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“‘They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore’: The Musical Humor of Kinky Friedman and His Texas Jewboys in Historical and Geographical Perspective”
Born in Chicago in 1944, Richard S. Friedman moved to Kerrville, Texas, with his parents in 1953, and graduated from high school in Austin in 1962. While majoring in psychology at the University of Texas, he maintained the musical activities that had earlier been his recreational outlet (Country/Western bands) and was dubbed “Kinky” (for his curly hair) by one of his band members. After two years in the Peace Corps in Borneo, he founded “Kinky Friedman and His Texas Jewboys” in 1971, and created a sensation—from his shocking parodies of mainstream Country music (“Asshole From El Paso”) to his poignantly satirical commentary on the Holocaust (“Ride ’em, Jewboy”).
For the past two decades, Kinky Friedman has been active as a novelist (detective stories, set in New York and featuring himself), political satirist, tongue-in-cheek candidate, and professional “personality.”
This paper will examine and evaluate Kinky Friedman’s activities as a musical humorist in the historical and cultural context of Jewish heritage in modern Texas, from alcalde Adolphus Sterne in Nacogdoches in the 1820s, through the European immigration during and after World War II, to immigrants from elsewhere in the United States in the 1950s and beyond.
“‘One Clove Away From a Pomander Ball’: The Subversive Tradition of Jewish Female Humor”
While the predominance of Jews in American comedy is widely known, few acknowledge the important tradition of Jewish women’s comedy. Yet Jewish women comedians have been found in every corner of American culture—vaudeville, burlesque, radio, television, legitimate theater, film, and stand-up comedy. Although they share a comedic heritage with Jewish male comedians, Jewish female comedians are different.
This presentation will discuss the many ways in which Jewish women comedians have been subversive and transformative. It will incorporate clips from the Jewish Women’s Archive’s path-breaking film, Making Trouble, about three generations of women comedians. Whether they are openly rebellious, using bawdy, sexually frank routines in the manner of Sophie Tucker, Belle Barth, Joan Rivers, and Sarah Silverman, or employ more gentle, innocent humor, like Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Leibman, these comedians stretch the boundaries of conventional comedy and gender roles.
“Why Did the Widow Have a Goat in Her Bed? Midrash and the Making of Jewish Humor”
For the rabbis, the midrashic hermeneutic was one of the key methodologies they used to understand the world, not only to read the Bible, but also to derive new knowledge of any kind. It should not surprise us, then, if this hermeneutic permeated even their humor. In this paper, I show that the rabbis applied the midrashic hermeneutic not just to texts (biblical and later rabbinic), but even to the texts of their own lives, and often intentionally to comic effect. The rabbis use the same methodologies they honed so well in their analysis of the Bible to problem solve their lives or to tell a joke.
I begin my analysis by providing evidence that the rabbis applied the midrashic hermeneutic beyond the domain of biblical exegesis. After analyzing some of the key elements that comprise the midrashic hermeneutic, I show that these same elements operate in rabbinic humor. I provide three passages that clearly have a punch line, all of which use the midrashic hermeneutic to make the joke. I conclude by showing that this hermeneutic continued to be a major aspect of Jewish humor even into contemporary times, as exemplified by two short clips from the Marx Brothers.
“The Bad Girls of Jewish Comedy: Gender, Class, Assimilation, and Whiteness in Post WWII America”
Giovanna Del Negro
This presentation will explore the comedy of Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, and Patsy Abbott, a trio of working class Jewish stand-up comics that were hugely popular in the late-1950s. This period was one in which Jews saw upward mobility, suburbanization, a changing racial identity, and pressures to assimilate. Recuperating the contributions of these neglected figures in the history of American performance, the presentation will show how the trio's bawdy humor negotiated these social transformations and offers insights into class, Jewish ethnicity, and whiteness.
“You Had to Be There: A Preliminary Taxonomy of Narrative Humor in Rabbinic Literature”
Almost all narrative, even if it is of a sacred nature, has elements of humor. Rabbinic narrative is no exception. Some of the folk humor in rabbinic literature has been studied and analyzed. However, little work has been done on other types of humor in rabbinic sources.
