YZM: What drew you to the world of Jewish comedy in the Catskills?
EP: Seeing as I was born in the Borscht Belt and spent much of my childhood at my grandparents’ hotel there, or at the hotels owned and operated by my friends’ parents and grandparents, I could hardly help but be drawn to the bygone world of Jewish comedy. (According to family legend, my grandfather and great uncle bankrolled Buddy Hackett, who got his start playing at Pollack’s.) I remember sitting at the back of the casino at a very young age, listening to some comic tell his jokes, not understanding anything—the punchlines were all in Yiddish—except that I wanted to be the one on the stage. My father, who had grown up at the hotel and escaped it to become a dentist, knew every comic’s routine by heart and would tell their jokes any chance he got. Even if something terrible happened, you were expected to tell the story as a comedy routine.
YZM: Were there women on stage back then? How was their shtick different from the guys?
EP: Most of the comics were men, but Jewish women such as Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields, Belle Barth, and Rusty Warren were pioneers as female comics (most of them also sang). The history of Jewish comedy has been well discussed. What is rarely remarked on is the role Jewish women played in moving comedy from stale one-liners to fresher, more original observational humor based on their own lives. The jokes male comics told were so old they literally had come down from Roman times. The men made fun not only of gentiles but also of women (“Take my wife … please”). So female comics needed to make up their own material. For example, a classic Rusty Warren routine was that women and men both go out on Saturday nights to sow their wild oats, the difference being that when women wake up a Sunday morning, they’re the ones praying for crop failure.
YZM: Did Ketzel dream of a life as a comedienne? Is she bitter about not getting to have it?
EP: Yes, Ketzel grows up imitating the male comics she watches perform at her family’s hotel. She writes down and memorizes their routines. They all indulge her—until they realize she intends to become a comic too. Then they tell her that women can’t be funny, that no one wants to see a sweet young girl like her tell a dirty joke. She does get her chance. She takes her act to New York City. But the life of a stand-up comic—the sexism, the harassment—wears her down. So yes, she ends up bitter. But she might have been happy and fulfilled as Morty’s wife, helping him to study the humor they both loved, if only he had given her the proper credit and hadn’t lied to her.
YZM: Ketzel is the only girl among a bevy of brothers; how does this situate her within the Jewish family?
EP: As the youngest, as a girl, she is babied and protected from the darker realities of her family’s involvement with organized crime. The truth is that Ketzel is the toughest and most realistic of them all. The real reason they hide the darker secrets from her is that she is the family’s moral center, and they are afraid of being judged and found wanting.
YZM: Let’s talk about Ketzel’s husband, the dirty-joke maven. What was the initial attraction for her? And how does her journey change her understanding of their marriage?
EP: Morty takes Ketzel seriously, he recognizes her talent and intelligence, he shares her passion for comedy. He loves her, he makes her feel sexy and beautiful and important. If he hadn’t kept his secrets from her, they could have had the perfect marriage. But, like her parents, he is afraid she will judge him and find him wanting. The funny thing is, Ketzel is a very generous, forgiving person. She wouldn’t have condemned anyone who really loved her.
YZM: Can a book with stand-up comedy at the center have a serious side? And can a novel about sinister Jewish gangsters actually be funny?
EP: Of course! Comedy—especially Jewish comedy, especially feminist comedy—is very serious business! As to Jewish gangsters … I do think romanticizing those thugs is dangerous and misguided. Jews today are so afraid of their own success they look back nostalgically at the days of Jewish tough guys. From my father’s stories, and from accounts I’ve read, the Jews of Murder Inc. were ignorant, amoral savages. My father told me that when they would walk into the dining room at our hotel on a Friday night, expecting a free Sabbath dinner, they were such animals the hair on the back of his neck stood up. But the gangsters in my novel are sad copies of the originals. And you have to admit even some of the guys on The Sopranos are pretty funny. On the TV screen. Not in real life. In real life, you wouldn’t want to live next door to them.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.