Celebrating Jewish Literature: Jewish humor vs. humor about Judaism

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Is there a difference between Jewish humor and humor about Judaism? Jennifer Caplan, author of “Funny You Don’t Look Funny: Judaism and Humor from the Silent Generation to Millennials” (Wayne State University Press), certainly thinks so, which is why she doesn’t include works by Mel Brooks in her study. Instead she focuses on humor with specific Jewish content. However, Jeremy Dauber, who wrote “Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew” (Yale University Press), believes Jewish humor – humor with a Jewish sensibility – exists in its own right. The difference in their approaches offers insights on the changing ways comedians and humorists discuss Judaism and how Jewish sensibility has become part of American culture. 

In “Funny You Don’t Look Funny,” Caplan charts the ways comedians have approached Jewish ritual practices and the Jewish community, along with their own Jewish identities, over the past century. She believes this close look will offer information “about the relationship between Jews and humor that goes deeper than the mere coincidence that a certain humorist was born into a particular family.” She sees a changing approach by comedians depending on which of these four generations they belong to: “the Silent Generation (b. 1924-45), the Baby Boom (b. 1946-65), Generation X (b. 1966-79) and Millennials (b. 1980-95).” Caplan examines their differences to show how Judaism and Jewish humor have changed over the past century. 

Her analysis emphasizes the difference between Judaism and Jewishness. For Caplan, Jewishness is the way people feel about their own identity. That means that someone can feel Jewish and still be alienated from Judaism as a religion. She notes that many comedians have seen Judaism as a “thing,” meaning “something broken, abandoned, or no longer useful.” Her main interest is to determine “whether humorists present Judaism as something vital and useful or dead and dysfunctional..... my argument is that the children and grandchildren of the turn-of-the-century immigrants, the members of the Silent Generation, began a process of Thingifying Judaism that their Baby Boomer children continued.... Gen X pushed back against this Thingification and began to resacralize certain elements in their humor, while profaning others.” 

Looking closely at writers/comedians from those generations, Caplan sees a real change in the way they approach Judaism, including which aspects of Jewishness/Judaism they see as fair game for humor. For example, the members of the Silent Generation she discusses – Woody Allen and Joseph Heller – are atheists who see religion as detrimental to life. However, while they made fun of God, religious texts and/or religious ritual, they valued and sought to protect the Jewish people. The author also explores the writings of Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud to show that, while it was fine to make fun of Jewish ritual and practice, the lives of individual Jews were sacrosanct. They were also willing to let different versions of Judaism exist in the Jewish community, from assimilated Jews to those with Ortho-practice.

Caplan refers to the Baby Boomer generation as the “Copycat Generation” since its members originally followed the path of the Silent Generation, but later began to copy the mores of Gen X. This means that TV shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “Seinfeld” began by making fun of religion and protecting the Jewish community. As time went by, the author sees their content as coming “to agree with the up-and-coming Gen X comedians who were tearing down tribalism in the interest of multicultural harmony. The Baby Boomers continued the depiction of religious ritual as useless while also opening the door to satirize Jews as people.” The one exception is the Holocaust: there were protests the times someone referred to Nazis or the Holocaust on both of these programs. 

According to Caplan, members of Gen X began to take the practice of Judaism more seriously. While not moving toward Orthodoxy, they see Judaism as something whose practices have meaning. She reviews a variety of works produced by this generation – which includes Nathan Englander and the Coen brothers – to show their appreciation of the Jewish community within which ritual can take place. The Jewish aspects of these works portray ritual as having real power and meaning to people. 

Caplan notes that the Millennial generation is still developing its ideas of humor, but seems to feel everything is fair game for humor. Their works have moved away from stereotypes – for example, the author notes the different way they treat Jewish mothers in their humor – but are willing to make fun of everything from religious ritual to Israel and the Holocaust. However, unlike prior generations, they are not worried about the future of the Jewish people because they don’t believe that Jews – or the Jewish community – will disappear. These writers/comedians also find meaning in Judaism and Jewish rituals.

“Funny You Don’t Look Funny” is an interesting and challenging book because Caplan’s ideas run counter to what many people feel constitutes Jewish humor. Her look at the changing generations, though, offers insights into the development of the Jewish communal ideas and ideals over the decades.

While Caplan does not call Brooks’ humor Jewish humor, Dauber feels that Jewish humor plays a prominent role in Brooks’ work, even though he rarely directly wrote about Judaism or Jewish rituals. Dauber’s book is more of an analysis of the comedian’s writing and films than a biography. Yes, there are biographical details, particularly of Brooks’ youth since that plays an important part in his development. His marriages and relationship to his children, however, get short shrift, but readers won’t complain because Dauber is clear that his main interest is how Brooks’ humor is based on his Jewish instincts. 

First, Dauber sees himself as “chronicling Brooks’ life – his Jewish life, which in this case is almost the same thing.” That means as a comedian and writer, Brooks’ impulses “ping-pong between allegiance and rebellion.” This is a man who makes fun of the system, yet works within that same system. Unlike Groucho Marx, whom Dauber calls an anarchist, Brooks learned to constrain himself; his main format was parody, which, while making fun of something, also shows admiration for the original. Dauber notes that Brooks took parody further than most comedians: his “parody was nothing less than the essential statement of American Jewish tension between them and us, culturally speaking; between affection for the mainstream and alienation from it.”

The early part of the book focuses on the atmosphere in which Brooks (whose birth name was Melvin Kaminsky) was raised: his father died when he was young, and his mother and three older siblings were forced to work. That made Brooks the coddled youngest child, while at the same time leaving him free from supervision. Humor was his way to survive and he later picked it as his career path. However, the path was not a smooth one. Brooks slowly worked his way up from a minor performer in the Catskills to being a gofer for Sid Caesar’s original TV show. Dauber follows his career and writes in detail about Brooks’ work and how popular feeling about it has changed. For example, the first film of “The Producers” with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder was not considered a huge success. It was only with “Blazing Saddles,” which featured an outsider as a hero, that he succeeded in a big way. The movie included scenes that no one else had dared put to film – for example, the cowboys having intestinal difficulty after eating beans – that may have been low humor, but which also captured what might have been the reality of the situation. 

Dauber notes that Brooks’ Jewishness is not based on religion, but rather a way of viewing the world. For the author, “Jewishness provided the roots of [his] comedy, and it protected him from the disillusionments of that comedy’s failure to take hold, especially at the beginning. It helped him to look backward, for his source material and otherwise, and to look forward, to stardom and artistic success – just as historical longing and utopian optimism have always been the poles of not just Jewish comedy, but Jewish identity.”

Fans of Brooks’ work don’t have to agree with Dauber’s theories in order to enjoy “Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew.” The story of his artistic development and the review of his work over the decades will be enough to keep their interest.