The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America

The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America

by Lawrence J. Epstein

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From vaudeville to the movies to television, the complete—and often hilarious—history of how Jewish comedians transformed American entertainmentSee more details below


From vaudeville to the movies to television, the complete—and often hilarious—history of how Jewish comedians transformed American entertainment

Editorial Reviews

Epstein's storytelling and his ability to provide context keep the book moving, the ideas flowing and the laughs coming.
Merle Rubin
Epstein does a good job of filling in the social, cultural and economic background that gave rise to this first generation of comics.
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Lively and entertaining ... thoughtful and enlightening.... [A] clearly written, crisply presented chronicle of comedy.
The Wall Street Journal
There is a quite valuable history of much of American comedy this book.
This makes for fascinating, if gossipy, reading. Epstein excels at digging up obscure, funny stores about famous comics.
Harry Shearer
There is a quite valuable history of much of American comedy this book.
Wall Street Journal
Bill Carroll
Offers a deep and subtle understanding of how Jewish culture and American openness gave birth to a new style of entertainment.
Detroit Jewish News
Publishers Weekly
Epstein (A Treasury of Jewish Anecdotes) has done yeoman work to make this enormous subject accessible. His saga includes nearly all the top-level Jewish-American comedians, from the Marx Brothers and Allen Sherman to Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld. Their stories are contextualized by era: the vaudeville years of immigrant America; the rise of radio and the Borscht Belt before 1950; the "years of acceptance," when Jews entered the mainstream on TV and on stand-up stages; and "the years of triumph" for Jewish comics and filmmakers since the mid-'60s. Epstein offers keen psychoanalysis: many early successful comics had weak fathers who failed in the New World, but ambitious mothers; Mort Sahl's breakthrough suggested that "political and social needs transcended the private needs of audience members." But the book can be enjoyed simply for the funny bits resurrected in the author's mini-profiles. He includes a chapter on Jewish woman comics and an appendix on the Yiddish roots of Jewish humor. Thorough as it is, though, it ignores some contemporary standouts and understandably only touches on the Jewish contribution to situation comedy. Aalthough Epstein speculates that Jewish comics might be able to "enhance the distinctly Jewish culture surviving in America," his definition of what makes comedy Jewish suggests that this question will linger. Seinfeld's language betrays "a distinctly urban and distinctly Jewish approach to dealing with anxiety," and the show's title made no attempt to hide his Jewish name, Epstein states, hinting that the "longstanding tension between Jewish and American identities" is partly overcome because the characters are too adolescent to choose one over the other.(Oct.) Forecast: While this title will not have readers schlepping to the bookstore in great numbers, its historical angle makes it unique, and it should do well on the Jewish circuit. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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The World of Jewish Comedians

Jerry Seinfeld was standing in front of a live audience. "I grew up in Massapequa on Long Island," he began. Pausing for a second with the comic timing he had perfected, he then explained. "It's an old Indian word meaning 'by the mall.' " When the laughter died down, he continued, "My folks just moved to Florida this past year. They didn't want to move to Florida, but they're in their sixties and that's the law."

The audience loved his jokes, but it wasn't always so easy for Seinfeld. In his early twenties, on the same day he graduated college, he made his first stand-up comedy appearance at New York's Catch a Rising Star. It was open-mike night, and the young comedian had his chance. He walked up to the microphone and froze. He managed to blurt out the subjects of his would-be jokes but not the jokes themselves. He stood there saying words: "The beach. Driving. Shopping. Parents." Unable to continue, he left the stage.

Seinfeld's story, as all American television viewers know, had a happy ending. That is so, in part, because Seinfeld had enormous talent, incredible determination, and a desire for perfection. His comedic talents simply wouldn't be denied.

But Jerry Seinfeld also had another weapon: the rich wealth of the tradition of Jewish comedy. Seinfeld was his generation's follow-up to Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, and literally hundreds of others.

This embarrassingly rich crop of American Jewish comedians defies common sense. In 1979, for example, Time estimated that whereas Jews made up only 3 percent of the American population, fully 80 percent of professional comedians were Jewish.

The story of Jewish comedians in America is one of triumph and success. But their stage smile is tinged with a sadness. It is haunted by the Jewish past, by the deep strains in American Jewish life -- the desire to be accepted and the concern for a culture disappearing, by the centuries of Jewish life too frequently interrupted by hate, and by the knowledge that too often for Jewish audiences a laugh masked a shudder. The comedians' story in America includes bitter encounters with anti-Semitism and the lures of an attractive culture along the way. The jokes these comedians told, their gags, and their nervous patter need to be set alongside the obstacles they overcame.

However haunted the smile might be, though, ultimately it was a smile that won America's heart. Jewish comedians have achieved unprecedented acceptance. George Burns, Milton Berle, Fanny Brice and their contemporary heirs -- Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Seinfeld -- stand at the very center of American humor. Not only are their individual achievements etched in our collective cultural consciousness, but as a group these comedians occupy a crucial place in contemporary American culture as well.

They were all extraordinary entertainers, providing an endless parade of gags, an unstoppable flow of jokes, and a unique slant on life and on society. They provided audiences with a diversion from the strains of family, work, and community life as well as the struggles of participating in the human condition. The comedians offered audiences consolation through laughter in times of distress. They played a game of wit, allowing audience members to laugh at language, at unexpected turns of logic, at improbable situations. They bound the diverse members of the American community to one another; Americans who could laugh together didn't fight. Finally, the comedians gave their audiences a weapon, characteristically satire, to confront life's unfairness.

Beyond being extremely talented entertainers, however, Jewish comedians have fulfilled a special mission in American life, serving as the most important mediators between Jews and American culture. They exemplified two great themes of American Jewish life: assimilation and the search for an American Jewish identity. The comedians gave Jews strategies to survive entering and adapting to American culture and reduced anxiety about that adaptation. They gained for Jews acceptance from an alien Gentile culture and did so in a way that was not threatening to middle America. They had power and control over an audience when such authority wasn't yet available to Jews in the wider society and, by doing so, illustrated that other Jews could also eventually achieve such authority. They also provided a cultural identity for the many nonreligious American Jews. And above all, they made Jews proud.

But the Jewish comedians did more than just bring the American community to the Jewish one. They brought the Jewish community to the wider American culture, ultimately completely transforming the very nature of American comedy.

The attractions of Jewish comedy for the wider American audience are more elusive than for the Jews themselves. Still, even as the comedians used their humor to separate Jew from Gentile, even as the nebbishes, schlemiels, kibitzers, and gonifs of Jewish humor found their way into American homes and hearts, even as Jewish antics and chaotic routines strangled reason, American audiences loved the humor. Traveling far from the homey folksiness of a Mark Twain or a Will Rogers, American humor gathered in its Jewish influences and changed completely.

The major reasons for this embrace of Jewish humor involved the changes in American society itself. Searching for a way to deal with the emerging anxieties of the modern age, America turned to the Jews, the masters of handling history's troubles. Jewish humor, so useful in helping generations of anxious Jews, was called to action to serve the similar needs of the wider American community. An immigrant generation found in the Jews a people repeatedly practiced in starting over again in a new place while feeling marginal and scared. A depression generation saw in the Jews a people who had stared poverty in the face for two thousand years and survived, families and pride intact. After World War II, the United States confronted a seemingly invincible Soviet threat, a threat that included the ever present possibility of nuclear annihilation. The United States eventually grew into a society marked by generational, racial, and gender conflicts. It became a society divided by an unpopular war in Vietnam. Americans felt increasingly confused by divorce, the physical and emotional separation of families, a political structure they increasingly believed corrupt, a changing racial mix, the radical change in the role of women in the society, drugs, a transformed sexual ethic, and much else.

Such a society understandably had profound anxieties. At the same time, though, the transformations were to some extent deeply wanted. Forbidden words and ideas could finally be expressed. Taboo but long-sought actions could be undertaken.

American society turned to the Jews to use humor in order to deal with its own anxieties and to vindicate its desires. Jewish comedians could draw on a tradition of dealing with anxiety-ridden lives, of mastering close family and communal ties in the face of those troubles, and of exploring the widest ranges of language to express their deepest feelings.

In each generation, Jewish comedians were able to find in Jewish tradition, culture, and history a way to express the feelings of the wider American culture in which they lived. They drew on their heritage in ways they themselves didn't always understand. As they used that heritage to find ways to express truths about America, they transformed American culture, making Jews and Jewishness acceptable, even enviable.

Jewish comedians had several valuable assets to aid them in this effort. They had an expansive linguistic tradition that prized and rewarded quick thinking and a quicker tongue. 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 alertness bred from a fear that was almost always justified, an early warning system of the feelings of the majority culture. This instinct could often help them see where a society was going before it went there. In America, this survival instinct was not so much needed to predict, forestall, or prepare for organized acts of hatred against Jews as it was used to heighten Jewish sensitivities to majority-group anxieties.

Jewish comedians could sense majority anxieties early and transform them into humor, giving these anxieties a shape and a name as well as a way to cope. In America such insights would allow Jewish comedians to identify and meet the audience's deepest emotional needs. Only in America could Jewish comedians -- indeed, Jews in general -- have succeeded as they did. After all, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich has suggested, the very basis of American history was that insecure immigrants came to settle the land. Jews, the most insecure, the most common of immigrants, could understandably serve as a symbol for Americans as they could for no other people.

