Look at the World, Look at These Pants: A Review of Jeremy Dauber’s Jewish Comedy a Serious History



An oft-told joke — I’m sure you’ve heard it and can tell it better than I can, but bear with me — has a Jewish tailor taking a walk one day in Berlin when he runs into none other than Adolph Hitler.  Hitler pulls out his revolver, points it at the tailor and says “Jewish swine! How dare you pollute this pure German soil with your presence?! Get on all fours like the dog you are and eat dog feces!”  Mindful of the gun, the Jewish tailor gets down and does as he’s told. Hitler finds this so funny he starts laughing and drops the gun. The Jewish tailor grabs the gun, points it back at the Fuhrer-to-be and says “Finish it up!”  Hitler does and the two go their separate ways. That night the tailor gets home and says to his wife “Honey, you’ll never guess who I had lunch with.”

This joke displays two approaches to comedy.  One belongs to Hitler who enjoys how fear can strip a Jew’s pretence to being a human, and turn him into a terrified animal.  The other, the joke teller’s, finds it funny that the same people who can sit down to lunch together under normal circumstances can also humiliate each other, degrade each other, threaten each other with death, make each other eat excrement.

What does the fact that comedy has these two sides — that what is funny to Hitler is different from what is funny to the joke teller — tell us about comedy?  For a start it tells us that comedy is hard to think about and hard to pin down. It’s hard to define the funny and hard to decide if it’s good or bad, since for Hitler what’s funny is a Jew being humiliated, while for the joketeller what’s funny is that having lunch with someone can mean two very different things.  

Jeremy Dauber’s “Jewish Comedy: A serious History” deals with this double-sided, difficult topic.  To make the elusive, slip-through-your-fingers nature of comedy a little easier he refracts it through a topic everybody can agree upon — Jews.   What’s our deal? What makes us special? If Wittgenstein is right that concepts are family resemblances, “Jew” is a concept where deciding the list of who is in the family and who isn’t has real world consequences, and where the family members get to weigh in on who belongs and who doesn’t.

Dauber circumscribes his topic with two pieces of definition.  First, “Jewish humor has to be produced by Jews.” [xii] and second “Jewish humor must have something to do with either contemporary Jewish living or historical Jewish existence.” [xiii]”

The first formulation as I’ve mentioned is bloodily, screamingly contentious — is Freud Jewish?  Louis C.K.? Jesus? Paul? — but let’s first focus on the second.

Jews don’t fly off the Earth and into the sky.   So the law of gravity has something to do with both contemporary Jewish living and historical Jewish existence — but humor about gravity is not what Dauber has in mind.  It’s too broad. But an alternative — that Jewish humor has to do with Jewish experience and history insofar as they are Jewish  — that it deals with Jews qua Jews, is both too narrow and overstates the considerable self-obsession of Jewish comedy.  Now certainly when being funny (or tragic, or sentimental, or horrified) Jews can and do worry about their Jewishness but but they also worry about other things that don’t particularly have to do with Jews. Death, God, gentiles, the sky, love, hate, erections, animals.  To say a Jew making a joke about death is not part of Jewish comedy because all human beings die, would be as absurd as saying “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth” is not an example of Jewish religion because none of the entities mentioned — God, the heavens, or the Earth — is a Jew.  (If you think God is a Jew you are an idolator and hence not Jewish.)

Perhaps we should interpret Dauber’s formulation — Jewish comedy has to deal with Jewish experience and Jewish history — as meaning Jewish comedy deals with experience and history in a distinctively Jewish fashion.  Maybe Dauber believes Jews worry about those questions in a particular Jewish way — for example Jews have a particular poignant sense of the distance between a transcendent God and suffering humanity, or Jews have a particular take on history as pointing towards an endlessly deferred Messiah, or Jews are particularly bookish. or maybe Jews have an ineffable particular vibe that if you are Jewish you can grok in on, and if not not.  

But if that’s so, why do so many non-Jews find Jewish humor funny?


Dauber’s approach is to sidestep these issues of definition and tell seven historical stories which define Jewish comedy in sweeping narratives from biblical times to the present.  The seven are:

1.Jewish comedy is a response to persecution and anti-Semitism

  1. Jewish comedy is a satirical gaze at Jewish social and communal norms.

3.Jewish comedy is bookish, witty, intellectual allusive play

  1. Jewish comedy is vulgar, raunchy, and body-obsessed.

5.Jewish comedy is mordant, ironic, and metaphysically oriented.

