We're funny, already

This is one Jewish stereotype Dave Cohen can live with

I was reading in the Daily Telegraph the other day (don’t worry, it was online, nobody saw me) that Jews are funny. Hey – I’m a Jew! That’s me!

The article was written in response to Howard Jacobson’s novel, The Finkler Question, which had just won this year’s Man Booker Prize. Finally, a stereotype I should be happy about.

Over the years the accident of my birth has led to me being called many things: tight-fisted, devious, Imperialist Zionist, blood-sucker, well poisoner, rammer of Holocaust down everyone’s throat (by a former leader of the National Front, no less), showbiz nepotist, barbaric circumciser, big-nose (accurately in that single instance), Arab hater, self-imposed victim, controller of all the world’s power and finance (I wish), and Christ killer.

I’ve had comedy audiences call me Yiddo, Jewboy, fucking Jew and that was just when the compere was introducing me by name onto the stage. One night at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel Club, which for an all-too-brief period was known for the quality of its heckling, I was treated to ‘gas the Jew’, the only heckle I’ve ever responded to unprofessionally, by walking off stage and trying to find the person who said it.

Strangely enough, the stereotype that has most often been used against me has come from other Jews. It’s probably been around for almost as long as the miserly guilt-tripping chicken-soup manufacturing Jewish mother. I first got it nearly 40 years ago from my dad, when I dared to suggest that Israel was acting a bit heavy handedly towards the Arabs. It was the first time I’d heard the phrase ‘self-hating Jew’. It must have stuck because hatred of myself became my comedy stock-in-trade. (After about ten years it became my audience’s as well).

It seems impossible for a Jew to be even slightly critical of Israel’s strategy in the Middle East without being painted as an Osama-lovin’ self-hatin’ wannabe-suicide-bombin’ traitor. Conversely, to my left-wing mates I’m the Obamapologist who must be as bad as the Nazis because I’ve yet to call for the complete abolition of the State of Israel.

So shouldn’t I be grateful for the Telegraph’s reiteration of a stereotype that’s not only positive, but is directly useful in my chosen profession? . Well… and if you could see me now you’d notice I was shrugging my shoulders like a character from a Maureen Lipman BT ad yes and no. Typical Jew, always moaning about something...

I realise I am not the core audience for that Telegraph article, being under 70 and unable to work myself into a mouth-foaming frenzy about the EU, but it contained the kind of tired old jokes about national stereotypes walking through the desert and Jewish women which I thought had gone out with the Ark (look at us! GSOH and expert at boat-building).

It went on to repeat the well-worn cliche that British Jews aren’t as funny as American Jews, stopping along the way only to describe Seinfeld as ‘a show about nothing’, which as every Seinfeld fan knows is total nonsense, and one of the show’s great self-deprecating jokes, Seinfeld is of course about everything. It was as though Alexei Sayle, Arnold Brown and Adam Bloom and Ian Stone (to name just four stand-up stars) and the wonderful Grandma’s House had never existed.

In fact, if that Telegraph writer had bothered do his research – and to be fair, he can’t be expected to know much about British Jews in comedy since in his spare time he is merely the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, the national newspaper for Jews – he might have spotted that in Britain we Jews do appear to be disproportionately gainfully employed in the humour trades.

Apart from those already mentioned, there’s Marks and Gran, Rebecca Front, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Matt Lucas, David Baddiel, Matt Kirshen, Josh Howie, Jerry Sadowitz, Mark Maier, Bennett Arron, David Schneider, Ivor Dembina, Sacha Baron Cohen, many writers and producers and certainly loads more comics if only I could be arsed to Google. However many it is, it’s a mightily impressive number considering we represent less than a 0.3 of a per cent of the entire UK population.

So discounting the possibility that it’s the result of an international conspiracy, why are Jews funny? The standard response, as repeated in the Telegraph, is that we are invariably underdogs, and everyone loves an underdog. There is some truth to this, Jews are frequently in a minority and we have learned to get our deprecation in fast before you anti-semitic bastards get the chance to have a pop.

This theory is borne out by Israel, the only place where Jews are in a majority (outside of Stamford Hill) and where they are very much the opposite of underdog. Israel is not known for its comedy scene, possibly because there’s very little humour, or irony or indeed much to laugh about – just as the Israeli soldier says in the title of Dembina’s excellent show This Is Not A Subject for Comedy.

However, if that was the only reason for Jews being funny then surely there would be far more successful black and Asian comedians. I think it’s not so much the that we’re in a minority as that we are unnoticed outsiders. When I started out as a stand-up, probably around half of us were either Jewish or Catholic, not bad considering between us we count for barely five per cent of the UK population.

Like Catholics, we feel different to the vast majority of people in this country, but no one spots us in the street and has a go at us for looking different. We don’t face that kind of hostility, so we’re relatively more sanguine about it. The sad truth is that colour remains an issue, if not for British audiences then certainly for some TV producers.

That reasoning might also go some of the way towards explaining why one of the most successful comedy acts of the last 20 years was a Jew pretending to be black. Stephen K Amos may not have had to wait for Lenny Henry to die in order to get on telly, but at this rate Gina Yashere won’t get a break until Ali G has popped his kickers.

If you really want to know the secret of why Jews are funny... tough, I’m not going to tell you. On balance I’ve decided this is one meaningless sweeping generalisation that I’m happy to live with, and if a single Daily Telegraph reader has been persuaded that I am more responsible for making him chuckle than I am for ruling the world, then it’ll be worth it.

So next time you look through the listings deciding which comic you would like to see, remember this: the Jews are the funny ones.

  • Dave Cohen will be trying out material for his new show Rabbi Cohen’s Brother on December 7 at London's Downstairs At The King’s Head.

Published: 8 Nov 2010

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