Humor in U.S. is getting Yiddishized, professor says

Jews have made the biggest contribution to American comedy by far, says Arthur Asa Berger, author of "The Genius of the Jewish Joke."

"It's part of being a marginal people. Humor is used to get rid of anxiety. It can control and manipulate, endear and show people you're a regular guy. Mel Brooks said that if you make people laugh, they're not going to throw stones."

Berger spent several years collecting Jewish jokes from relatives, the Internet and from members of his congregation. He watched old footage and combed through written material.

The results are in his book. "A good Jewish joke is invaluable," said the Mill Valley resident. "I had hoped I would be able to use them again."

He will be discussing Jewish humor Sunday morning, June 7 at the Community Judaic Library of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Berger, 65, is a semi-retired professor of broadcast and electronic communication arts at San Francisco State University.

Most of his offbeat ideas, opinions and theories on popular culture tend to originate in his journal, which Berger started keeping in 1954. His musings led to 33 books, many of which are used as textbooks in media-related college courses.

"I've done a lot of speculating in my journal — some grew into books I've written and some I won't write," he said.

While Berger wrote most of his books during summer months when he wasn't teaching, he said, "I'm very disciplined about writing. I keep at it."

Nevertheless, particularly with his book about Jewish humor, Berger tends not to take his work too seriously. He just finished the first draft of his next book, a how-to guide to research and analysis for media and communications students.

"It was a challenge because it's not my usual style of book," said Berger. "Some people [in academia] said, `You're doing a book on research?' They might not take me seriously because I tell people that I just make it up as I go along."

For instance, years ago Berger wrote an article called "The Evangelical Hamburger," which compared McDonald's to a religious institution. "The golden arches are symbolic," he said. "The cost of a hamburger is so little that it is like an offering."

He added that the "number served" tally sign indicated how many people were members of the McDonald's congregation. "Plus, the way you order is ritualized," he said. "Until recently, you had to adapt to a uniform product."

Discussing Jewish humor, Berger said a prominent theme is "anxiety about assimilation — Jews disappearing and marrying non-Jews."

His book has several jokes on the subject, including one about a rabbi's son who decides to marry a non-Jew. The rabbi prays to God, asking for guidance. God responds, "You are talking about your son? Look at mine!"

While assimilation is a big concern in the Jewish community, Berger contends that conversely, Jewish culture has "Yiddishized American humor."

"When the Jews disappear," he joked, "the Jewish humor will be written by non-Jews because they've been Yiddishized and they'll be able to carry it on."

In his upcoming appearance, Berger plans to talk about 45 comedic techniques used by writers and comedians that he analyzed in his book, including the use of parody, imitation, irony, ignorance and embarrassment.

While he said that irony "is very hard and often misinterpreted by the audience," parody "is the bread and butter of a lot of humor. It enables comedians to take what people know and exaggerate it."

Berger said he likes to give talks on Jewish humor because it's a popular topic. "Jews are always interested in talking to me about Jewish humor because they always think they know more. When I talk to groups, people come up to me after and tell me how much they know."

In the book, he devotes a few chapters to original Jewish artists who have made major contributions to American comedy, including Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers. He offered his views on the following comedians:

*Allen: "He's an enormously hard-working and brilliant Jewish humorist. A lot of people think Woody is a self-hating Jew. I don't go for that. He uses parody a lot in films like `Sleeper,' `Stardust Memories' and `Love and Death.'"

*Marx Brothers: "They were all very good. Hyper-eccentric personalities. There was a lot of spoofing of WASPy personalities and culture. They used insults and physical humor. It was wild, crazy stuff."

*Jack Benny: "There were a lot of Jewish characters he did, including his persona as a tightwad."

*Brooks: "Low taste and hyper-vulgarity, but there's kind of a brute courage to him."

*Lenny Bruce: "I never liked him. Too strained. He was the darling of the intellectual set, but he couldn't live up to it. He was an angry, tortured individual. He cracked under the pressure."

*Jackie Mason: "His use of technique and exaggeration is brilliant — the way he pokes fun at people. Being controversial works for him."

*Jerry Seinfeld: "The show was written by mostly Jewish writers and the characters seemed Jewish even though they were not particularly attached to being Jews. It had the Jewish sensibility without the accent. It was popular because it was funny and because American humor has been Yiddishized."