But how, exactly, are these jokes different from all other jokes?
Krasny insists that Jewish jokes, like the people who tell them, are “separate and distinct.” This is clearly not always the case.
Take the joke about the old man who is offered “super sex” and replies, “I’ll take the soup.” I know this joke well, but I have never heard it told with the old man’s religion or ethnicity specified. What makes it a Jewish joke? Krasny doesn’t say; he merely observes that “as Jewish men age in Jewish jokes, they often become increasingly less potent and less libidinal.” That can happen to non-Jewish men in non-Jewish jokes as well.
Then there’s the one about the young Orthodox Jew who consults his rabbi for advice about his wedding night. When he asks whether it is permissible for him and his bride to have sex standing up, the rabbi responds angrily: “Absolutely not! That could lead to dancing!”
The setup is new to me, but the punch line is familiar. The thing is, although I come from a Jewish family and have been hearing Jewish jokes all my life, I know it as the payoff to a joke about Baptists.
Krasny acknowledges that “jokes often morph and take on different cultural identities regardless of the identity in the original version.” Of a joke about Jewish mothers wanting their children to become doctors — “If you ask the question at what stage a fetus becomes viable for Jews, you still hear the answer ‘after med school’ ” — he notes that “the novelist Amy Tan told me she heard the same joke told about Chinese-Americans.” Invoking two other novelists, he mentions that Isabel Allende “swears that the humor from her native Chile is in every way just like Jewish humor” and that Saul Bellow once said that because “oppressed people tend to be witty,” Jewish humor and Irish humor are alike.
Still, he insists, “Some jokes remain inescapably Jewish,” like the ones about schlemiels (who spill soup) and schlimazels (on whom they spill it), or about mothers who are “disapproving and difficult” but also “overly loving and protective” — a theme, he notes, that has been explored at great length by celebrated Jewish jokesters like Philip Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman.
He has a point. But, to get back to that subtitle, what does it all mean?
Offering as evidence a list of names from Fanny Brice to Lenny Bruce, Krasny begins “Let There Be Laughter” by making the case that Jews have long played “overwhelmingly dominant roles in the world of comedy and humor,” at least in the United States. He puts his thumb on the scales just a bit by leaving names like George Carlin and Richard Pryor out of the equation — and by including on his list of Jewish-influenced “culture phenomena” National Lampoon, a publication whose sensibility was largely shaped by people with surnames like O’Donoghue, O’Rourke and Kenney — but the numbers don’t lie; Jews have dominated the field and, even in this post-assimilation age, continue to do so.
How to account for this dominance is, Krasny writes, “a challenging question and one with no simple answers.” Almost 300 pages later, he is still grappling with the question — and pretty much giving up. On his penultimate page, after reminding us that he has “tried to explain thematic meaning in the great Jewish jokes,” he does a surprising about-face and turns his attention to Andy Kaufman, Howard Stern and some others whose humor, he shrugs, “defies explanation in terms of any Jewish theme.” He closes with the hope that his book has brought “deep appreciation for the remarkably wide-ranging genius of Jewish comedy.” Wide-ranging, yes; easily classifiable, no.
As a treatise, then, “Let There Be Laughter” is not very persuasive. As a joke book, it is delightful. And as Krasny himself admits, nodding to Freud after struggling for several paragraphs to unearth the deeper meaning in a simple story about a blind man mistaking the surface of a matzo for Braille, “Sometimes a joke is just a joke.”