Has the War Against Palestine Killed Jewish Comedy?

Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Palestinian Chicken,” season 8, episode 3, Robert W. Weide dir. Screenshot

Long decline, sudden end

To be sure, morbid symptoms were apparent for decades. Woody Allen hasn’t been funny since 1987 (Radio Days). Rodney Dangerfield is long gone. Al Franken moved from SNL to the U.S. Senate — where he was often quite funny — until he got caught in the crossfire of MeToo. Sarah Silverman started off brilliant and outrageous; she and Gilbert Gottfried were among the few comics who told Hitler jokes:

“They just discovered that Hitler for years molested his niece – now he’s really cancelled.”

“I read somewhere that Hitler had a grandson who was a child molester – Imagine the embarrassment to the Hitler family.”

But since 2016, Silverman has been a liberal pundit more than a comedian — not funny!

Gottfried was notorious for being the first major comedian to tell 9/11 jokes. On September 29, 2001, at a roast for Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, he stared his routine by saying:

“Tonight, I’ll be using my Arab name, Has’n Bin Laide. But I’m afraid I have to leave early because I need to catch a flight to LA. I couldn’t get a direct flight; we have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.”

He died in 2022, aged 67. Nobody has filled his shoes.

And then there is Larry David. For 25 years, he carried upon his slender frame the weight of three generations of Jewish comics. Now aged 77, he’s called it quits: Curb Your Enthusiasm is no more, but the cache of 120 episodes remains. How do they stand up?

In season two, episode nine, The Baptism, Larry and his wife are running late to a baptism in Monterrey: A Jewish man has agreed to convert before marrying Cheryl’s sister. When they finally arrive, Larry gets out of his car and sees from a distance one man holding another under the surface of a rushing river. Thinking he’s witnessing a murder, Larry screams and runs toward them. To his surprise, the minister loses hold of the would-be convert and the latter floats away with the current, nearly drowning. Afterward, the two families gather to dry off and plan. The Jews pull Larry aside and congratulate him for preventing the baptism; the Gentiles curse him. Soon the two sides begin to shout and confront each other as hostile camps.

In the Palestinian Chicken episode (season eight, episode three), Larry meets Shara, the Muslim proprietor of the Al-Abbas Palestinian chicken restaurant. She becomes attracted to him after he tries to get his newly orthodox friend Marty Funkhouser (Bob Einstein) to take off his yarmulke before entering the restaurant: “This isn’t the raid on Entebbe”, Larry says. When he and Shara later have sex, she moans: “Occupy this, you Jewish fuck!” “Fuck me like Israel fucks my people.” At the end of the episode, Jews and Palestinians face off in dueling protests after the chicken restaurant owners open a franchise next to Greenblatt’s Deli. Larry walks between the two, unsure which side to join: “Larry, you’re a Jew,” Funkhouser shouts. “Larry,” Shara says, “I have a sister, the three of us…” Watching both episodes now, it’s hard not to think about actual, Jewish-Israeli violence. Curb is history. But has history – Israel’s genocidal attack on Gaza — killed Jewish comedy?

The so-called golden age of Jewish comedy

Among the many paeans to Curb since its final episode was broadcast last month, surprisingly few have focused on Jewishness. The New York Times, American paper of record founded by Jews, run by Jews, and partly written for Jews (1.6 million in New York City alone), barely broached the topic. Even Wesley Morris’s long-read managed only a few cliches about Jewishness, based upon the supposed connection between the oompah theme music for Curb, and klezmer. (In fact, the tune was composed by the Italian Luciano Michelini in 1974 in emulation of circus music or screamers.) Morris writes that the “melodiousness of Jewish tradition, of which Larry David is a part, assays the large type and fine print of American life with the same meticulous relish as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Albert Brooks.”  Huh?

The appreciation by P.E. Moskowitz, titled, “American Jewish Comedy Sings a Swan Song”, published in New York Magazine was better. There, we read about the “split consciousness” of American Jews – a reflection, albeit paler, of W.E.B. Dubois “double consciousness” of African Americans. Jews are at once a threatened minority and members of an exclusive club located in the upper echelons of American economy and society. The paradox offers much grist for comedy: It’s why so many scenes in Curb take place in Larry’s golf club. Despite his wealth, Larry’s continued membership is dependent upon the forbearance of the club’s redoubtable, gentile manager, the Japanese American, Mr. Takahashi. Larry regularly challenges the club’s rules and etiquette, but also fears being thrown out.

