Other types of Jewish humour are available says David Baddiel
Some years ago, I was on the Today programme, talking about Jewish comedy. The other two people in the discussion, both historians of comedy and music hall, were not Jews (this was no doubt one small signpost on the road that led to Jews Don’t Count). At the end of the chat, we were asked for a favourite Jewish joke. Both the non-Jews told jokes about Jews being mean with money. It made me decide not to do that. I told this joke: “An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Jew are sitting on a park bench. The Englishman says: ‘I am so tired and thirsty, I must have beer.’ The Frenchman says: ‘I am so tired and thirsty, I must have wine.’ The Jew says: ‘I am so tired and thirsty, I must have diabetes.’”
Which was funnier than their jokes. But it had another difference, which is although, like their jokes, it confirms a Jewish stereotype, unlike their jokes, it confirms a Jewish stereotype which is a. true, and b. not historically linked to Jews’ houses being burnt down. But still, now, when people, Jews and non-Jews, tell me Jewish jokes, they tend to be about Jews being mean. Some of these are funny. Like this one: “My best friend is a Jew but also a practicing Buddhist. A Jewish Buddhist is basically someone who thinks you should renounce all your material possessions but still keep the receipts.”
That’s mine. It’s one of my first ever stand-up jokes. It used to get a really big laugh. But I wouldn’t tell it now. Well, I might tell it now, but I wouldn’t write it now. Because I think it is incumbent upon Jewish comedians to find ways of joking about Jews that don’t say “Jews are mean”, as “Jews are mean” as an idea isn’t funny: not given, over many centuries, the consequences.
Which is not to say that you can’t tell jokes about the fact that people think Jews are mean. For example: “Moshe and Abe are walking through town, and they see a Church, with a sign outside: Convert to Christ. We will give you 20 dollars! Moshe says: ‘I’m going to do it.’ Abe waits outside. Eventually, Moshe comes back, and Abe says: ‘So? Did you get your 20 dollars?’ And Moshe says: ‘Money. It’s everything to you people.’”
This — a fantastic gag — is not an antisemitic joke. It’s a joke about antisemitism. Being unable to tell the difference between these two things is, as we know, a problem with comedy now. The offended cry “x or y isn’t a subject for laughter” is always wrong, as it’s not the subject-matter that matters, it’s the joke: the specific underlay of each individual joke. In the above, what is being laughed at is not Jewish stereotypes, but how easily and reflexively those stereotypes emerge. And also something else: an understanding about fear, about how those targeted by the mob will sometimes be desperate, as an escape route, to join the mob.
There is a somewhat idiot notion abroad, in the endless commentary on comedy online, that jokes either punch up or punch down, and one is evil and the other is acceptable, but actually comedy is much more fluid than that. Comedy, good comedy, windmills in all directions. In the “you mustn’t joke about” cacophony, the Jewish corner is the Holocaust. But there are jokes about the Holocaust and jokes about the Holocaust.
I remember on TV a few years ago, Larry David hosted Saturday Night Live, and did a bit about how, at Auschwitz, he reckoned he’d still be, across the barbed wire, checking out the women. He continued: “Trouble is, there are no good opening lines in concentration camps. ‘Hey! How you doing? They treating you OK? If we ever get out alive, you wanna go for some latkes? What? What did I say? Is it me? Or is it…the whole thing?’”
There were complaints — of course — but they misunderstood something. In the same week, on Andrew Neil’s show This Week, Harriet Harman, to make the point about how some jokes are unacceptable, told the “How do you get 100 Jews in a Mini Metro? One in the back and 99 in the ashtray” joke.
So. This is how jokes are different. Harman’s joke, like the Holocaust itself, dehumanises the victims. David’s routine does the opposite. It says: these were people. They were you and me. They had desires, for sex, for latkes. He makes that funny, not tragic, but inside the laughter is a cry of pain and humanity.
Be prepared, is what I’m saying, to dig deep with jokes. And next time someone says to you, “You’re Jewish? Have you heard the one about Hymie and the day he lost his pay packet?” maybe just reply, “You know what? There are other types of Jewish jokes out there.”
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