Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Jim Shipley
Shipley speaks 

When Jews were funny

 


There was a time when Jewish humor ruled. Sometimes it might have been “racy” but never obscene. The great Jewish comics did not have to resort to profanity or description of body parts to get laughs. They told truths about themselves and their people. And it was mostly their people who laughed.

The audience was usually live. Television was young and inexperienced. Yes, there was Ed Sullivan and he booked the big names like Myron Cohen and Buddy Hackett. But mostly? It was the Catskill Mountains and hotels like Grossingers, the Concord, Kutchers, Browns and the Neville.

Jews, mostly from New York went to the mountains in the summer to get away from the stifling heat of the city. And because they or at least their parents were immigrants who spoke Yiddish and of course English now, there was a kinship of humor based on the Jewish experience.

In the wonderful DVD titled, like this column “When Jews Were Funny” (available on Netflix), the filmmaker, a Jew married to a Croation, tries to recapture the past and learn why it was the Jews who topped the comedy list for so many years.

The truth? Jewish comics topped the comedy list for Jews. Black comics topped the charts for African American audiences, although they did not go to the Catskills. And Italian and Irish and other ethnic minorities also had their brilliant comedians.

But the Jews? We topped the list. Maybe it was because of our particular suffering. Maybe because we were always the outsiders without a land of our own, whatever – we were funny.

There is a rhythm to Jewish humor. It rolls off the tongue like a hot matzo ball. And most of the jokes are delivered in a manner that says “Oh yeah, everything if fine now, but just wait!”

Slowly they have left us. Oh yes, there are still a few around. Shecky Green is retired and in Palm Desert, California. Rickles is still insulting people. Phil Silvers is gone. So is Myron Cohen and Buddy Hackett and Alan King. They died and so did their audience. I know. First of all, to really, really love the humor, you have to be Jewish. To have that “Pintela Yid” inside you that recognizes the rhythm of the joke, the intent of the joke and the butt of the joke.

Moishe says to Abe: “Abe, we ride this train to the city every day, but we don’t talk. You never ask me ‘how’s business’...”

Abe replies: “All right already! How’s business?”

Moishe says: “Oy! Don’t ask!”

See – you have to be Jewish and over 50 at least. Years ago our youngest son asked “Dad, what happens when the last old Jew dies?” He wasn’t talking about the end of the Jewish people, we seem to beat that every time. He meant the accent, the head shrugs, the humor. The truth is, that time is not far off.

I watched some of the old masters on YouTube. I took the humor to a monthly networking meeting Rachel and I host. I tell a few stories before introducing the speaker. This month?

Little girl about six years old goes into the bakery. Says to the baker “My mommy said to tell your there was a fly in the raisin challa this week.”

Baker replies: “Bring back the fly, I’ll give you a raisin.”

Bombed.

Man shows up to work on time for 35 years. Nine A.M. on the dot, there he is. Never missed a day in 35 years. Then one day he comes in the office at 10 o’clock. His head is bloodied, his coat is torn, he limps badly. He says: “Oy, what a morning I had! Fell down a whole flight stairs. Terrible!”

Boss says: “This took an hour?”

Bombed.

You gotta be Jewish you gotta be old. The “new” humor is so often crass and full of obscenities and body parts and functions. So little of it is what we would call “ethnic.” Maybe the Hispanics have it. Maybe there is still a strain of it in African American humor. But Jewish humor? Not so much.

And it is a shame. Humor is as much of a people’s heritage as their language and their cooking. Thank God there is still matzo ball soup and chopped liver and kugel. Yiddish is not dead. It is kept alive on the streets of Williamsburg in Brooklyn by the Hasids, but it is also spoken by younger Jews who want to show their ties to European Jewry in other ways.

When the last well stained recipe for mondel broit or Chulen finds its way into the dust bin of cookery; when the last time a joke that has an “oy!” in it is told, a light will go out, not perhaps an eternal light but a light that brightened Jewish history for generations. Perhaps, now, at the new year, is a good time to reflect on this.

Shana Tova!

 

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