“I wish I could come to your really cool, hipster, Wicca meet up in Brooklyn on Saturday night, I do, but I have to go pray to the moon. It’s that time of the month.”
This may sound like an inside joke, which may get a few chuckles only from Jews familiar with the monthly birkhat halevana ritual, the blessing of the new moon, and yet it was told recently to roaring laughter at Dangerfield’s, a mainstream comedy club in midtown Manhattan.
This is just the sort of subtle inside humor that is creeping into the American Jewish comedy scene as of late, as Jerry Seinfeld is likely to display during his Israeli debut in Tel Aviv next week. Whereas in old Jewish comedy sketches the Jewishness was over-stated and overt, now the humor is becoming ever more nuanced and ever more Jewish, while appealing to broader audiences who are not necessarily Jew Yorkers.
‘Half therapy, half comedy’
Two “kosher certified” New York City comedians, Tovah Silbermann and Eitan Levine, have embraced this new trend in creating their new monthly show, “Shabbat Dinner,” at Queens’ Q.E.D. comedy club.
Their wild Shabbat dinner – which, for the record, takes place on Thursday nights – features an eclectic group of comedians – including Josh Gondelman of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” – talking about their religious upbringing.
The show “is half therapy half comedy,” Silbermann said.
People “want to hear about different religious upbringings, because even if they don’t understand every word, it’s something people can generally appreciate,” added Silbermann, founder of the Empire Biscuit Comedy Festival. “People are looking for niche humor that they can relate to,” she said.
And she is not wrong. Look at this summer’s 10-episode Netflix hit “Wet Hot American Summer.” The show, a prequel to the 2001 cult classic film of the same name, is set in a Jewish American summer camp, a setting with which American Jewry is all too familiar. Unimaginable absurdity happens at camp, and that makes it a great setting for a comedy.
The show’s creators, Michael Showalter and David Wain, peppered the entire show with clever and subtle Jew-isms. Take the hot Israeli soccer counselor, Yaron. This kibbutz export adds to the show by virtue of his character, but for anyone in the know, this is a hilarious reflection of real-life summer camp.
The thing that takes “Wet Hot American Summer” past annoyingly Jewish to laugh-out-loud funny, like other Jewish-inspired comedy shows, is that the writers don’t dwell on the character’s Jewishness. They use Jewish witticisms and contexts known only to members of the tribe, but they write them subtly, so they maintain universal appeal.
Like in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” one of the pioneers of this type of humor. In one episode, Larry David gets stuck on the ski lift with an Orthodox Jewish single woman, at sunset, and she insists she cannot be alone with a man after sunset, or, as she calls it, shkias hachama. When David asks her where she’s getting that from, she says to him in her yeshivish, Brooklyn accent, “from the Torah, from Hashem.”
“I know Hashem!” David exclaims.
David pushes at a deep philosophical question of biblical divinity in this sketch: Is the Torah the divine word of God? To the girl, they are one and the same, but the secular David character, only knows of God. For those not familiar with biblical criticism, the sketch still gets laughs, because the woman jumps off the ski lift.
In a similar double register, in an episode of Fox’s “New Girl” the Jewish character Schmidt says “Shabbat sha-hello” to a group of lovely Jewish ladies, which, of course, is funny because of the overly obvious attempt at a pick up, but also because shalom, as in Shabbat shalom, actually means hello.
That’s the linchpin that makes modern Jewish comedy different than the neurotic Woody Allens and yiddishe-mama Jon Stewarts. Shows like “New Girl,” “Wet Hot American Summer” and others including “Broad City” and “Difficult People” use cultural nuance to poke fun at an authentic Jewish American experience. They don’t play on overused tropes and stereotypes.
No need for kitsch
Levine and Silbermann of “Shabbat Dinner” both believe that this shift is due in large part to the digital revolution. More than before, people are exposed to different cultures more deeply, Levine said, adding: “Why make broad and surface scratch-y jokes when you can dig in and make hearty and funnier observations that an audience has a bigger potential for appreciating?”
“We don’t need to make ‘funny Jewish ‘ch’ sounds and made up Hebrew word’ jokes because people find that ‘hack,’” said Levine. Now, people “appreciate and understand deeper humor.”