The Jewish Laugh?

By Jo Phillips

One of our most human of emotions is laughter; it is even mentioned in The Bible’s Old Testament several times. The name Isaac comes from the Hebrew language and literally means “one who laughs” or “one who rejoices.” Also mentioned in the Talmud (the set of teachings and commentaries that form the basis for Jewish law) is a reference to ‘God’ Laughing’. If laughter is as old as time and even written about in the three Abrahamic faiths, then could that give a clue as to why American comedy is littered with Jewish comedians? As with many groups who find themselves under serious duress is it the humour that keeps them going? A survival tactic if you like? But ultimately telling a good joke is more than a one-liner it’s a craft often learnt the hard way, in front of a live audience or by that joke that just didn’t work. Image on left-hand side Morey Amsterdam MPTV Images/ Reel Art Press book

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“If a book about failures doesn’t sell, it is a success?” Jerry Seinfeld.

 In 1978, Time magazine estimated that around 80% of professional American comics were Jewish, and Jewish humour remains a foundation stone of modern popular culture. A new book, A Small Book of Jewish Comedians from Reel Art Press, is a delightful and irreverent celebration of great photography and some of the ultimate one-liners of the 20th century, ripe in satire, anecdote, self-deprecation and irony.  Was it this hardship of this small community, passed down from generation to generation, that honed a craft of humour?

The book opens with a heartfelt and informative introduction by the stand-up comedian Bobby Slayton, and includes a wonderful selection of one-liners and images edited by Tony Nourmand, this book offers a beautiful insight into the life and humour of the world’s foremost Jewish comedians throughout the ages.  

left Joan Rivers 1985 Mario Casilli MPTV, right Sacha Baron Cohen MPTV Images. Reel Art Press book

Find many names you know like Sasha Baron-Cohen, Joan Rivers, Larry David, Jackie Mason, Mel Brooks, Bette Midler, Garry Shandling, Woody Allen and Fran Lebowitz plus names from the past that may well not be so known by today’s audiences such as, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Gilda Radner, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Rita Rudner, Jerry Lewis, Geroge Burns and Rodney Dangerfield. These titians pathed the way for others that follow. This allows for a new audience to connect and explore for them, new names.

left Groucho Marx MPTV Images, right Gilda Gadner by Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times Contour by Getty Images. Reel Art Press book

The amount of Jewish comedians doesn’t belittle the work, the craft, the toil needed to succeed. Yet do we actually take laughing seriously? To seamlessly make people laugh without thinking is surely a skill, crafted from a hard slog.

Whether spoken or writing good comedy is just as valid an artistic achievement as penning more say a more ‘serious’ or factual piece of text. Crafting laughs is tough. Ultimately it’s difficult because what is laugh out loud funny may well differ greatly from one person to the next. And let’s be honest there is nothing more excruciating than a joke that ‘dies’.

Yet laughter is perennial; it is so part and parcel of the human experience so even though here we celebrate specifically Jewish comedians, laughter is eternal and across gender, colour, sexuality, body types, and religion. It feels like a need. It’s not frivolous it is a necessity for each and everyone’s mental health, laughter is, after all, a great ‘cure-all’ And anyway if ‘God’ can laugh so can we.

The books two collaborators are Tony Nourmand founder and editor-in-chief of Reel Art Press and is also a world authority
on the imagery of film and Bobby Slayton (“Yid Vicious”) who has been performing his own intense style of comedy for over 40 years and who has many television credits to his name including Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Tonight Show.

This book is published in conjunction with the exhibition of Jewish Comedians at La Térmica Cultural Centre in Málaga, Spain, in November 2021. It is the first in a series of exhibitions and books celebrating Jewish culture in the arts. The series is produced and curated in collaboration with Reel Art Press.

 Find out more at reelartpress.com. If you enjoyed reading The Jewish Laugh? they why not read The Devil in Art Here.