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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Michael Krasny

The talk show host and author on Jewish humor, growing up in Cleveland, and drinking cosmos. (Plus, lots and lots of jokes.)

Periel Aschenbrand
February 24, 2017
Image: Howard Schatz
Michael Krasny. Image: Howard Schatz
Image: Howard Schatz
Michael Krasny. Image: Howard Schatz

Scholar, professor, adored radio personality, author, award-winning broadcast journalist and joke teller extraoirdinaire Michael Krasny has a new book out called, Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it All Means (Harper Collins) and…it’s really funny. But Krasny says it’s about so much more than, well, Jewish humor.

“Embedded in the jokes and folklore and tales and anecdotes is the history of a people, a tribe, their value system and their rich ongoing heritage,” he told me. “It is a work of cultural anthropology, a wide portal to understanding Jewish identity and an immersion into the hilarity, joy and power of laughter.”

Krasny been the host of his own show on NPR for nearly 25 years and has been hailed a “Bay Area treasure” by Nancy Pelosi, and everyone from Norman Mailer to Amy Tan believe he’s basically one of the great interviewers of his time, a sentiment with which I concur.

You could be talking about anything—and you actually could be talking about anything, because the breadth and depth of Krasny’s knowledge is seemingly endless—but somehow, this line always gets peppered in: Want to hear a joke? And while he is very clear that you should never have a joke foisted upon you against your will, why would you ever say no? Doesn’t everyone love to laugh? I caught up with him in a coffee shop in downtown New York to delve a little bit deeper.

Michael Krasny: I was just reading something where Andrew Bacevich said (something along the lines of), “There are certain difficult public occupations, like being a police officer or a fireman, but it’s comparable to writing an OpEd column on a regular basis.

Periel Aschenbrand: There are definite hazards of this job. Much different than the rest of my work.

MK: Tell me about your work.

PA: I’m supposed to be interviewing you! Tell me about your new book.

MK: There’s a lot of movement between pretty hilarious material, I’m happy to say, but also analysis, what it all means. And the context of it.

PA: Right. In that, everyone should have a little bit of a sense of humor? Like, it’s not that serious, there are children being blown up in this world.

MK: The German playwright Bertold Brecht said, “The man who laughs has not yet been told the terrible news.”

PA: That’s very good.

MK: It’s a really good line because it has a great deal of truth to it. I cover the news and I do stories on a daily basis that can really bring you down. So we need humor. And when I wrote this book, I could have written an elegy because a lot of this Yiddishkeit and Jewish humor, specifically Ashkenazi humor—the further away you get from the shetl, the more the humor has to do with losing identity and processes of assimilation and almost a kind of yearning to go back and memorialize it. I studied a lot of the young humorists and I didn’t know a lot about them and they still have a Yiddish humor quality, a sense of irony in the way they see the world. Someone asked me today if I think it’s in the DNA?

PA: What did you tell them?

MK: That I’m not a scientist.

PA: Ha! Couldn’t you say the same thing about black people?

MK: What I believe is true about black people and Jewish people and why they’ve dominated humor is because they have a different perspective. They’ve both been marginalized and victimized and oppressed. The Irish too. And there is a certain kind of humor that comes from coming out of oppression.

PA: That’s true.

MK: I mention in my book that Isabelle Allende, I’m sorry to name drop, but she’s a friend of mine and if you have names to drop, I say drop them.

PA: Drop them.

MK: She told me that Chilean humor is a lot like Jewish humor because of the sarcasm and the irony. There is distinctly Jewish humor. Classic example: Following an especially arduous hike, the Russian says, “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have vodka,” while the German says, “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have beer,” and the Frenchman says, “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have wine.” The Mexican said, “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have tequila.” The Jew says, “I’m tired and thirty. I must have diabetes.”

PA: Amazing.

