Jewish humor is a deeply ambiguous phenomenon. Yes, it can be very funny. But the thing that makes it Jewish is the somber undertones that permeate it. Jews are trained to laugh through tears. For Sigmund Freud, it was the ability to critically self-reflect, combined with the ability to engage with a painful past, that made Jewish humor Jewish.
This deeply distressing undercurrent to Jewish laughter has been the focus of my attention for as long as I can remember. You do not have to be an Einstein to realize that your Jewish family’s way of joking is very different from that of your non-Jewish friends.
Black and White
Some jokes are easy to dissect: it’s not hard to see why they make us laugh. The uncomfortable undertones of Jewish humor are often easy to locate.
The typical easy Jewish jokes satirize racism and bigotry with so-called gallows humor. You probably know the joke about Jews at a shtetl in Russia who heard a frightening rumor that a Christian child had been found murdered nearby. Fearing a pogrom, the Jews gathered at the synagogue. Suddenly, the rabbi came running in and cried, “Wonderful news! The murdered girl was Jewish!”
This kind of humor is still especially popular at weddings, bat and bar mitzvahs and—perhaps especially—funerals. The second most viewed video on the popular “Old Jews Telling Jokes” YouTube channel features the following joke. Bernie, an old Jew in the clothing business, is retiring. His friends ask him: “What you gonna do after you retire?” “Well, I think I will join the New York Athletic Club,” he says. “Bernie, are you crazy?,” they respond, “They’ll never let a Jew in their club.” “Well, I have my ways. I think I can get in,” Bernie assures them. So Bernie puts on a blue blazer with gold buttons, a pinstriped shirt, red silk tie, khakis and boat shoes and he goes to the club for the interview. He is taken into a sumptuous room and a very elegant man comes out to interview him. “Your name sir?” he asks. “Oh, yes,” says Bernie, “it’s Bernard Throckmorton III.” The interviewer writes this down and asks what line of work he is in. “Well, I am retired now but for many years I had a small boutique advertising agency on Park Avenue.” “Are you married sir?” “Yes, my wife Mary does quite a bit of work for the Junior League.” “Any children?” “Two: Buffy and Chip. They will be matriculating this year at Harvard and Yale respectively.” The club employee says: “I see Sir—and your religion?” “We’re goyim.”
These jokes have an obvious target. They are sad because they spotlight widespread xenophobia and bigotry in society.
The Ambiguity of Laughter
But humor is a very tricky thing. Sometimes you may not even understand why something makes you laugh. Every now and again, my family enjoy truly grotesque, dark humor, including jokes about the Holocaust. When I was a child it made me laugh. But today it often perplexes and disturbs me.
For example, when gossiping about friends and colleagues, we would often evaluate their characters in terms appropriate to the Nazi era. The ultimate sign of our respect was to say that a person would have hidden us from the SS and the shmaltsovniks. We joked about this constantly. And, at the same time, I was mentally dividing my social world into those who would have hidden Jews in their basements and those who would not.
In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud explains that laughter has healing properties. By mocking discrimination and oppression, we are better able to cope with it. Comedy helps us process it and acts as a means of self-protection.
A deeply religious friend of mine, for example, once expressed his strong sexual attraction to a date by saying that his loins were burning “like a barn in Jedwabne” (Jedwabne is a village in Poland, where in 1941 the local community set a barn on fire with at least 340 Jewish neighbors inside).
To me, this kind of transgressive comedy attests to the intellectual vitality and strength of the Jewish diaspora. We use comedy to move the terrifying into the sanitary, safe space of what we know. Humor dismantles Derridean binary linguistic oppositions. It blurs the lines between the taboo and the familiar. By laughing about death, mocking racism and making light of oppression, we defy the horrors of Jewish history.
Kiss Me in the Tuches
In the diaspora, Jewish comedy has another crucial function, too. It is an act of defiance. It is a platform, which we use to construct and secure our identity.
Diasporic humor often targets diverse audiences. Jewish elements in US, British or French popular culture are often smuggled into the joke by the comics themselves. Jewish communities, after all, are small and rapidly getting smaller, even in the US. This means that Jewish audiences, from a purely commercial standpoint, are not large enough to form a commercially important target group.
When journalists, reviewers and academics describe the successes of Jewish artists and producers, they often portray the Jewish origins of the art or humor as problematic, as something the artist has had to overcome. For example, according to NBC management, the cult TV show Seinfeld was at first “too New York, too Jewish.”
But some Jewish humor is directly, uncompromisingly and even narcissistically Jewish, such as Hot Box’s parody of the Mariah Carey song “All I want For Christmas”:
I won’t ask for much this Christmas
I don’t even wish for snow
Just want a Jew who runs show business
Spielberg, Stiller, Ari Gold
I will make a list and send it
Of my choices for St. Nick
Seinfeld, Zach Braff and Jon Stewart
Are the boys with a big schtick.
These cultural products are not primarily about Jewish history or traditions, but about the Jews themselves. They often revolve around Jewish successes and contributions. They are a collective self-confidence builder. Such is Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song, first written for Saturday Night Live:
When you feel like the only kid in town
Without a Christmas tree
Here’s a list of people who are Jewish
Just like you and me
David Lee Roth lights the Menorah
So does James Caan, Kirk Douglas and the late Dina Shore-ah
Guess who eats together at the Carnegie Deli?
Bowzer from Sha Na Na and Arthur Fonzerelli
Paul Newman’s half Jewish, Goldie Hawn’s half too
Put them together, what a fine looking Jew!
You don’t need “Deck the Halls” or “Jingle Bell Rock”
’Cause you can spin a dreidel with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.
Two Sides of the Chanucorn
Jewish humor became mainstream because we Jews are stubborn, tenacious people. It is there mostly in spite of not because of its Jewishness.
As Sandler’s song suggests, the hardest time of year for Jews is Christmas. The Jewish traditions stand in opposition to a consumerist juggernaut, which bombards us with a constant stream of Christmas presents, sweets and entertainment. Comedy serves as a tool to help Jews build our own distinct narratives and cement our communities. And it allows us to laugh at ourselves.
If you want to see how increasingly hard it is becoming for diaspora Jews to be able to find their authentic voices, Jimmy Kimmel’s live show provides an example. In the last few years, during Chanukah/Christmas, the show has featured the Chanucorn, a Chanukah unicorn, played by Gary Greenberg, one of the show’s writers. If you have never heard of the Chanukah unicorn before that’s probably because it is a figment of Greenberg’s imagination. The Chanucorn is a mascot. Or, to be more precise, it is a middle-aged Jewish-American comedian dressed in a tacky unicorn costume. His appearance is unapologetically Jewish. His horn is shaped like a menorah. He has a blue mane and white torso. Each time this sweet furry character appears in the studio, Kimmel announces: “This is Gary Greenberg, he is one of our writers on the show. He has been desperately trying to get more Chanukah material into the show in the past few weeks. And so he created this fake character, the Chanucorn, which is not real.”
In Defense of the Chanucorn
The Chanucorn is a symbol of Jewish emancipation, Jewish pride and Jewish challenges, all at the same time.
Each Chanukorn sketch is very simple. The Chanucorn appears in the studio and—despite Kimmel’s protests—performs a Chanukah-related number. “I told you, Gary, we are not doing this again. I am sorry. This is one of our writers and he came up with this stupid Chanucorn costume. He is always trying to get on the air to convince kids that this character is real,” says Kimmel in mock-anger, telling the audience not to encourage the furry creature by applauding. “Did you say ISreal?! – the delighted Chanucorn shouts back.
In last year’s sketch, Greenberg literally negotiated the time Chanucorn would be granted on air. “Ok, I will give you 60 seconds,” agrees a mock-hesitant Kimmel. After bidding up to 80, Chanucorn tries to use his time as efficiently as possible by singing his song as fast as he can. Advertising it as “the most Semitic melody that you have ever heard,” he abruptly lists the Chanucorn’s “official favorite 80 Jewish words,” which include menorah, bagel, rabbi and circumcision. The Chanucorn poignantly illustrates American Jews’ ongoing negotiations with the Christian majority as to the place of Jewish culture in the American mainstream.
While cuddly, funny and always smiling, there is something depressing about the Chanucorn. He is a provisional guest, a special case. The precarity of the position of Jewish humor in American pop culture is reflected in Kimmel’s questions as to whether the Chanucorn is real. Since 2015, the main premise of the joke is that no one cares about the weird unicorn or his motivations. “As you can see, he [the writer] is Jewish … so last year he created this fake character,” riffs Kimmel. “It is not fake, it is not fake!” interrupts the Chanucorn. “Yes, it is, yes, it is,” objects the host. To which, the Chanucorn, seemingly touched to the core, responds, “Jimmy, why have you lost your sense of wonder?! Even though, you do not believe in the Chanucorn, the Chanucorn believes in you.”
Greenberg has to symbolically impose Chanukah on the audience. He (sometimes literally) enters the stage through the backdoor. The Jewish unicorn makes us laugh because of his weak position, the awkwardness of having to negotiate his own role. The Chanucorn thus follows in the footsteps of generations of Jewish artists, politicians and activists, who, in order to be accepted, had to first either make a case for themselves, or compromise, in order to appeal to a broader audience.
The Chanucorn is not exactly a jester. A jester’s vis comica is the accepted essence of his trade. But the Jewish ability to entertain us is questioned from the get-go. Paradoxically, this symbolic weakness, the precarity of the Chanukorn’s position, is powerfully exploited by the comedian. It is as if, without the mercy of benefactors like Kimmel, the Chanucorn could not exist. Ironically, though, this fake character is real enough to appear regularly on one of the most popular American TV shows. The Jewish comedian’s self-deprecating strategy is effective. By playing on his irrelevance to the broader public, he makes himself relevant.
Do not dismiss the Chanucorn. I believe that this dreidel-spinning, latke-eating, Santa-defying character is a modern Maccabee (a Jewish rebel warrior of the Hasmonean dynasty). He is an advocate of Jewish distinctiveness, and a reminder that it is important to stay true to who you are. Even if it means that to be heard you have to rush through your skit.
Let us hope that this year, once again, the Chanucorn’s audacious chutzpah will allow us to enjoy a moment of Jewish humor in the grand American dream-factory. We should all stand behind the Chanucorn’s mission to prove that he is real.