Six years ago, boyish Cracked editor Jack O'Brien suggested I write about why there are so many Jews in comedy. Granted, we were discussing an article I had pitched about American Jews, but I have to admit the request struck me as a little odd -- not just because here at Cracked I'm the lone Jew amid an endless sea of dirty Irish bastards -- but because today we tend not to point these things out. Just like we don't mention how so many Greeks own diners or how often the brides I order through the mail turn out to be Ukrainian. Still, Jack was hardly the first to make the association. The relationship between Jews and comedy has been noted frequently by scholars, serious talk-show hosts, and pudgy AEπ guys.
And with good reason. No one can ignore the powerful Jewish presence in American comedy: the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, George Burns, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman, Jonathan Katz, Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner, Andy Kaufman, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, Andy Samberg, Judd Apatow, Jon Stewart and far too many more to mention. All these names beg the question: Just how unfunny is Noam Chomsky that he was forced into the history business?
In any event, in light of the above, I decided to give Jack the politically correct answer by telling him the Jews had been forced into comedy by the downsizing of the Zionist Occupied Government and continued outsourcing of baptized-baby-blood-drinking jobs. My sarcasm flowed from many places, but I had to admit I didn't have a more satisfying response. I simply didn't know why there were so many Jews in comedy. My Hebrew school certainly didn't offer credits in stand-up, although I have to admit my Bar Mitzvah speech totally killed. Ten straight minutes on hookers and blow.
"Leave the cocaine, but get that midget in fishnets out of here!!!" (nailed it)
So, six years later, with a column deadline approaching (and full-grown Jack now Editor-in-Chief) it seemed a good time to get back into it.
The Comedic Effect of Christianity
Ultimately I realized I was making a mistake by focusing on the Jew in isolation. If Jew plus America equaled comedy, then there had to be something funny about that combination. And there is.
In America, Jews are a white minority. Think about that: We can live comfortably, practice freely and bowl adequately. But being a Jew in America is like using left-handed scissors: You can make it work, but it just doesn't feel right. This is Jesusland. Always has been, always will be. So perhaps what makes Jews so funny is not Judaism, but Christianity -- and the American Jew's constant immersion in it. Don't believe me? Who could blame you? It's easy to accept that Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead and walked on water, but believing he begat the funniest fuckers on the planet would take a true leap of faith.
Sometime shortly after birth, an American Jew realizes he's in the minority. That realization takes a little longer if the delivering obstetrician is Jewish or if the baby's born in New York, but it's still clear from very early on. This is a Christian show, and that's no accident. Because when it comes to amassing a religious majority, Christianity, like most winners, cheats. And not just in the big historical ways (Spanish Inquisition, Crusades, Santa Claus), but with something more basic, something all around us: Christianity has ingrained an almost irresistibly hard sell right into its architecture. Beautifully adorned churches demand awe and reverence. Towering steeples force spectators to raise their eyes toward the heavens where affixed crucifixes live in the sky. You can't see a church without looking up at God.
Trinity Church on Broadway. Historically significant for inspiring both the point above and Nic Cage's National Treasure. Oh yeah, Alexander Hamilton is buried here too.
Surely, Christianity is God's true religion because unlike comparatively modest synagogues, churches are more than houses of God; they're homes for God. A place He might actually crash after a hard day of smiting. Sometimes He even hangs out there in those terrifyingly inspirational wax museum curios. You know what He looks like. The proof is in the plaster. (Though it strikes me as odd that a religion that places such a high premium on faith would leave so little to the imagination.)
And while I'm referring more to the flashiness of Catholicism than Christianity as a whole, Jews know as much about these differences as gentiles do about varying Sephardic and Ashkenazi pronunciations. In the end, all that matters to Jews is that it's a Christian world and Christianity is growing, setting up shop in more and more places, always ahead of the competition and undaunted by the occasional lawsuit. Just like McDonald's.
Jews know this. And we accept that Christianity is lovely and successful and popular and comforting. Furthermore, we know all about you without even going to church because -- unlike the mysteries of our minority religion -- Christianity flourishes in the secular world. There are really good Christmas carols and Christmas movies and New Testament allegorical adventures with talking animals. But sometimes Christianity's uber-majority status becomes empowering to the point of perversion. Either that or they must be handing out testicles at mass, because some Christians actually have the balls to complain about "Jewish paranoia" as if six million Jewish men, women and children weren't rounded up, shipped out, tortured and killed in the middle of the 20th century. Calling Jews "paranoid" is like giving shit to Christians in Ancient Rome for acting "kinda jumpy" around lions.
So, yeah, that's being a Jew in America. It's not heartbreaking, it's not debilitating and it's clearly not as difficult as being a nonwhite minority. And while 2,000 years ago we might have gotten all Judah Maccabee on your ass, now all we have is Jon Stewart (and he's not as good with a hammer as we hoped). So what else can we do except joke about it? Besides, comedy can be powerful. Humor can undo some deeply held beliefs. Just look at Jerry Lewis. How else, but through comedy, could the French be fooled into loving such a greasy Jew?
We don't have saints in Judaism, so I cannot confirm or deny that this picture is surrounded by candles in my basement.
Tikkun Olam and Comedy
But is that all Jewish comedy really is? A way of complaining? A subtler form of throwing a punch? A cry for acceptance? For some, sure, but those guys never seem to make it past a couple of Letterman appearances. There's more to it than that because the truth is, we're not sore losers. We haven't even lost. Look it up. There's never been a race between Judaism and Christianity to see who could amass the greatest numbers of souls. Judaism has always been an invitation-only affair, a reward that's unsettlingly similar to a punishment. Like when the schoolteacher picks the good kid to help clean the erasers after class, Judaism is something of a burden. And that accounts for a need for humor as much as anything else.
Jews go by many names: "Children of Israel," "Members of the Tribe," "Executive Producer." But perhaps the most descriptive is "Chosen People." Chosen. Set apart by God. That means we don't go looking for converts. Indeed, if a gentile comes to a rabbi seeking conversion, the rabbi is to refuse the candidate three times before even discussing the possibility of converting. Three times. Don't hate us for that. It's not like we're bogarting the one true path to salvation. We don't have a heaven, and if we did, we wouldn't believe that only Jews go there. It's not like Miami Beach.
The three refusals are to make sure the potential Jew is serious and tenacious. Because there's work to be done. The world is incomplete, and God chose the Jews to complete it. Not chosen to reach heaven before others, but chosen to help with the heavy lifting during the final phases of construction. This concept is embodied in the Hebrew phrase "tikkun olam," which roughly translates to "putting the world in order," and conveys an obligation on Jews to pursue social justice. And even though countless Jews have never heard this phrase, we all carry it in our hearts, somehow.
But how does a Jew -- even a religiously ignorant Jew -- achieve these ends? How does a Jew complete the world? Charitable donation? Labor organization? New York Times op-ed? We don't know. Somewhere there is a nagging voice telling us that everything is not all right. That action can't be left to someone else at some other time. It's hard to say if it's the voice of God or the voice of history. Philip Roth would make a joke about it being the voice of our mothers, but apparently he was raised by a cartoon. And still, we hear that voice and, without knowing what to do with it, sometimes we make a joke. Can making a joke mend the world? It couldn't hurt.