Defining humor of any kind is a bad business to be in. The minute you lay down a rule, you can be sure that some schmuck will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Ahem. What about Danny Kaye? Nahman of Bratslav? How could you leave out Larry David? Are you joking?” Like a wannabe stand-up comic on his first open-mike night, all we can do is try.
What makes a joke, or story, or television episode qualify as Jewish humor is not–cannot be–just that it was created by a Jew. (If that were the case, some enormous percentage of all comedic American TV shows and movies would qualify.) There must be something inherently Jewish about Jewish humor. And so, while there is no single infallible determinant of the Jewishness of a joke, we can perhaps describe the tendencies, stylistics, even poetics of Jewish humor.
First and foremost, Jewish humor snickers in the face of authority. This tendency dates back to the first recorded laughter in the scriptural tradition, in Genesis 18:12, when the mother of the Jewish people, Sarah, laughs at the notion, delivered by divine messenger, that she will conceive a child in her dotage. Sarah’s laughter is, in effect, a minor rebellion against God, who proceeds to chew her out: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” And so, the subversive tradition of Jewish humor began.
A few thousand years later, in the 19th and especially 20th centuries, Jewish humor perpetuated this trend by tittering across all sacred boundaries. Practitioners of such transgressive Jewish humor include Franz Kafka, whose darkly comic stories ridicule the all-powerful bureaucracies of the modern state; Lenny Bruce, whose obscenities and profanities irked 1960s censors and landed him in jail; and, more recently, Jon Stewart, the Daily Show host who spends a half hour each weeknight cutting up politics and politicians.
Some linguists have gone so far as to suggest that the vernacular inventiveness of the entire Yiddish language can be regarded as a beautiful satire on the formality of German–a comic power that carries over into what Yiddish maven Leo Rosten calls “Yinglish.” As we all know, if you want to take a highfalutin word down a peg, you can simply add the typical Yiddish prefix “shm-” as an alte kocker–roughly translated as “old fart”–might: “Seriousness, shmeriousness!”
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