Hullo. An Article on Jewish Humour (and the Moose joke) for The JC, Dec 2015
Dissecting humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
This year’s inaugural UK Jewish Comedy Festival at JW3 has prompted a lot of people asking ‘what is Jewish comedy? Not least, me. As a co-producer of the festival I’ve killed a lot of frogs, trying to work out what would be different about this festival to any other comedy week. Did we operate via the Virgil Thomson model? Thomson, a US composer, remarked: “ The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish.”
So we could just programme Jews, whose material – no matter the style or content – would be inherently Jewish. Or does Jewish comedy have to be identified by something more than who your (standard-joke-character) mother is? Is there a tone, a rhythm, subject matters that mark comedy out as Jewish comedy, no matter who is saying it? Arguably (and argued-albeit jokingly - by David Schneider on this week’s BBC ‘Front Row’) all comedians are outsiders, observers, and therefore, Jews. I’m not convinced that this revelation is going to go down well with everyone.
The most well celebrated Jewish Comedians’ material is marked by a seductive mix of intelligence and coarseness; it’s there in Larry David, Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Joan Rivers. This makes sense. We’re the people of the book, but also the people of the book that contains a prayer for the successful working of our bumholes. So yes, it’s got to be sharply argued, and yes they’ll likely be references to oral sex/ erectile problems/ hemorrhoids. But if I had to nail my colours to the mast (to use a particularly non-Jewish phrase – what Jews do you know going boating?) I think it’s the rhythms that, above all, make comedy Jewish. Rhythms rooted in a language lovechild of Yiddish and English with a no-nonsense New York tawwking step-mother. This doesn’t mean Jewish comedy has to have an American accent; you can use these cadences whether you’re Brooklyn or Bromley.
I would argue that Woody Allen’s Moose routine is one of the finest examples of Jewish comedy going. A mix of the potentially believable and wildly fanciful, with a lyrical linguistic phrasing and a killer pay-off, all told in a way that’s both neurotic and nonchalant - like he could be talking about his day in the office.
‘I shot a moose, once’ he starts. Not ‘once I shot a moose’. The latter is both too smooth rhythmically and also builds the event into a big deal. The way Woody tells it makes it sounds casual, allowing the audience time to figure out the actual surprise and surrealism of the statement before disrupting the rhythm with ‘once’. Subtly echoing the word order of Yiddish phrasing like ‘smart, he isn’t’, it is also funny out of Allen’s mouth: a tiny, twitching, urban man who we wouldn’t believe had ever had access to a gun, or a moose.
Allen ties the animal to his car, but ends up having only wounded it. On the road he has an idea, so drives the moose back into town, trying to ditch him at a costume party. Here we are out of the woods, back in a familiar suburban world and the classic terrain of unlikely juxtaposition providing humour. As the host of the party opens the door, Allen introduces the moose: ‘You know the Solomons’. Not the Jones’, not the Smiths , not even the Cohens. Three syllables - a classic comedy choice- and a name that immediately makes the audience understand what kind of party this is. Plus, the idea of passing a moose off as a Jewish couple is such an outrage, so meshugge and chutzpahdik , that we recognise it as effortlessly Jewish (almost Rabbinic) in logic . Sure enough, at midnight when the best costume is announced: ‘The first prize goes to the Berkowitz’s, [beat] a married couple [beat] dressed in a moose suit. The moose comes in second’.
The end of the routine sees Allen mistakenly transport the Berkowitz’s –not the moose- back to the woods, where Mr Berkowitz is: ‘shot, stuffed….and mounted….at the New York City Golf Club’. Massive pause. And then, here comes the kicker: ‘And the joke’s on them, because they don’t allow Jews.’ Noone sees this coming, this fantastic story that has paid no care to reality suddenly slamming back into local, political territory; ending with two-fingers up at Anti-Semitism and a massive victory for the Jews (although, not so much for Mr Berkovitz). Again, the Yiddish-inspired word order - not: ‘And because they don’t allow Jews, the joke’s on them’ – means the final idea comes like an actual punch, withholding the piece of information that makes sense of the phrase until the last word.
Woody Allen was not at the UK Jewish Comedy Festival in person (although we did screen ‘Sleeper’). But the quality of the entrants to the UK Jewish Comedian of the Year Competition highlights the riches we have as a British Jewish community. Although the acts were wildly differing in content and Jewishness - (look, we didn’t ask, some of them might have been Mormons, anyone even considering holding the title ‘Jewish Comedian of the Year’ is Jewish enough) – there was still a unifying factor. Close your eyes, don’t listen to the words so much as the cadence, and there was the essence of Jewishness, a melody even, that had travelled time and continents to be there. And after consultation with our lawyers we’ve decided the prize for the competition is £1000. The plan to stuff and mount the winner in the JW3 entrance as an extravagant call-back to the best Jewish comedy routine of all time has been scrapped.