Thirty years ago, when we were finishing up “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” a few older comedians were still doing what comedians had always done. They told jokes — by which we mean funny little stories of indeterminate authorship — about a man and an elephant walking into a bar, for example, or a rabbi, a priest and a minister on a train.
Although regular people still tell jokes, these days, comedians (or comics, as they prefer to be called) rarely do. Comics perform material: humor they themselves have written. But there are exceptions, most notably in the hilarious 2005 film, “The Aristocrats,” which features some very funny people ¬ including Lewis Black, Rita Rudner, Bob Saget and Sarah Silverman, among others, along with a few of their non-Jewish friends telling and providing commentary for the same dirty joke.
The joke isn’t exceptional, but the movie is, and we think it’s essential viewing to anyone who loves and cares about humor. But the conversation is often filthy, so don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Back in the late 1970s, we began our search for the best Jewish humor by looking through every published collection we could find to see what was out there and might be worth including. It was a big job, but it was doable.
Today, the same task seems infinite. Jokes are all over the Internet, which didn’t even exist when we were working on our book. Neither did HBO, in any real sense, or Comedy Central.
Those are probably the biggest changes we have seen — the birth of the Internet and the growth of cable TV, and both have been an enormous boon to American humor, including its Jewish components.
If we wanted to update our collection for the 21st century, we might start with Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO, which often deals with explicitly Jewish themes. In a memorable episode from 2005, Larry has reason to believe that he was actually born a Christian, and is immediately transformed into all the things he isn’t — patient, calm, unconflicted and cheerful, with a newfound ability to fix things.
When he’s not escaping his Jewishness, he’s trading on it. When he has to appear in court before a judge named Katz, Larry tries to curry favor by greeting him, on what is probably a Tuesday morning, with, “Hello, your Honor, and may I say, Shabbat Shalom.”
Larry David, of course, was the co-creator of the marvelous “Seinfeld,” which doesn’t seem to have suffered much by going off the air in 1998. (Syndication is a wonderful thing.) The exact relationship of “Seinfeld” to Jewish humor is something we can discuss some other time over a glass of tea, but neither the quality of the show nor its Jewish flavor has ever been in doubt.
A more recent phenomenon in our popular culture is the frequency with which Jewish references and comic lines turn up in unexpected places. In “South Park,” the foul-mouthed animated sitcom on Comedy Central, Kyle, the Jewish boy in the group, has a kipa-wearing father and a loud, obnoxious mother who calls him “Bubbe.”
On HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” the brilliant and dangerous Sacha Baron Cohen explored anti-Semitism in America, and took his quest even further in the controversial and very funny 2006 movie, “Borat.” On “The Simpsons,” we’ve seen the belated bar mitzvah of Krusty the Klown, which is known to true fans as Episode 319.
It seems that Krusty, who grew up as Hershel Pinkus Yerucham Krustofski, has never been called to the Torah, and as he puts it so delicately, “Without a bar mitzvah, I’m just a boy, with a prostate the size of a goat’s head.”
When Krusty is asked to say grace at the Simpsons’ dinner table, he mutters the motzi, which prompts this response from the man of the house:
Homer: Hee hee hee hee hee! He’s talking funny-talk.
Lisa: No Dad, that’s Hebrew! Krusty must be Jewish.
Homer: A Jewish entertainer? Get out of here.
Lisa: Dad, there are many prominent Jewish entertainers, including Lauren Bacall, Dinah Shore, William Shatner and Mel Brooks.
Homer: Mel Brooks is Jewish?
Unlike most of his predecessors, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” goes out of his way to assert his Jewish identity. Adam Sandler’s silly Chanukah song, which debuted on “Saturday Night Live” in 1994, is still popular.
And the gifted Tom Lehrer, who for decades gave no hint of a Jewish identity, is now known for his own holiday song, “I’m spending Chanukah in Santa Monica,” which includes an especially sweet line, “I spent Shavuos in East St. Louis.”
