I’ve been fascinated with the origin, influence and texture of Jewish humor for as long as I can remember, but have resisted writing my thoughts on the matter given that, 1) no one knows exactly how humor works, Jewish or otherwise, and 2) such a column would inevitably be unfunny. However, given the current alignment of the stars — a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld, “Comedian,”; a contest to determine the world’s funniest joke; and the publication of a new biography of Lenny Bruce — I felt that I had no choice but to slip on the banana peel of my own design. So, without further ado, and without any claims to coherence, science or rigor, here are my Provisional Notes Toward an Understanding of Jewish Humor.
Let’s start with the world joke championship. A thirty-something English psychologist named Richard Wiseman (Jewish until proven otherwise) wanted to find out what the world’s funniest joke was. So he asked people from all over the world to send in jokes via his Web site, and for other people to rate them on a scale of 1-5. (The winning entry, about two hunters and an awkward miscommunication, can be found at www.laughlab.co.uk.)
# A recent New Yorker article suggests that Wiseman knew there was little science behind this contest, and I further inferred that the whole thing might have been done as a kind of practical joke. That’s certainly the approach I would have taken. The article also summarizes the most prevalent theories about why something is funny:Superiority Theory: Somebody is made to feel better than somebody else.
# Incongruity Theory: Something happens that confounds expectations.
# Release Theory: Humor allows people to obliquely express anxious thoughts, usually related to death.
This last theory emerged out of the work of Sigmund Freud, who famously said, “There are no jokes,” one of his funniest lines. Probably what he meant was that there is no humorous statement that exists purely on the surface, that is merely a play on words, that doesn’t have some connection to deep, unconscious processes. Or, as Freud put it somewhat less pithily in “An Autobiographical Study,” humor is “due to the momentary suspension of the expenditure of energy upon maintaining repression, owing to the attraction exercised by the offer of a bonus of pleasure…”
That isn’t exactly “Seinfeld” material. But after seeing “Comedian,” and reading about how difficult Seinfeld’s attempt to reinvent himself as a comedian has been, it seems clear that Seinfeld’s extraordinary focus on nothing was merely an attempt to ward off anxiety through mass entertainment — a peculiarly American approach. It is also a metaphor for the comedy-making experience, which is very much kill or be killed: When you’re on, you “kill the audience,” and when nothing is clicking, you “die” on stage. If anything confirms that existential anxiety was the flip side of “nothingness it is the aggressiveness of the hit HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” created by Seinfeld co-producer Larry David. The popularity of the two shows — the feel-good “Seinfeld” during the roaring 90s, and the screeching anxiety of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” today — suggests that every generation gets the Jewish comic that it deserves.
Larry David brings me back to Lenny Bruce, aka Alfred Schneider. Forty years ago Bruce merged two streams of Jewish humor: the written version, with its focus on “release” through discussion of serious issues; and the oral version, focusing on “incongruity,” and which incorporated everything from the hijinks of traditional wedding jesters through the Marx Brothers, the Borscht Belt and Seinfeld. At the same time, Bruce put special emphasis on the first theory, “superiority,” or chosenness. Lenny Bruce had chosen himself to push the envelope of what humor and social criticism could be, and the routines he created were so intense, daring and socially relevant that they seemed almost prophetic. And, like many other funny Jews in history, he was chosen right back to suffer. The fact that it was the Catholic Church that engineered his downfall, suing him for material it considered libelous, only makes his life work more historically resonant.
There is an old saying that you have to be unhappy to be a comedian, and it may be no coincidence that Jewish history, lachrymose in the extreme, has produced so many humorous writers. And if (quoting comic cliches once more) Jews are like everyone else, only more so, than the three theories of humor should apply especially to the Jewish condition. That leaves us with the following variations on humor theory:
# Superiority Theory: We are the chosen people.
# Incongruity Theory: Contrary to expectations, being chosen means you are treated like dirt.
# Release Theory: If we talk enough about how being chosen means being treated like dirt, maybe things will get better.