Is It Still Funny to Be Jewish?

Thirteen comedians reflect on the power and perils of self-deprecation in the age of Trump.

Photo: Vulture and Getty Images
Photo: Vulture and Getty Images

Politicians and people on Twitter are currently debating the use of the term “concentration camps,” while Jews roll their eyes. Haven’t we been talking about the Holocaust in questionable taste since the Holocaust? Jews have always been the first to poke fun at our bleak history. It’s how our comedians mastered the art of self-deprecation — from the Borscht Belt to Broad City. Perhaps it’s because laughter is our only coping mechanism against eons of persecution (and survival), a way of shrugging off a cultural input far disproportionate with our tiny population, or a way of processing our insecurity as an oppressed minority that can still cash in on white privilege. So who better to make a Jew joke than an actual Jew?

But as anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate crimes resurge, is it still funny for us to be our own punching bags? Is it safe? In joking about money, neuroses, and the demasculinized Jewish man, are we subverting stereotypes or playing into them? We spoke with 13 Jewish comedians about telling Jew jokes in the age of Trump and how to turn cultural punch lines into sources of power.

Sandra Bernhard

Sandra Bernhard. Photo: Getty Images

Anytime I do anything about being Jewish, it’s more naturalistic because, I mean, by the dint of my lifestyle and how I approach my religion and spirituality, it’s not cliché. I don’t think it’s helpful to paint this sort of neurotic, crazy picture of how being Jewish pulls you one way or the other. I love being Jewish — my grandparents came from Russia. There’s a connection and there’s so much history to it. I’m fascinated by it. I love what’s good in it; I reject what I think is controlling and gets in the way of modern evolution. So it’s a funny sort of balance I have with it, and an interesting dance. But I’ve never done anything — as a woman, as a Jew, as someone who walks the line of many variants sexually — I’ve never been the kind of person who goes for the joke or the cliché in any of those different kinds of elements of who I am.

Tried-and-true [material] has never interested me in any form or any space, with any of the people I inhabit. I have a visceral reaction to it; I can’t stand it. If you can’t break free, then you’re not changing the narrative. You’ve got to be that person that says, “How am I going to reflect my heritage, my culture, who I am, how I was raised, and still be original and fresh and authentic and interesting?” Otherwise, you’re trotting down the same path that people have been trotting down for 200 years, and I simply can’t go that route. Never could. It’s only a source of power if you’re honest about it, and if you’re willing to face what is immovable right now — like in Netanyahu, the extreme right, the settlers, and the people who are unwilling to make a two-state solution.

As a Jew and someone who spent time in Israel and worked really hard in a kibbutz, I want the right thing, and I’m willing to have that conversation, and if a bunch of violent right-wing Jews hate me for it, so be it. I sometimes get very clear-cut about it, and other times I just go, “Hey, if you people are that fucking stupid, and you think by embracing people who say they love Israel you’re going to get what you need to flourish as a Jew, you’re wrong.” And you gotta be able to look at yourself and call yourself out. We have to be on the right side of prejudice and racism. When kids are being locked up at the border, the Jews should be the first people screaming! “How dare you? We’ve been there! How can you do this?” You gotta shout. If you’re a Jew, you gotta shout this shit down.

Gary Gulman

Gary Gulman. Photo: Getty Images

I hope I’m not overstating it, but I really believe that comedians have a great deal of power and influence — especially the super-famous ones — because you can let the audience off the hook. If I go on there and I say, “Yes, we’re cheap and we’re money-oriented and we’re weak and soft,” I feel like the audiences are going to say, “See? See?” At worst, it’s damaging to the discourse. So I’m very careful not to let the audience off the hook by playing into these stereotypes. It’s dangerous.