MK: Our humor is directed toward a kind of understanding. Like when Woody Allen in Love and Death, takes a woman—who was cast for her non-fetching looks. He takes her hand it and says, “It’s such a pleasure to meet the Countess Meeskite.” This is a Yiddish word that means unattractive. It’s kind of a sexist word by today’s standard but if you know Yiddish, it hits a communal memory. So I was working with a lot of that and trying to understand it—what’s distinct and what’s not distinct. And a lot of it translates into other cultures. I’ll give you another example, I was with the novelist Amy Tan, and she said, “I have a joke for you, Michael.” She knows I’m a joke aficionado and that I try to probe the meanings of jokes. Inspired by Freud no less, who wrote a book called Wit and the Unconscious. A lot of Freud doesn’t make sense to me. But this makes sense, that we tell jokes to release anxiety, aggression, sexual oppression, all kinds of unconscious reasons.

PA: What’s the joke?!

MK: I’ll tell it to you as a Jewish joke. A barber gave a haircut to a priest one day. The priest tried to pay for the haircut, but the barber refused, saying, “You do God’s work.” The next morning the barber goes out to get the newspaper and there is a beautiful crucifix and gratitude note. Next the minister goes in, wants to pay, barber says no, “You do God’s work.” The next morning, the barber goes out to get the newspaper and there is a beautiful inscribed Bible. Day after that, a rabbi goes in, tries to pay for his haircut, but the barber refuses, saying, “You do God’s work. I don’t want any money from you.” The next morning, there are twelve rabbis there.

PA: Hahahaha!

MK: So that’s a funny joke. But it plays in certain prejudices, etc. So Amy tells me this joke, except that in her version, it’s a German, a Frenchman, and 12 Chinese guys there. So what’s the genesis of the joke? Where did it begin? And why does it cross over so much?

PA: Because the Chinese are the yellow Jews.

MK: You know that joke, when does life begin for Jews? After med school? Well, I find out from Amy, same joke for the Chinese, so…

PA: You know that Henri Bergson quote from that famous Bergson essay, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic?

MK: Which?

PA: “We shall find that comedy is capable of furnishing us with more information than real life.”

MK: It’s a teaching tool. So I’m a teacher and a scholar and I wanted to write a book to serve that purpose.

PA: Did you grow up very Jewish?

MK: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a conservative home that was strongly Zionist. Conservative Jewish, not conservative politically. And when I was a young boy, I wanted to be a cantor. I had a kosher home.

PA: Where were your parents from?

MK: Both of my parents grew up in Cleveland. My grandparents came from Lithuania and Russia. I think of my lineage as blue collar, really. My grandfather was a kosher butcher but my father was a factory worker. He went to school thinking he was going to be a doctor and actually got a college degree in bacteriology. He was a smart man, self taught. He was a bridge champion in the 1950s. My mother was a housewife, my father had that kind of pride, he didn’t want his wife to work but all our cousins were wealthier than we were. But I take some gratification in this pedigree of mine because it was different than a lot of kids. And strongly Jewish.

PA: Did you go to Jewish school?

MK: I went to public high school but my mother claims that since I was 4 years old, I would go up to people on public transit and ask if they were Jewish. I don’t have memories but she swears it’s true. So there was always this fascination with my identity and being Jewish.

PA: Why were you so fascinated?

MK: I called it Jew collecting, who was and who wasn’t? Especially being born right after the Shoah, the shadow of it was over us. It had a big impact.

PA: That is really interesting. You’re less religious now?

MK: There’s a wonderful line by Julian Barnes, I don’t believe in god but I miss him. That’s kind of how I feel. I write about this. Also Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov had an immense effect on me. But I wanted the comfort of faith. So I explored agnosticism and I realize that it’s just questioning, which is what Jews do.

PA: This is kind of a big leap, but what’s your favorite drink?

MK: It’s kind of girly, I don’t really want to say.

PA: We’re about smashing gender stereotypes here.

MK: Cosmopolitans.

PA: Good. You can have them. How do you eat your eggs?

MK: I only eat the yolks.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

MK: I don’t.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

MK: Passover.

PA: Did you have a bar mitzvah?

MK: Yes.

PA: What shampoo do you use?

MK: A generic variety.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

MK: Lox. But only with a bagel and cream cheese. I used to be a meat and potatoes guy, but I’ve come a long way.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

MK: Loafers, mainly.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

MK: I usually have books in my briefcase, I still keep a datebook and a notebook. Beyond that, my keys and my wallet. I lose things constantly, but those are things I don’t lose.

PA: Don’t say that! If you say that you’re going to lose them.

MK: That’s what my mother would say, but I’ve been saying that for years.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.