'You can take a joke and analyze it like a literary narrative'

Famed San Francisco radio host commands laughter with new Jewish humor book

Michael Krasny’s ‘Let There Be Laughter’ offers funny jokes and insightful commentary as antidote to trying times

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Michael Krasny, KQED Radio host and author of ' Let There Be Laughter' (KQED)
Michael Krasny, KQED Radio host and author of ' Let There Be Laughter' (KQED)

You know how a lot of people have trouble remembering jokes? Well, Michael Krasny isn’t one of them.

An English professor and the longtime host of the most-listened-to locally produced public radio program in the United States, KQED’s “Forum,” Krasny has an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish humor and an easy recall of hundreds of Jewish jokes. He’s collected many of those jokes in a new book that explains what drives Jews to laugh at almost everything — and mainly themselves.

The book’s recent publication is auspicious. While many Americans find little amusing about current political realities in the United States, Krasny argues that tapping into the Jewish tradition of finding humor even in history’s darkest periods can be helpful under Donald Trump’s presidency.

Krasny didn’t plan for the publication of his “Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means” — with an entire chapter devoted to the humor of suffering — to coincide with Trump’s election. But its comedic timing was impeccable, with the release set to make us laugh to keep from crying.

'Let There Be Laughter' by Michael Krasny (HarperCollins Publishers)
‘Let There Be Laughter’ by Michael Krasny (HarperCollins Publishers)

Krasny, who teaches American and British literature at San Francisco State University and Stanford University, was always appreciative of Jewish humor. Through the years, he jotted down jokes he heard. However, he began to take them seriously only when he co-taught a course with psychologist Harvey Peskin, a Holocaust scholar and past president of the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California. It included Freud’s “Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious,” a book about how jokes discharge aggression and anxiety, and conceal deep and repressed sexual meaning.

“There was a lot to the idea that jokes have deeper meaning, that you can take a joke and analyze it like a literary narrative,” Krasny told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from his home in Marin County, north of San Francisco.

Although Krasny, 72, liked to tell jokes as far back as his childhood, he claimed his “inner Jewish comic” came out only when Jewish humor later became a great interest for him.

“It’s not just a hobby,” he said of his love for and preoccupation with Jewish jokes.

As Krasny’s Jewish joke collection grew, he started to write them down, and produced articles and lectures based on them. However, he didn’t do this in a particularly organized fashion. He had no card catalogue, and with the project launched well before the computer age, a digital filing system was not even a possibility at first.

Author Michael Krasny (Howard Schatz)
Author Michael Krasny (Howard Schatz)

Crafting hundreds of jokes and related analysis and commentary into a coherent, flowing and enjoyable narrative was a challenge. At first, Krasny thought he could write his book in a free-association style akin to how he told jokes when he gave talks on Jewish humor.

“I thought it could be riff after riff, but it didn’t quite work. Then my publisher suggested a thematic approach,” Krasny said.

The author considered his joke archive and divided it up into seven logical sections. The book’s chapter headings make tremendous sense to anyone who knows anything about Jewish humor — and modern Jewish life in general. There’s a chapter on Jewish mothers and Jewish bubbies, and another on sex and marriage. Others chapters are on schlemiels and schmucks, celebration, and suffering. One chapter tackles the subject of Jews being separate and distinct from others, and another deals with Yiddish, generations and assimilation.

Krasny, who grew up in Cleveland in a working class Conservative Jewish and Zionist family, does not attempt to definitively delineate Jewish humor.

“There are many varieties of Jewish humor. There is no monolithic answer,” he said.

Yet, it’s obvious to Krasny that there is a gestalt to Jewish humor, and that loss and irony play a large part in it. But despite all the neurosis and anxiety, Jewish humor also affirms and celebrates life.

Numerous jokes in the book employ salty language, and some are arguably misogynistic, chauvinistic, and even borderline anti-Semitic.

Michael Krasny is a fan of Sarah Silverman's comedy (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
Michael Krasny is a fan of Sarah Silverman’s comedy (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Krasny said he was a feminist, but felt it was important to put the misogynistic jokes out there for the sake of exposure and analysis. On the other hand, he drew a red line when it came to racial jokes.

“Whereas ‘shiksa‘ has undergone an evolution, ‘schvartze‘ is a word that makes me recoil and is still a pejorative,” he said.

Krasny weighed jokes that could possibly be construed as anti-Semitic for inclusion in the book.

“There is no red line for Jews to tell other Jews jokes that border on anti-Semitism, but are they also for a broader audience?” he asked himself.

The author decided that since these jokes were out there in the world already, he should include them and let people judge them for themselves. Keeping in mind what famous comics he interviewed had told him about political correctness preventing them from performing on college campuses and in other venues, Krasny deemed it too censorious to exclude these jokes.

Amy Schumer is another young Jewish comedian Michael Krasny admires (Robin Marchant/Getty Images via JTA)
Amy Schumer is another young Jewish comedian Michael Krasny admires (Robin Marchant/Getty Images via JTA)

“Some people’s anti-Semitism is other people’s hilarity,” he said.

Krasny argues that in today’s global age, many Jewish jokes cross over into other cultures and nationalities, or even universality. However, some jokes remain tribal and apart.

Despite his admiration for many young Jewish comedians, especially women like Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer, Krasny worries that the root of what has made Jewish humor unique is being lost by today’s young generation.

“We need more of those traditional sources. Because of assimilation and the decline of Yiddish culture, there has been a lot of loss of the Judaism — as opposed to Jewish culture — in Jewish humor,” Krasny said.

But Krasny denied being pessimistic. He is hopeful that Jewish humor, and the religion and culture from which it came, will endure. As an educator, he has felt encouraged seeing young Jews going back and studying their roots, be it through Jewish texts, Yiddish language, or Jewish jokes.

True to character, he used a joke to make his point:

A kid is walking with his father in the middle of the 21st century. And someone says, your son is so handsome. And he says, thank you. I’m flattered. And so is my son. He says, what’s your son’s name? He says, his name is Shlomo. Shlomo? What kind of name is Shlomo? He says, well, he was named after his dead grandfather, whose name was Scott.

Krasny said he wasn’t a tea leaf reader and couldn’t be certain of what the future will bring, but that in the meantime humor — especially the Jewish kind — can help people get through the present.

“We have to mine the absurdity. We have to approach what is going on serious-mindedly, but we also need a shtikel laughter to get us through,” he said.

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