The Haunted Smile

The Story of Jewish Comedians in America by Lawrence Epstein

by David Harsanyi


The Last Laugh: Jews and the Comic Ritual

“Jesus was a brilliant Jewish stand-up comedian, a phenomenal improvisor. His parables are great one-liners.”
—Camille Paglia

The Jews were enthusiastic assimilators, integrating themselves into American life quicker and with more influence than any other minority group in the 20th century. From the 1920s onward, Jews held distinguished status in science, literature, pedagogy and business (not to mention, a large presence in organized crime), their achievements and prosperity proportionately outweighing their population. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the brightest student but rather the class clown that inevitably defined American’s perceptions of the Jewish character. The overbearing mother, the neurotic nebbish, the cheapskate, the wisecracking outsider—these caricatures imbedded themselves in mainstream America. And while stereotypes seem distasteful by today’s standards, it was precisely this self-deprecation that made Jewish humor non-threatening and palatable to typical American audiences.

cover art

The Haunted Smile

Lawrence Epstein

The Story of Jewish Comedians in America


Even as Jews were earnestly absorbing American life, they were twisting popular culture to reflect their own fear of alienation. Or, as Lawrence Epstein argues in his new book, The Haunted Smile, what the Jew did was less assimilation than acculturation—the process in which two cultures borrow from each other and emerge with a blended identity. The Haunted Smile provides the reader with both psychological insights and a reasoned history of this cultural phenomenon, raising the significant question: Why is the Jew funny?

In a recent email interview I conducted with him, author Lawrence Epstein offers some fascinating reflections on this subject. “The Jewish immigrant’s child came from a family that had to confront hatred, persecution and attack. This made the Jews anxious and fearful,” Epstein explains. “They needed a way to cope. This way had to be portable because the Jews kept being kicked out of places and had to be rooted in language because Jews so prized words over physical activity. Humor could be taken from place to place and was based on language. The humor also was useful in dealing with anti-Semites. If Jews could deflect hatred with laughter, people wouldn’t hurt them.”

In America, this nomadic instinct initially took form in vaudeville. There, Jews incorporated their Yiddish wit into this roving cabaret that dominated the entertainment scene in pre-War America. The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, George Burns Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, Sid Caesar, Fanny Brice, Danny Kaye just to name a few, all got their start on the vaudeville stage.

By the end of World War Two (1945) and the establishment of Israel (1948), America’s perception of the Jews had dramatically changed. Television began to infiltrate the home, and that is where the Jewish comedian made his biggest mark. Milton Berle, Sid Caesar—whose writing team at one time included Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner—had a profound effect on our culture as they became television’s first stars. Simultaneously, the new Jewish middle class began making the trip from New York City to the Borscht belt—hotels in upstate New York’s Catskills—that became a breeding ground for Jewish comic talent, many who would make their names in films and television in the coming decades.

Traditionally, society’s outsiders are the architects of comedy. Jews can no longer claim that status in this country. Yet, they still dominate the comedy circuits—from the obvious (Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jackie Mason) to the less obvious (Roseanne). But even with all these comics, it’s hard to find a stylistic correlation between any of them. The ‘clean’ comedy of Milton Berle has morphed into the juvenile Adam Sandler (whose “Hanukah Song” helped point out many Jewish celebrities to culturally-challenged suburbanites). The politicized comedy of Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce, the physical comedy of the Three Stooges or Jerry Lewis, the performance-art comedy of Andy Kaufman and Sandra Bernhart—what did they draw from the Jewish comedic tradition?

“I don’t think there’s a single Jewish comedic tradition. The question for me is how, if at all, did Jewish comedians draw on their Jewishness in their comedy,” Epstein goes on to explain in our interview. “They drew on it in wildly varying degrees and in many different ways, in some part depending on their individual personalities, their upbringing, and the historical moment. I think almost all Jewish comedians I wrote about used that tradition to create a comedic character or to shape their performance. I wrote quite a bit about Andy Kaufman, and I’m convinced that, at heart, the message he was conveying was about losing a Jewish identity.”

But what are the building blocks to this ‘Jewish Identity?’ Most of the comedians written about in Haunted Smile had very little connection to religious roots. In fact, many were pointed critics of organized religion, specifically Judaism. Some, like Woody Allen, have been accused of being self-hating Jews. Allen is quoted as saying, “While it’s true I am Jewish and I don’t like myself very much, it’s not because of my persuasion.”

“Woody Allen felt alienated from people, society, and strange objects,” Epstein remarks about the neurotic Manhattanite. “He found in Jewish life the same sense of alienation. That is, he didn’t find religion or culture particularly useful, but the Jewish consciousness, the way of looking at the world, helped him.”

Eric Lax, in his outstanding biography of Woody Allen, spends two full pages arguing that Woody Allen’s humor is not inherently ‘Jewish’: “. . . his Jewishness as an artist is more the result of external identification than a source of humor. He uses Jewish references that are specific, not generic.” Lax argues that Allen’s appeal is universal and that while his foundation may have been Jewish, it made little difference. But can anyone imagine Allen’s frail, neurotic character as anything but a Jew? Woody DiGiacomo? Woody Callahan? It just doesn’t work.

“That’s why he was so disgusted with American Jews who left the tradition of alienation and accepted the American tradition of material goods,” Epstein says of latter day American-Jewish comics. “Other comedians found in the culture a connection to a deep part of their own self, an attachment to their family, and, perhaps most important, lots of material. Since the ‘60s, when comedy focused on self-examination, the comedians looked at themselves and found the funniest parts to be from the Jewish side of their lives.”

Is there a future for the traditional Jewish comic?

“The evidence is mixed, but consider an Adam Sandler who is openly proud of being Jewish or the success of The Producers. The taste for Jewish comedy continues,” Epstein suggests. “Indeed, we’re in a situation now in which the society really needs comedy from a people who learned how to laugh through their tears. I’m optimistic that the tradition, taking new forms to deal with the reality of the situation, will continue.”

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