This paper will focus on two types of rabbinic humor: humorous narratives that concern the sages themselves and dark humor. Both of these forms of rabbinic humor include elements of what Freud calls “tendency-wit,” in that they are intended to further an agenda of the narrator. Given that “tendency-wit” usually is an expression of anger or aggression, or at least of a critical stance, we should not be surprised to find this in rabbinic narratives of this type as well. By analyzing examples of each of these types of humorous narratives, an attempt will be made to identify some of the motives underlying rabbinic humor of the two types being considered. In the case of dark humor, consideration will be given to the question of whether there are theologically subversive elements in the narrative. Finally, some attention will be given to the question of whether there is anything about the humor in rabbinic literature, either in the humor itself or the context in which it appears, that can be thought of as being distinctively rabbinic.
“The New Jewish Blackface: African American Tropes in Contemporary Jewish Humor”
Jewish American leaders have often maintained an identification between the struggles of Jewish and African Americans, yet the historical record of Jewish/black relations often undermines this claim. Michael Rogin, for example, has argued that in the early twentieth century, Jewish entertainers donned blackface as a strategy to participate in the racial othering of African Americans and thus pave the way for their own claim to white identity. Nearly a century later, Jews have successfully assimilated into “white” America, and African Americans remain a distinct ethnic “other,” yet Jewish comedians are again employing black images in their works.
On Curb Your Enthusiasm, for instance, Larry David’s on-screen persona frequently forms closer bonds with African Americans than he does with the Jews and whites that surround him. Sarah Silverman and British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (on The Sarah Silverman Show and Da Ali G Show, respectively) take this one step further, often “playing black” themselves by either literally wearing black makeup or by appropriating stereotypical African American clothing and mannerisms. All three humorists approach their material in a “tongue-in-cheek” manner, suggesting a hyper-awareness of both the complex history of these racial representations and their ability to offend. But despite the impulse of contemporary Jewish humorists to couch their images of blackness in a knowing irony, I argue that the new Jewish blackface reflects a real anxiety that many contemporary Jews feel about being classified as undifferentiated whites.
In the early 1500s, a small volume, titled the “Babylonia Talmud, Tractate Purim,” was published in Pesaro, Italy. This work was an extraordinarily clever parody of the Babylonian Talmud, written in perfect Talmudic Aramaic and re-working familiar sections from the real Talmud. The rabbinic authorities who are cited all bear appropriately artificial names: R. Shikran (Rabbi Drunkard) or R. Hamran (Rabbi Wine-maker).
What does this remarkable piece of rabbinic self-parody tell us both as a piece of art in itself and as a reflection of Jewish society in early modern Italy? On the one hand, the parody is such a perfect reflection of Talmudic discourse that it could have been written only by an insider. By that same token, however, it could only be appreciated by a rabbinic insider, someone who was already familiar with the Talmud.
According to several theories of humor, such parodies are often a way for some segments of society safely to express criticism or even condemnation of other segments in society. What sense can we make, then, of such a parody? This paper will look at the construction of “Tractate Purim” and adduce from it some sense of the larger rabbinic and social context out of which it appeared.
“Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Karl: Immigrant Humor and the Depression”
This paper presents an analysis of the Marx Brother’s films of the 1930s as part of a broader movement that Michael Denning has called the “Cultural Front,” which served as a compliment to political and economic radicalism during the Depression. The emergence of the “talkie” film added a new medium to theater, radio, vaudeville, and the visual arts and increased the opportunities for the transfer of immigrant and, in this case, Jewish humor from the confines of the big city ghetto to a much larger audience. The oddities of ghetto language and the paucity of material life are juxtaposed to the linguistic pretensions and overblown stylistic décor of the bourgeois world of the opera, the university, and the health spa.