Judy Gold

Judy Gold. Photo: Getty Images

All I can do is get onstage and say I’m obviously a Jew, but I’m a proud Jew, and I will use it as a weapon. I’m talking about the Holocaust onstage, you know? You’re not going to fucking tell me what to do. But it’s important for it to come from the right place. But it takes a really long time to figure out what your point of view is, and these [comics] are coming out two, three years in. No. It takes 15 to 20 years to know what the fuck you’re doing up there. You’re saying, “I’m this kind of Jew.” No you’re not; you haven’t lived your life yet! And you have a responsibility. Are they laughing for the right reason? What are they laughing at? What are they laughing at? And does it make you feel good to take that easy route, or can you create a joke and take the time and create a bit about being Jewish so people are laughing for the right reasons, you know?

I do a bit about buying gifts for my mother when she was old. I could buy her the most expensive box of dark chocolate, like from Europe or something, and I could bring it to her, and she would open it and be like, “Judith, this is very nice, I really appreciate it, but I just want to let you know that in 1943, there was a photograph of Adolf Hitler in his office, and on his desk, there was this brand of chocolate. So I’ve never eaten it.” So it’s a way of getting to something more than “My mother is so critical.” It’s real. It’s fucking real! My parents didn’t buy a Ford or a German car! It was constant boycotting! That’s my point of view.

Andy Kindler

Andy Kindler. Photo: Getty Images

I used to do a lot of material about being rounded up [in the Holocaust]. I would go, “Yeah, I don’t want to go on a train. I’m not going on that train! It’s going to Baltimore? Baltimore-Stuttgart!” There was a Jewish writer who got very upset because I had a line like, “Nothing like the Holocaust to make you mind your p’s and q’s for a couple thousand years.” He felt that I was trivializing being Jewish, [that] getting too much comedy out of the “being scared” part was minimizing the experience of the Holocaust.

I actually come out on the side of “I was doing it for the right reasons because it is all based on my fears.” But it was something to think about. Because a lot of times now, I’ll do stuff like, “Why has Mike Huckabee gone to Auschwitz six times? This is a true story. I can see him going twice. You don’t get to go on the rides, you don’t get to go to the gift shops, and, yes, if you’re noticing, I’m using the Holocaust gratuitously to get cheap laughs.” And I’m conscious of the fact that it could be gratuitous. It was important for me to realize as a comic that you can be risky, but you may go too far. When I was a kid, people would joke about Jews being made into lampshades. There’s nothing funny about that to me, so I can’t joke about that. You can see how it could be misused. I’ve always been concerned about hack comedy and not being a hack. I also didn’t want to overdo it, so in a lot of ways, I’d accuse myself of overdoing it. But I can’t stop.

That experience of the Jewish writer being upset was such a good thing to happen to me. I could see it from his point of view. He didn’t want Jews to be shown as being weak. I ultimately came out on the side of “No, I am that scared of being rounded up, since I was a little kid.” But I always think about it. And I don’t think it’s so bad for a comic to be self-aware of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

I sometimes say to myself, Are you ever going to get off being Jewish? But I think I’m very much in touch with where I am as a person. I feel like — and please don’t take this the wrong way, but you almost can’t — I feel like Lenny Bruce in the sense that he loved to talk about being Jewish. That’s how I see it. But it’s a problem anytime you’re using a stereotype just because you know that the crowd will buy into it. I think that’s always going to be dangerous.

Liza Treyger

Liza Treyger. Photo: Getty Images

When you’re a young comic, everyone is guilty of being so bad. You lean into crutches and do things that are not that original because you don’t really know how to do stuff. If you’re doing anything that’s been done 100 times, it’s bad. You gotta stop doing it. A lot of comics are like, “PC culture!” No, it’s not like people are sensitive; it’s that you’re doing material that used to be edgy, and now you’re just doing jokes about Asians having tiny dicks. That’s why they’re not laughing. I think it applies to this. A lot of times if you’re self-deprecating in any way, you have to be fully okay with it. I remember seeing this girl do jokes about eating disorders, but you could kind of tell that she hadn’t really dealt with those topics. I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to see someone do anything that isn’t coming from an empowering, fun place.

