Jewish Courage and Comedy Across the Decades

An all-text cover of this book by Jennifer Caplan '01 reads Funny, You Don't Look Funny: Judaism and Humor from the Silent Generation to Millennials

Jennifer Caplan ’01

Funny, You Don’t Look Funny: Judaism and Humor
from the Silent Generation to Millennials

Wayne State University Press
184 pages; $36.99

The relationship between Judaism and humor has been analyzed extensively over the years, including by none other than Sigmund Freud. In the years since then, of course, Jewish humor has evolved dramatically. Just imagine what Freud would have made of Seinfeld or Broad City.

In Funny, You Don’t Look Funny: Judaism and Humor from the Silent Generation to Millennials, Jennifer Caplan ’01, a scholar of Judaic studies at the University of Cincinnati, wisely avoids any attempt to define Jewish humor, a task she acknowledges is impossible. Instead, she focuses specifically on the relationship between Jewish humor (including literature, film, and television) and American Judaism over the last half-century. The result is an occasionally esoteric, but always well-researched and provocative cultural history.

“I see great value in zeroing in on the ways in which Jewish humorists have engaged Jewish practices and their own Jewishness,” Caplan writes. “It tells us something (or perhaps it tells us many somethings) about the relationship between Jews and humor that goes deeper than the mere coincidence that a certain humorist was born into a certain family.”

As the title suggests, Caplan divides humor by generations, tracing how Jewish satire and American Judaism have interacted over the years. “WWII was the watershed event that drew a generational line in the sand for American Jewish humorists,” she writes. “The palpable shift between Silent Generation attitudes and Gen X attitudes had to do with the former’s direct memories and experiences of World War II and the Holocaust. That generation may have found organized religion to be a dangerous force, but they nevertheless wanted to protect and preserve the Jewish people.”

The book is by no means an exhaustive look at American Jewish humor, nor does it pretend to be. Caplan makes a case for her decision to omit beloved Jewish comedians such as Mel Brooks, James Brooks, and any of the “Borscht Belt” comics, noting that they “rarely if ever speak about Judaism in their comedy.” Instead, she relies on satire by Woody Allen and Joseph Heller, and the ways in which they engage with Jewish text. “Both Allen and Heller lean on knowledge of Jewish texts and traditions in order to make the case that it may be necessary to sacrifice Judaism to save the Jews,” she writes.

As she reaches the Baby Boomers, Caplan grapples with the complicated Jewish legacies of both Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld. Both shows had strong Jewish creative influences, but occasionally veered into offensive territory. An SNL faux infomercial for “Jewess jeans” starring Gilda Radner in 1980 drew a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, as did the fictional “Jew, Not a Jew” game show in 1988. Then again, SNL also introduced us to Gen X-er Adam Sandler, whose “Chanukah Song” expressed Jewish pride. With its rhyming list of Jewish celebrities, the song was a touchstone for Gen X-ers and millennials, who saw its reclamation of Jewish identity as something to celebrate.

Finally, turning to millennial shows like Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, created by Jewish women, Caplan concludes “the kids are alright to speak. They are still satirizing Jewish life the same way their parents and grandparents did.” As for Gen Z and Jewish humor, the future is still unclear, but Caplan will, no doubt, be tracking the trajectory.

Bernstein is a writer-filmmaker based in Portland, Ore. She is the author of How to Be Golden: Lessons We Can Learn from Betty White, among other books.

You Might Like
  • Josh Lambert, the Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English
    Josh Lambert, the new Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English, discusses one the first courses he’s teaching at Wellesley, ENG 290/JWST 290: Jews, African-Americans, And Other Minorities in U.S. Comics and Graphic NovelsMore
  • A photo shows a loaf of braided challah scattered with sesame seeds.
    When COVID closes her neighborhood bakery, making her own challah every week brings this writer a kind of comfort.More
  • A photo portrait of Danielle Durchslag ’03
    Artist and filmmaker Danielle Durchslag ’03 was born into what she describes as a “Jewish dynasty.” Now, she explores the psychological and political complexities of the world of Jewish American wealth she grew up in through her experimental films.More

Post a CommentView Full Policy

We ask that those who engage in Wellesley magazine's online community act with honesty, integrity, and respect. (Remember the honor code, alums?) We reserve the right to remove comments by impersonators or comments that are not civil and relevant to the subject at hand. By posting here, you are permitting Wellesley magazine to edit and republish your comment in all media. Please remember that all posts are public.

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.