That split consciousness – insider/club member; outsider/Jew – is the stock in trade of American Jewish humor. A half-century earlier Groucho uttered his famous quip: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” Twenty-five years ago, Jacob Cohen, better known as Rodney Dangerfield, deployed the trope in his hit film Caddy Shack (Harold Ramis, dir., 1980). The movie begins with the nouveau-rich vulgarian Al Czervik sweeping into a golf course pro shop and announcing to his Chinese-American companion, Wang (played by Tsung-I Dow) “Hey, I think this place is restricted, Wang, so don’t tell ‘em your Jewish.” Al then sets out to buy the club himself. Larry’s character in Curb and the real Larry David are rich enough to buy any golf club, but then split consciousness would be healed and its comic potential erased.

Moskowitz argues that the insular, Jewish world of Larry David and Curb, is rapidly passing if not passed. When the critic was a boy in New York, he says, he was surrounded by Jews: old ones with numbers tattooed on their arms who had watched The Jack Benny Show on TV (1950-1965), and young ones raised on Seinfeld episodes (1989-98). My experiences as a child and young person in New York were similar. I attended public schools in Forest Hills, Queens and didn’t personally know a non-Jew until I went off to college in Albany in 1973. Then I was shocked to discover there were Gentiles from rural New York who had never met a Jew! One I remember, Dawn — pretty and blond and pursued by everybody — told me she thought all the Jews converted after Christ was born. Was it ignorance or impish humor? My Jewish roommate Harvey told me she checked his head for horns.

The world of entertainment – especially comedy – reinforced my Jew-centrism. In the ‘60s and 1970s, according to Time Magazine, 80% of American comedians were Jewish. Many still performed in the “Borscht Belt” – Jewish-themed resort hotels in the Catskills. But the best of them were on TV, including Myron Cohen, Henny Youngman, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Nichols and May, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. The lesser comics included Buddy Hackett, Jack E. Leonard, Don Rickles, Jackie Mason, Joey Bishop, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene, and Jerry Lewis. It’s important not to exaggerate their gifts; this was no Jewish Renaissance. Much of the comedy, especially from the second-tier performers, was alternately insipid and crude, pitched to the middlebrow tastes of network television audiences. A comic like Jack Carter, for example, would mug, jerk spasmodically, and milk for laughs any trend or expression that was already a cliche. As late as 1974, he was still making jokes about the indecipherability or repetitiousness of rock and roll lyrics. The sight of Don Rickles widening his mouth into a grimace and calling a member of the audience “hockey puck” was never funny. And Jackie Mason’s bland, psychiatrist jokes are no better when told with a Yiddish accent.

But there was also the occasional comic genius. The machine-gun assault of jokes by Youngman, (the “master of the one-liner”), the bizarre ingenuity of Dangerfield’s self-deprecation (“I don’t get no respect!”), and the combined feminism and body-shaming of Rivers, exemplified the insecurity and verbal mastery of the striving, Jew-as-outsider. These and other Jewish comics of the era could project deference and bombast at the same time. Woody Allen, who began his career as a writer for Sid Caesar and then became a stand-up comic, perfected the schtick early. His persona on The Steve Allen Show (1962) is that of a nebbish who thinks he’s a Casanova, and vice versa. That would become the basis of his early, brilliant filmography.

Some Jewish comics, like Allen and Myron Cohen, told jokes about Jews, but many others did not. I’m especially fascinated by Cohen, known as “the master storyteller.” Hearing him today or seeing clips of his performances on the Kate Smith Show or Ed Sullivan Show is a revelation. How could a New York Jew, born in 1902 in Belarus, who tells jokes about other Jews from the Pale of Settlement, find so large and mainstream an audience? The answer is first, that Jews were stock characters in American entertainment at the time – kindly, comic, benign and sometimes pitiable — and Cohen did nothing to upset the stereotypes. He made no references to Israel, anti-Semitism, or the Holocaust. (There was shockingly little U.S. attention to the Shoah until after the Eichmann trial in 1961.) The second reason is that his jokes were meticulously crafted and presented. Here are two short jokes written by Cohen — in performance, the punchlines were spoken in an exaggerated but highly believable Yiddish accent:

“A little old Jewish man is crossing the street near his home when suddenly a car comes out of nowhere and strikes the man, sending him hard to the pavement. A policeman rushes over, places a blanket on him and asks: ‘Are you comfortable?’ The man replies: ‘I make a nice living.’ ”

“Picture a skinny little guy, a shrimp, a nothing. He walks into a lumber camp looking for a job. To impress a skeptical foreman, the shrimp fells a towering oak in 90 seconds. ‘Where’d you learn that?’ says the lumberjack. The little guy says, ‘In the Sahara Forest.’ ‘You mean the Sahara Desert.’ ‘Sure, now.’”

