Prolific professor takes serious look at Jewish funny men in new book

Because he’s a humorist, Arthur Asa Berger “can take just about anything.”

So when the Jewish Bulletin ran this headline about one of Berger’s 1998 books: “Joke study bound to offend Jews,” the Mill Valley resident was anything but offended.

“Actually, I got a big kick out of it,” said Berger, who recently released another book on Jewish comedy, titled “Jewish Jesters: A Study in American Popular Comedy.”

“That’s one of the things about Jewish comedy: It makes fun of everything.”

In that vein, Berger, a 68-year-old professor of broadcast and electronic communications art at San Francisco State University, (“a mouthful” of a title, he admitted), is also never hesitant to poke fun at himself.

He likes to think he’s “a tolerably decent standup comedian in my classes,” but is quick to add, “My students might not agree.”

“Jewish Jesters” deals with American Jewish comedians whose standup routines extend far beyond classroom antics.

In the book Berger focuses on 10 particularly influential comedians, from the Marx Brothers to Jerry Seinfeld, and examines Judaism’s impact on their humor. He also examines the comedians’ impact on American popular culture.

Picking the comedians wasn’t easy for this Boston native, especially considering the disproportion between the number of American Jews and the number of American Jewish comedians.

“At one time comedians were 80 percent Jewish,” said Berger. “That’s a lot of Jewish comedians for a people who make up only 2 percent of the population.”

Berger, the author of 40 books with four more on the way, attributes this standing to the Jewish sensibility. As a marginal portion of the population, he said, Jews tend to use humor to call attention to issues of concern in a non-threatening manner.

“It’s a way for the weak to deal with the strong,” he said. “They use ridicule to point out an error. It’s a way of making sure that the political situation stays right.”

Yet surprisingly, Jewish comedians also tend to be very brave and bold when it comes to the attack. Take this gag by Jackie Mason, who happens to be an ordained rabbi as well as a comedian, for instance:

“The Puerto Ricans are the greatest people in the world. I go to Puerto Rico every year…I want to visit my hubcaps.”

Mason, who is discussed in the book, insults just about everyone in the course of his routine, whether a Jew or a non-Jew.

But, “since he’s a Jew,” said Berger, “no one feels bad about it.”

Many comedians who are Jewish do not want to be labeled as a “Jewish comedian.” However, Berger says there is no separating the two since Jews have a certain moral sensibility inherently reflected in their work.

“People raised in a Jewish household sort of naturally absorb things like insult, parody and impersonation. It will come out in their humor without them necessarily being conscious of it.”

Woody Allen is a perfect case. Allen often claims he does not think of himself as being a distinctly Jewish comedian or filmmaker, but Berger insists, “There’s a lot of Judaism in Woody Allen.” From Jewish characters with Jewish names to Jewish situations, Allen is informed by his cultural upbringing, even if he denies it.

Consider this parody by Allen, which is cited in the book:

A man who could not marry off his ugly daughter visited Rabbi Shimmel of Cracow. “My heart is heavy,” he told the Rev [sic], “because God has given me an ugly daughter.” 

“How ugly?” the Seer asked.

“If she were lying on a plate with herring, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.” 

The Seer of Cracow thought for a long time and finally asked, “What kind of herring?”

The man, taken aback by this query, thought quickly and said, “Er—Bismark.” 

“Too bad,” the Rabbi said. “If it were Maatjes, she’d have a better chance.” 

As Allen himself once quipped, said Berger, “You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy.”