Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor In The 21st Century

by Simcha Weinstein

It is hard to overstate the influence Jewish people have had on modern comedy The second-generation immigrants who became Borscht Belt tummlers pretty much invented stand-up as we know it, with rhythms and a style that resonate down the decades – after all, what is stand-up but formalised kvetching? These comedians moved into TV in its early days, creating templates for sitcoms and variety shows – while legends such as the Marx Brothers had already made their indelible mark on film comedy.

But in those early days it was thought that you had to assimilate to succeed, anglicising your name and concealing your heritage. Nowadays, following the trail blazed by the likes of Woody Allen and Jackie Mason, Jewish comedians are ‘out and proud’, mining their background and the stereotypes for comic fuel – from Sarah Silverman’s exaggerated Jewish princess or Larry David’s perpetual schmuck. In today’s postmodern climate, it’s perfectly reasonable for an observant Jew such as Sacha Baron Cohen to pose as a fierce anti-semite, as long as it’s in search of a laugh.

Simcha Weinstein, a New York rabbi born in Manchester, calls this change in attitude the Shtick Shift, though it’s more evolution than a quantum leap. Nor is it confined to Jewish comedians, as – reflecting changes in society – almost every group of minority comedians go through the same process down the years of trying to fit in, playing up to the stereotypes, then playing with them, then finally becoming comfortable enough with both past and present cultures to exploit jokes for laughs.

In this new book, Weinstein doesn’t so much try to find the reasons for these changing sensibilities or examine the roots of Jewish humour as try to examine what image such portrayals of Jewish life are projecting. If that sounds a bit ‘media studies’, that’s true – though Weinstein writes with a clarity and verve that his arguments never sound pretentious or aloof.

However, approaching the topic from that direction does mean that some of his examples are chosen for their importance to his beliefs, rather than their significance in the world of comedy. An entire chapter, for example, is built around the modest 2006 family comedy film Keeping Up With The Steins, which didn’t even get a UK release, because its extravagant bar mitzvah scene illustrates Weinstein’s points about missing the real meaning of the coming-of-age ritual, more than anything it says about the state of Jewish comedy.

Similarly, he claims things as specifically Jewish that might apply to any comedian – for example in the section about political comic such as Lewis Black and Jon Stewart stating that: ‘There is something very Jewish about grappling with the discrepancies of power.’ That’s as maybe, but there’s always been many a gentile who does that, too.

But he does know his stuff, and the book rattles through examples of Jewish humour over the years, references scores of comedians, shows and films – almost exclusively American – not to mention previous commentators and academics who have plunged into this subject.

The result is an well-considered overview of the approach modern Jewish comedians are taking to their work, but equally interesting for goyim who don’t know their shlemiels from their shmendriks. Weinstein doesn’t go into much depth in these 116 brisk pages, which can be disappointing, but for an informed, broad-brush presentation of the state of the art, it’s an engaging read.

He concludes that comics today discuss their heritage with ‘a brutal matter-of-factness that would make earlier generations cringe’, but isn’t censorious about it. It’s Jewish, but not necessarily kosher.

Jewish comedy – if the simple phrase is enough to define the varied work Jewish comedians are doing – is as vibrant as it’s ever been, with the Judaism often more in-your-face than ever before. Rabbi Weinstein rightly considers this a healthy state of affairs, not to mention one in the eye for the anti-semites.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

  • Shtick Shift by Simcha Wienstein is published by Barricade Books, priced £11.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £10.79

    Published: 1 May 2009

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