Did you know that a few generations ago you could amuse yourself by playing board games like Rodney Dangerfield’s “No Respect” or Groucho Marx’s “Your Bet Your Life” or “Jan Murray’s TV Word Game”?
None of those games became big sellers, but they are featured in a new YIVO exhibition that is dedicated to the Jewish men and women of comedy’s early years who played a major role in shaping popular entertainment in this country.
“Professional Jokers: Jewish Jesters from the Golden Age of American Comedy” opened this week at the Center for Jewish History, in Chelsea, preceded the night before by a panel discussion that included comedians Robert Klein and Judy Gold, comedy writer Alan Zweibel, and “surprise guest” comedian Gilbert Gottfried. The exhibit runs through May 1.
In the exhibition’s cases and frames are artifacts (records, photographs, posters, playbills, joke books, etc.) from the careers of such headliners as Dangerfield and Marx and Murray, and Milton Berle and Joan Rivers and Mel Brooks, as well as mementoes from a few dozen other funny Jews whose stars have faded over the years.
“There are dozens and dozens more” who did not make it into the exhibition,” said Eddy Portnoy, who curated the show. “From the 1920s to the beginning of the 21st-century Jewish comics dominated the comedy industry in the United States,” said Portnoy, who serves as academic adviser at YIVO’s Max Weinrich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies and teaches in the Judaic Studies Program at Rutgers University.
Most of the “hundreds” of items — “We didn’t bother to count” — are from the collection of artist-illustrator Drew Friedman, who took part in Monday’s panel, Portnoy said. YIVO’s contribution is some old material in Yiddish, like an 1867 joke book from Vilna.
“It’s never been done before,” he said. “No one has seen so much material by so many comedians in one place. It’s worth showing.”
Fittingly, the first thing a visitor sees when stepping off a Center elevator into the exhibition’s third-floor space is a bust of Sholem Aleichem, the dean of Yiddish humor writers.
How does an exhibition of 20th-century English-speaking jokesters fit into YIVO’s mission of preserving the Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe?
“All of these comedians were children of immigrants” from the Old Country, Portnoy said. “They all understood Yiddish. They all used Yiddish.”
The current crop of superstar Jewish comedians, like Jerry Seinfeld, do not appear in the exhibition. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The funny Jews who together played a disproportionate role in Vaudeville, Broadway, radio and TV influenced the contemporary generation of Jewish comedians, Portnoy said. Gottfried, in his remarks on Monday, said he “was very much influenced by these people.”
Posters and photographs are the normal fare of museum exhibitions. Why the board games? “It reflects the fact that these people were major celebrities,” Portnoy said. “Famous people beget products.”