1950s Jewish Humor

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

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Magazine MADness & the New Comedy

The mold for the modern American humor magazine was cast in downtown Manhattan. MAD made its debut in 1952 as a comic book (it became a magazine in 1955 to avoid censorship) founded by Jewish "red diaper baby" Harvey Kurtzman, an eccentric iconoclast who inspired fierce loyalty among his admirers.
 
From the start, says longtime MAD contributor and New Yorker cartoonist Paul Peter Porges, MAD had its roots in a proud tradition of Jewish American comedy. "When you analyze it, Jewish humor in America is distinct for one simple reason: it's urban. And urban immediately means smart-ass."
 
MAD's satirical irreverence proved to be an immediate hit among children and young teens, much to their parents' dismay. This pulpy 10-cent comic magazine influenced an entire generation of burgeoning hipsters and future hippies who didn't yet have a counterculture to call their own. "Remember," says Porges, "this was the period of McCarthy hearings, the Cold War; those kids were Leave It To Beaver kind of people. And that's the first time they really knew that parents, teachers, people lie. MAD parodied advertisements, commercials, and told you that you were being lied to. And kids loved it."
 
Later in the '50s, adults would come to love the magazine as well, not least because of contributions by Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Tom Lehrer, and other Jewish comedic geniuses.

Lenny Bruce

In 1953, a new magazine called Playboy opened another channel for young Jewish comics, among them Lenny Bruce, whose brash humor shocked audiences.
 
In one of his most famous routines, first printed in Playboy, Bruce differentiates between "Jewish and Goyish": "In the literate sense--as literate as Yiddish can be, since it is not a formal language--'goyish' means 'gentile.' But that's not the way I mean to use it. To me, if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you're going to be goyish even if you're Jewish.... Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word. Mr. and Mrs. Walsh are celebrating Christmas with Major Thomas Moreland, USAF (Ret.), while Mr. and Mrs. Bromberg observed Hanukkah with Goldie and Arthur Schindler from Kiamesha, New York."
 
Bruce's brand of comedy--along with Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May--took comedy to a new edge.
 
"It was beginning to be more than just insults about your mother-in-law," comments Larry Gelbart. "The original comedy writers of burlesque and vaudeville and early radio tended to be street guys, first generation, invariably Jewish, who weren't as conversant with themselves or the world around them as subsequent generations proved to be. Through education, through psychoanalysis, through becoming insiders rather than outsiders, commenting on the national scene--that's when it happened."
 
In 1958, stand-up comic and future Lenny Bruce biographer Paul Krassner created The Realist, which gained a huge following among the urban counterculture crowd. The humor magazine featured satirical essays, columns, and cartoons on topics such as McCarthyism, gays in the military, and drug addiction among Vietnam veterans.
 
The Realist also contained frequent contributions by two of Krassner's more controversial friends: Lenny Bruce, who wrote scathing pieces on censorship; and antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did not take kindly to Krassner. In 1968 he organized a smear campaign against the publisher and other Jews associated with The Realist, including radicals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, printing their likenesses on a WANTED poster decorated with swastikas. The Realist finally folded in December 2000, outlasting Hoover by decades.

This piece originally appeared as "Wizards of Wit: How Jews Revolutionized Comedy in America, Part I: 1950-1969 From Self-Caricature to Self-Confidence" in the Winter 2001 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. 

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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.