I've always loved Jewish comedians, and recently I had the incredible opportunity to interview some of my favorites and write about all of them.
I wrote a book called The Haunted Smile, a history of American Jewish comedians and their impact on American entertainment and popular culture. I included routines, jokes, and anecdotes. But I knew I also had to talk about the pain and anguish in American Jewish history, to include both the humor and the fact that such humor had a memory that included some sadness.
After I got a contract to write the book, I began to interview the comedians. Shecky Greene had me name famous people, and then he immediately and flawlessly began to imitate them. I almost couldn't ask the questions when I spoke to Norm Crosby because I was laughing so hard.
Steve Allen (who wasn't Jewish but knew every comedian who was) told me that when he started "The Tonight Show," he used to get antisemitic mail. I spoke to Sid Caesar about his incredible, groundbreaking career and his assembling the most talented group of writers in television history.
Richard Belzer spoke movingly about the Yiddish tradition of the badchen, the wedding entertainer, and how he saw himself following in that tradition. David Brenner talked about getting married live at the end of a television special. Estelle Getty spoke of her experiences making "The Golden Girls." And Shelley Berman became a mentor, constantly inspiring me, patiently answering all my questions. I eventually told him I wanted to adopt him as an uncle.
I ended up doing more than 70 interviews, talking to lots of other comedians, experts on Jewish humor, and others. I also got to go a Friars Club roast of Jerry Stiller, backstage at a comedy club, and to some film previews. I got to watch Marx Brothers movies and call it work. I listened to some favorite old jokes, like this one from Myron Cohen:
A man is sitting on a plane next to a woman who was wearing a huge diamond.
"Excuse me," the man says in a soft Yiddish accent. "I'm not trying to be forward, but that is a beautiful diamond."
She nods. "It's called the Klopman diamond. It's like the Hope Diamond. It comes with a curse."
"What's the curse?"
Cohen would encourage his audience to substitute any name they wished in retelling the story.
I also learned a lot of information I didn't know. Eddie Cantor was the first person ever censored on television for his song lyrics and body movements. George Burns worked with, among others, a trained seal before he teamed with Gracie Allen. Milton Berle pulled a little too hard on an outfit Red Buttons was wearing on a live program, and American audiences saw a little too much.
The very first American actor to portray Hitler was Moe Howard of The Three Stooges. In vaudeville, Harpo Marx once had to improvise when a theater caught on fire. He broke into his bar mitzvah speech.
I wrote the book chronologically, trying to put the comedians in their era, to understand why comedians appealed to certain times. After starting with vaudeville, I turned to radio and especially to Jack Benny. I examined his persona of being cheap and a bad violin player both for the humor and any potential antisemitic stereotypes. Benny became nationally famous and beloved. He used to say that instead of bringing a date flowers, he'd bring her seeds.
He was invited to throw out the first ball at a World Series game and delighted the crowd by putting the ball in his pocket and sitting down. Once he was invited to the White House and a Marine guard stopped him, pointed to his instrument case, and asked what was in it. Benny answered, "a machine gun."
The guard said, "Oh, in that case you can go in. I thought it might be your violin."
It was relatively easy for me to see what attractions these comedians had for Jews, but I struggled at first trying to understand the attractions for gentiles. I finally decided that such attraction had to do with the specific changes taking place in America. For example, around the turn of the century there were millions of new Jewish and gentile immigrants to the United States. In addition, there was an enormous internal immigration from farms and small towns to cities.
Which people had repeated practice moving to a new place, feeling marginal and scared? The Jews, of course. And here they were, with one of their survival tools - humor - to help Americans deal with their new lives.
It doesn't stop there. Consider the Great Depression. A Depression generation saw in the Jews a people who had stared poverty in the face for 2,000 years and survived, families and pride intact.
Similarly, at other points in the history of the century, Jewish comedians were able to draw on Jewish traditions to provide answers for America's emotional problems.
The Yiddish cultural tradition they inherited nurtured both self-mockery and the mockery of the powerful. As history's most famous outsiders, the Jews had developed a survival instinct, an early warning system of the feelings of the majority culture. In America, this instinct would help them sense the majority's anxieties and relieve them through humor.
Blessed with a great heritage and struggling with being accepted and with finding their place in the Golden Land, American Jewish comedians forever changed American comedy and, finally, America itself.
THE HAUNTED SMILE. The Story of Jewish Comedians in America. By Lawrence J. Epstein. PublicAffairs; Oct. 2001; $27.50. 288 pp.