“I’ve got a name for this hairstyle,” says Rebel Wilson of her high, cheerleader-style ponytail in her scene-stealing role as the soi-disant “Fat Amy” in the new comedy Pitch Perfect. “I call it the Orthodox Jews. Because it’s quite reserved in front, but a party in the back.” If this sounds like a bit of a non-sequitur in a film that mainly concerns itself with giving Millennial audiences our most seminal look at a cappella singing since Rockapella exhorted us to get up off the couch and go and find Carmen Sandiego (where could she be?), that’s because it is. In context, it still comes out of nowhere. That’s what makes it funny.
As it turns out, though, this is not the only time a joke of this nature pops up unexpectedly in a movie that is utterly—even refreshingly—free of Jewish content, explicit or implicit (yeah, there’s a nerdy kid whose last name is Applebaum, but I’ll let that go for now). Most of them seem to revolve around Wilson for no deeper reason than that she is the designated funny one and therefore given all the funniest lines. But the fact that these jokes are considered the funniest tells us a great deal about the place of the Jewish joke—or rather, the joke about Jews—in American comedy today.
A lot of disparaging ink has been spilled over the last few decades about the ubiquity of “shock” comedy, occasionally with such hysteria that an invading race of aliens could be forgiven for assuming every so-called comedy produced by a major Hollywood studio since the Nixon Administration consisted of nothing but hours of static Warhol-esque footage of a dwarf sodomizing a sheep with a crucifix atop a mountain of human excrement (and it’s called: “The Aristocrats!”). But the truth is that all humor—at least, all funny humor—must contain an element of surprise. Whether it’s an aghast I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that or an out-of-left-field observation that makes you see something in an entirely new way, the shock provides the frisson that makes a joke work. Put simply, the shock is what makes you laugh.
The problem is that we’ve become increasingly unshockable as a culture. Sex, in virtually any permutation, has become so societally acceptable as to be a total yawner, politicians seem to be doing a pretty good job making laughingstocks out of themselves these days; we’ve even slowly become accustomed to the previously unfathomable notion that women can be funny too—and on purpose.
This leaves screenwriters and comedians with the always fertile ground of poking fun at various ethnic and religious minorities. But even in this “post-racial” (and hyper-sensitive) age (insert emoticon for eye-rolling), this sort of thing is not without its dangers. The wrong kind of gay joke will set the blogosphere ablaze with indignation (not unfairly, given the constant stream of hate language emanating from homophobes and the rash of teenagers quite literally bullied to death due to the perceived nature of the sexuality); stereotypes of Latinos and Asians are often too one-dimensional and crudely offensive to be worth their gardening shears or R-L confusion. If the barely veiled racial animus much of the country seems to bear the president is any indication, a lot of people are still genuinely scared of black people, and due to recent events I hardly think I need to list here, everyone is really, really terrified of pissing off Muslims.
Which means you have to find the one group whose long and woeful history of terrible oppression is equaled only by their long history of regularly poking fun at themselves. One ethnic group, among so many, whose position in American society is comfortable enough that you don’t look like a bully, yet not so mainstream that one is forced to rely on clichés that were shopworn half a century ago (Italians = gangsters! And some of them talk like dis! Amirite or amirite!). What you need is one group that you can pretty much joke about with impunity, knowing they’ll be the ones who laugh the loudest.
Ding, ding, ding. I think we have a winner.
For comedians, the Jewish joke is a slam-dunk. Low-risk and high-reward. Blunt enough to shock—and in many cases, still feel authentically subversive—but without any worries of nasty boycotts or protracted Twitter wars leaving millions of lost followers in their bloody wake. (Did you like the Peggy Noonan sentence fragment thing there? I did.)
There are those who might claim this belies a latent anti-Semitism that it has only lately become fashionable to air, and at the very least, might be infectious—remember the ADL’s fretful statement that while they certainly “got” the spirit of Borat, others may not?—I think it’s actually symptomatic of the opposite: that the generation currently ascendant in the entertainment industry, Jews and non-Jews alike, is the first to be truly, publicly comfortable with Jewishness.
A lifetime removed from the early Jewish moguls squeamish about anything that might mark them as “foreign”—in the immortal words of Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia pictures, about an actor one of his directors wanted to cast: “He looks too Jewish. Around here, the only Jews we put into pictures play Indians!”—and helped usher in the blacklist. They’re a generation away from the dull reverence of the postwar era or the narcissistic self-consciousness of the baby boomers. Jewish writers and filmmakers today seem to regard their cultural identity with a wink and shrug, giving the nod to their non-Jewish colleagues to use all those observations gleaned from bar mitzvah parties and Woody Allen movies without fear of being asked when they stopped reading Mein Kampf.
Expedience has nudged open the door to the ultimate club that previously wouldn’t accept them as members, and with good results. All questions of shock aside, the best kind of joke is the one we’re all in on. Now, go see Pitch Perfect. It’s great.
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