I usually think it’s because I’m a woman that people hate me, and then I realize, Oh, it’s the Jew thing. Maybe it’s because I’m a chick. I just assume that people don’t like Jews, but I don’t think I’ve been treated poorly because of it. I just assume no one likes me. There’s a theory where whatever you’re the minority of is what you’re going to cling to more. When I went to Iowa State, there were so few Jews that I really identified with being Jewish. I joined Hillel, and there were only 10 or 12 of us, and I had weird interactions on the agriculture floor: “Do you go to church?” I was the first Jew they’d ever met. And I was like, “No, I’m a fucking Jew.” But in New York, maybe because tons of comics are Jewish, I feel the guard is down, so that’s not my defining thing. There are so many more men in comedy, so my femininity becomes my identifier. Maybe if there weren’t so many Jews around or if I didn’t live in New York, I would have a different relationship or identity.

Do I feel weird when I’m in small towns? Absolutely. What trigger me right away are Republicans. I don’t want to be around Republicans. If it’s a red state, I’m already like, I don’t like you guys. And that could be my Jewness, my liberalness, or being a woman, or being queer. I don’t know, but I don’t like it.

Sarah Squirm

Sarah Squirm. Photo: Cole Saladino

I think I come across as an abrasive, loud Jewish woman. It’s like sandpaper to people’s ears. And it’s interesting because a lot of times when I’m in the Midwest, in Iowa, where people have actually never met a Jew before, they’re like, What is this creature? What is this mutant with an aggressively horrible affectation? It’s kind of a brutal Jewness. It does reinforce a lot of stereotypes, which is what is interesting and fun for me. It’s taking anything to the most extreme place and having fun with people’s discomfort in that because that’s where there’s room to grow and learn. It’s exploding the stereotype. I’m not just presenting it as is. I’m mutilating it and mangling it until it almost doesn’t exist anymore.

I’ve been doing this performance where I have video behind me playing of a huge mouth choking on my pubes and frothing with them. And then the pubes become so disembodied and extreme and cartoonish that it’s like they’re not even part of the human form anymore. So when we’re talking about stereotype, we’re talking about an extreme parity of what we think a person is like, but if you’re making these pubes so extreme, putting them under a huge microscope or magnifying glass, you’re forced to grapple with this thing that’s so absurd. It’s like: Why does this even matter? Why is there hate or discomfort? It’s using the absurd to take apart the reasons why we care.

There is so much violence with being brought up Jewish. Since I was 6 years old, I was sent to Jewish after-school programs. We watched Holocaust videos from day one. I grew up on Long Island, in Great Neck, where girls at a young age, 13, were doing horrific body-brutalism practices to make themselves look less Jewish to assimilate. And I think that’s always been a part of me. [What I do is] reclaim it: Take the body horror and own it. Do whatever you want with it.

Gabe Liedman

Gabe Liedman. Photo: Getty Images

In my stand-up and in a lot of my Jewish friends’ stand-up, Jewish as a word was this fun and easy shorthand to talk about your face, your body, or your anxiety. It was a funny way of addressing all these things that stand-up is naturally about. [Now] it has taken on a different feeling. I just notice people, including myself, doing that less because it’s not really lighthearted to make fun of yourself anymore, especially among the many painful conversations that everyone is having. I do stand-up a lot with Jenny Slate, and she doesn’t make fun of her face the way she used to. She doesn’t want to do that. It just doesn’t feel the same. It’s not this funny little shorthand. It’s loaded.

It’s been my experience that the best stand-up jokes come from me describing myself or putting aspects of myself up for discussion. And it bums audiences out to be hard on yourself right now. People aren’t loving when you just shred yourself, which may have been a sign of the times before, when it was okay. The last two or three years have been eye-opening in a lot of ways. I sort of had one idea about everyone, audience-wise, and about where we were culturally, and the 2016 election sort of blew my mind in a bad way. I don’t know if you remember going to IMAX movies when they were new, but the one in Philly turned on all these secret lights to show where the speakers and projectors were, and the magic went away. It became this scary experience for me as a kid. The lights came on and it was like, What?

