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Jewish Studies Program

Invited Presentations

Why Does the Membership of the Friars Club Still Look Like a Manifest from Ellis Island? Why Jews, Italians, and Other Ethnic Types are Funny

Regina Barreca
Professor of English, University of Connecticut

The poor are funnier than the rich. You can probably tell by the way I use the word “poor” that I have no class. Not so that you would notice anyway. I grew up in a big Italian family in Brooklyn, New York. We were funny. And we were poor, which is why I am comfortable using the word and making the generalization. Humor for the poor is a way to keep track of both blatant and subtle injustices perpetrated by a political and economic system that does not have their best interests at heart; humor is a way, in other words, to make a record and keep a score. The uneasiness that the poor feel in the presence of the rich, the rich feel in the presence of the poor. Making humor is a way of making trouble. 

The Comedic Zeitgeist: ‘there’s good news & bad news’

Joseph Boskin
Professor Emeritus of American Social & Ethnic History, Boston University

The parlous state of the polity over the past half-century has trigged off a spate of edgy humor, a type that occasionally borders on gallows but largely resides in a particular comedic space.  Its essential form and shape is the good news/bad news riposte. In the contemporary cultural climate, the phrase is widely commonplace, an accepted mode of assessment regardless of issue.  Constantly evoked by columnists, politicians, economists, and television news anchors, the phrase requires virtually little explanation.  Indeed, when not actually using the expression itself, the media invariably conveys its import:  “In 2010 the Stock Market Will Surely Rise -- Unless it Falls” was the wry prediction in The Boston Globe in its positive/negative assessment of 2011. All this points to vast confusion coupled with unnerving uncertainty against a backdrop of national conflict.

Combining a heady touch of realism tinged with droll whimsy, the good news/bad news idiom actually came into high play in jokes and quips over half-a-century ago.  Its explicit introduction into the popular culture occurred in the 1950s, with Murphy’s Law, to wit, ‘anything that can go wrong, will.’ Yet, paralleling virtually every other national aphorism, this comedic coda assuredly cropped up from deep within the collective soil. Overall, it would appear that the good news/bad news scenario is directly connected to a national bipolar syndrome.  Which is to say, deeply embedded in the American psyche are traits of exaggeration, modes of exuberance that start off high, and then suddenly dive low. But the presidential election of 2016 sharply laid bare the contemporary, palpable divide, and the deeply-rooted accompanying rancor. Over the many decades, in style and substance, Jewish humor has reflected and reinforced the good news/bad news pattern. Indeed, ranging from jokes to joke-cycles to greeting cards to cartoons to impromptu takes, Jewish comedy constantly illumines its cultural import. 

Jewish Professors on Film

Federica K. Clementi
Associate Professor of English and Jewish Studies, University of South Carolina

Christian Anderson
Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policies, University of South Carolina 

How are Jewish professors portrayed in film, and why are they so often comedic, when not also entirely pathetic, characters? What stereotypes are deployed in these films and how do they challenge or reinforce the audience’s perception of Jews, intellectuals, and education in America? 

Our paper looks at a broad array of portrayals of Jewish professors in film, with a sustained focus on the devices through which humor helps create recurring or persistent images that inform contemporary American culture’s misgivings, expectations and biases regarding the intellectual and academic world. We will endeavor to answer the question why Jews in particular seem to make for some of the funniest professors on screen—either as the source or target of humor. Why, when the professor is Jewish, does humor tend to be dry, biting, brainy and often less subtle than when applied to non-Jewish characters?

Among others, some of our primary examples include Barbra Streisand’s English professor Rose Morgan-Larkin (the only female example we have identified in this subgenre) in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (1996); Professor Jules Hilbert played by Dustin Hoffman in “Stranger than Fiction” (2006); physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the semi-autobiographical film by the Coen brothers, “A Serious Man” (2009); and the elder and younger Professors Shkolnik in the Israeli film, “Footnote” (2011).

Our analysis demonstrates how two positive characteristics assigned to Jewish identity (love of books and education, and humor) have been combined by American culture in a way that ends up undermining these values by casting them as “Jewish” in a stereotypically negative way. The underlying message the stereotype of the Jewish professor seems to deliver is that although America offered the Jews a unique opportunity to assimilate, blend and disappear (by getting rid of their “distinguishing” Jewish traits), the Jews keep sticking out like a sore thumb by holding on to some of their cherished obsessions, such as the one for education and thinking, that make them… laughable. The end result of the uses and abuses of this humorous stereotype is twofold: on the one hand, it reinforces the idea of Jewish intellectualism as a form of neurosis, and it simultaneously works at undermining the power of education, knowledge and the figure itself of the intellectual towards whom post-war American political discourse has cultivated an enmity that is still ongoing today.

