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Jewish comedians have made significant contributions to American popular culture. Jewish comic geniuses such as Harold Lloyd, Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Sid Ceasar, Lennie Bruce, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Alan King, Gilda Radner, and Jerry Seinfeld, to name but a few, have enriched the nation’s culture by allowing Americans to laugh at themselves.
With the exception of Lloyd, Burns, and Seinfeld, the majority of successful American Jewish comedians attained popularity by fulfilling widely accepted ethnic Jewish stereotypes, or by employing a manic, burlesque style of humor. In the first half of the twentieth century, these expectations were almost impossible for Jewish comics to escape. No career illustrates the limits and possibilities of being a Jewish comedian better than that of Fanny Brice.
Born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1891, the third of four children of saloon-owning immigrant parents, Fania Borach chose a performer’s career early in life. Historian Barbara Grossman notes that, in an era that typically based entertainment on ethnic stereotypes such as the drunken Irishman, the ignorant Pole or the Yiddish-accented greenhorn, Brice’s “Semitic looks” slotted her into Jewish roles. Despite her efforts to succeed as a serious actress and singer, Brice–who spoke no Yiddish–rose to stardom performing comedy with a Yiddish accent. Just as Al Jolson donned blackface to make his mark in show business, Brice affected a Yiddish background she did not possess.
In 1908, dropping out of school after the eighth grade, the gangly, strong-voiced Fanny Borach worked as a chorus girl in a burlesque review. By the end of that year, she changed her last name to Brice. Grossman speculates that Fanny probably changed her name to escape limited Jewish stage roles. Ironically, a year later, she would make her first Broadway mark in a musical comedy, The College Girls, singing Irving Berlin’s “Sadie Salome, Go Home” with a put-on Yiddish accent while dancing a parody of the seductive veil dance in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome. Her act brought down the house. Despite her desire for universality, Brice found her niche as a “Jewish” entertainer.