‘Is Anything Okay?’

‘Is Anything Okay?’

YIVO offers online course about the history of Jewish comedy in America

What is it about Jews and jokes?

Are we inherently funny — can you tell the Jewish baby in the hospital nursery because that’s the baby that has all the neonatal nurses cracking up?

Dr. Eddy Portnoy

Is it that our long, sad, often tragic history makes us tell jokes, laughing to keep from crying?

Are there jokes in the Bible? Are all those surrealistic bits in the Talmud meant to be funny?

Are American Jews particularly funny? Did the shock of crossing the ocean while throwing up in steerage only to find that the streets were paved not with gold but with far messier, browner stuff do it?

Eddy Portnoy is YIVO’s academic advisor and director of exhibitions; he’s put together an online course called “Is Anything Okay? The History of Jews and Comedy in America” that will be available online starting on March 21. (See box.) He’s a Jewish Theological Seminary-credentialed historian of American Jews; his expertise in examining the weird, unexpected, and funny surprises of American Jewish life led to his 2017 book, “Bad Rabbi And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.”

So can he explain what makes a joke generally Jewish, specifically American Jewish, and actually funny?

It happened at Grossinger’s: Jerry Lewis hugs Jennie Grossinger.

Yes he can, he said. But then the frog has to die.

Excuse me, what?

“Academics who write on humor say that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. When you do that, you learn a lot about the frog, and you end up knowing much more about how its body works than you knew before. But the frog has to die.”

There are no frog dissections in this online course. There are discussions about specific jokes, but many more about the way Jewish humor in America (which counts Canada but mainly means New York) developed. The course includes academic discussions about archival materials; YIVO has a wealth of them. Participants will be able to see film and television clips, hear records, and look at photos and posters; they’ll hear from academics — including Jeremy Dauber of Columbia, who grew up in Englewood, David Roskies of JTS, and Michael Wex, who wrote “Born to Kvetch” – and performers — including Judy Gold, Lewis Black, Mark Maron, and Paul Rieser, among others, who are working now, as well as their predecessors.

“Is Anything Okay?’s” seven-unit program begins with a look at Jewish humor in Askhenaz, starting with the badchen, “the wedding jester. The badchen is traced to about the 15th century and likely existed before then. It’s the wedding emcee, who wound up as a kind of jokester, bringing jokes and humor and joy to the wedding. Joy is an inherent part of a wedding, and there is the commandment to bring joy to the bridge and groom, but badchonim brought jokes. And they were there in an official capacity.

It happened at Grossinger’s: Lucille Ball and Alan King sit together at the hotel’s nightclub.

“In the 19th century, they became some of the first people to publish humorous books, so in a way they became the standard-bearers of early Jewish humor.”

Next, the course will look at the Borscht Belt, where Jewish comedians performed for Jewish immigrant audiences briefly sprung from their tenements, and at the city, where Jewish influences were at work. Want to know what’s Jewish about Betty Boop or Popeye? This is your chance to find out. You don’t have to wonder what’s Jewish about the Marx Brothers, but you can revel in it here too. And if you’re more a Three Stooges type, you’re also in luck.

The course will move forward to focus on what it calls “Spawn of the Borscht Belt,” the midcentury Jewish comedians, including Milton Berle, Alan King, Sophie Tucker, and the amazing, and amazingly still with us, Mel Brooks. “It’ll consider Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Mort Sahl, and that cadre,” Dr. Portnoy said. Then it will go on to what it calls postmodern comedians, who flourished at the end of the last century and continued into this one, and it will end with contemporary Jewish comedy.

Why is YIVO offering this program, Dr. Portnoy?

“Why not?” (It’s all in the timing.) But seriously, “It’s an outgrowth of a class that I taught at Rutgers in around 2012,” he said. “It was called ‘The History of Jewish Humor,’ and it was really popular.”

Joey Bishop is working the cash register at Grossinger’s Resort. (Courtesy of the YIVO Archives)

Why did you get involved in Jewish humor? “I like it!” he said. “Who doesn’t?”