Jewish Humor: Kvetching and Shpritzing

Joseph Dorinson
Professor of History, Long Island University 

Jewish humor, with its rational skepticism and cutting social criticism, permeates American popular culture. Scholars of humor—from Sigmund Freud to Woody Allen—have studied the essence of the Jewish joke, which is both a defense mechanism against a hostile world and a means of cultural affirmation. Where did this wit originate? Why do Jewish humorists work at the margins of so many diverse cultures? What accounts for the prolonged existence of the Jewish joke? Do oppressed people, as African-American author, Ralph Ellison suggested, "Change the joke and slip the yoke?" Citing examples from prominent humorists and stand-up comics, this presentation will examine the phenomenon of Jewish humor from its biblical origins to its prevalence in the modern Diaspora, and reveal a mother lode of wit in language, literature, folklore, music and history. A PowerPoint presentation and film clips will illuminate and illustrate this presentation. 

Authenticating Apologies in Black Standup Comedy

Lanita Jacobs
Associate Professor of Anthropology and American Studies, University of Southern California 

In the (2009) documentary, “Why We Laugh:  Black Comedians on Black Comedy,” Steve Harvey asserts, “There’s a ridiculous rule out there [among comics] that … ‘nothing gets in the way of the joke.’  But it does. It’s a lot that has to get in the way of the joke... There’s some responsibility; any time you got a microphone, you got some responsibility – whether you like it or not.” Harvey knows of what he speaks having been asked (on more than one occasion) to apologize for jokes that spark what Moira Smith (2009) calls “un-laughter”; these are moments when comics’ creative license runs afoul of audiences’ tastes and standards, thus exposing and heightening group boundaries.  This paper mines recent cases wherein black comics’ quips have compelled ever-vocal audiences (e.g., black, queer, female) to radically enact their “un-laughter” by demanding “sincere” (i.e., earnest) and, in some cases, racially “authentic” (i.e., “real black”) redress.  In particular, I examine: (a) Kevin Hart’s sketchy-apology to black female fans for tweets that wreaked of colorism (i.e., a preference for light skin over dark skin), (b) black audience’s swift disciplining of amateur comics for 9/11 humor that, in the cheeky word-play of comics, “bombed,” (c) Tracy Morgan’s “sincere” apology to the queer community for homophobic jokes that were, incidentally, quite similar to Hart’s own strategies of redress for near-identical humor), and, finally, (d) Sherri Shepherd’s controversial apology to black fans after video-posting her dismay about a fight during the late-comic Ricky Harris’s funeral.  These instances of “un-laughter,” which traverse social media, comedy stages, and decidedly communal forums, bespeak black comics’ and audiences’ attendance to cultural imperatives concerning racial authenticity and sincerity (especially) when jokes beget cringes instead of laughs and comics are again reminded, per Harvey, to consider whether or not their jokes amuse and heal versus offend and divide. They also underscore the material stakes of black comedic representations and fraught politics of black respectability in face of an omnipresent white gaze. Moreover, they teach us that Black audiences’ “un-laughter” can not only serve to heighten group boundaries between comics and audiences, but also mitigate against them through calls for apology that seem to say, “You should’ve known better [with your black ass!]”  

Intercultural Global North-South Comedy: The Trevor Noah Effect

Russell Kaschula
NRF SARChI Chair: African Language Studies, School of Languages, Rhodes University 

This paper seeks to explore post-democratic southern African comedy against the backdrop of intercultural theory. Ting Toomey (1999) and Gudykunst (2003), for example speak of creating a sense of belonging among people, a form of cultural inclusivity through a process of ‘mindfulness’ and respect, rather than facilitating a feeling of alienation. This form of intercultural belonging or being, it is argued, is an attempt to avoid a feeling of ‘identity vulnerability’,  as part of Ting-Toomey’s (1993) ‘identity negotiation theory’ that is sometimes experienced in multicultural societies such as the United States of America and South Africa, which have large immigrant populations. This ‘identity vulnerability’ is exacerbated in times of crisis, for example the Jewish holocaust and South Africa’s apartheid era. However, it also creates post-crisis comedic opportunities. This paper assesses how comedians re-negotiate the formation of this new inclusive identity through their multilingual, multicultural and incisive comedy. Firstly, the paper seeks to create an understanding of the post-1994 South African comedian by using general examples. Secondly, the paper highlights the emergence of a new type of comedian, who under apartheid would not have been given centre stage. Finally, the paper seeks to gain an understanding of the Trevor Noah effect. In particular, this comedian has been able to elevate the North-South debate in a global context, using for example America’s President Trump and South Africa’s President Zuma as part of a comparative global North-South comedic commentary.  

