“Is Betty White Jewish?” my grandmother asked. No. “That’s too bad,” she said. At 88, White is best known for her roles on “The Golden Girls” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and after 71 years in the business, has hosted one of the most hilarious episodes of Saturday Night Live. Would she be any funnier if she were Jewish, like Molly Picon, Madeline Kahn, Bette Midler, Fran Drescher, Judy Gold?
The caricature version of the Jewish female comic is that she is self-deprecating, gossips, and converses shamelessly about bodily functions. This season it looks like the real-life version matches the caricature. The autobiography by Sarah Silverman is titled The Bedwetter, and in “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” the new documentary on her career, Joan Rivers smirks at some backstage amenities and announces, “Once a Jew, always a Jew… I’m going in to clean that bathroom!” But perhaps Jewish comics are most marked by their ability to transform frustration into art, tears into laughter, and personal or historical oppression into temporary liberation from social norms.
For the earlier models, like Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice, comedy became a way to challenge “the strictures that hold us back,” according to “Making Trouble,” the 2007 film on Jewish women in comedy, produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive. Representing a third generation, Sarah Silverman reveals that she chronically wet her bed until she was 16, and she fearlessly invites her audience to laugh with her. “Joining in their laughter saved me then. It contin use to save me now.” As Joan Rivers bluntly put it, “The anger fuels the comedy.”
Silverman’s hometown in New Hampshire was so dominated by Christians that she had to attend daycare at a convent. No joke. She recognized early on that Jewish jokes were a useful defense. Joan Rivers utilizes this weapon as well. In response to the poor behavior of an opponent on Celebrity Apprentice, Rivers quipped, “She can kiss my Jewish ass with her non-kosher pig lips.” The ability to exaggerate an incongruity is immediately a recipe for comedy. Gilda Radner parodied for “Jewess Jeans” on “Saturday Night Live.” Silverman created a viral YouTube music video of a young Jewish girl’s plea for Santa to “Give the Jew Girl Toys,” and she’s proud of submitting a short story to the Penthouse Forum, the punch line revealing the name of its prostitute as Debbie Schwartz.
Comedy is not always safe. More recently, when Silverman released her 2009 YouTube video “Sell the Vatican, Feed the World,” backlash criticized her as a Jew. She was called Pinocchio, advised to get a nose job, and told “Hitler had the right idea.” However, she received mostly praise for “The Great Schlep,” the video in which she instructed the youth of America to convince their Florida grandparents to vote for Obama. She jokingly credits herself with saving the world and prophesies that she may one day be the first Jewish President. Not female, Jewish. “Whatever I say, I should at least consider that some will view it through the filter of my Jewishness.” At the 2009 Emmy Awards, the comedy actress gloated that she felt like a “Semitic Cinderella.”
And while Rivers’ work as a serious comic actress is sometimes overshadowed by commentary on her frequent plastic surgeries, her documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is expected to gross seven figures. Those numbers are impressively rare for an indie film, and Rivers is garnering premature Oscar nods as the film’s popularity builds in mainstream cinemas. This may even be the season for older women in comedy, White included. Rivers swans, “I’m 75 years old and I haven’t peaked yet.”