Jewish Humor: A History as Dense as Matzo Balls

July 10, 2014
BY Darren Kasoff

Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Jonah Hill, Adam Sandler, The Three Stooges … there are a lot more Jewish comedians than meet the eye. In fact, Jewish comedians accounted for 80 percent of all comedians in the U.S. during the 1970s. The abundance and success of Jewish comedians can mostly be accredited to the distinct form of humor that most Jewish comedians share. This humor, of course, can only be known as “Jewish humor.”

Jewish humor is humor by Jews for Jews, and it is characterized by wit, self-mockery and a play on words. These distinctions developed in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, when Jews were greatly discriminated against, and, in turn, Jews chose humor as a means of deflecting hatred with laughter. Humor became a portable defense mechanism against anti-Semites, and the humor Jews used was very self-mocking and ironic. The Jews were the first people to embrace the stereotypes that were assigned to them, and this made their humor stand out more than others.

The first form of stand-up comedy was created by the Jews. In the 1600s to 1800s in Northern Europe near Lithuania, a Jewish jester, a badkhn, was a popular entertainment form. The badkhn developed during the mass murders of Jews by Bohdan Chmielnicki (nicknamed Chmiel the Wicked) during the Cossack rebellion. The badkhn, during this oppressive time, was the only form of humor allowed. Badkhns performed at large parties and events such as weddings, and their humor was extremely mocking, pointing out insecurities in both themselves and the audience. The badkhn was a major part of comedy history… the “First Comic Standing.”

Throughout history, Jews have fled from persecution. Due to the constant movement of Jews through Eastern Europe, and because they lacked the homeland now known as Israel, their linguistic skills improved greatly. This is why they became especially witty, and their humor was based mostly around language. In fact, “Seinfeld” scripts were, on average, 20 pages longer than other sitcom scripts due to the excessive amount of language the actors used to make their jokes.

Many Jewish comedians in the mid-1900s rose from a string of hotels known as the Catskills Hotels, which were located in the mountains of upstate New York. This is where many legends, such as Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis, performed. As time progressed, however, the number of Jewish comedians has decreased. In a survey taken in 1970, about 3 percent of the U.S. population was Jewish but 80 percent of comedians were Jewish. In the 1980s, the percentage of Jewish comedians declined by about 10 percent. Continuing decline can be attributed to several reasons. One is the socioeconomic advancement among other races and cultures that has altered the scene. Another is that Jewish families are more economically stable now than in the past. About 92 percent of Jewish comedians have come from families in the lowest socioeconomic class; because Jews are more well-to-do now, there are less Jewish comedians.

Jewish humor is present in practically every comedy movie, skit and show. It impacts wider society because Jewish humor is timeless, and it will never grow old with the constant development of language. Without Jews and their hardships, the entertainment industry would be completely different. Jews should appreciate the role their ancestors have had in an integral part of society that never fails to make people smile.

Darren Kasoff is a rising junior at Atholton High School in Columbia.

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