Constructing People Through Comedy: How We (Can) Joke About Marginalized Identities

Rebecca Krefting
Associate Professor of American Studies, Skidmore College 

According to Canadian comic Russell Peters, if the intent is to be funny, not harmful, then comics should have a right to say it.[1] The subjective nature of humor (why we laugh at what we do, even if that guy next to us isn’t) and impossibility of controlling for its reception makes this an onerous argument. How can you ensure that each audience member knows the intent of the comic performing? Can’t intent be as carefully crafted as the joke itself? Sociologist Raúl Pérez confirmed this to be the case when he took stand-up comedy classes at a reputable club in Southern California. Comedy coaches encouraged jokes perpetuating stereotypes, reinforcing negative ideas about a group, but trained them—particular to their social identities—how to make such jabs palatable.[2]  In general, the use of these rhetorical distancing mechanisms ensure positive audience reception, but not all the time and the cultural flare-ups resulting are interesting moments when constructions of identity collide—complex, varied, and dignified versus superficial, demeaning, or one-dimensional. This paper extends Pérez’s analysis to identify a broader array of strategic rhetorical devices and how these shift when the comedy performance transitions from performance to print and video. New media presents myriad avenues for producing humor in which rhetorical conventions for broaching issues of identity adapt to social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Using ethnography, close readings of comedic texts, and media analysis, I examine how we navigate discussions of identity in comedy—both in live and in new media contexts. 

[1] Anna Silman, “10 Famous Comedians on How Political Correctness is Killing Comedy: ‘We Are Addicted to the Rush of Being Offended,” Salon June 10, 2015,

[2] Raúl Pérez, “Learning To Make Racism Funny in the ‘Color-Blind’ Era: Stand-up Comedy Students, Performance Strategies, and the (Re)Production of Racist Jokes in Public,” Discourse & Society 24.4 (2013): 493; 488.

#MeTooSoon: Finding the Funny in Sexual Misconduct mankoff cartoon

Bob Mankoff
Cartoon Editor Emeritus, The New Yorker; Humor and Cartoon Editor, Esquire magazine 

In this talk, Bob Mankoff, former Cartoon Editor for The New Yorker and now Cartoon and humor editor for Esquire will review how the cartoons of both magazines have used sexual misconduct as a vehicle for humor that was funny then, and taboo now. Then using a series of his own cartoons, soon to be published in Esquire, he will, in good fun, make fun of the #MeToo movement, before he is booed and hissed off the stage after being forcibly stripped of his white male privilege.

Defining and Deconstructing Jewish Humor

Lawrence Mintz
Professor Emeritus of American Studies, University of Maryland 

This presentation will look at various different definitions of what constitutes “Jewish humor” including humor by Jews, about Jews, and for Jews, and including both positive and negative examples. Jewish humor will be discussed in the contexts of both the European diaspora and American popular culture, with a brief mention of Israeli humor as well. 

Confronting the Ultimate Taboo in Humor

Ferne Pearlstein
Independent filmmaker 

Are we allowed to make jokes about the Holocaust? This “entertaining and thought-provoking film” (Variety), The Last Laugh, puts the question about comedy's ultimate taboo to legends including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Harry Shearer, Jeff Ross, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, and many other critical thinkers, as well as Holocaust survivors themselves. Through these interviews and clips from popular standup comedy routines, TV shows, and movies, The Last Laugh offers fresh insights into the Holocaust, our own psyches, and what else—9/11, AIDS, racism—is or isn’t off-limits in a society that prizes freedom of speech. 

Filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein will lead a discussion about the film while showing clips that disprove the idea that there is nothing left to say about the Holocaust, while opening a fresh avenue for approaching this epochal tragedy. The unexpected results will leave you both laughing and appreciating the importance of humor even in the face of events that make you want to cry. In this discussion we will encourage audience participation to uncover the uncomfortable questions about just how free speech can really be. 

