Taking Comedy Back to School

How has Jewish humor influenced today’s stand-up comedy? This question is explored by “When Comedy Went to School,” a documentary directed by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank. The film chronicles the evolution of stand-up comedy from Jewish resorts
in the Catskills, featuring interviews with classic Borscht Belt comedians such as Jerry Lewis and Sid Ceasar.

What the film fails to explore is the strong vein of misogyny that runs through Jewish humor — yet it unintentionally brings questions about the treatment of women in Jewish jokes to the forefront. 

Footage of the featured comedians’ early stand-up careers is woven throughout the film, highlighting the familiar topics: religion, money — and Jewish women, especially wives.

“I take my wife everywhere, but she keeps finding her way back” — a typical recurring Jewish joke featured in this film. 

The problem is not that this film or even these Jewish comedians are particularly sexist. The problem is that these jokes are so familiar that they almost don’t rankle — the joke about the overbearing, demanding, nagging Jewish woman is a comedic trope in Jewish humor. It is accepted and quotidian for a Jewish man to want to get rid of his wife — but why is this? Why are strong Jewish women the punching bag for male Jewish comedians – who aren’t exactly so shy and docile themselves?

Sexism in stand-up comedy is not new — nor is it an exclusively Borscht Belt 1950s phenomenon. Walk into your standard New York City comedy club, and you will most likely hear male comedians making cracks about women and their differences from men. But jokes about women play a disproportionately large role in Jewish stand-up comedy.

Son: How much does it cost to get married, Dad?

Father: I don’t know, son, I’m still paying for it.

When was the first Jewish wife joke told, and by whom? We can’t really know that. When will the last one be told? The sooner the better.