile of his religious persuasion.  My favorite in this context:

“Mrs. Schwartz and Mrs. Shapiro were boastfully comparing their recent travel itineraries.

‘I’ve been to Europe three times,’ crowed Mrs. Schwartz.  To which Mrs. Shapiro disdainfully replied,

‘That’s nothing.  I was born there!’”

No harm, no foul. 

And everybody laughs.

Jewish comedy, based on the two thousand year-old tradition of Talmudic logic, was also a tool for assailing the Powerful.  (Who control all the rest of us, so again – it’s universal.) 

Jackie Mason was the magnificent prototype in this regard.  After a convoluted riff about a psychiatrist committed to helping Jackie discover “The real ‘You’”, Mason shot back at the psychiatrist, “How do I know you’re not the ‘The real “Me”’ and you owe me fifty dollars an hour?”

How far is that from Jerry Seinfeld responding to a telemarketer,

“I can’t talk to you right now, but give me your number and I’ll call you back later. What’s that?  You don’t like strangers calling you at home?  Neither do I!”

Whamerama!  Slammed on top of the head with the “Logic Mallet.”  And there is dancing and jubilation throughout the land!

Do you see how great that joke makes you feel?  Add to that all the times Jon Stewart plays consecutive clips where some politician makes logically contradictory assertions and Stewart raises his arms in incomprehension, saying,

“Are you (BLEEPED OUT) kidding me?”

Jewish comedy.  Fighting – rationally – for the Little Guy.

With the now (hopefully permanently) eliminated cultural barriers, the assimilation of an interpersonal nature, and the diminished likelihood of being taken away on trains, the Jewish comedy of the past has virtually disappeared, save for “logic comedy” (also practiced to a fare-the-well by Lewis Black) which is its last enduring residue.  What has it been replaced by?

Well, you would think that with the breakdown in prejudice, a more inclusive, universal comedy would come to the fore.  But, in fact, things appear to have proceeded in the opposite direction, subcultures exploiting their new freedom to promote personal grievance and solidify identity.  Resulting in everyone laughing at a different comedy. 

Unlike Sam Levenson’s apocryphal turkey, however,

There is, sadly, no “other” comedy to turn to. 

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