But that academic work has its downside. “It’s one thing to enjoy humor and comedy, and quite another to delve into its history and cultural value. That’s really a different beast entirely. It can get in the way of enjoying it.” It’s the whole working-in-a-sausage-factory problem; after a few days there, who wants to eat sausage? “But when I hear something funny that I’ve never heard before, I’ll still find it funny. This hasn’t killed humor for me entirely.

“Perhaps somewhat. But not entirely.”

And it’s a way to look at Jewish history. “Humor is an integral part of Jewish culture,” he said. “The fact that there were a huge number of Jewish comedians and comedy writers in the 20th century is a fascinating phenomenon, in the same way that the early comic book industry was so heavily Jewish, and Hollywood was so heavily Jewish. Those industries were all Jew-heavy.”

Part of that, Dr. Portnoy said, seems to be because Jews are drawn to humor as a way to gain some control, or at least the illusion of control, over a long, often tragic history. And to some extent it’s far more prosaic. It’s far easier to break into an industry when you have connections there. Once Jews began working as comedy writers, say, it’s far easier for a talented younger cousin or family friend’s kid or someone from the same block to get a job there. The talent is necessary, but the connections help.

Milton Berle poses onstage in the Catskills with an unnamed woman.

Sounds sober, right?

Just take a look at the trailers that YIVO put out to advertise this course (which is free). One is 30 seconds long, the other is 90 seconds; both include very quick cuts from person to person, so you can’t get much depth, but they are giggle-inducing.

How do we deal with humor in this deadly serious, not-at-all-funny new world we’re living in now? Is a course on humor appropriate now?

Yes it is, Dr. Portnoy said.

The course was done before October 7, he said. “We were supposed to launch in November. On October 9, we had a meeting to discuss publicity for it, and we just looked at each other and we all said that there is no way that we can do this now. We have to reschedule.

In the Catskills in 1910, hotel guests gathered for a drag wedding — it was a way of providing themselves with cheap homemade entertainment.

“We decided to reschedule it for around Purim. It’s still not a great time — maybe it never will be – but Purim seemed to be the best option.”

Given Jewish history, with its many horrors, it’s an open question about when it’s acceptable to laugh again after one of them is perpetrated on us. Was it acceptable to film Mel Brook’s “Producers,” just 20 years after the Holocaust? Academics discuss that question in the course, Dr. Portnoy said. “There is discussion about the melancholy or neurotic nature of Jewish joking,” he said. The academics also talk a bit about some of the misogyny that sometimes appears in Jewish humor — Jewish mother jokes, JAP jokes, take-my-wife-please jokes.

“One of the questions I always ask if whether a joke could be told about someone of another ethnicity and still be successful,” Dr. Portnoy said. “So say you take an old joke. Let’s say that there’s this woman, Zelda, this 70-year-old woman who’s been working in the garment industry for 40 years. She leaves work, she’s walking to the subway, and a guy wearing a trench coat jumps out from an alley, opens the coat, and flashes her. And she looks at him and she says, ‘This you call a lining?’

“Would this be funny if it was about, say, a Chinese person?”

Dr. Portnoy explained why it wouldn’t be. The joke depends in part on the association of Jews with the garment industry, and part on the syntax of the question. So go ahead and laugh now…

There’s a lot to talk about.

“Is Anything Okay?” is housed on a Harvard-developed open-source platform called edX, Dr. Portnoy said. “It allows you to create prerecorded online classes and includes lectures, documents, and all sorts of sidebar information. The class uses YIVO’s voluminous archival information and provides relevant primary source material to accompany the lectures.”

The course’s seven units are made up of dozens of lectures, Dr. Portnoy said. The first unit will be released on March 21 at 7 p.m., and a new one will be released every week after that. “The old ones will be up in perpetuity, and you will be able to go back and forth between them as much as you want,” he said. And it’s all free – but you do have to register.

Learn more at , or go to yivo.org, click on programs, and then program of events.yivo.org/Comedy-Launch

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