Subversive and Sublime
Fri, 03/19/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Jewish Women’s Archive: Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers,Gilda Radner and Wendy Wasserstein
Jewish Women’s Archive: Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers,Gilda Radner and Wendy Wasserstein

 When Ronna Glickman and Beverly Ginsburg, two 50-something lifelong friends from Boston who between them have seven marriages, three children and several stepchildren they don’t talk about, come to Los Angeles to promote their book, “You’ll Do a Little Better Next Time: A Guide to Marriage and Remarriage for Jewish Singles,” they announce that they love the used bookstore they find themselves in because “everything is half-off” – and then berate the hapless Jewish clerk they meet because his wife isn’t Jewish.

“You can fix that,” Ronna offers helpfully on the YouTube video documenting the visit, peering over her glasses and patting her blond shag while offering a copy of their book to the clerk. “Chapter Four is all about divorce. The cover looks like it’s a couple falling in love, but actually they’re coming apart.”

Beverly, meanwhile, waltzes around the store’s used-record aisles, finding a copy of a Barbra Streisand album from the ‘70s and admiring Streisand’s talon-like manicure. The clerk then calls his non-Jewish spouse, and announces: “I just want you to know I love you, and it’s OK that you’re a gentile.”

A couple of pushy anti-intermarriage middle-aged Jewish women might not seem like the stuff of comedy gold, but spun in the hands of two Jewish women in their 30s, Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo (“Ronna” and “Beverly”) have amassed a cult following that landed the duo a Showtime pilot about the chatty yentas’ misadventures.

The pair regularly performs at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, an innovative comedy incubator in New York and Los Angeles, to sold-out audiences, “interviewing” celebrity volunteers.

Chaffin and Denbo are only the latest of a long line of professionally funny Jewish women who take advantage of a Jewish inclination towards self-deprecation and a cultural heritage that is unafraid to mock everyone openly, especially themselves.

Starting back with Molly Picon, the master of Yiddish theater who made her mark in the 1936 film “Yidl Mit’n Fidl,” Jewish-American women from Fanny Brice to Sarah Silverman have made their mark with irreverent and edgy humor unafraid to poke at the delicate underbelly of perceptions of gender, religion and beauty.

Joyce Antler, a professor at Brandeis University of Jewish-American studies who has written extensively on Jewish women and comedy, observes of the new generation of Jewish female comics: “These women are not telling one-line jokes, the type of bits of Borscht Belt humor that are the standards of Jewish male comedy, but are making you rethink social and political relationships, with sly, bawdy and clever commentary, scenarios and characters.”

Jewishness for female comedians is now seen as an ethnic asset, Antler says, rather than a liability that needs to be hushed up, as it was when the male Borscht Belt comedians went mainstream.

Sarah Silverman (whose sister is a Reform rabbi) plays off of her persona as a pretty Jewish girl with a potty mouth in her 2005 film “Jesus is Magic” and her Comedy Central show, “The Sarah Silverman Program.”

She might currently be the best-known female comedian who pushes the envelope, but she’s actually part of a tradition of Jewish female comedians who make irreverence an art form.

For example, in her film, Silverman sings: “I love you more than bears love honey. I love you more than Jews love money. I love you more than Asians are good at math.”

Silverman carries on a tradition of lewdness that may have reached its zenith with Belle Barth. Once described as Miami’s answer to Lenny Bruce, she was an unapologetically raunchy and cheerfully bawdy stand-up who worked primarily in the 1950s and ‘60s and recorded comedy albums such as “If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends” and “I Don’t Mean to be Vulgar, But it’s Profitable.”

Married five times, Barth was credited as a pioneer for women performers like Bette Midler. She was also seen as a pivotal figure in making it OK for women to publicly acknowledge sexual desire against the backdrop of 1950s sexual repression.

And what Silverman owes Barth, Barth owes Sophie Tucker. A Russian-born Jewish-American immigrant, she became known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” for her lusty appetites and whose incendiary humor and earthy persona lit the stage on fire. Known for singing tunes like “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love,” Tucker proved so popular that in 1909 when she was cast in the glamour girl parade of the Ziegfeld Follies, the other women in the revue allegedly refused to appear on stage with her for fear of being outshone.

Tucker is one of several Jewish women comedians featured in the documentary “Making Trouble,” produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive, a nonprofit institute in Boston devoted to uncovering, documenting and transmitting the history of Jewish women, both celebrated and unknown.

Tucker, Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Joan Rivers, Wendy Wasserstein and Gilda Radner are the subjects of short profile pieces in the JWA-produced film, interplayed with a conversation by contemporary Jewish women comedians Judy Gold, Cory Kahaney, Jessica Kirson and Jackie Hoffman that takes place at Katz’s Deli in Manhattan.

Judith Rosenbaum, director of public history at the JWA, thinks that Jewish women are particularly gifted as comics because, “they are facing outsider-ness from two different fronts, both gender and religion.”

Humor is a way for different groups to both challenge social norms and cross them, particularly conventional ideas about religion, beauty and sexuality.

“I love Sophie Tucker for that,” said Rosenbaum. “As much as she’s playing up her persona as not conventionally attractive, she’s undeniably a sexual being and normalizes that for other people who might be outside the bounds of what’s considered conventionally attractive.

It might seem like a defense mechanism, but there’s a real challenging of social norms to it. She’s saying, even if I don’t fit this standard of beauty, I’m not easily dismissed. That was revolutionary at the time — it was just the right amount of transgressive and funny to make an otherwise unspoken subject palatable in public.”

When looking at the history of Jewish female comedians, Antler says, “It’s about departing from the standard feminine narrative.” The focus of these comedians, especially someone like Joan Rivers, isn’t about how pretty and desirable she is — in fact it’s the opposite.

At the beginning of her career, especially, Rivers was all about mocking her own lack of marital prospects, a scary plight for a family- and marriage-focused Jewish world. “Rethinking complicated relationships with humor is a very effective way to dissect conventions, it’s very nuanced.

That’s what humor does: it takes you to the edge.” Antler cites the work of Judy Gold and Cory Kahaney in particular as ways of entering a public discussion that allows for reforming perceptions of Jewish motherhood and lesbianism.

And now, with characters like Ronna and Beverly having younger Jewish women play against Jewish stereotypes of an earlier generation, Antler observes: “contemporary comedians know they’re standing in a line of Jewish female comedians whom they respect.

The women in the past had to go underground with their Jewishness or exaggerate their feminine faults, whereas today those same things are seen as assets.”

Antler agrees even when she’s the subject of the joke herself. Her daughter, Lauren, is a stand-up comedian based in New York who often performs with her mother, especially upon the publication of Joyce’s book “You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Lauren will gently poke fun at her academic mother’s incisive deconstruction of the stereotype of the Jewish mother, while being unable to resist the pull of loving and worrying in equal measure about her own children. But Joyce shrugs it off, “My daughter makes fun of me, but I don’t mind. What can I do?” Even if she’s the subject of her daughter’s comedy: “I’m a Jewish mother, so I’m proud.”

Ruth Andrew Ellenson is the editor of the best-selling anthology “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” (Plume) which won the National Jewish Book Award. She works as a journalist.