Had Jews come earlier in large numbers, they might have been fully assimilated, but they mostly entered with large numbers of other immigrants and just when mass media developed. They were in America when vaudeville, radio, motion pictures, and television were being introduced. This lucky coincidence, combined with their enormous talents, gave them a chance to enter and transform these fields.

Of course, Jewish comedians still operated within the larger comic tradition of America. Focusing specifically on Jewish comedians is not to suggest that they were funnier or better than Gentile comedians or that the extraordinary contributions by comedians who were not Jewish should be ignored or demeaned.

It is also important to stress that there were often enormous differences among Jewish comedians themselves. Some lived and breathed their Jewish heritage; others had an ongoing conflict with their Jewish identity. Some included a lot of Jewish material in their comedy, whereas others were careful to avoid Jewish content. Some used the techniques of Jewish humor and applied them to American culture, and others drew on American comic traditions. Although the differences among these comics are significant, the comedians nonetheless shared characteristics that made them part of a wider, equally diverse American Jewish community.

Seeing these comedians as particularly Jewish provides a distinct way to understand their humor, to recognize some of their comedy ancestors, and to see their place in entertainment history. It is also helpful to understand the inherited background of Jewish comedy and the peculiar nature and language of Jewish humor in order to grasp the full contribution made by these comedians. For example, the comedians created types. One of the most famous Jewish comic types is the schlemiel, a clumsy, maladjusted, hard-luck loser. Sometimes, as in the classic schlemiels created by Woody Allen, this poor character is also profoundly neurotic. His one-liners comically reflect negative emotions ("When we played softball, I'd steal second, then feel guilty and go back") or a sense of being trapped by unfeeling institutions ("I went to a school for emotionally disturbed teachers").

With his small, thin frame, his dark glasses and sad face, Allen was a standing sight gag. His distinctive New York voice added to the effect as he told his audience the story. He'd been hunting and shot a moose, he confided to them. His story grows wilder as the seemingly dead moose awakens on the fender of the car. Allen, seeing the live moose, hatches a plan to get rid of it. He realizes that friends are having a costume party. He decides to go, pawning off the moose as his friends the Solomons. The moose goes to the party and is doing well until the prizes are finally handed out for the best costume and the Berkowitzes, who are a Jewish couple dressed as a moose, win. The real moose is understandably furious at this slight and locks horns with the well-costumed Berkowitzes. Allen then presumably walks in to find the couple unconscious. Figuring this is his chance, Allen then tells of scooping up the moose to dump him back in the woods. As it turns out, though, it is not the real moose he's gotten, but the Berkowitzes. The poor couple wakes up in the woods the next morning, only to be shot, stuffed, and eventually mounted at the New York Athletic Club. Allen concludes by noting the irony because the club is restricted.

Acceptance, disguise, discrimination, and fear -- all could be found in Allen's humor, but so could a sort of wild, sometimes naive optimism. One typical scene is from the film Play It Again, Sam. Allen's character, Allan Felix, is newly separated from his wife. He goes to an art museum to find an attractive woman standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting. Felix approaches her and asks what she thinks of the work. Her voice is flat as she responds: "It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation forming a useless, bleak straitjacket in a black, absurd cosmos." Absorbing but ignoring this, Felix then asks, "What are you doing Saturday night?" The woman responds, "Committing suicide." Felix barely pauses. "What about Friday night?" he asks.

Allen's neurotic character, living in a death-drenched, frightening world, finds moments of solace through love and comedy. His comic ancestors, the Marx Brothers, collectively formed a different comic type, the free soul who doesn't so much criticize all social mores as mock and ignore them. The Marx Brothers created confusion wherever they went, playfully chased money and young women, and used an incredible range of comic tools -- from Groucho's enormous mustache and endless wisecracking to Chico's ethnic accent and malapropisms to Harpo's pantomime in fright wig, bicycle horn, and large overcoat -- to draw laughter. They created characters who were uncontrolled and unrestrained by rules of language, manners, or society's ways.

Groucho's lines are particularly pointed. Talking to a character played by Margaret Dumont in Animal Crackers, Groucho says, "You've got beauty, style, money. You've got money, haven't you? If not we'll stop right now." In Duck Soup, he says to her, "They're fighting for your honor. Which is more than you ever did."

