The Times, 19 June 2010

On Jewish Comedy

So, Jewish comedy – as a Jewish comedian might say – what’s up with that? Woody Allen’s latest film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, was a hit at Cannes this year. Judd Apatow rules the mainstream movie box office with hits like Knocked Up, Superbad, and his most recent Get Him To The Greek. New York is plastered with posters for Sarah Silverman’s new book. And in the UK, Woody Allen’s earlier movie, Whatever Works, is finally coming to the cinema screens. Jokes about overbearing mothers, repressed gay fathers and the transformational power of the knish have never been in such abundance.

Whatever Works is an old script, dusted off for a modern audience. Larry David plays the lead role that was originally written for Zero Mostel. On paper, it must have looked like perfect casting: Boris is a neurotic misanthrope, and Larry David has spent seven series of Curb Your Enthusiasm kvetching, moaning, and insulting friends and strangers alike. Although since Boris is an older man, divorced and miserable, who falls for and marries a woman young enough to be his grand-daughter, we might wonder why Woody Allen didn’t take on the role himself. He’s surely qualified.

So, since Jewish comedy is having a moment right now, we present a guide for the uninitiated.

1. Neurosis
Woody Allen once described a comedian as someone who had never answered the question, ‘How are you?’ with the word, ‘Fine’. And Allen isn’t just a nervy hypochondriac when the cameras are rolling. He is plagued by doubt and unhappiness. In a recent interview, he bemoaned the ageing process: ‘You don't get smarter, you don't get wiser, you don't get more mellow, you don't get more kindly. Nothing good happens. Your back hurts more. You get more indigestion. Your eyesight isn't as good. You need a hearing aid. It's a bad business getting older, and I would advise you not to do it.’

As a general rule of thumb, the more aggressive the comedian, the greater the neurosis. Sarah Silverman is renowned for her capacity to shock. ‘I was raped by a doctor,’ she sweetly proclaims. ‘Which is so bitter sweet for a Jewish girl.’ But don’t think for one moment that she isn’t a seething mass of troubles, too. Her new book of comic essays, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee deals with her adolescent depression and its damp consequences.

2. Jewish mothers.
It’s always about the mother. These women rule their son’s lives. Think of the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. Meg Ryan gives it everything, but the real laugh comes after her climax, when an old woman at a nearby table says to the waiter, ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. And who did Rob Reiner cast for this killer line? His own mother. Because what grown man wouldn’t want to think about his aged mother wanting an orgasm? And Woody Allen goes one step further. In New York Stories, his mother disappears in a magic trick. Hey presto, no more overbearing mother. But she isn’t gone at all. She appears in the sky and starts telling him off, like an angry god. Lucky these Jewish comics are all in therapy already. A psychiatrist could cancel all his other clients, and would still have enough for a lovely apartment on the Upper East Side.

3. Jewish Fathers
In Seinfeld, George Costanza’s dad doesn’t merely eschew Christmas. He creates a rival festival – Festivus – with a metal pole in the room instead of a tree. The family sit at the dinner table and ritually air their grievances against their relatives from the previous year. This would be funny, even it wasn’t true. But it is true: the Seinfeld writer Daniel O’Keefe was simply using his own experience – and father - for the story.

Woody Allen’s father also appears in the documentary Wild Man Blues. Allen is presented with a lifetime achievement award in Italy, one which is so prestigious that (he cannot resist pointing out) even Fellini hasn’t won one. He proudly shows his dad the award. His father is only impressed by the quality of the engraving. Never mind the award. Feel the workmanship.

4. Grotesques
Jewish comedy thrives on exaggeration. Judd Apatow writes, directs and produces films which feature little else, usually cartoonishly stoner men trying to carve out relationships with cartoonishly shrewish women. And Joan Rivers has taken the notion of grotesque further still: her plastic surgery – which surely began as an attempt to look younger – has now become a joke in itself, predicated on how grotesque she looks. At a roast in her honour last year, fellow comedian Kathy Griffin pointed out that Rivers shared a dermatologist with Michael Jackson. ‘Unfortunately,’ Griffin said to Rivers, ‘he only killed your face’.

5. Saying the unsayable
Jewish comedy is fearless. Any target is fair game. In the first five minutes of Whatever Works, Larry David has mentioned the Holocaust, suicide and Darfur. He’s not alone in joking about geo-political conflict either. Jackie Mason once said of Benjamin Netenyahu that he’d like to give back the West Bank, but it was in his wife’s name. Joan Rivers made jokes about her husband’s suicide almost immediately: ‘I knew I shouldn’t have taken the bag off my head while we were making love’. Nothing is sacred, and if it is, the joke is all the funnier.

6. Pessismism
Everything is awful and it will never get any better. Not ever. Boris is certain his night sweats are AIDS. He can’t simply be ill with there’s the option of being terminal. And Joan Rivers, meanwhile, has no hopes for a happy marriage: ‘Why should a woman cook? So her husband can say, “My wife makes a delicious cake,” to some hooker’. In the words of George Costanza, ‘My father was a quitter, my grand-father was a quitter, I was raised to give up. It’s one of the few things I do well’.