Both are Jewish jokes because they deal with schlemiels who are nevertheless proud of their accomplishments; the outsider/insider dialectic again. Here another, told by Cohen’s longtime friend, Henny Youngman:

“I’m in a bar when suddenly the man next to me falls off his stool onto the floor. I pick him up, but it happens again. So. I say to the bartender: ‘This man has had too much to drink, why don’t I take him home?’ I drag the man out onto the street where he falls down. I pick him up; he falls down; I pick him up again. Finally, I get him into my car to take him to his house. When we arrive, I help him out, but he falls down, so I pick him up. At last, we ring the bell, and his wife comes to the door. I say: “Madame, I have brought your husband back.” She says: ‘So, where’s his wheelchair?’”

The protagonist of the joke thinks he’s a mensch but is actually a schlemiel, always dropping a disabled man. The wife is also Jewish; rather than ask where her husband has been, she cuts to the chase: “So, where’s his wheelchair?” Here’s a joke about bullies and a nebbish, told by Las Vegas comedian Shecky Greene; it’s based on his real-life feud with Frank Sinatra:

“You know, Frank Sinatra once saved my life, and I’ll be forever grateful to him. Three guys were giving me a severe beating, and I thought they were going to kill me. Then Frank said, “Okay, boys, that’s enough.”

The War to end all comedies

By the early 1990s, Jewish comedians like Cohen, Youngman, and Greene, and the many others who emerged after World War II, were reduced to a handful. Younger Jewish comics were comparatively few in number, and rarely performed Jewish routines. Larry David revived the tradition with Seinfeld (which he co-created) and Curb, but the fraught assimilationism that motivated so much Jewish comedy was quickly losing its relevance. Jews had arrived, and their comic style – anxious, self-deprecating, complaining, and ironic – was left behind. However, there was one more thing that killed Jewish-American comedy: Israel.

Beginning in 1967, Israel’s military strength – and even more its aggression — decisively changed Americans’ image of the Jew. From a timorous David, Israel became a bellicose Goliath. Surrounded by hostile nations but armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry – including nukes — the Jewish state quickly dispatched it enemies in a six-day war in ’67, a war of attrition from ’67 to ’70, and the three-week Yom Kippur War of 1973 against Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. There followed the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, including the massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in the Sabra neighborhood and Shatila refugee camp, perpetrated by the Lebanese army in collusion with the IDF. A second Lebanon War was fought in 2006, as well as a series of battles against successive Palestinian “Intifadas” (“uprisings”) in Gaza and the West Bank. Several small Gazan wars were precursors of the present big one, dubbed by the Israeli military, “Operation Swords of Iron.” Israel is obsessed with iron. There’s also the Iron Dome anti-missile system and the putative Iron Beam laser defense technology. The appellations are an expression of palingenetic nationalism, the idea that the nation of Israel aims to recover the power it had before the Roman conquest in 70 CE. While the Romans had iron swords, the Jews only had softer bronze ones, a deficit that contributed to the Jews’ defeat. Operation Swords of Iron trumpets what everybody knows: Israel possesses regional military superiority, facilitated by U.S. money and arms sales.

The war against the Palestinians in Gaza has been the coup de grace for Jewish comedy. Not only are images of parents cradling dead children not funny, Israel’s response to global criticism has turned Jews everywhere into pariahs, but not like the itinerant schlemiels and schlimazels of traditional Jewish humor. By insisting the war is being fought not just on behalf of Israeli Jews, but the entire diaspora, Jews everywhere are made accessories to crime. When the Columbia University chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, renounced that claim, they were themselves condemned as anti-Semitic, and suspended from the university. There may be irony in an Egyptian-born, British-American university president, Minouche (Baroness) Shafik, suspending a Jewish peace organization on charges of anti-Semitism, but little comedy. Here’s the only joke I can manage:

“A dozen NYC cops corral, pummel and pepper spray a small group of Jewish Voice for Peace student protestors at Columbia. Their signs, now scattered across the pavement, read “Ceasefire Now” and “Divest from Israel.” Two senior administrators from the office of President Shafik look on. One says to the other: “That will teach them not to be anti-Semitic!”

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at s-eisenman@northwestern.edu