Jews bang on a lot about Jewish comedy. It is possibly — given that the physics-Nobel Prize thing came with a bit of a world-destruction downside — our greatest gift to the world. But what is it? I mean beyond all the jokes actually about Jews, from the ones where they talk to God to the ones where they talk to waiters asking “Is anything OK?”. What makes Jewish comedy Jewish?
I was thinking about this whilst being asked this week on the Today programme on Radio 4 to talk about Larry David, whose new (and supposedly, last) series of Curb Your Enthusiasm has just been released. Curb is of course ostensibly Jewish. It’s one of the things I love about it, how militantly unashamed it is of its own Jewishness. One episode revolves around Larry, whilst staying at an Orthodox’s family’s ski chalet, pretending to be frum, and then having to bury a plate that he’s eaten some traife on for three days in order to exorcise its uncleanliness, a plot line so Jewish even I had to google it on first watching. But much of Curb isn’t so out and out Jewish. And yet all of it feels Jewish.
This is a common thread in Jewish comedy. When I did my show My Family: Not The Sitcom in the West End — which incidentally I’m reviving for one night, in order to record for TV — although I was talking about some Jewishy stuff — my mum’s escape from the Nazis, a story about my Picks-disease-ridden dad demolishing shiva etiquette — a lot of it was not so (if you’ll excuse me) on the nose. Much of it was/is about my mother’s affair with a golfing memorabilia salesman and how that led to her becoming obsessed with golf, which — ignoring the possibility that all that was a deep unconscious pushback against the fact that Jews at the time were still restricted from many British golf clubs – is more just completely idiosyncratic, than specifically Jewish. But loads of Jews came, and felt, to use the modern expression, seen.
This relates to Lenny Bruce’s great routine in which he defines what is Jewish and what is goyish, which famously moves away from the obvious — him, Hadassa — to listing, amongst many others, black cherry soda and macaroons as Jewish, whereas Lime gello is goyish (“Lime soda is very goyish.”). Jews often feel that some things which are not ostensibly Jewish just are. But actually, in Curb, as in Seinfeld before it, there is something deeply Jewish going on underneath the jokes about bringing sex offenders to Seders, which is how much it is a show about the invisible codes of life. Jews have argued about these for a long time. The Talmud begins with an argument about the exact time Shabbat begins, and last night I watched an episode of Curb where Larry argues — and split up with — a woman because he feels the window of time after which she might expect someone to say sorry to hear about the death of her father has closed.
Curb is about minutiae, and in minutiae there is humanity: it is always in reaching after the grandiose that civilisation gets skewed. Even jokes about Jews and money, which in general I now resist as toxic, can be read perhaps as being about Jews not being greedy, but realistic. When the same woman who Larry argues with about the sorry window doesn’t pay him back 60 dollars he has lent her, we side with Larry, not because he’s mean but because it’s funny to see all the supposedly higher values of politeness and chivalry being so collapsed by Larry’s deep, deep honesty, by the truth that 60 dollars is 60 dollars.
The trailer for the new series ends with Larry crying, “There’s an authenticity involved in caring about oneself.” It’s a more profound pronouncement than it might seem. A lot of Jewish comedy depends on bathos — like the Jewish mother who says to the Dalai Lama: “Sheldon — enough is enough!” — on bringing things down to earth. Many other religions are all in the clouds, but Judaism is a religion designed for Job, to hold life together and provide some small protection in the here and now. The things Larry cares about in Curb seem trivial and shallow, but by caring about trivial and shallow things so deeply, so righteously, he reveals a fundamental truth about life, which is that it is trivial and shallow. Curb strikes a massive comic blow against pretentiousness and high-mindedness and virtue-signalling, three things which I am certain would all have made Lenny Bruce’s goyishe list. Larry David’s whole oeurvre, says no, do shvitz the small stuff, and there’s nothing more Jewish than that.
David Baddiel is performing all three of his one-man shows at the Royal Court in March, tickets on davidbaddiel.com