6.Jewish comedy is focused on the folksy, everyday, quotidian Jews.

  1. Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself.


Does this list help us get a bead on what the specifically Jewish nature of Jewish comedy is?  Obviously Jewish comedy is more concerned with anti-Semitism than Native American comedy, because by definition Jews are the targets of anti-Jewish hostility.  However under a broader description — the comedy of racial difference, or the comedy of being condescended to by an outside group — Navajos participate. And the more general categories — worrying about the mind and the body, noticing the difference between how people really are and how they pretend to be in society — this list isn’t specifically Jewish at all.  We still want to know what makes Jews mocking Jewish hypocrites different from Danes mocking Danish ones. (Other than that the Jews may find the word “prune Danish” funny and the Danes not so much.) What if anything is specifically Jewish about Jewish comedy?

As I’ve mentioned, Dauber, wisely avoids philosophical analysis in favor of historical storytelling.  In each of his chapters he starts in ancient times and spins a yarn bringing us to now: taking us from the Babylonian Talmud to the pegging episode of Broad City.  Each of them brings in the book of Esther what he calls “that grand unifying comic text of ours” [103] because it includes disguise and pretension, stupid gentile kings, sexy Jewish Queens, randomness, reversal, and a God who is only present by not being mentioned.

The sweeping historical narratives are impressive, interesting, well-informed but ultimately strike one (or me anyway) as a bit quixotic.  Quixotic because, well, is the Book of Esther actually funny? I would say resoundingly, no!, and not just because it raises the specter of the genocidal slaughter of non-Jews both in Esther’s time (over 75,000 of them) and in the time of Baruch Goldstein.  I also think it’s not funny because it just doesn’t seem funny — it seems to play in the gardens of the fairytale and romance rather than where the Marx brothers dwell. And there’s not much evidence that anybody from the past found it funny either. It’s associated with carnival, and the Russian critic Bakhtin (no connection with the hangnail medicine) connects comedy and carnival, but are carnivals funny?   They’re a time of dark lawlessness and masks, when weird things are afoot, but so is a Klan rally. Not to say that Purim parties are Klan rallies, but just that Bakhtin is describing anarchy and anarchy and the subversion of expectation is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for comedy. Tragedy and horror and revolution, scientific and political, all subvert expectation, but that doesn’t make them funny.



For me Dauber’s most promising thesis is his seventh one — that “Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself.”

Number seven is our best bet for a distinctively Jewish subject matter — the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness does seem like a distinctively Jewish take on life, one not shared by Danish or Inuit comedy.  But in this one the heat on his first stricture — Jewish comedy is comedy produced by Jews — causes that pot to boil over. Because in America today, what makes a Jew a Jew?

Dauber acknowledges this question is “dicey” and he quotes Jewish comedians of the modern era being all over the map on how Jewish their comedy is.  Groucho (who believed or claimed to believe that most people thought the Marx brothers were Italian) didn’t like being put in the Jewish box. “When one critic “anointed him the “symbolic embodiment of all persecuted Jews for 2000 years” Groucho carped, “What sort of goddammned review is that?” [255]  Mort Sahl said “I don’t have any kinship with a Jewish background.” On the other hand Saul Bellow thought there is something about the Jewish comic sensibility that is “characteristically Jewish”. “In them, laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two.” [Bellow quotes p. 190]  And for Mel Brooks

“comedy comes from the feeling that, as a Jew, and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society.  It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.” [259]

Brooks’ comment reveals something about the Jewish status as outsider a status reflected equally in their love of Jews, hatred of Jews, love of gentiles, and hatred of gentiles.  The Jewish vaudevillians Weber and fields would enter Ziegfield Follies “when they needed a big laugh right away, they’d enter singing “Here we are, an Irish pair” with their hands covering their noses.” [ 225]  At some point there was so much self-hating Jew-face going on that Jews needed to form an organization called the “Chicago Anti-Stage Jew ridicule committee” [226] Dauber has canny things to say about the potential hypocrisy of Jews clinging to their outsider status while at the same time having the benefits of being insiders, being oppresser’s who claim the prerogatives of victimhood.  As the joke goes, look who thinks they’re nothing! Can you be pretentious about how unpretentious you are? You betcha!

