Vox Tablet

Jewish Comedy Has Earned Big Praise, But Is It Time to Stop the Joke-Telling?

Scholar Ruth Wisse likes to laugh as much anyone, but also sees peril when Jews can’t seem to quit clowning around. In ‘No Joke’ she explains why.

June 17, 2013
Henny Youngman on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966.(CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Henny Youngman on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966.(CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

What are the three words a woman never wants to hear when she’s making love? Honey, I’m home. Whether their circumstances are happy or fraught, Jews have been pointing out the humor in their predicaments since the biblical era, when Sarah the matriarch saw the fact that she’d bear a child at her advanced age as a cruel joke. But it was only since the Enlightenment that, as a people, the Jews became known as a witty lot—reveling in word play, contradiction, and self-deprecation. Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse loves a good punchline (and, with her grandmotherly comportment, has perfected the straight-man delivery) but rejects the idea that Jewish humor is a uniform thing and, furthermore, that it’s something of which to be proud.

In No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, Wisse considers the variations of humor from Heinrich Heine to YouTube. She joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to share some gallows humor, to compare the jokes of the Haskalah to those told in yeshivas, and to argue that engaging in humor that distracts us from suffering, rather than confronting it, is not worth the laughs. [Running time: 32:16.]

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Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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