A man goes to his rabbi. “Rabbi, I think my wife is trying to poison me!” “Very interesting,” says the rabbi. “Let me go and talk to her and see what I can find out.”
A few hours later the rabbi calls the man up. “I’ve spent several hours speaking with your wife,” he says. “What should I do?” the man asked.
“Take the poison.”
– Billy Crystal, America’s Sweethearts (2001)
At this year’s Tony Awards, honouring the best of Broadway, the star of the show was arguably Larry David, the brilliant Jewish comedian who has produced and starred in such television shows as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. If there was one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that epitomizes David’s irreverent and nasty humour, much of it at the expense of Jews, it was Palestinian Chicken, a sacrilegious but nonetheless hilarious parody of the Israeli/Jewish-Palestinian issue.
David’s Tony Awards appearance coincided with the current popular Broadway play Fish in the Dark, which he wrote and has starred in since February. He recently passed on the lead role to Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza on Seinfeld. Before they presented a Tony, David and Alexander got into a clever routine in which Alexander chided David for not receiving a nomination. David then embarked on a classic rant that ended with him blaming anti-Semitism for the snub, a reason, he added, that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein also did not receive a Tony nomination for the musical Finding Neverland which he produced. The audience, Weinstein included, roared with laughter.
The joke, of course, is that despite the past anti-Semitism in North America that once barred Jews from resorts and clubs and hindered professional advancement, Jewish producers, musicians, actors and comedians like Fanny Brice, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein were staples of Broadway before David and Weinstein were born.
In fact, according to Mel Gordon, a University of California professor of theatre arts, the insulting Jewish comedy of David, Sarah Silverman and before them Don Rickles and Henny Youngman goes back to the mid-17th century badkhn – jesters who were staples of east European Jewish weddings and Purim celebrations. As Gordon said in a 2011 interview with the Jerusalem Post, the badkhn was a mean-spirited comedian who livened up weddings by offending the bride and groom, their parents and the guests.
Even after the Chmielnicki massacres of the late 1640s in which thousands of Jews were murdered in a Cossack rebellion against Polish rule in the Ukraine, rabbis ruled that while other forms of comedy had to stop, the badkhn could continue to perform. The message was that despite the tragedy, laughter and self-deprecation should endure. Perhaps that explains the humour from the dark days of World War II. After the Soviets and Germans divided Poland in 1939, for example, the Jews under Soviet rule joked that “We had been sentenced to death, but now our sentence has been commuted — to life imprisonment.”
Following the mass migration of east European Jews to the United States and Canada in the late 19th century, badkhn humour was evident in early vaudeville and later at the Catskills resorts in which Jewish performers perfected the shtick of the “Jew comic.” These impresarios made fun of Jewish characteristics and exploited Jewish stereotypes, humour that ironically contributed to negative views about Jews. A popular New York Jewish comedian from the late 1890s, David Warfield (born David Wohlfelt), became celebrated for his exaggerated portrayal of a “crafty and cunning” Jewish peddler.
Decades later, the great Jack Benny was slightly more subtle, yet just as cutting. In one well-known bit, he was confronted by a mugger wielding a gun. “Your money or your life,” the mugger says. Benny gave one of his patented looks at the audience and finally replied, “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”
Like Benny, a generation of Jewish comics honed their skills mimicking their rabbis, teachers and fellow students. And because Jewish entrepreneurs were so deeply involved in all facets of the entertainment business, many of them—Sid Caesar, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, among a long list— were able to find work and eventually fame and fortune.
Historian Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.