The Dynamic Humor of Sophie Tucker

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff
Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina 

Sophie Tucker was known as a comedienne as much as a singer in her almost 70 years in show business. Through double entendre, signature movements, and spoken sequences mixed into songs, she left audiences laughing and coming back for more. This paper will explore the evolution of Tucker’s use of humor from her beginnings in vaudeville, moving through stage and cabaret work. Tucker was very conscious about her status as one of only a few “funny girls,” and the paper will address the relationship between humor, ethnicity, and gender in the first half of the 20th Century.

            Tucker was close with other comediennes, mainly Jewish women such as Fanny Brice and Belle Barth who capitalized on signature characters or their own ethnic backgrounds as source material. As much as she adored these women, however, her closest companions in the industry were Jewish men; Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, and Jack Yellen. Tucker’s self-effacing, bawdy style was perhaps more representative of the men she often performed alongside. As many of these men built lucrative film careers with high degrees of censorship, Tucker remained a primarily live performer, with an ability to expand her humor with less regulation. In 1953, when she was the first woman inducted into the all-male Friar’s Club, her acceptance speech was apparently so filthy that it could not be reproduced in print! Therefore, My talk will cover the trajectory of Tucker’s use of humor as she rose to a top headliner in show business as well as her exchanges with several prominent figures of the era.

Holocaust comedy in American popular culture

David Slucki
Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston 

Holocaust jokes are widespread in American popular culture. From sitcoms, to films, to stand up comedy, to internet memes and sketch comedy, comedians and writers regularly employ widely recognizable Holocaust tropes in their work. In this paper, I will argue that Holocaust humor, once the domain of transgressive Jewish comics like Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks, is now so commonplace in American popular culture that it no longer has shock value. Whereas a Jewish comic mimicking or dressing up as Hitler, and parading as a buffoon might once have rankled audiences, Nazi masquerades now appear on mainstream sitcoms and late night shows as a matter of course.

Tracing the shift from Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler”, to sitcoms such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sarah Silverman Program, and South Park, as well as new media platforms, I will highlight the changing meaning and use of Holocaust comedy from the 1960s through to the present day. Now, both Jewish and non-Jewish comics routinely lampoon the Nazis and Hitler, but also symbols that are were previously considered untouchable, such as Anne Frank and Auschwitz, raising questions about the ethical parameters of dark comedy. This trend reflects the growing prevalence of the Holocaust in American popular culture, as the joke work relies on audiences recognizing Holocaust iconography. 

Lenny’s Children: The Rise and Triumph of Blasphemous Jewish Humor in post-World War II America

Jarrod Tanny
Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Wilmington 

“I’m a Judeo-Christian with Jesus and Moses in my heart – two good Jewish boys who got in trouble with the government,” declares Kinky Friedman, who rose to fame in the 1970s as a sacrilegious and politically incorrect satirical musician. In many respects, Kinky embodies the spirit of what may be called the new Jewish humor, whose practitioners include Mel Brooks, Lewis Black, Larry David, Marc Maron, and Sarah Silverman. Fashioning their material out of topics that had been taboo until the 1960s – sexuality, religion, racism, antisemitism, and the Holocaust – these explicitly Jewish comics have come to be central figures in American entertainment. Yet in style and in substance they are the beneficiaries of Lenny Bruce, whose Yiddish-inflected iconoclastic performances smashed the boundaries of the permissible in a public sphere that had become more tolerant since World War II but remained shackled to its white Christian heritage. Although Bruce was martyred by the judicial system for his blasphemous routines – his mocking of the Crucifixion, the Papacy, the rabbinate – he made it possible for his successors to thrive as unapologetically vulgar Jewish comedians. Bruce was thus a transformative figure in the history of Jewish humor, and his legacy still resonates in the twenty-first century, on stage, in film, and on television. 

Lenny Bruce and the Intellectuals

Stephen Whitfield
Max Richter Professor of American Civilization, Brandeis University 

A study of how fully members of the intelligentsia took seriously the satire that he began deepening in roughly the decade before his death.  Between the death of Mark Twain in 1910 and the emergence of Woody Allen, no single comedian attracted the attention and analysis of thinkers, critics and writers as much as Bruce, a phenomenon that is worth exploring.


Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.