Dauber correctly notices ambivalence, skepticism and anxious comedy stalking the notion that Jews are a chosen people through history.  He channels the fear:

“Who are we kidding, what with the superiority complex.  Look at where they are and look at where we are: we’re history’s joke, not them.” [180]

And he notes the unique status in the ancient world of believing in a God that on a good day we can sass a little.  He recalls that Talmudic aggadah of sages ignoring a series of miracles rebutting their legal reasoning in favor of their legal reasoning.   Rabbi Natan wondered how God felt at having his miracles ignored and asked the prophet Elijah. Elijah replied that at that the “God laughed, saying “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” [182]

Very unusual!  In the Greco-Roman world when deities find something funny it’s time to run — your stew will turn out to be your kid or something similar.  And this sassing of the Creator continues to the modern era. Daubert tells the joke:

“A man went to his tailor and asked him to make him a suit.  The tailor told him to come back in six days. “Six days?” asked the buyer.  “So long? Why, God was able to make the world in six days!” “True,” replied the tailor, gesturing to his samples.  “But just look at he world–and look at these pants!”


Maybe Dauber is right and Groucho is wrong.  Maybe there is something uniquely Jewish in the Jewish take on the funny.  Maybe you could write a history of Jewish fear or Jewish horniness or Jewish love, and hence of Jewish comedy.  And if it’s possible to do it would that mean that I a Jew could open such a book — maybe Dauber’s — and figure out if the impulse to laugh I’m feeling now is distinctively Jewish?  What would that be like? Presumably it wouldn’t be that I’m laughing at hypocrisy, or the body, or the mismatch between the sufferings of life and the hopes of some day achieving a perfect world, because non-Jews could do that.  I would have to be able to learn from my history something about how I, a Jew found things funny, that helped explain me to myself. But what would that be like?

The puzzle of what makes our group special is just a more complicated version of the narcissistic conundrum that faces each of us one by one — what makes me special?    Can I tell if my love is the same sort of love that others feel or is it special love? Can I tell if my jokes are a sign that I know what’s funny or just that there’s something deeply wrong with me?  

It’s not a question I can answer by doing research.  I might be a weirdo, my feelings might separate me from my fellows, or I might be much more common than I thought, but learning that my father and grandfather were equally weird, or weird in the same, or a similar way, won’t tell me anything. It won’t tell me if I’m worthy of love.  It won’t tell me if my jokes are funny.

I learn if my jokes are funny by telling them.  And that’s risky! I could die up there! Or I could find that my weird obsessions with my body, or sex, or God, or the early 1970s television nature show Hodge Podge Lodge are shared.  Or maybe we should say by running the risk that I might die up there I cause them to be shared — the audience responds to me and I change them; they become something new.  In the same way I don’t know if I’m too weird or quirky to be loved by thinking about it, but by opening myself up to another person, risking rejection, asking for love.

So it is with Jewish comedy and Jewish jokes.  Maybe they were once just Jewish. But once Jews shared them and made other people, non-Jews laugh, they created a bond between Jews and non-Jews.  What once was Jewish became human and created a new world that could look back and say that Jewish comedy was funny all along.

Needless to say for the readers of this blog, that bond or bridge provokes anxiety at the same time as it soothes.  It makes us connect and feel less alone but also afraid that we are no longer so special.


Luckily Jewish comedy is also the solution to that anxiety.  Like that other Jewish invention — Christianity — it provides the cure for the disease it is.

Dauber writes:

“The great American  Yiddish humorist Moyshe Nadir (a pen name for Isaac Reiss, with the rough meaning of a gentler version of “up yours”) chronicled the tale of a man hired by an enterprising Jew to work at a picturesque locale that, to become a real tourist magnet, lacks only one thing: an echo effect.  The creative solution: hire someone to serve as said echo. The problem is that the employee gets carried away, and so when someone shouts “How are you?” the echo replies, “Not bad, and how’s by you?” [83]

In this audio version of the Duck Soup mirror routine a man doing a weird thing, pretending to be an echo, becomes less weird when he stops pretending to be a copy and instead responds.  That actually makes him less weird.

So you could say in answer to our initial puzzle that the distinctively Jewish thing is to be a vulnerable people who stand apart, seduced by and afraid of their fellow non-Jews.   This apartness causes us to look at the world in two ways — as vulnerable, separate Jews and as humans. And that distinctively Jewish doubleness in turn is what makes us like everybody else.  

