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“The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America”

The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America (by Lawrence J. Epstein, Public Affairs, $30) is a pop-culture historian’s informative history of Jewish performance humor in vaudeville, radio, film and TV from turn-of-the-century European Jewish immigration to the present. Epstein juxtaposes the ups and downs of Jewish assimilation and anti-Semitism in the U.S. with Jews’ steady success in comedy, crediting this to an ability to adapt to changing media as well as to adverse social conditions. This book also explores women’s entry into comedy, notably to stand-up and TV, analyzing the stereotypes imposed on Jewish women and the breakthroughs of famous figures who paved the way for the likes of Fran Drescher, Rosanne and others. With snips from famous scripts, biographical details from better-and-lesser- known artists, and a section of photos, this thoughtful, interesting, and entertaining read frames the psychology of performers and audiences in the climate of the last century in American life.