Circa 1953, comedian Mort Sahl’s shtick at San Francisco’s legendary comedy club, the Hungry i, included a joke about UC Berkeley. There was, Sahl used to say, “a course at Cal called Statistical Analysis. And there was a guy in the course who used to make up all his computations and he never used Sigma. He used his own initials. ‘Cause he was the standard deviation.”
Don’t get it? Well, humor changes with the times, as Lawrence J. Epstein reveals in The Haunted Smile (Public Affairs, $15), a history of Jewish comedians in America — from the Marx Brothers to Andy Kaufman to Roseanne and beyond.
“The public has a general sense that Jewish comedians have been influential, but the specifics are less clear,” Epstein muses. “I remember asking Tommy Smothers if Jack Benny’s radio program had influenced his sense of timing. He said Benny had been a deep influence, but Tommy hadn’t known Benny was Jewish. The Jewishness of many comedians was hidden because of name changes and other factors.” Many fans of Seinfeld‘s “sharp, observational urban humor” are blithely unaware of its “Jewish origins,” he says.
“Jewish comedians came from a people that had been forced to move from place to place and adapt quickly. These comedians knew how to confront the anxieties of immigrant life with humor by, for example, mocking the powerful.”
Critics love to hate Howard Stern and Adam Sandler; audiences love to love them. That’s precisely because both men get at uncomfortable truths. “Critics dismiss them because of crudeness and the anger they express,” Epstein observes. “In both cases, but especially Sandler’s, I think critics completely miss the sweetness underneath and the messages from the culture they bring. I think Sandler will turn out to have been an extremely important comedian.”