Life & Culture

Are you the best comedian, Daddy?


Too postmodern for my lot: Sarah Silverman Credit: Getty Images

Trying to raise your family as Jews, ensuring our peoplehood will endure – parenting can be difficult. But sometimes, Hashem lobs an easy underarm softball.

“Who’s your favourite comedian, Daddy?” asked my ten-year-old on the school run a few days ago.

Now, when it comes to muddling through certain Jewish rituals and practices, I admit I’ve been reliant on their school, shul, and Google. But here, finally, was something I really knew about. Indeed you could say here was something I had been preparing for the moment since before they were born. My son had hit upon the one element of Jewish education in which I’ve got a Phd: comedy.

Comedians played as much of a role in developing what I’d argue is my uniquely Jewish understanding of the world as attending yeshiva did. Listening to albums, watching videos, going to shows, they all awakened something in me, switched something on. Thanks to them,  I came to understand what it means to be Jewish, to be proud of being Jewish, to find humour in being Jewish. And later, when I became a stand-up, they hopefully inspired the same feelings in others.

Much has been written about Jews and the art form to which we’ve contributed so much, on which we’ve had such a big impact. My take is that comedy requires a certain distance from that which it skewers, and as the Western world’s original outsiders/insiders Jews are well placed to comment on that which they observe. Add to that an analytical mindset nurtured through millennia of Torah study, an internal culture of storytelling, and a willingness to point out uncomfortable truths, and you have, from the ashes of vaudeville, all the ingredients for a modern stand-up who, in turn, has created a means of expressing a certain sensibility, an outlet for identifying inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and questioning the status quo, things that I believe lie at the very heart of being Jewish. There has been a parallel movement in movies and sitcoms, but it is in stand-up – the individual, the joke, the microphone – that these things are distilled to their purest form.

And now it was time for me to pass on a lifetime of knowledge, for our greatest comedy minds to form the minds of the next generation. Where to start?

Well, it was hardly a coincidence that the child who asked me the question is called Woody, was it?

After the first twenty minutes of the introduction of the six-part lecture series I’d prepared on the life and works of Woody Allen, my six-year-old’s eyes glazed over as he tried to claw his way out of the car. At which point I thought that perhaps we should go straight to field work.

As the compilation of Woody’s albums played over the car speakers though, the same compilation I’ve listened to hundreds of times before, I noticed something terrible. Young Woody wasn’t laughing. Sweet kid that he is, he tried smiling to appease my expectations, but any elicited response was more bafflement than mirth. The bored response from Bette, eight, named after Bette Midler, and Zero, six, after Zero Mostel, was even worse. They’d never trust me when it came their turn to be indoctrinated.

Panicked, I started trying to explain why the jokes were funny. “See, even his doorman attacked him! What’s a doorman? A doorman’s the guy who sits in the lobby of large buildings.” “People form corporations to avoid tax and his family don’t like him so they tried to kick him out of himself! See, it’s funny! *sigh* Tax is what adults pay. It’s the part of their earnings that help finance societal apparatus like government and health care.” It was as I tried describing what metaphysics was, that I began to suspect this might be a lost cause.

Explaining precisely how the punchline of a joke is funny never works. Just ask my audiences as I’ve harangued them from the venue. But at least I’ve never had to explain the setup of a joke before. It then dawned on me that maybe part of why I’d found Woody Allen’s comedy so educational, is precisely because I’d been forced to do my own research to understand it.

There had to be someone though the kids could listen to on the school run that’d make them laugh? Scrolling through playlists, snippets were quickly rejected at swear words or apathy. Jackie Mason, too dated. Joan Rivers, too cutting. Sarah Silverman, too post-modern. Lenny Bruce, too much on heroin. Steven Wright, too clever. Andy Kaufman, too surreal. Mort Sahl, too political. Jerry Seinfeld, too observational. Andrew Dice Clay, too dirty.

Dreams of my children selling out Carnegie Hall in jeopardy, in desperation I pressed play on ‘Baby Shark.’ I’ll be sure to tell them one day that the creator’s Korean, not Jewish.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive