David Misch is certifiably funny. You don’t have to take his word for it (but he’ll be glad to tell you); you can look it up. A veteran of comedy writing for all the networks, several cable-TV channels and a few movie studios, he’s taught at University of Southern California and University of California Los Angeles, and is now an author. “Funny: The Book. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Comedy” (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books) is a distillation of what he’s learned over the years about the theory and practice of humor.
Mainly, the book is funny. It contains looks at the funny people (a sepa-rate chapter is devoted to Leonard, Adolph, Herbert and Julius — better known as Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Groucho Marx) who have made us laugh for decades, including a disproportionate number of Jewish enter-tainers.
The Jewish Week caught up with Misch, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., by e-mail.
Q: If you look up “comedy” on amazon.com (Don’t bother. I did it for you), you’ll find 61,335 entries. Why do we need another book on the subject?
A: I’ve done a rigorous cost-per-page analysis and mine is by far the cheapest. Such a deal. As a wise man once said (Steve Lipman, 1 paragraph ago), there are lots of books about comedy. Some are funny, some are informative; few are both. “Funny: The Book” is, without question, the funniest and most informative book on comedy ever written by me this year.
The first joke in your book, and the very last one, is about a man who goes to a doctor and learns of his imminent demise. Death is so funny?
Death probably isn’t funny (I don’t know for sure, I haven’t tried it yet), but our fear of it can be allayed in various ways: sex, drugs, studying the Talmud (though I recommend against all three at once). Humor — mocking death by being outrageously alive — is the method that involves, respectively, the least venereal disease, addiction and eyestrain.
The African-American community has embraced the “N-word.” Why haven’t Jews co-opted the “K-word” (kike) in the same way?
They really should, especially since kike has what we in the biz call “The Komedy K”; words with hard consonants like “k” are traditionally the funniest. (No joke: studies have shown that the funniest animal to use in a joke is a duck.) Probably the real reason is that “kike” lost its kick, whereas the N-word seems to keep going. And that’s despite the efforts of Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, who believed that using it would strip away its power. You mention that one Talmudic sage would begin his lectures with a joke. Since your book is about humor, why didn’t you start out with a Talmudic story?
I started with a joke about death; don’t niggle. Anyway, “Funny: The Book” is about humor in general, not just Jewish humor. Though a case could be made that humor itself is Jewish; I believe the original word was “humoroscowitz” and it was shortened at Ellis Island.
Most people don’t associate classical Jewish texts with “humor.” Is there any in the Torah or Talmud?
Yes, although it’s of a different tone than we’re used to in a culture where the apex of comedy is represented by references to body fluids. The Talmud makes many of its points through examples of “ridiculous” situations, and the way Jews parse its words for meaning mirrors the way comedians like George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld cast a waggish eye on our everyday words and expressions.
Your publicity release said you’ll explain “Why Jews are funny.” What’s the answer?
My publicity release is a pack of lies.
This is probably something you’ve never heard before, certainly from other Jews, but Jews suffer. Humor is the finest coping mechanism ever created
What’s your favorite joke? (G-rated, please.)
I couldn’t possibly name a favorite but here’s one that seems appropriate for Jewish Week…
A chasidic Jew walks into a bar with a brightly colored tropical parrot on his shoulder. Bartender says, “Whoa, that’s amazing, where’d you get it?” Parrot says, “Brooklyn, there’s millions of ’em.”