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‘A stiff-necked people’: Jews and the comedy of transgression

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James Harris reflects on the tradition of transgressive Jewish comedy.

‘Störenfried’ is not one of those German words which have made the transition to English, but it’d merit it; a ‘Störenfried’ is a troublemaker, someone who disturbs the peace. As somebody who performed comedy for twenty years, I can’t help noticing that, in the world of stand-up comedy, it’s often a Jewish person playing that role. Lenny Bruce getting arrested for his act, Joan Rivers swearing 13 times in seven minutes at the Royal Variety performance, Mort Sahl trashing his career over speaking out on the Kennedy assassination – it’s often a Jew who, in a comic sense, puts the cat amongst the pigeons. Of course, we could just say that this is because there are just a lot of Jews doing comedy in the first place – in 1979, Time magazine estimated 80% of American comics were Jewish, and the figure is today surely comparable – meaning there are bound to be Jews creating every type of comedy, from the scandalous to the milquetoast; no-one is going to take Jerry Seinfeld for a provocateur. Nonetheless, it’s fun to speculate if there is something deeper at play in Jewish culture here and if something of a ‘transgressive tradition’ exists in Jewish humour.

There aren’t obvious reasons for it in Judaism itself. Classical Jewish religious teaching holds that lashon hara, scandalmongering, is a worse sin than murder or idolatry. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether the scandal being raised is true – which all puts the scandal-mongering comedian in a difficult position. Or could we argue that such comedians are engaged in a campaign against another Jewish sin, the worshipping of false idols? We might also point to the Eastern European Yiddish tradition of the Badchen, the master of ceremonies at a Jewish wedding who guided the bride and groom through the wedding with singing and social commentary. I suspect, though, that the last thing you wanted from a Badchen was edgy material.

From a secular perspective, there are robust traditions within the Jewish history of free speech, just as there are strong traditions of condemning speech that presents Jews in a bad light, as writers like Philip Roth and Tony Judt discovered. A more obvious answer as to why Jews transgress in comedy is that diaspora Jews are a minority; if you are already a marginalized figure, you are likely to feel there is less to lose in saying the unsayable. Still, the same could be said about African American comedians, another historically oppressed minority that is well-represented in comedy. And yet, to my eyes, there remains a difference in tone. Certainly, great Black comedians like Richard Pryor and Patrice O’Neal shock and provoke their audiences – but the difference with their Jewish peers is their enormous personal charm. You’d want to grab a drink with peak Eddie Murphy; less so any era of Larry David. Josh Howie, a British-Jewish comedian who has played to both Black and Jewish audiences, has ironically found Black audiences more supportive of his more outrageous material. He agrees that there is something fundamental to the Jewish culture of a desire to provoke; a heightened comfort, perhaps, with being prickly and dislikeable, and an almost biological need to disrupt.

An argument that there is something cultural about Jewish comics transgressing is that even as Jews have become more integrated and accepted in Anglo-American public life, Jewish performers have continued to find new ways to transgress, often with explicitly Jewish content. The last truly shocking comedy show I saw in the UK was from Candy Gigi, a British Jewish performer who absolutely bombards festival crowds with smut, slapstick and vegetable. Candi’s act elevates the Jewish cliché of the ravenous bride or Bat Mitzvah princess to something gigantic and grotesque, making us laugh long before we’ve considered the implications. She takes a similar attitude to audience participation, forcing sometimes reluctant audience members to participate in filthy sketches and songs. And she can sing.

This tendency of Jewish comedians to exhibit their grotesque side might be put down to their fabled penchant for self-examination (as in Jackie Mason’s celebrated gag about the Jew in the restaurant asking: ‘Do I like this?’). And certainly at one time, one of the most shocking potential attitudes for any act was complete self-revelation – think of Sandra Bernhard’s unapologetic 1980s appearances. But that’s now old hat – your average aspiring comedian open-mic comedian will tell you more personal details about their life in five minutes than your partner in a year. More convincing to me is whether the intellectual aspects of Judaism and Jewish life – studying the Torah as a mitzvot – are a happy crossover with the very intellectual business of working out what’s transgressive in comedy. A comedian who works out how to shock jaded, seen-it-all audiences in this day and age is a true thinker of comedy; they have worked out, as Josh Howie has it, how to wake up their audience. Yet what is transgressive dates quickly; Sarah Silverman’s jokes about racial stereotypes were shocking for their early-2000s moment but are now only nostalgic emblems of the Gervais-Boyle era of ‘ironic shock’. Like Boyle, Silverman has shifted away from her earlier tone to something more in dialogue with intersectional identity politics, which could at present be described as the ideological ‘mood music’ of the comedy scene. And sure enough, taking on the shibboleths of ‘woke’ culture has in recent years been a real growth area in comedy.

It comes as no surprise then to find that Konstantin Kisin, one of the hosts of the ‘honest conversation’ podcast TRIGGERnometry, is himself the UK Jewish Comedian of the Year for 2018. On his show, a range of guests interviewees frankly discuss topics such as trans rights, Covid vaccination and race politics – the contentious ones, then. Konstantin himself sees his Jewishness as only tangential, and his own politics as an attempt to move the discussion on from defining people via identity, a stance which, it could be argued, has itself become contrarian. Speaking personally, the evident blind spot of many on the social justice left, comedians included, to antisemitism has left me more receptive to the mockery of social justice movements, and more suspicious of contemporary mores around racism than I would otherwise have been. If satire is inevitably drawn to hypocrisy it will find fertile territory in those who condemn racism while displaying a persistent lack of awareness of the anti-Jewish variety.

But again, what’s considered transgressive fades fast. Peak ‘wokeism’ has arguably already passed, and the anti-woke industry is now in real danger of oversubscription, with denouncing social justice politics rapidly becoming as much comedy cliché as espousing them. So where is the transgressive at right now? Perhaps you could even argue that in an age where everything is being politicized Jerry Seinfeld’s obsessive focus on minutiae is a radical stance. Or that audiences would once again be unmoored by the insistence on the capricious absurdity of an Andy Kaufman. The common thread in all of the above is that the transgressive comedian is one who risks their audience not liking them, and at heart what this reveals is the comedian’s – Jewish or otherwise – desperate need to be loved. The comedian who transgresses is getting up and saying that, no matter what I say, no matter how awful a truth I voice, you are all still listening and you are all still laughing; you find my darkest thoughts funny. In this level of conviction of one’s own value in the face of harsh truths, I think we can see the shades of a very different aspect of Jewish tradition – the Messianic.

Many Jewish comedians, I suspect, want to become the Messiah by being naughty boys.

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Born in Nottingham in 1982, James Harris is a writer and comedian resident in London.
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Shane Thomas
Shane Thomas
29 days ago

They’re not stand-ups, but I’m curious where in the continuum of Jewish comedy one would put Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, specifically regarding their show, Broad City?

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