Despite emerging from a growing corporatism in Hollywood, these films focused on the tensions generated by the pull of tradition and the push of assimilation into the larger culture, which seemed to limit existential possibilities to continued life in the ghetto, immersion in bourgeois culture, or, as in the case of every character portrayed by Groucho, life on the edge of both worlds. The Marx Brothers formed part of the vanguard of Jewish comedians whose humor reflected the everyday life of poor immigrants and contained an intrinsic and class-based critique of privilege in American life.
The presentation will include appropriate selections from films and recordings of the 1930s.
“Humor in the Bible”
Charles David Isbell
Understanding the world of the Bible can seem daunting for those of us who live in the twenty-first century. Not only are we confronted with an ancient language radically different from modern, especially western tongues, but we also face a bewildering assortment of customs and cultural conventions that often leave us clueless. And the content of biblical literature is so very serious. We are reading about God Almighty here, about sin, trials of faith, truth and justice, heaven and earth. There is obviously little that is humorous in such subjects.
But once in a while the veil lifts, and we see that even holy ancient narrators could not always resist the outrageously funny angles of a story. In this paper, I want to examine three such instances. The first is the picture of a sober religious professional, in fact the father of all priests, Aaron himself, explaining with a straight face that he simply tossed a few miscellaneous pieces of jewelry onto a fire and, presto-chango, a golden calf emerged. This is surely a greater miracle than has been previously recognized!
The second story describes a dumb animal, an ass no less, that not only has greater spiritual perspicacity than an internationally famous “seer,” the redoubtable Bil‘am, but also speaks fluent biblical Hebrew.
Third, we are given the tongue-in-cheek picture of the Yao Ming of his day, King Saul, who towered over everyone in the kingdom from the shoulders up, attempting to disguise himself by the simple means of changing his suit.
To be sure, each of these stories deals with matters of utmost gravity, which the comic relief does not mask. But the humor is there nonetheless.
“Heckling the Divine: Woody Allen, the Book of Job, and Jewish Theology”
Neurotic and therapy-reliant Woody Allen has been held up time and again as the preeminent “Jewish” comedian and moviemaker. The Jewishness of his comedy has been explored in a number of studies, as has his theological outlook. Here, Allen the biblical exegete is examined.
In the movie Stardust Memories, Allen’s character utters the oft-repeated line, “To you, I'm an atheist. To God, I'm the loyal opposition." This line underpins Woody Allen’s retelling of the biblical story of Job as it appears in his 1974 essay, “The Scrolls,” a satirical exploration of the hidden religious knowledge found in a desert cave.
In the retelling, God is fallible, vindictive, and callous. Job, the innocent victim, catches God by the neck and takes advantage of the moment to put God in his place. The text, as humor often is, is shocking in its depictions and in its inversion of the roles. God becomes laughable in his actions as the classic depiction of Him, as omnipotent, omniscient, and just, is thrown out the window.All good jokes contain a bit of truth. In order to understand the truth of Allen’s depiction, this presentation sets it in the context of Jewish post-Holocaust readings of the book of Job. While Allen’s retelling may, at first blush, appear radical, it is no more risqué than many of the contemporary theological writings, asking similar questions and providing similar answers. Further, Allen juxtaposes the Job story with a retelling of the binding of Isaac; in doing so, he continues a two-thousand-year trend of Jewish readings of both texts. When set against this background, Allen’s comedic tale leads to laughter on the one hand, and provides a reasoned response for American Jews to the trauma of the Holocaust on the other. The question that remains is whether Allen’s humor reflected the state of Jewish theological discourse or was intended to encourage further exploration. In both cases, this suggests that Jewish humor is a way of raising theological discussion in a segment of the population who would not seek it out in the Synagogue or Temple, but in popular films, magazines, and at The Improv.
“Jewish Humor, Comedy, and Collaborative Resistance in Mel Brooks’ 'To Be or Not to Be'”
Joan Latchaw & David Peterson
Much has been made of Mel Brooks’ The Producers (both film and Broadway show), yet little critical attention has been paid to To Be or Not to Be (1983), which Brooks produced and in which he played the leading role of Frederick Bronski. A remake of the Ernst Lubitsch 1942 classic, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, Brooks’ film takes into consideration what Lubitsch and his cast could not fully know: the extent of the persecution and annihilation of European Jews, as well as the persecution of other ethnic, political, and sexual minorities. Brooks’ film makes, then, an important argument: the Holocaust did not just touch one group: it touched all “Poles.” And herein lies the key to Brooks’ film’s cultural and historical work. The characters’ ability to successfully resist tyranny, oppression, and persecution is based on Jewish humor and comedy’s power to forge collaborative bonds between disparate groups.
