Interview'When does a joke go from being good-natured to a canard?'

Is that (still) funny? Scholar explores generational shifts in Jewish humor

In her new book, ‘Funny, You Don’t Look Funny,’ Jennifer Caplan traces attitudes toward American Jewish comedy from Philip Roth to ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘SNL’ and ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

  • Author Jennifer Caplan alongside her new book, 'Funny You Don't Look Funny.' (Courtesy)
    Author Jennifer Caplan alongside her new book, 'Funny You Don't Look Funny.' (Courtesy)
  • Jerry Seinfeld, left, Julia Louis Dreyfus and Michael Richards arrive to celebrate the release of the first three seasons of Seinfeld on DVD in New York, November 17, 2004. (AP/Louis Lanzano, File)
    Jerry Seinfeld, left, Julia Louis Dreyfus and Michael Richards arrive to celebrate the release of the first three seasons of Seinfeld on DVD in New York, November 17, 2004. (AP/Louis Lanzano, File)
  • Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) faces off with her frenemy in a 'JAP Rap Battle' on the CW's musical comedy 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.' (Screenshot/YouTube)
    Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) faces off with her frenemy in a 'JAP Rap Battle' on the CW's musical comedy 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.' (Screenshot/YouTube)
  • Adam Sandler in 'You Don't Mess With the Zohan.' (Screenshot)
    Adam Sandler in 'You Don't Mess With the Zohan.' (Screenshot)
  • Abbi Jacobson (left) and Ilana Glazer, the co-creators of 'Broad City.' (Courtesy)
    Abbi Jacobson (left) and Ilana Glazer, the co-creators of 'Broad City.' (Courtesy)

When Philip Roth wrote flawed, unlikable Jewish characters in the 1960s, he was branded a self-hating Jew by many in the Jewish establishment. Almost 60 years later, in the TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rachel Bloom wrote a song called “JAP Battle,” a reference to the stereotype of a spoiled “Jewish American Princess” – without any fear of a similar backlash.

The way in which Jewish comedians and satirists train their lenses on the Jewish community has significantly evolved over successive generations, from which elements of Jewish life are fair game, to which stereotypes are still deployed and how such depictions are received.

That transformation is the heart of a new book from scholar Jennifer Caplan, titled “Funny You Don’t Look Funny: Judaism and Humor from the Silent Generation to Millennials.”

Caplan, the Judaic studies chair at the University of Cincinnati, says her years of research led her to structure the book through the frame of changing generations.

“I didn’t go into it thinking that there was this generational shift,” she says in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “But as I looked through all this material and watched movies and read books and watched stand-up routines… I really began to see this picture of change over time. The data sort of told me the story that it wanted to tell.”

Caplan says she was inspired to explore this topic in part due to a 2013 Pew study of American Jews, in which 42% of respondents said that “having a good sense of humor” was an essential part of what it means to be Jewish.

“I said ‘okay, clearly, there’s something here,’” she recalls. “This is a bigger trend… it suddenly seemed like a really important thing to reclaim this idea – that engagement with Jewish media and popular culture could actually be a deeply Jewish act.”

Novelist Philip Roth powering up the computer in his home office where he did much of his writing, September 5, 2005, in Warren, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Douglas Healey).

From Woody Allen, Joseph Heller and Philip Roth to Nathan Englander, “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” decades of “Saturday Night Live” and the more contemporary “Broad City” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Caplan explores how Jewish humor has both changed and stayed the same over the years.

One of her major points of discussion revolves around Holocaust humor, and what was once considered taboo may now be seen as more acceptable – to a point.

“The Holocaust is the topic most likely to move the boundary of acceptability back and forth, even well into the twenty-first century,” Caplan writes in the book. The now iconic “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld, broadcast in 1995, garnered outrage from the Anti-Defamation League at the time, she points out.

“Somewhere in the late 1990s, there was a palpable change in attitudes toward the Holocaust. Holocaust jokes are still controversial, and still considered to be in poor taste by many, but, by the ’90s, there were now enough people driving popular culture who had no real, personal connection to the Holocaust that… [it was] no longer absolutely sacrosanct,” Caplan writes.