Because everybody else is in the same boat, though some may be slow on the uptake.   Non-Jews also feel like they are the center of the world and have to learn that they aren’t.  Non-Jews also want to be safe but aren’t. And non-Jews like Jews have to more forward despite this vulnerability, as Kierkegaard puts it “by virtue of the absurd”.  And he was not just not Jewish,he was really non-Jewish. Scandinavian.

What is weird and distinctive about Jews and their sense of humor — our perilous position in history, our dramatic on-again off-again relationship with the ultimate bad boyfriend, God — is thus shared by everybody.  Oddly the question we started with –what is it, if anything, that makes Jewish comedy unique — is like the question — am I like you?


The Smith Woman and the Relict of the Tan Man – PART TWO

She had an interesting story about how she came to have this sort of capacity for solving problems directly, physical courage, and an unsettling gaze.  During the Civil Disturbance of twenty years or so ago (before the Reboot) she had been born in a small room to two young parents.  As she grew up she realized that the room was in fact a panic room and her parents were the surviving mother of a family who had been killed in a home invasion and the house cook.  When she and her parents emerged and reclaimed the house this gave her a perspective on the topsy-turvy labile nature of human social relationships; what the men of the middle ages called the wheel of Fortuna that spins leaving a man one day the owner of a mansion the next a criminal in a work gang in Alaska.

While she was growing up in the Panic Room the Smith woman had come across a piece of fabric that she believed belonged to her true father, and the notion that a true father existed outside the panic room and that he would one day save him kept hope alive during many a difficult moment.  Upon her release she realized that this scrap of fabric did not belong to her father at all but to a figure at once more mysterious and more familiar.  During one drunken night as we watched cartoons on a barge headed towards freedom she told me who the relict had actually belonged to…



The Smith Woman and the Relict of the Tan Man

My old job had a pretty serious sexual harassment problem and one of the executive assistants who was an excellent athlete dealt with it with physical violence which made me her biggest fan.  We had a leering director of indirect reports and he came up behind her when she was at the copy machine and she punched him twice, -once in the throat which made him double over and gag and then once in his nose which broke it.  She drank more wine at work than was consistent with company policy and was put on leave and ultimately found another job but the director actually changed his behavior and in fact never could breathe quite properly afterwards which I think.  Her name was Smith.  I think he came up behind her from behind because he couldn’t stand her piercing skeptical gaze.



The Face of the Rock

A lot of people have started saying that the Spherical Perfect Being of the Stoickal philosophy has no face because it is everywhere, nobody needs to look at it.

I think that when you smash a rock each of the bits has many faces.

“It’s good.  The rain is needed.  We need rain.”

A lot of of people have started saying that of course when you have a face and you smile and the person smiles back at you it is like two organs within the body exchanging chemical signals.  Because, as a lot of people are saying, human being is a multiple-bodied social organism.  After all, as a lot of people say, Aristotle says, a man who can live alone is either a beast or a god.

I think when you smash something into many faces not all of the faces are human — if you keep smashing it to dust and you look at the dust under a microscope you will see some of the faces are animal faces.  Some of the faces are gods.  Some of them are actually spheres that seem to be the spherical perfect being.  but are not.

I think when you look at them under the microscope they are pollen.  The pollen which the stoics called “LOGOI SPERMATIKOI” — sperms of reason — are pieces of an ecocystem which is the wind and the flowers in the field.

Man is a tree in the field.

“I’m happy it is raining.”


“You’re Stupid” “You’re Crazy” “You’re Evil”

A recent article in the New Yorker by Paul Bloom (The Root of All Cruelty?) argues against the view that cruel people view their victims as sub-humans.  No, the writer argues — the whole point of cruel people is they view their victims as humans.  That’s why they feel the need to push them around, denigrate them, subjugate them and kill them.  If they thought their victims were just malfunctioning robots or bad dogs the perpetrators wouldn’t be so exercised about them.  The evil view their victims a a human threat.

True enough.   “You’re an animal” is just one of the put-downs humans use to justify dominating and hurting other humans.  Others are “You’re stupid” “You’re crazy” and “you’re evil.”

