You know how sometimes when people try to explain jokes, they’re just not funny? How there’s really nothing less funny or more embarrassing than a flopped joke?
Luckily, Dr. Jeremy Dauber doesn’t have that problem. He can talk about jokes, study them, interpret them, contextualize them, be smart about them — and still be funny.
He’ll display that rare gift at the United Synagogue of Hoboken on Sunday as he talks about his now-out-in-paperback book, “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History.” (See box.)
Dr. Dauber, who grew up in Teaneck, went to Harvard as an undergraduate and then to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar; he’s now a professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture and the director of the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia. He has turned those deeply serious credentials toward comedy.
In Hoboken, he’ll tell five representative jokes that “are a way of illuminating some of the ways in which Jewish comedy has woven around Jewish history,” he said.
The first jokes, the oldest ones, are in the Bible; they tend to be more triumphalist than actually funny. Take Balaam’s donkey. (Please take his donkey!) Not only does it showcase the folk humor of talking animals, it shows that the Israelites are so much better than the neighboring peoples that even their beasts of burden know more than their wise men. “The kingdom was expanding, God was in his temple, so the humor is based on a certain kind of Jewish superiority,” Dr. Dauber said. “It’s often mocking humor against Israel’s enemies.” But then the First Temple was destroyed, and “at the same time we have the covenant, we know we are the chosen people, in our own land, yet we have to make sense of the fact that we don’t feel particularly chosen.
“By the Book of Esther,” in between the First and Second Temples, “you have nervous, anxious comedy.” As time passes, “that comedy morphs until it becomes recognizable to us.”
The comedy in the Book of Esther, Dr. Dauber said, “is anxiety; as Freud would say, one way of dissipating anxiety is in comedy.”
There’s satire in the Bible as well, he said; it’s hard for us to recognize because we’re not familiar with its target. “In the books of Judges and Prophets, there’s mockery of Israel’s enemies, and of idolaters,” he continued. “Ancient paganism really was a complicated and rich religion, but in the prophets’ view, it was simple idiocy.
“That’s what satire often does; it takes a position and satirizes it, so the result is that we wonder how anyone could have been so idiotic as to believe in it.” By now, we believe only the idea that idolatry was lunacy, people bowing down to pieces of stone and wood; the ancient satire has stripped it of its sophistication by removing the idea that it was symbolic rather than surface.
There were many centuries of the medieval and early modern periods; his book discusses “the period when Jewish modernity really starts,” Dr. Dauber said. He has some of the jokes. “There’s a lot of great material, particularly from Eastern Europe.” Most of it is in Yiddish, but it is important to remember that Yiddish was a language in which people lived. Yes, they joked in Yiddish, but they also cried, sang, wrote, debated, lived, and loved in that language.
And then of course there is the postwar period.
He tells an archetypical joke — not to worry, not the one he’ll tell in Hoboken — about the Schwartzes’ campaign to join a local country club. “The club is restricted,” he said. No Jews allowed. So “they go to Paris, changes their names, come back as the Noirs.” (Schwartz, Noir, Black — it’s all the same.) They do everything they have to do, and they do it right. “Everything goes well. In the final interview, they’re asked what they do. He says, ‘I dabble in oils,’ and Madame says, ‘I work on my sauces. I’m a Cordon Bleu chef.’ It’s all going well.
“And then the head of the admissions committee says, ‘I think I’m done here. Just one more question. What religion are you?’
“And the Noirs say, ‘Well, we’re goyim.’”
Dr. Dauber pauses, waits for the laugh, then continues. “Both the fact that the Jewishness comes out — this response to a kind of acculturation — and that it comes out with a sting of Yiddishy humor — tells you a lot about the historical environment.” It’s both telling and funny.
Sometimes humor is based on stereotypes. That kind of humor doesn’t age particularly well. Humor based on, say, stuttering, or on ideas about women in general or Jewish women in particular, often land with a thud today. “When humor is based on the persistence of a stereotype, when there is nothing behind it — that’s a lazy type of humor,” Dr. Dauber said. “Sometimes people rely on old stereotypes, and there’s a lag time. It’s when people rely on the stereotype of old Jews having heavy Yiddish accents, when by now people of that age are almost all American born. The stereotype exists, but it’s not based on reality.”
Sometimes, comedy writers can figure out “how to have their cake and eat it too,” he said. He’s thinking about the Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which can use the 1950s stereotypical comedy because that’s when it’s set, as well as today’s take on that period. It’s both double-edged and blunted enough to be safe.
As he looks back over Jewish history and watches its intersection with comedy, Dr. Dauber can see that “periods of great transformation and transition can create great comedy. There is a remarkable high water mark for Jewish comedy at the beginning of the modern period, and a lot again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when all sorts of political movements and geographic dislocations were going on. And then there was very powerful great comedy created in the immediate postwar era, when American Judaism was changing, and Jews were taking stock of their position after the Holocaust.” Comedy eventually can follow trauma.
This is another ripe time for Jewish comedy, and in fact for comedy in general, because the traditional gatekeepers have lost their power, Dr. Dauber said. “There are now all sorts of new venues, technologically speaking, for showcasing different kinds of voices, so you are able to get the kinds of voices that would not have been accepted before.” Those voices include many more women.
“And they often come from nontraditional places,” he said.
He listed a few recent shows with inextricable Jewish content. “Rachel Bloom started as a YouTube figure, and then gets her own television show,” he said. That was “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” “And then ‘Transparent’” — on Amazon — “forgetting about the transgender issue, just the sheer Jewishness of it. And then ‘Broad City.’ That would not have been able to air on prime time.
“That’s the biggest change. And then there are all the people who do work on Twitter and on Instagram and platforms like that. That’s the biggest excitement.
“It’s much more bottom up than it has ever been before,” he said.
Dr. Dauber plans to talk about the history of this comedy, but as he points out, there is far more space for it in his book than in even an hourlong performance. “It’s never too late to give anyone a Chanukah gift,” he said. “Or it could be an early afikoman present…”
Who: Dr. Jeremy Dauber
What: Will talk about his book, “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History”
Where: At the United Synagogue of Hoboken, 115 Park Ave.
When: On Sunday, January 13, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
What else: There’s brunch too.
How much: Members, $18; nonmembers, $25
For more information: Call (201) 659-4000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org