The funny thing is
Every now and then I like to take a break from dissecting the Jewish world’s problems and solving the Middle East crisis by writing a humor piece. I can’t remember the serious columns I write from one week to the next, but I’ll never forget my groundbreaking explanation of the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Temple Brotherhood, or my award-winning poem “I’m a Jew Who Went to State School and I Don’t Care What You Think.”
I write a lot of humor for my blog, JustASC; this week I had fun with President Obama’s visit to Israel and wrote a response to the Forward’s recent list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.” My list of “America’s Least Inspiring Rabbis” included an absentee rabbi who may or may not be a Mossad agent, and a rabbi who visits the kosher aisles during Passover in hopes of scoring a second free box of matza.
I post these inspirations to Facebook, and my “friends” — skewed heavily to the Jewish journalism and communal worker class — seem to enjoy them. But when it comes to humor, I sometimes feel like the guy who does fantastic impressions of his aunts and uncles: No matter how good they are, they don’t mean that much outside the family. I can’t imagine the mainstream appreciating the insidery Jewish things that make me laugh.
And yet I keep stumbling on mainstream humorists having fun with, well, my family. In December, Saturday Night Live aired a skit, “Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy,” a spot-on parody of every bar mitzva speech you ever suffered through. Dressed in a suit, curly wig, and yarmulke, Vanessa Bayer nailed the sing-song delivery, the mandatory baseball reference, and the loving jokes about brothers and sisters (“Don’t tell my parents I said that”).
This month, The Onion — the parody website and newspaper — published a faux “listicle” called “The 10 Worst Bar Mitzvahs.” Basically a collection of vintage pics of real-life b’nei mitzva (no doubt culled from Onion staffers), it included captions like this: “Jan. 23, 1993, Binghamton, NY: During the Hagbah ceremony, Uncle Howard strained a muscle in his back attempting to hoist the 40-pound Torah and had to be helped to his seat by Aunt Sharon. Guests agreed it was all downhill from there.”
(A few years back, I proposed a “Hagbah training camp,” with sessions on “weight training, technique, and the all-important walking-backward-and-sitting-down-without-landing-on-the-floor” move.)
The Onion’s coverage of the Obama visit, meanwhile, seems to have been written during late-night bull sessions at the college Hillel. “Obama, Rachel Goldstein Really Hitting It Off On Group Trip To Israel” was the headline of a fake news story that cunningly compared the president’s itinerary to a teen tour of Israel (echoing Jeffrey Goldberg’s quip that the Obama visit was “the most expensive Birthright trip ever staged”). The Onion story quotes “Shira Weiss” on the budding romance between Barack and her best friend: “It was obvious from the icebreakers we did at the kibbutz that first Shabbat that something was going on with them.”
Again, I’m not sure the world — or the part of it that reads The Onion — knows or can appreciate what goes on during a teen tour of Israel. A joke like this is substantially different from a more typical Jewish or Middle East joke, like The Onion article with the headline, “‘This Is A Pointless Trip,’ Obama Says While Shaking Hands With Netanyahu.”
The distinction here is between “Jewish humor” and “humor for Jews.” Last week I saw Old Jews Telling Jokes, the Off-Broadway revue based on Highland Park native Sam Hoffman’s viral website. It celebrates Jewish humor — the kind that long ago became universal. You don’t have to be Jewish, as it were, to get the jokes about mothers-in-law, doctors, sex, thrifty businessmen, and food.
But what does it mean when mainstream humorists are writing jokes best understood by less than 2 percent of the population?
My friend Larry Yudelson, who suggested I write about this topic, explains why the audience is far more than the 2 percent. “The audience of The Onion is urban/suburban college-educated Americans, probably 25-40,” he wrote me. “That group is probably already 4 percent Jewish, or in a relationship with a Jew, or has a Jewish parent. Then add having a Jewish friend in eighth grade and getting a bar mitzva invite. Add the friends in college who went on Birthright. I think you’re hitting a very large population who know that Jews go to Israel and hook up, or that the Torah scroll is lifted at a bar mitzva.”
And then there is the percentage of Jews who write for outfits like SNL and The Onion. Or as Jon Stewart famously said, “When I first said that I wanted us to put together a late-night comedy writing team that would only be 80 percent Ivy League-educated Jews, people thought I was crazy. They said you need 90, 95 percent. But we proved ’em wrong.”
So maybe I’m ready for prime time after all. Lorne, Jon — if you are looking for material about USY shenanigans, rabbinic search committees, or the real meaning of Musaf, I know just the guy.