In certain moods it feels to me like “crazy” “evil” and “stupid” don’t mean anything at all — they are just verbal weapons people use as a way of inflicting psychological hurt, or smoothing the skids to inflicting physical hurt, or death.

But at other times I think there must be some objective reality there because I’ve caught myself being stupid crazy or evil, or thinking or doing stupid,evil, or crazy things.

How can craziness, stupidity, and evil be both weapons and accurate linguistic tools of self-diagnosis?


Public Prayer

I’ve noticed that in our society spiritual practices — prayer, meditation — are either done in private or in some sort of organizational, institutional structure.  The problem with privacy is it tends to be lonely, and to close us in on ourselves.  The problem with organizations is that they tend to be pretty boring, and they impose their own groupthink agenda.  At the best they promote their own self-perpetuation, at the worst they’re cults.

When I was in a bus terminal once a guy came up to me and asked me to pray with him.  The problem was he was trying to convert me to his religion.  But the thought was nice.

I wonder what would happen if we started approaching each other in Starbucks and on the street and said “I’m not trying to convert you to anything.  But would you like to take a moment to pray together, or spiritually center ourselves together?”



Unacceptable Homework for A High School Girl

The Countess Lurlena von Apfelesser, known as Lulu to her friends took steps to fire Mr. Grogonia the teacher of Old Slavonic because she believed he was seducing her daughter by means of homework assignments.  For example:

Homework for tomorrow.  Translate the following sentence into Slavonic.

1.Inflamed by the odor of the pineapple the bear did great damage to the vacation hut of the sub-adjutant.

Why would Lily, Lulu’s daughter, at the tender age of seventeen need to translate statements about untrammeled lusts and destructive desires?  Was it not clear that in his allegory the lecherous Grogonia had figured male lasciviousness by a bear, and her own daughter’s winsome chastity ripe for plucking by a pineapple fruit?

The Countess grabbed the assignment from her daughter’s hand and over coffee perorated her friends, Taffi and Deshie.

Is this not the essence of the debauched culture of the Slavones, which made them an uneasy addition to the empire?  For the Countess could talk of reproduction without smirking — she could call a knob a “knob” and a purse a “purse”.  But she and her mother and her Grandmother the Arch-Countess of Old Saxony did not call the knob  a weasel, a bear, a hussar or a burning fire, and did not call the purse a rose, a grotto, a maelstrom or a dream.  And her daughter should not either.

The formidable Lulu spoke to Mr. Dax the headmaster who spoke to the Slavonic teacher.  He promised to do better — he needed a job — and the next homework assignment was from the Holy Books of the Slavonic Church.

Translate into Slavonic:

  1. Ignore the body and keep your eyes on heaven for the pleasures of the body are fleeting and misleading, like snows in spring, like the smiles of dreams on the lips of the unfortunate.

“I will not be mocked by a schoolteacher!” railed the Countess after school.

“But Countess, it is scripture.” implored Grogonio. “It offers arguments for a chaste life, which is most appropriate for the young lady.”

“I am not a fool.  Do you think I was born yesterday not to realize that the quickest path to sweetening a fruit is the forbidding of it?  Am I a lamb for you to shear me, or a pony for you to ride me, or a bee for you to squeeze honey from my hindquarters?  Do you think I don’t realize that to describe pleasures as fleeting like the snow in spring is turning the syllables of language into a waltz to set my daughter’s heart racing.”

“I apologize. I am a simple man.”

“Sometimes the simple are the masks for the complicated, as purity and honesty are the subtlest stratagems of vice.  You are warned, school master.  I will read my daughter’s homework assignment tomorrow and if all is not proper and free from innuendo I will crash myself upon your wretched life.  Like thunder.”

“Countess, you will be pleased.”

The third homework assignment read:

Translate into Slavonic.

1+1 =2.

A newspaper article in the Galicianer Zeitung read that overcome by nervous exhaustion the Countess threw herself to her death into a gorge.  Her husband, Count Von Apfelesser,upon hearing the news, challenged their daughter’s teacher to a duel and ran him through with a rapier.    It was an extremely passionate scandal to afflict such a well-revered house.  Everyone talked about it throughout the rest of the spring and well into the summer.

Taffi asked Deshie at the funeral how it could have happened that their friend had given everything up for love.  Deshie wondered whether way, way back, many generations ago, one member of the house of Apfelfesser had not, perhaps, been Slavonic.