What do Jewish humor and the Dodo bird have in common? According to an article I read recently, Jewish humor as we know it may soon be extinct. The author discusses the new Woody Allen movie, "Whatever Works" starring Larry David, commenting that Allen and David are the last of a dying breed of Jewish humor.
Is our humor really on an endangered species list? I hope not. To siphon our laughs inside a can with a generic label is like eating chicken soup without the matzo ball. Not that plain chicken soup is bad, but it's nothing special.
Is our humor really on an endangered species list?
One reason given for our humor's demise is that Jews today don't suffer like their ancestors. We live in a far more accepting and affluent society than the one known to our grandparents. That's great, but it's not funny.
Misery is fodder for laughs. Perhaps our humor is the way we've coped and survived our tumultuous history. Comedy takes the negative in our lives and gives it a twist that allows us to laugh at our foibles and misfortunes. In this way, it heals us, if only for that moment.
I don't think we have to worry about Jewish humor becoming obsolete. Studies have shown that in the absence of the struggle for survival, the focus shifts to other forms of discontent, i.e., the hungry are grateful for anything to eat; the well-fed are picky. This is the human condition. This is insurance that a good kvetch will never cease. Not that contentment isn't admirable and something to strive toward, but to be honest, it's a little boring. I wish for us all familial harmony, prosperity, and good health. While that would give me nachas, it won't generate even the slightest ha-ha.
Without persecution, expulsion, or poverty to worry about, internal struggles become the Kvetch Du Jour. It's either our struggle with ourselves or our relationship with family and co-workers. People dynamics supply an endless supply of comedic material. And let's be honest -- this suffering can be excruciating.
We've all endured the conversations of those who compete in the Who Suffers More Olympics. They argue with such fervor as to whose misfortune beats the pants off the other. His headache is a brain tumor, her indigestion is a heart attack, and chronic anything is cancer. Tumors, heart failure, and cancer aren't funny, but the exaggerated response to the body having a bad day is. If, however, you don't find that funny, you undoubtedly are suffering just listening to the kvetching. And that, my friend, is what you call a Suffering Two-fer.
A member of my family is so good at this Olympic game, I'm thinking of making her a gold medal and inscribing it with a humongous OY! I won't mention any names, except that once upon a time, hint-hint, I dwelled in the apartment of her womb. That's all I'm saying. A sample kvetch goes along these lines:
"So my tests came back," said M-m. "The doctor says I have the organs of a young woman. I'll probably live to a hundred and twenty".
"That's great!" I said.
"What's great about it!? said M-m. "Like I have the money to live to a hundred?"
No matter what, there's always something to kvetch about. Like our music, our humor is interwoven with minor notes. To be clear, suffering and complaining are hardly unique to the Jewish experience, but where we excel is our ability to turn the Great Kvetch into an art form.
Some topics are so horrific that poking fun is off limits. It's just bad taste. The most obvious example is the Holocaust. Yet, the movie, "Life is Beautiful," managed to illustrate how the Jewish spirit is so bent on survival that even immersed in the depths of evil, we create laughter. In that way, we not only heal ourselves, we heal those around us. This is the spirit of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
If the face of Jewish humor is changing, this might be a good time for a makeover. I can't say how our comedic talent will evolve, what will stay and what will go. I'm certain of one thing only. It's not going to die out completely. How could it? God seems to have a fabulous sense of humor, and if you've any doubt about that, just take a look at his people.