1950s Jewish Humor

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

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Beyond the Borscht Belt

"Jews of my era don't know what it would be like to be a Norman Rockwell non-Jew. We grew up feeling like outsiders. It's the difference between being in the ballgame and sitting in the bleachers." --Larry Gelbart
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, new avenues opened up for Jewish artists. Longtime MAD magazine writer/cartoonist Al Jaffee, for example, had been relegated to kiddie comic books before the war, but after 1945 he started to get magazine work for publications such as Trump, Humbug, and The Realist.
"Before World War II," he explains, "10,000 Ku Klux Klanners could march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington with impunity. Banks didn't hire Jews, and hotels would post 'Restricted' signs, which meant 'No Jews Need Apply.' Suddenly, the peacetime economy kicked in. Jews were running into much less discrimination. That's when Jews started to break away and get into advertising, radio, and early television."
In the late '40s, Jewish road comedians were an obscure breed; with the advent of television, they could became instant celebrities. But performing in virtually every American household forced them to adapt their acts for a more "mainstream" audience.
"Borscht Belt humor in the Catskill Mountains resorts of New York had been a more regional kind of comedy," explains Waldoks. "Post-WWII, it became 'de-Jew-ified,' or 'Pareve-ised,' to reach out to a larger audience. From a sociological point of view, in many ways this shift represents the beginning of America becoming more Jewish and Jews becoming less Jewish."
A scene from Admiral Broadway Review, with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca     

The Sid Caesar Legacy

Brad Darrach: "Is it true that everybody hated you on Your Show of Shows?"
Mel Brooks: "Everybody hated everybody. We robbed from the rich and kept everything."
--Playboy interview, 1975
Meanwhile, a versatile young musician-turned-comic named Sid Caesar was starring in a series of ambitious revues in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains produced by the brilliant comedy impresario Max Liebman. In 1949, Caesar and Liebman were tapped by NBC to adapt their show for television. The result, the Admiral Broadway Review, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, ran for only 19 weeks--but from its demise emerged Your Show of Shows.
Bolstered by a powerhouse group of writers (including Mel Brooks and Neil Simon) who will go down in history as the Round Table to Caesar's King Arthur, Your Show of Shows featured everything from sly social commentary to parodies of highbrow culture, such as opera and foreign art films. It remains the standard by which all other sketch comedy shows are measured.
While Your Show of Shows never directly addressed Jewish issues or topics (very few television shows did at the time), the sketches often contained Jewish references. "Caesar did a Japanese character named 'Taka Meshuga,'" Waldoks says, "which in Yiddish means 'Really Crazy.' Of course people in Iowa had no idea what Taka Meshuga meant. It sounds Japanese. So it was a wink, a way of coming out every week and saying, 'We know you're out there. And we're here.'"
Your Show of Shows was replaced in 1954 by Caesar's Hour, and Larry Gelbart (later known for the TV series M*A*S*H and the film Tootsie) joined the writing team. The Jewish background of most of the writers had a significant influence on the show, Gelbart says. "Whatever makes us what we are, that's what worked its way in--that sense of irony, a sense of caustic wit, of defensive wit, offensive wit, all the tools that 3,000 years of getting kicked in the yarmulke will instill in you."

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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.