Marcia Belsky

Marcia Belsky. Photo: Mindy Tucker

Fiddler on the Roof is dark humor. That’s why I feel like there are so many Jews who do comedy. We accept that darkness. It’s “Eh. We’re still here.” When I see another Jew doing the dark stuff, I like it. I thought it was funny when Iliza Shlesinger did her “I’m the only woman who has a joke about World War II!” [statement]. I was like, She must not pay attention to Jew girl comics because I’ve noticed that everyone has one. When I’m out, I’m like, Fuck, she has an Anne Frank joke, too! That’s how me and Robby [Hoffman] became friends — we both did Holocaust jokes and were like, “I like you.” That’s how you bond: shared experience, shared trauma. All of us had the Holocaust drilled into our heads as kids. So I don’t really think, Am I making offensive jokes? Because Jews make the most offensive jokes. Nobody hates Jews more than Jews. And that’s how it is.

Noah Gardenswartz

Noah Gardenswartz. Photo: Getty Images

About 95 percent of my material is rooted in my actual experiences, and because I’ve lived such a Jewish life, a lot of my material is intrinsically Jewish. But I actually hate when Jews do the self-deprecating negative Jewish stereotypes for the sake of a laugh. I’ll talk about Jews and money, but I will never make a joke about Jews being cheap, or Jews being stingy, or Jews looking for a sale, because I think that’s bullshit and it’s lazy. I try to buck Jewish stereotypes with my jokes. Listen, my name is Noah Gardenswartz; I’m very Jewish. But I’m also six-foot-four, 230 pounds, and I have a deep voice. What I look like onstage never matches the audience’s stereotypical idea of what a Jew is anyway. I’m not saying that someone who grew up in a cheap family or someone who grew up really small and nebbishy can’t tell those jokes if that’s their truth. But it would be inauthentic for me to go up there and play the role of a weak and stingy Jew when that’s not at all who I am.

In a large way, I’ve been fortunate to not have experienced a lot of anti-Semitism onstage, and in respect to the industry, I think it’s a lot of passive anti-Semitism, which is frequently carried out by Jews. It’s just the shitty comments: “Oh, you’re Jewish, you’re going to be fine.” “Oh, you’re Jewish, of course you’re in entertainment, of course you have an agent.” Or, “I bet you’re making good money, you’re a Jew.” And those comments get annoying, but I think it’s rooted more in lazy stereotyping more than actual anti-Semitism: If you’re a comedian and you have a Jewish last name, obviously you’re going to be fine, which is not the case. I’ve had to work really hard to get to where I am. But sometimes those things are said to me by other Jews. And that’s even more annoying. I’m more offended when Jews say shitty stuff about Jews than when non-Jews do.

Sandy Honig

Sandy Honig. Photo: Getty Images

I said something on the Vice show [Vice Live] where I made a Jewish joke, basically, and this guy went on Twitter on a rampage to try to cancel me. He started tweeting a clip of me saying the joke to Fox News, at Sean Hannity, at Tucker Carlson, trying to get someone to pick it up and put me on blast for making this joke. It was a joke about Jews and money, and I know that that is a stereotype, but I, in my personal experience, find it to be true in terms of how I was raised. I don’t want to say “all Jews are obsessed with money,” but it’s a big part of how I was raised. When I was 21, I was the only person I knew with a Roth IRA. [Laughs.] It’s my own personal experience, and if I am not allowed to poke fun at that, what can I say?

Sometimes people get touchy with Holocaust jokes. But it’s my people. I was on the Vice show with three black hosts, and people loved to say that our show was racist because they said the N-word a lot. I find that the people that get offended by that kind of stuff are people who are not of that group. The people that called me out for Jew jokes are not Jewish. They’re like, “How dare you, you anti-Semite!” And I’m like, “How dare you tell me that I can’t make a joke about my own people?”

It’s tough because I do feel like being Jewish has informed so much of my identity in how I think and behave and in my humor. When I was first starting, I think my earlier sets at open mics had a lot more Jewish humor. I started moving away from that because it can get very shticky, simply because of the fact that there are so many prominent Jews in comedy; they’ve covered it all. Mel Brooks already did it, and it was perfect. Anything else is imitation Mel Brooks, or worse: Jackie Mason. That was the first stand-up show I ever saw: Jackie Mason. My biggest comedy inspirations are all Jews, or mostly Jews.

