In what must be one of the most peculiar assertions ever made by a major philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead once told an interlocutor that his only problem with the Jews was their lack of humor. Lack of humor?! Must have been those Anglo-Jewish academics he hung out with.
Several years ago, when Philip Roth's novel "Portnoy's Complaint" turned 25, I spent a few days in the New York Public Library researching the Jewish community's reaction to the book. I discovered that the response to it (as well as to the stories in "Goodbye, Columbus," which appeared a few years earlier) was a combination of rage and puzzlement. The level of shock and hurt expressed by community leaders was less surprising to me, though, than the unanimity of response.
The day after Richard Pryor died, longing to be transported comedically, I went to see Sarah Silverman's concert film "Jesus is Magic." I expected to be entertained, nothing more. Instead I was overwhelmed, not just by the sharpness of Silverman's delivery but by the surprise of her material. And like Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" (who uses a Jewish sensibility to expose the emptiness of much of our social discourse) Silverman puts her Jewishness front and center as she analyzes American life today.
Years ago, I wrote a short story called "The Institute for Lenny Bruce Studies." The idea was that a wealthy Jewish donor created a think-tank on a sleepy New England campus, dedicated to jump-starting the "secular Jewish prophethood" that inspired him as a young radical. Institute Fellows would come from the fields of academics, politics, religion and stand-up comedy, and the two-year curriculum would include the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the songs of Bob Dylan and, of course, the routines of Lenny Bruce.
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.
Lenny Bruce cursed a blue streak. Don Rickles insulted anyone within hearing distance. Sacha Baron Cohen has raised embarrassment of the unsuspected — Jews and non-Jews alike — into an art form. And for Sarah Silverman, not even the memory of the Holocaust is sacred.
For Jewish comics, Dom Imus is no joke.
In the wake of the shock jock’s unflattering comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team and his shockingly swift departure from the national airwaves has come a national discussion about the propriety of character defamation in the guise of humor, and predictions that an era of increased civility will ensue.