A Jewish Sense of Humor


What do you get when you Google “funny jew?” Marvin Silbermintz. More specifically, Marvin showing off a few hilarious inventions of his own devising – a Kiddush fork, a challah-doubler and a special Jewish comb, among others. A prize-winning comedian who wrote Jay Leno’s monologue for 19 years and appeared often as Jay’s Rabbi, Marvin currently does stand-up, lectures, writes and stars in the Chabad telethon (www.FUNNYfromBIRTH.com). In this week’s column, we asked Marvin to share his insights into the intersection of entertainment, humor and Jewish tradition.

Jewish Humor

There is a definite Jewish style of humor. It’s loud, anarchistic, emotional and personal. Born from years of (justified) paranoia, it questions all accepted authority, rules and assumptions. It’s not mild and folksy like Country Humor; “Yep — If you’re too busy to go fishin’, you’re too busy.” It doesn’t reinforce the power of authority like Military Humor; “Private: When I ask you to jump you say, ‘How High?’ And you don’t come down to earth until I order you to.”

Our jokes dare to look openly at tragedy and suffering. We are not stoics — we’re Big Kvetchers. Think of the Jewish comics we watched on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The jokes were about wives cheating on their husbands, business partners stealing from each other, revenge, murder, bankruptcy, divorce, funerals. All the fun stuff in life.

Gentile Humor

Winston Churchill said this about being in war (imagine a slow, snooty Englishman’s voice); “There is nothing more exhilarating than being fired upon without result.”

This is an excellent example of British Humor — the most goyish of humor. The guy is being shot at, a bullet could go through his brain any second and he’s evaluating his chances of survival as coldly as an accountant adding up a column of numbers. The emotion, if any, is internalized. Now imagine the line read in a Yiddish accent: it’s totally wrong.

Classic Jewish Movie Scene

There is a special sweetness to the opening scene of “The Sunshine Boys.” Walter Matthau plays an old Jew living alone, shuffling around his house, singing while he prepares his tea and talking back to his television. He’s doing a little show for himself, forcing some cheer into his lonely life. But he’s also not accepting the television content at face value; he parodies it, mocks it. Although it’s not obvious, he is acting out the traditional Jewish roles —outsider, cynic, wise guy — as he copes with his bleak situation. And even though he’s old, feeble and alone he still has an attitude.

Classic Jewish Character

Rob Morrow in “Northern Exposure” as Dr. Joel Fleischman, a Jewish New York doctor exiled to Alaska. I know it’s not the loud, jokey Jewish humor of the classic Borscht Belt comics I worship. But his character was so well drawn, the casting was inspired and the plot and dialogue were brilliant. You couldn’t get that show on a network today. There are no promotable gimmicks. Maybe on cable. But Fleischman would have to be rewritten as a meth-dealing serial killer with multiple personalities.

Classic Jewish Comedian

A friend of mine who saw Jackie Mason perform told me, “He was hilarious. He said that gentiles know all about guns, and Jews know all about food.” And I thought, “Wow. You just managed to impart the content of his message, but without a trace of humor. The attitude, the pacing, the vocal tricks, the body language, the references, the “poetry” that turns ideas into humor. Another way to say it is that a Jackie Mason act can’t be written down. The jokes within it — and there are less actual punch lines than you think — don’t work without him delivering them. His cadence is obviously the lilt of European Jews. Not as obvious, his “comedy logic” is based on Talmudic argumentation, which involves extrapolating a situation, examining every permutation and seeming to go on endlessly. Well, besides all that, he’s just a funny guy, a Jewish Comic Numero Uno.

Comedy’s Biblical Roots

There are metaphors, similes and some phrases that can be called wordplay —perhaps — in the Bible. But there are no jokes. I believe this is because all humor is based on surprise, and God can’t be surprised. Think about it; everything written by humans has some touch of humor, even nonfiction. Even dreary court documents and dry business manuals.

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