Some Jewish comedians adopted comic types with the very characteristics of anti-Semitic stereotypes and ended up challenging and overcoming the stereotypes with humor. Jack Benny, though not specifically playing a Jewish character, went out of his way to stress his character's stinginess. For example, Benny used to say that instead of bringing a date flowers he'd bring her seeds. He was once 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.

Of course, Jews developed many other comic types: the fool (Ed Wynn and Rodney Dangerfield), the social critic (Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl), and the observer (Jerry Seinfeld). All these types played off central aspects of Jewish humor and, in the end, played the same roles in society.

The pangs of recognition honed by Seinfeld, the neuroses of Allen, and the chaos of the Marx Brothers reflected the ages in which these comedians lived and the tastes of their audience. But ultimately they came from the same sources: Yiddish culture and the emotions and experiences associated with being an immigrant.

Yiddish entered American comedy through individual expressions rather than as a complete language. The words chosen by comedians were sometimes vulgar whereas other words were selected because the sound of the word itself was funny, so that audiences identified Yiddish as inherently comic. Of course, Yiddish was more than just a particular vocabulary. Its words were spoken with what became known as Jewish rhythm. This rhythm was frequently characterized by answering one question with another, framing a rhetorical question and then answering it, talking in a singsong cadence that emerged from the method students used to study the Talmud together, and using a syntax dependent on inverting words in a sentence.

Jackie Mason is among the most famous Jewish comedians who still employs a virtually undiluted Jewish rhythm. In one routine about psychiatry Mason mocks the analyst's attempt to have him search for his real self. Mason wonders, "What if I find the real me, and I find that he's even worse than I am? I don't make enough for myself -- I need a partner?" The psychiatrist then asks for a payment of seventy-five dollars. This sets Jackie off again; he says to the analyst, "What if you're the real me? Then you owe me seventy-five dollars." The defeated psychiatrist finally says, "If you promise never to come back, we'll call it even."

Jewish humor did not just emerge from a particular language, of course. Jewish culture is by its nature extraordinarily verbal. Words form the center of study, of prayer, and of entertainment. The emphasis on language and on the argumentative patterns of Talmudic reasoning provided Jews with a style of thinking.

Jewish theology also contributed. Jews were permitted, even encouraged, to question. There is no prescribed set of beliefs a Jew must follow. It is a common tradition, for example, to question God's ways not only to denounce evil in the world but also to search for truth. Truth is of the highest value in the Jewish tradition. If God is allowed to be challenged, then it is understandable, and even expected, that less powerful forms of authority (parents, bosses, societies) can also be questioned. Such a challenge to authority is a hallmark of Jewish humor. Jewish comedians were notable in their willingness to test their audiences' sense of which subjects and words were acceptable.

Of course, many people ascribe the particular pathos of Jewish humor to the suffering the Jews underwent and the marginal existence they led in various countries. It is a common understanding that humor appealed to Jews in Eastern Europe as a form of therapy, a way to manage the stresses of daily life. That life was routinely lived in poverty and separateness and was sometimes cruelly punctuated by violence and death. Such an existence engendered humor, this explanation goes, as an outlet, a way of releasing the tensions.

Comedy did have certain unique virtues in this respect. It provided Jews with acknowledgment, acceptance, approval, and applause, all experiences that Jews rarely felt when confronting Gentile cultures. Comedy therefore played a psychological, even political, role in helping the Jews deal with majority cultures.

The stresses of immigrant life played a similar role in shaping especially the first generation of American Jewish comedians in the early years of the twentieth century. As the children of immigrants, they were neither insiders, privy to power or easy passage through American life, nor outsiders, living in a foreign country dreaming of America as the Golden Land. This precarious identity provided a particular perspective, a skepticism about life in general, a distrust of institutions, and a palpable anxiety that sometimes found its way into humor.

Although there had been Jewish comedians before the immigrant generation, the story of Jewish comedians as a national treasure can most usefully begin with those who made their names in vaudeville and burlesque: George Burns, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Ed Wynn, Bert Lahr, and many others.

These comedians developed "tags," characteristics that audiences could use to define them. Milton Berle, for instance, became well known for stealing jokes from other comedians. One of his lines was about seeing another comic at work: "He was so funny I almost dropped my pad and pencil." Berle had started his career early. While still under ten, he cut out a piece of fur from a hand warmer his mother owned and pasted the fur under his nose. He then entered a Charlie Chaplin imitation contest, twisted his lips, walked with a swaying motion -- and won. Fanny Brice deliberately affected a Yiddish accent even though she could neither read nor speak Yiddish. George Burns, having gone through a succession of partners (including a trained seal), ultimately found in Gracie Allen his perfect partner. Playing off Gracie's sweet silliness, Burns became a consummate straight man, using his cigar for dramatic pause and his bemused face and gravelly voice for setups and observations.

