There is no denying we are a pretty funny people. From Henny Youngman to Jerry Seinfeld to Sacha Baron Cohen, there seems to be something in our DNA that just keeps us laughing.
Nationally recognized radio host Michael Krasny has been “passionate” about Jewish humor for decades, and has gathered a lifetime’s collection of Jewish jokes, stories and insights on their evolution in his new book “Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means” (HarperCollins). Krasny, originally from Cleveland and now a Californian, is host of KQED FORUM and a professor of English and American literature at San Francisco State University. He will be in Pittsburgh this weekend, speaking on Saturday morning at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, and at a private event in Fox Chapel for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
There is something about Jewish humor that distinguishes it from humor in other cultures, Krasny said in a phone interview earlier this week.
Take the old joke about the yarmulke-clad Jewish man being knighted by the Queen of England, while the queen asks, “Why is this knight different from all other knights?”
That could only be a Jewish joke.
While the book is a treasure trove of Jewish humor, the challenge for the author was to delve into its social and psychological significance, he said.
“I thought there was a lot to be said about the meaning of the jokes,” Krasny said, pointing to Sigmund Freud’s “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.”
“Freud talked about jokes releasing aggression, jokes releasing anxiety, sexual repression and fantasy and all of that,” Krasny said. “But I wanted to go deeper into how they really begin to bequeath us with a whole sense of Jewish identity, tradition, and the whole trajectory of Jewish history because I really began to realize there wasn’t a lot to reckon with on that score with Jewish jokes.”
In his book, Krasny initially sought “to immortalize the traditions that were sort of implicit in the jokes,” and his research ultimately grew.
“It extended beyond jokes,” he said. “It became stories that were significant, folklore, anecdotes, shticks. The canvas became much wider, and I found myself writing about Jewish humor in a much broader vein, even using some personal stories.”
His book, he said, “sort of takes the pulse of Jewish humor — why are Jews funny — and perhaps, what is the legacy of Jewish humor.”
“Let There Be Laughter” is organized thematically, and includes chapters on such crowd-pleasing topics as “Jewish Mothers and Bubbies,” “Sex and Marriage,” “Schlemiels and Schmucks” and “Suffering.”
Krasny draws on his years of interviewing acclaimed Jewish comedians such as Joan Rivers, Gene Wilder and Alan King to add even more color to an already colorful topic. He recalled one particular story that King shared with him.
“Alan King was once performing for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle,” Krasny said. “After he finished, the queen said to him, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. King.’ Alan King responded, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Queen.’”
Suffering is a keystone of Jewish humor, and it followed the immigrants coming out of the shtletls, fleeing pogroms and persecution, to America. But even after leaving the tsuris behind and achieving economic success, Jews continued to joke about suffering, according to Krasny.
“It becomes a new humor, a hybrid humor,” he said. “But somehow the suffering is still part of it.”
As an example, Krasny related the story of the Mexican, the Frenchman, the German and the Jew together climbing a mountain. When they reach the top, the Mexican says, “I’m tired. I must have tequila.” The Frenchman says, “I’m tired. I must have wine.” The German says, “I’m tired. I must have beer.” The Jew says, “I’m tired. I must have diabetes.”
Jewish humor, he explained, has evolved, and has become part of the mainstream fabric.
“Jewish humor has become American humor, at least a lot of it,” Krasny noted. “I talk about Jack Benny’s show, which was the most popular show of its time, and how everybody in the Jewish community knew he was Jewish pretty much, but there was never anything overtly saying, ‘I’m Jewish.’ In fact, he had Christmas trees, and celebrated Easter — he was American.”
Still, Benny’s humor, his persona as a “tightwad,” had at its foundation the comedian’s Jewish identity.
Today’s young Jewish comics tend to shy away from overtly Jewish jokes, and “the only thing Jewish about all of them is that they were born into Jewish families,” Krasny observed. Ironically, one comedian who embraced that lost Catskill-like sensibility was the late Robin Williams.
“Robin Williams did a whole riff with a lot of Yiddish,” Krasny said. “He wasn’t Jewish, but he picked up a lot of this material. It was much more Jewish than a lot of these Jewish comics that were performing.”
Interviewed recently on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” by Scott Simon, Krasny recalled he was asked to tell his favorite joke.
“A young man is walking with his father in the middle of the 21st century,” Krasny recited. “A stranger walks up and says, ‘Your son is really handsome.’ The man says, ‘Thank you.’ The stranger says, ‘What’s his name?’ The man says, ‘Shlomo.’ The stranger says, ‘Shlomo? What kind of a name is Shlomo?’ The man says, ‘He’s named after his dead grandfather, whose name was Scott.’
“The joke speaks to me in a kind of wish for Jewish traditions to go on,” Krasny said. “And they do in certain ways. The joke about Scott is about parents who try to assimilate. But you get to the point where you hope for things to come back. There is a hope the tradition will go on.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.