Jessica Kirson

Jessica Kirson. Photo: Getty Images

Jewish crowds are my favorite crowds, by far. We laugh at ourselves — humor is so connected to who we are. We have to laugh. We’ve learned to laugh in our community. To laugh at pain. And it’s always fun for me. I feel like I’m at home.

I do characters, and people love the Jewish characters. I do it in a way where even if I say, “Are there no Jewish people here?” and people say yes, I can be like, “Let me teach you a couple things about us.” I do it in a way where I’m educating them, like they’re dumb and they don’t know anything. I do it in a way where I’m very proud of it. Even when I make fun of our people, it’s important to me, and I feel like I need to educate people and do it in a funny way so that they understand that we’re a great group. Sometimes I’ll say to a black person, “It’s okay, they hate us too. They just need our money; it’s a little different.”

Spike “Lena” Einbinder

Spike “Lena” Einbinder. Photo: Sandy Honig

When I think about the way that I view my Judaism, it’s more in what I’ve gleaned from Kabbalah and things that resonated with me as a child. Judaism is most powerful when you’re younger. What resonates with me is looking up stories about the golem. I feel like a demonic entity in daily life, so I relate more to the stereotypes that Jews have been mystified to have horns and incinerate upon touching holy water more than “they control the media” and “money grubbing.” I’m like, No, no, that’s not true, but I do actually have horns. A part of it is trying to get ahead of other people, so I like to go to extremes: Before you go after my hair or face, let me beat you there and up the ante by saying, “I’m a thousand-year-old demon created by ancient mud to destroy your village.” That makes me feel powerful.

The annoying and neurotic Jew stereotype has been normalized through Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but those creators have been secular. The characters are not representative of Jews — they’re representative of Jews who are on those shows. People relate to the anxiety, and that’s why those shows are beloved, but then when you take that as a quality unto yourself and say, “I’m a Jew. I’m anxious. I’m neurotic,” it can very quickly turn the fork in the road to all the bad stereotypes. It’s frustrating that we’re celebrated in this very singular light and painted into that corner at the same time. I pride myself on being a strong Jewish person, and that’s not something you see all the time.

Robby Hoffman

Robby Hoffman. Photo: Christopher Escamilla

I have a potentially unique experience, which is that I grew up with a lot of Judaism. A lot of Jews grow up secular. So their ideas of Judaism come from secular portrayals of Judaism and sometimes not Jewish portrayals of Judaism, and they inherit some internalized anti-Semitism in their work. I’m just saying that the assimilation of Jews has actually removed them from their own experience, and maybe just changed the experience. Not necessarily that they have to have a religious experience, but it is more of a cultural experience.

But now, with anti-Semitism, they’re having to face it more. And if anything, I’ve leaned into it. I certainly don’t have to be singing “Shalom Aleichem” onstage when I come out — that’s wild. But I’m just like, Fuck it. Just go for it. As anti-Semitism re-rises (because I don’t think it’s ever not been there), Jews are going to do what Jews do best. We’re going to be louder. I’m not going to be silenced again. You can’t help but compare history.

I compare with our last bout of the Holocaust, and I look at us then, and I look at us now. And I look at the Nazis then, and I look at them now. And the Nazis have gotten much worse. The ones we’re dealing with now, I mean, they’re virgins, it’s safe to assume. They’re in these khakis. The Nazis were in Hugo Boss tailored suits; this was a classy fucking affair. These guys in Charlottesville have wrinkled haircuts and terrible polos. Some of them have Ralph Lauren polos, which means they don’t even know how to boycott properly. Thank you for supporting a Jewish designer, born Ralph Lifshitz, you fucking moron. We’re in a different power position now too. I’m excited for the next Holocaust. You want a fight? You’re going to get one now. Because we’re not the meek little Jews we were in Poland anymore. We got a little bit of kesef, we have our voice now, and we’re ready to go. Hit us.

Is It Still Funny to Be Jewish?