1950s Jewish Humor

The 1950s: Reiner & Brooks, Sid Caesar, MAD, and Lenny Bruce

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

Jews have revolutionized American comedy. The comic books you collected, the funny movie or the sitcom you saw the other night--all have been shaped by Jewish humorists who have transformed the comedy industry since the 1950s. Jewish writers, in particular, have been the driving force in rocking the comedy boat, fueled by their "outsider" vantage point, street-smart creativity, and outsized chutzpah.

"Jew Comics" to Jewish Comedy

"With the collapse of vaudeville, new talent has no place to stink." --George Burns
 
Before World War II, the Jewish presence in the comedic entertainment world was marked by humiliating self-caricature. Jews such as Jack Pearl, who played radio's Baron Munchausen, and Al Shean of the comedy team "Gallagher and Shean" performed on the radio and in vaudeville, often wearing the accoutrements of the baggy-pants clown.
mad magazine 
"There were comedians called 'Jew Comics,'" explains legendary comedian and filmmaker Carl Reiner. "They wore derbies and talked with a thick accent." Such self-caricature was acceptable "until Hitler came along," Reiner explains, "and then all of the Jewish accents disappeared, because we realized we were giving fodder to the enemy."
 
This fear of being laughable spread to the forefront of the Borscht Belt itself, explains writer and historian Moshe Waldoks, co-author with William Novak of The Big Book of Jewish Humor. "In 1947, there was a debate in The Contemporary Record [the magazine that preceded Commentary] between [comedians] Myron Cohen and Sam Levenson on the subject of dialects. Sam Levenson thought the Jewish dialect was demeaning, particularly after what had just happened in Europe. Myron Cohen's retort was basically, 'It's only demeaning if you're trying to demean,' which he never did, with his use of accents."
 
As apprehension over the use of accents persisted, dialect comedians such as Myron Cohen became an increasingly rare breed.
 
It was this fear that kept Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks from recording "The Two Thousand Year Old Man," who had a strong Yiddish accent. For 10 years the two had been performing the act privately at friends' houses.
 
Reiner and Brooks turned down numerous offers from fellow Jewish performers to make it a more permanent work. Finally, in 1960, Steve Allen, a non-Jew, convinced Reiner and Brooks to record the routine. "He offered to pay for the recording session," Reiner remembers, "saying, 'You guys listen to it; if you don't like it, burn it or throw it away. But at least put it down.' And the next thing you know, it's up for a Grammy!"

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Arie Kaplan

Arie Kaplan is the author of the critically-acclaimed nonfiction book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (JPS). He's also a comic book writer and a screenwriter. Recently, Arie wrote the story and dialogue for the upcoming House M.D. videogame. Please check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.