Our paper will focus on how this argument is developed through subtle, traditional Jewish forms of humor, particularly in-jokes, self-mockery, and wit. In the film’s first half, these forms of humor are deployed to reveal the main characters’ weaknesses, their moral failings, and their inability as individuals to resist various forms of oppression (Bronski’s tyrannical control of the theatre, the Nazi invasion of Poland, the post-invasion destruction of everyday Polish life, and the persecution of various groups). In the film’s second half, however, Jewish humor helps create a collective, collaborative means of effective resistance. Self-mockery begins to play a lesser role, and wit takes on the function of undercutting Nazi tyranny.
All forms of humor are, of course, comedic, but, as we discuss in the second half of our presentation, not all forms of comedy are humorous. We argue that in Brooks’ film Jewish humor serves as a means of building a Jewish tragicomedy. This tragicomedy harnesses sympathy and empathy—as experienced by both the characters and the audience—to create a strong, indelible bond between Jew and non-Jew, gay and straight, Pole and non-Pole. This in turn encourages the audience to join in the resistance to all forms of oppression and to join in the creation of a more just world.
“Nuances and Subtleties in Jewish Film Humor”
From the start of motion pictures, ethnic humor of various kinds flavored American cinema. Like many comedic stage shows, most of the movie-ribbing was done at the expense of the immigration generation for which these entertainments were primarily designed. With the advent of sound, another dimension was available for Hollywood’s humorists, and this led to comedy more sophisticated than slapstick discourse.
Over the decades, Jewish humor on screen has taken many forms: these have ranged from clearly “insider” jokes and Yiddish expressions known among the moviemakers and certain audiences, to finally heavy-handed ethnic bawdiness clearly enjoyable for a wide range of theatergoers. The vigorous participation of Jews in Hollywood is largely responsible for injecting this ethnic humor. At times, these jokes could be accepted for themselves without reading too much between the lines. Yet, the insertion of Jewish humor had an almost “black comedy” aspect to it – perhaps suggesting a way to make a social commentary without being too blatant.
This paper will examine the evolution of Jewish humor on film, emphasizing major trends from the early sound era into the contemporary period. The major studios were under mostly Jewish production control; as such, they faced enormous pressures of all kinds (e.g., The Hays Code, years of anti-Semitic ascendancy, and American Jewry’s desire to assimilate). With the demise of the Hays Code and blacklist, Jewish humor aggressively emerged from the “ethnic closet.” As such, it raised audience levels of Jewish awareness to unprecedented levels. Thus, Jewish film humor became culturally acceptable, a marker for Americanization, and ever present in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century Hollywood film.
“The Creation of Polish Public Perception of Jews through Jewish Humor”
Humor serves a variety of purposes, and different cultures use humor in a variety of ways. Jewish humor, meaning humor created by Jews, is timeless because of the range of its topics, punch lines, and relation to real life. Despite its focus on Jews (or precisely because of it), Jewish humor resonates with non-Jews as well.
My paper attempts to examine how the images of Jews in Jewish humor contributed to the creation of a Polish public perception of Jews. This representation, aside from interactions between Poles and Jews and the generational transmission of stories, has also been influenced by Jewish humor and supplemented by the images of Jews in Polish folklore. It draws on the ideas of cleverness, piety, knowledge of Jewish religious writing, and the Jewish ability to make fun of themselves, to paint a picture of the Jews in the Polish public perception.
The sources used for this paper consist of the analysis of Polish-language jokes in Jewish humor anthologies, as well as visual material, such as drawings and caricatures that serve to convey the message of the joke or that accompany and enhance the joke.