For a people who have experienced centuries of persecution, Jews have managed to find the humor in even their darkest moments. Spanning the breadth of that history, from the Bible to “Seinfeld” and beyond, Columbia University professor Jeremy Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History is an erudite and entertaining exploration of the multidimensional Jewish comic sensibility, one that plows familiar ground while also unearthing humor in some surprising places.
Dauber delivers an erudite exploration of the Jewish comic sensibility.
Forgoing a chronological approach that would relegate consideration of contemporary Jewish comedy to the concluding chapters, Dauber instead organizes his book around seven themes. They encompass everything from the “bookish, witty, intellectual allusive play” of Jewish humor (think Woody Allen’s films) to its sometimes “vulgar, raunchy and body-obsessed” quality, as in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles or the raw humor of stand-up comedian Sarah Silverman. Jewish comedy has, at times, provided a sort of armor against oppression, while at others it’s served as a means of entry into the wider world.
Readers who identify Jewish comedy solely with the army of brilliant stand-up comedians familiar to American audiences will be impressed by Dauber’s ability to find humor in sources that include the Hebrew Bible’s prophets. For all their passion for social justice, he argues, “satire was among their main weapons.” He’s especially fond of the biblical Book of Esther—what he calls “the great source of Jewish comedy”—so much so that he’s able to connect it to each of his seven themes. It’s the foundation text for the exuberant holiday of Purim, and a source for the joke that wryly (if inaccurately) sums up all the Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat.”
Jewish Comedy offers a comprehensive, accessible treatment of a complex subject. As the famous 1960s ad campaign for Levy’s rye bread told us, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it.