The controversy last week over an Edinburgh theatre cancelling Jerry Sadowitz’s show because audience members felt “unsafe” allows me to write today about one of my pet subjects.
No, not about Sadowitz himself; never having seen a single show by him, I have no knowledge of that subject whatsoever (although when has that ever stopped a columnist from sharing their opinion about something?).
No, about comedians. Specifically, Jewish comedians. Even more specifically, why are so many comedians Jewish?
Discussions about the disproportionate numbers of Jewish comedians risk falling into the same essentialist trap as Donald Trump, who once said: “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys who wear yarmulkes all day.”
Although I’ll be honest: as unfashionable as it is to say right now, there are a fair few stereotypes about Jews that I really don’t mind. OK, sure, the ones about us being evil and drinking babies’ blood and taking over the world, those aren’t so good.
But the ones about us being smart, funny and always going to a therapist? I can live with those. Oh God, is that wrong? Am I another self-loathing Jew, capitulating to the antisemites? I need to talk about this with my therapist urgently.
Still, I don’t think even the most neurotic Jew, with the sensitivity levels of Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, can get too wound up about the “all Jews are funny” schtick, because you only need to list some stand-up comedians to hear the truth in it.
I grew up watching and listening to comedy routines by people like Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield, Woody Allen, Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler, George Burns, Joan Rivers, Gene Wilder, Garry Shandling and the Marx Brothers.
As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t that all Jews were funny, but only Jews were funny. I eventually discovered the likes of Bill Murray, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, all undoubtedly funny and undoubtedly not Jewish. It was impressive, but unsettling, like watching a dog juggle.
That was almost 35 years ago and I’ve graciously allowed a few more non-Jews into my canon of great comedians – Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Steve Coogan, Christopher Guest, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey. But in the vast, vast main, my favourites are the Jews: Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Simon Amstell, Eugene Levy, Jon Stewart, Larry David, Bob Saget, and so on.
But why? There’s clearly some bias on my part. I’m drawn to Jewish comedy because it’s part of my cultural shared language, which is a fancy way of saying that it feels familiar: the neuroticism, the self-deprecation, the self-aware hyper-verbosity. These are all family traits, because they’re Jewish traits.
But why *are* so many Jews comedians, given how relatively few of us there are? I’ve collected theories over the years.
The most common one, inevitably, is that comedy is the natural response to all those centuries of persecution, which I guess is possible, although I don’t remember hearing about too many comedy clubs in Auschwitz.
Another popular one is that because Jews study the Talmud for meaning, we are used to looking at things from a different perspective, which is the most important quality to a comedian.
I personally suspect it has something to do with our natural lack of athleticism: if you can’t be fast in the playground, you’d better be funny. Hey, no one ever saw Mel Brooks jogging, right?
And what has brought more joy to people’s lives, Blazing Saddles or running? We naturally brilliant Jews know the answer to that one.