When the recent hit comedy Funny People was released in movie theaters, it was frequently noted in the Jewish press that almost all of the comic actors in the film, including the writer/director, were Jewish. And, indeed, if one looks at the history of American comedy, one may feel that this is a profession where Jews truly thrive.
Today’s Jewish Treat is dedicated to Jewish comedy, in honor of the birthday of one of the great American comedians, George Burns (January 20, 1896 – March 9, 1996, whose real name was Nathan Birnbaum).
American comedy and theater owes a great debt to the rich traditions of vaudeville–when the traveling showmen of the beginning of the twentieth century were in their heyday. Jack Benny, originally Benjamin Kubelsky, started off as a violinist, but his sardonic, dry wit led him to radio and movie fame. “Uncle Miltie,” as Milton Berle came to be called, was a celebrity whose fame knew no bounds–stage, radio and television were all venues tools for his comedy.
Originally, the entertainment world enabled Jews to use their ethnicity, or lose their ethnicity (by altering their names, e.g. Kirk Douglas was born Isidore Demsky), or just have a level of acceptance that they could not find in any other business. By the time a person’s Jewish heritage was no longer an obstacle to career success, Jewish humor had already become an integral part of the culture of American entertainment.
It is frequently said that “laughter is the best medicine,” a thought similar to the idea presented by the sages in the Talmud that tears of laughter are beneficial (Talmud Shabbat 152a).
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