Jewish Comedy, Then and Now
Cranky essayist prefers the early, funny stuff
They’re both opening this Friday, but, otherwise, Aviva Kempner’s documentary Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg and Sacha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary Brüno have little in common. One’s a reverent tribute to Gertrude Berg, who the filmmaker argues was the inventor of the sitcom; the other is—well, you know. But an essay in the New York Press contends that, viewed side by side, the two films trace the decline of American Jewish comedy from the “time-honored humanity” of Berg to Baron Cohen’s “familiar snark.” Writer Armond White is right to note that Berg’s comedy was warm and empathic while Baron Cohen’s is spiky and sometimes cruel, but is this really, as he would have it, because of “contemporary Jewish comedy’s lack of ethnic confidence”? If anything, American comedy became so confidently Jewish so long ago that characters like Berg’s Molly Goldberg, a loud, proud Jewish mother, have been reheated ad infinitum. A cover story in New York magazine several weeks ago went so far as to say that, in the Forward’s paraphrase, Jews have in fact become “too secure” to be funny. Just like Berg in her day, Baron Cohen and prickly Jewish contemporaries like Sarah Silverman are pushing the envelope of Jewish representations beyond what’s already been done.