Today, a combination of greater distance and fewer boundaries has made Holocaust humor practically mainstream, says Caplan.

“It’s time passing – Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, broadly speaking simply do not have the same sense of immediacy around the Holocaust,” she says. “And also especially with Millennial and Gen Z humor, there’s almost nothing that’s off limits. So it’s a comedy culture that’s less precious about everything.”

It’s still among the most touchy subjects, she says, just not entirely off limits.

“It’s no longer taboo, but at the same time, it still has cache – there’s still a sense of the singularity of the Holocaust… so it’s almost like comedy Everest, where, if you’re going to do that, you have to bring your ‘A game,’ because you know that there are going to be a lot of people who are going to be offended or mad,” Caplan adds. “But it’s a challenge that people are willing to take on.”

There is rarely any comedy that does not offend someone, and that is certainly the case when it comes to comedy touching on Jewish themes. In 1988, Tom Hanks hosted an SNL skit titled “Jew or Not a Jew” — that had been deemed too offensive by the show to air just a few years earlier — and still received some backlash then. In the sketch, two non-Jewish couples compete to see who can correctly identify Jewish figures in Hollywood.

Just six years later, Adam Sandler debuted his “Chanukah Song” on SNL – similar in content but markedly different in tone. The now-iconic song features Sandler proudly claiming various members of the tribe in a holiday-themed tune “for all those nice little Jewish kids who don’t get to hear any Hanukkah songs.”

Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” Caplan writes, marked a major turning point in how Jews were viewed and perceived in popular culture, perhaps leaving an imprint on an entire generation – which went on to create its own unique brand of Jewish comedy.

Caplan writes, “The attitude Sandler was peddling to young Jews, that it was hip and cool to be Jewish à la Lenny Bruce’s ‘Jewish and Goyish’ from nearly a half-century before, was aimed at kids like” Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of “Broad City,” the deeply Jewish webseries-turned-sitcom.

The Jewish humor and satire created by this generation, Caplan writes, is heavily influenced by the Gen X turn toward embracing Judaism as a culture.

“One hallmark of Millennial Jewish humor may be a prominent, even fierce attachment to a Jewish identity with much less interest in having that be defined by affiliation with a synagogue, ritual performance, or attitudes about the Holocaust or Israel,” writes Caplan. “They seem not to be bothered by criticism that their Jewishness is hollow, superficial, or even dangerous to the survival of the Jewish people. The members of Generation ‘Chanukah Song’ know they are part of an exclusive club, and they are proud of it.”

Abbi Jacobson (left) and Ilana Glazer, the co-creators of ‘Broad City.’ (Courtesy)

Nevertheless, throughout the past at least 60 years, many such jokes, depictions and satirizations have set off angry reactions from mainstream Jewish groups – even today.

Caplan says she understands what motivates such condemnations, but believes their sway is likely to continue declining.

“The ADL and other organizations like that exist to speak for and protect the interests of the Jewish community in a particular way,” she says. “So I get it. [But] I’m not sure how productive it is as time goes on.”

“As time goes on, I think [the ADL] is speaking for a smaller and smaller portion [of the Jewish community]. And that doesn’t mean that their voice doesn’t still matter… but the community is so multiple and so diverse, that is also, therefore, ignoring other parts of the community to do that.”

Caplan suggests that there is never going to be a clear line over which Jewish jokes are acceptable and which are offensive.

“That’s so murky, too, because when does a joke go from being a good-natured joke about something that is a seemingly obvious truth, like the presence of Jews in Hollywood, and when does it slip into old canards about Jews controlling the media?” Caplan asks.

In many ways, she says, it’s more a question of the audience than it is the person delivering the joke.

“A joke that almost any Jewish person would find offensive is probably going to slay at a KKK meeting,” she says. “If you’re going to make jokes at the expense of a minority group, especially one of which you’re not a member, you’ve got to get it right — or else you’re going to face the consequences of it.”

Funny, You Don’t Look Funny: Judaism and Humor from the Silent Generation to Millennials by Jennifer Caplan

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