These early Jewish comedians did not always have an easy time. Ed Wynn's father disowned him when Wynn entered show business. Jack Benny turned to comedy after failing at music. But one principal asset that many of them did have was a Jewish mother who was a great, positive influence on their lives. Sadie Berle, Milton's mother, used to hire people to sit in the audience and laugh at his jokes. She once hired Henny Youngman, then an aspiring comedian, and paid him fifty cents to laugh at Berle's act. Youngman later commented that he thought the act was so good he would have done it for forty cents.

Minnie Marx, mother of the Marx Brothers, was the one who decided that the five brothers should be in show business. They began as a musical act, and it was only when the audience in Nacogdoches, Texas, left the theater to watch a wild mule that comedy entered their routine. Furious at the audience, Groucho began to insult them when they returned. The audience thought the insults were part of the act and laughed uproariously.

Sadie Berle and Minnie Marx were emblematic of a generation of Jewish women who were not performers but who took their drive, their intelligence, their unbreakable will, and their determination to succeed in show business, and transferred that dynamic energy to the careers of their children, especially their sons.

The early comedians also had to deal with questions of assimilation: How much should they, could they, separate themselves from their Jewish heritage? Jewish comedians became the shock troops of American Jewish assimilation, gaining acceptance decades before the wider Jewish community did. Many of these comedians embraced both Gentile values and Gentile women with great fervor. Others struggled to define their own relationship to the more traditional organized Jewish community. Jewish comedians therefore became among the first to reflect, although in an exaggerated way, the tortured relationship American Jews sometimes had with their religion and its culture.

Jewish comedians frequently stood outside the community. They were tougher than Jewish humorists such as Sam Levenson who told heartwarming stories about loving families coping with adversity. Jewish comics were harsher in their evaluation of life and the Jewish religion and community. Lenny Bruce, the harshest of the comics, would compare Christian and Jewish ideas about God: "Christians are lucky because your God, the Christian God, is all over. He saves you. He's been in three films. The Jewish God -- where is the Jewish God? He's on a little box nailed to the doorjamb. In a mezuzah. I told my super, 'Don't paint God.' "

Many comedians, most notably Jackie Mason, stood someplace in between, making fun of Jews and simultaneously standing with them. Mason masterfully lampoons his people while embracing them. "Every Jew loves food. What do you think Jews talk about for breakfast? Where to eat lunch. At lunch, where should we have dinner? Where should we have coffee? You never see a Jew in a bar except if he gets lost looking for a piece of cake."

But it wasn't all laughs. Samuel Janus, a psychologist looking for a common comedic psyche, spent ten years interviewing seventy-six Jewish comedians, including George Burns, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, and many others. In 1979, he told a meeting of the American Psychological Association that Jewish humor emerged from depression and intense alienation from the culture. "Comedy," he argued, "is a defense mechanism to ward off the aggression and hostility of others." These comedians, it turned out, were very unhappy people.

Little did the Jewish comedians before the 1960s know it, but American audiences would ultimately joyfully accept overtly Jewish types, language, and humor, and Jewish comedy would reconfigure the very shape of American humor.

Jerry Seinfeld, then, was not alone on that stage at Catch a Rising Star. Like the Jews themselves, he wouldn't quit. The world saying no became just an incentive to go on. Seinfeld became a great success in America, but in the tradition of his people, he continues to search for what to make of that success.

The story of the ultimate triumph of Jewish comedians can best begin by going back to the turn of the twentieth century, back to a time when Jews in large numbers were arriving in the Golden Land, and when those Jews were about to make their explosive entrance onto the American comedic stage.

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What People are saying about this

Frank McCourt
A treasure, full of wisdom and insight-and deep scholarship. Because it's about humor it has to be taken seriously.
Shelley Berman
This beautifully written book is rich with extraordinary insights about what it means to be a Jewish comedian. If you love to laugh, if you cherish our comedic heritage, read The Haunted Smile.
Stefan Kanfer
A discerning and, better still, hilarious, examination of humor in America. The insecure but unstoppable vigor of Jewish comedians erupted from the teeming ghetto of the Lower East Side, overflowed to the vaudeville stage and kept going -- to radio, the theater, film, and television. It remains with us today; animating every aspect of show business from the latest standup comics to the Broadway explosion called The Producers to Woody Allen's most recent efforts. Lawrence Epstein has the whole story in The Haunted Smile, and he tells it with flair, wit, and seichel.
Alan Dershowitz
We knew that Jews were funny, but The Haunted Smile tells us why this small group has so dominated comedy. Enjoy. It can't hurt you!

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