And yes, there is still Jewish humor to be found in books. (Remember books?) In “Born to Kvetch,” Michael Wex goes deep into the heart of Yiddish, and David M. Bader has written several clever little books, including “Haikus for Jews.”
We want to mention his name because for years, his work has been all over the Internet without attribution. (From Bader’s Zen Judaism, we offer you this gem: “If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?”) And here’s a title you probably haven’t heard of: “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate” collects years of witty speeches given at the Hillel House of the University of Chicago.
Finally, we want to tip our yarmulke to our colleague Joseph Telushkin, whose 1992 collection, “Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews,” includes a few goodies that were new to us — and we’ve heard a lot of jokes.
In the world of stand-up comedy, we’re finally starting to see Jewish comics who actually know something about their cultural heritage. We’re big fans of Joel Chasnoff, who performs for Jewish groups across the country:
When I was 9, I asked my dad if there was such a thing as Santa Claus. He said, “No. It’s impossible. There’s no way that one guy can go from house to house in one night.”
“What about Elijah on Passover?”
“That’s different. We’re only 2 percent of the population.”
More from Chasnoff: “My parents gave me so much Jewish guilt when I was a kid. They had a bumper sticker on their car that read, ‘If my son worked just a little harder, I, too, would have an honor roll student at Jefferson High School.’”
We hear good things about Yisrael Campbell, the Catholic-born comedian who, in the process of converting to Reform, Conservative and finally Orthodox Judaism, was forced to undergo two additional circumcisions.
“Three circumcisions is not a religious covenant,” he insists. “It’s a fetish.” And what about Aaron Freeman, an African American who converted to Judaism? “I did it for the food,” he says. “It certainly wasn’t for the wine.” Freeman went to Catholic schools, and became a Catholic atheist, which means, he explains, “I didn’t believe in God, but I was afraid of Him anyway.”
We have tried to do our part in keeping Jewish humor alive, and we’re terrifically pleased that it’s not only still with us, but continues to flourish in new forms and new media.
But enough talk. Aren’t you really reading this to learn a few jokes? We thought so. Here are a few of our favorites that we hope you haven’t heard too often.
A minister, a priest and a rabbi are talking about what they hope will be said about them at their funerals.
“I’d like my congregants to say,” says the priest, “that I was a good leader of my flock and faithful to the tenets of the church.”
The minister says, “I’d like them to say that I was a wonderful husband, a good family man and an inspiring leader. And what about you, Rabbi?”
“I’d like to have them say, ‘Look, he’s moving!’”
“Rabbi,” says the visitor, “I work for the Internal Revenue Service. Do you have a member of this congregation named David Tepper?”
“Yes, I know him well.”
Mr. Tepper claims that he donated $10,000 to the temple, and I’m here to make sure that he did.”
“I don’t know if he did,” says the rabbi, “but I can tell you one thing: he will!”
A rabbi, a cantor and a synagogue president are abducted by terrorists and persuade their captors to grant each of them one last wish.
“My final wish,” says the rabbi, “is to discuss something I’ve never been able to talk about from the pulpit: the Talmudic laws regarding the misuse of funds from the upkeep of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. It takes three or four hours to really do it justice.”
“As for me,” says the cantor, “I’ve written a cantata about the forbidden foods of Passover. It’s about two and a half hours, which is why I rarely get to perform it.”
“And you?” says the terrorist leader to the third member of the group.
“My wish,” says the synagogue president, “is that you shoot me first.”
William Novak and Moshe Waldoks are the co-editors of The Big Book of Jewish Humor and The Big Book of New American Humor. William Novak has co-written the memoirs of Lee Iacocca, Tip O’Neill, the Mayflower Madam, Oliver North, Nancy Reagan, and Tim Russert. He is currently working on a corporate history of Comcast.
Moshe Waldoks is one of the founders of the Tibetan-Jewish dialog and continues his work on Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim dialog in Boston. He is spiritual leader of TBZ (Temple Beth Zion), an independent synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts.