Humor is risky business, especially in the classroom. Take this from one who knows: almost any joke, even self-deprecating humor, can be regarded by someone as inappropriate, insensitive or offensive.
Yet to teach is also, as David Sudol, a now retired senior lecturer at Arizona State, observed, to entertain, and there are few better ways to enliven and lighten up a class than to tell a joke, an amusing anecdote or a funny story.
But humor in the classroom can backfire. What one person might regard as comic banter another might treat as insulting, offensive, contemptuous, malicious or mean-spirited.
Sarcasm and teasing are always dicey. Any joke that hints at the risqué is sure to raise eyebrows, not smiles. Even the least offensive joke runs the risk of turning the classroom into a circus and the instructor into a clown.
I just had the chance to see the stand-up comedian Alex Edelman—the most recent in a long line of Jewish comedians stretching from Groucho Marx to Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Shelley Berman, Fanny Brice, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Billy Crystal, Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Gilda Radner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Mort Sahl, Jerry Seinfeld, Peter Sellers, Jon Stewart and Henny Youngman and on to Sacha Baron Cohen, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman.
At a time when much stand-up humor is off-color—ribald, bawdy, crude, lewd and lurid—Edelman describes his own approach as benign silliness. In fact, his humor is anything but goofy, puerile, stupid or inane.
He’s not Lenny Bruce—satiric and, yes, blasphemous, vulgar and obscene. But like Bruce, he riffs on many of the hot-button topics of our time: religion, race and sexuality—but, interestingly, not partisan politics.
At the heart of his shtick were two extraordinarily engaging stories, one about when his strictly observant family hosted a Christmas celebration for a Christian neighbor who had lost her husband and a child and another about the time he wormed his way into a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gathering in Queens.
There are some cutting moments, like when he meets Prince Harry, truly his royal highness, in a bar’s men’s room. But mainly his performance focused on empathy: “How far does it extend? Is it unconditional? Do even the hateful deserve it? … Is it vitiated by bad motives?”
In some respects, Edelman is a throwback to an earlier generation of borscht belt Jewish comics. He’s a neurotic, talkative, high-energy, oversharing joke cracker—the kind of comedian that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tried to resurrect. But his performance is nothing like Rodney Dangerfield’s “I don’t get no respect” or Don Rickles’s insults: “My Jewish wife was supposed to come with me today, but she couldn’t get off the bed … The jewelry was too heavy.”
His show is filled with funny, fascinating detours, digressions and diversions (with references to Koko the gorilla’s reaction to Robin Williams’s death and to two vaccine denialist relatives). But identity issues are at the heart of the show—Jewishness, of course, but also whiteness and sexual and gender identity.
He also made it clear that his comic persona—Adderall-fueled, fast-paced, at times, facetious, jesting, jovial, self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheek—is an act. It isn’t necessarily the real him. In one particularly memorable moment, he drops the pose and tells the audience harshly, you don’t know anything about me. This represented an unbelievably powerful and even shocking shift in tone.
Which leads me to ask why our colleges and universities seem to studiously avoid humor as an object of study. Shouldn’t we take humor seriously? Shouldn’t our students learn more about the various forms that humor can take:
- puns: jokes that exploit the conflicting meanings of a word.
- wordplay: the playful use of words.
- slapstick: deliberately clumsy actions.
- parody: exaggeration or mocking imitation for comic effect, similar to burlesque and caricature.
- satire: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize stupidity or absurdity.
- gallows humor: making fun of a desperate, disastrous, life-threatening or terrifying situation.
- limericks: humorous, frequently bawdy, verses of three long and two short lines.
- double dactyls: a comical verse that begins with nonsense words (like “higgledy-piggledy”) and consists of eight lines with alternating stresses.
- observational humor: observations about the quirks, absurdities and idiosyncrasies of everyday life.
Shouldn’t our students know more about the foundations upon which humor typically rests:
- comic exaggeration: laying one’s mannerisms on thick.
- comic dissing: an offensive insult delivered in a cheerful or lighthearted manner.
- incongruity and irony: the humor that results from a discrepancy between what one expects and what actually happens or a mismatch between a cause and an effect or a divergence between one’s intentions and outcomes.
- playing the fool: behaving in a silly or an exaggeratedly ingenuous way.
- verbal aggression: a thinly veiled attack on a person or idea with words, tone or manner.
And shouldn’t we discuss why we find certain kinds of jokes funny?
- Dad jokes: pun-based jokes that are intentionally corny or groan-worthy.
- Knock-knock jokes: a five-line participatory joke often ending in a pun.
- Lightbulb jokes: a joke that mocks or stereotypes a group of people by asking how many people of that group it would take to change a lightbulb.
- One-liners: zingy, witty remarks or funny witticisms, which typically rely on wordplay, puns or a surprising twist.
- Shaggy dog story: long-winded, elaborate jokes that build up to an anticlimactic or absurd punchline.
- Sick humor: stories that treat death or suffering in an uncomfortably humorous way.
- Surreal or absurdist jokes: jokes that involve illogical or nonsensical scenarios, characters or punchlines.
- Tall tales: fanciful stories that include exaggerated and absurd elements.
And what about the humor of the people of the joke? According to Time magazine, as recently as 1978, 80 percent of American stand-up comics were Jewish, and even more recently, three times more American Jews say that humor is an important part of Jewish identity than being a member of the Jewish community or observing Jewish law.
You’ve no doubt heard some of those jokes:
Or an exchange at a bar: when a Jew asks a drunk what he has against him:
“‘You sank the Titanic.’ The Jew replies, ‘I didn’t sink the Titanic; an iceberg sank the Titanic.’ After belching daintily, the drunk responds, ‘Iceberg, Greenberg, Goldberg—you’re all no damn good.’”
So let’s ask: Is there anything distinctively Jewish about Jewish humor, which is (despite the counterexamples of Harold Lloyd and Harpo Marx) verbal rather than physical and tied up with identity issues—as a husband, wife, son, daughter and perpetual outsider?
According to Freud, humor is an act of thinly veiled aggression, consisting of mockery, ridicule and derision—an attitude that makes sense for a people who simultaneously feel “resentment at not being entirely in the mainstream of ordinary life joined to their disdain for the vapidity of that life.”
Leo Rosten considered pathos a defining characteristic of Yiddish humor. Harvard’s Ruth R. Wisse thinks that Jewish humor, especially in its Eastern European roots, reflects the ambiguous and anomalous social, economic and political status of Jews.
The humor of the Catskills resorts clearly rested on schmaltz, self-deprecation, self-therapy, self-loathing and guilt. It was vulgar, raunchy and body-obsessed and also mordant, ironic and metaphysically oriented.
I would agree with those who argue that Jewish humor has been most vigorous and vital in environments in which insecurity and precarious and marginal status and antisemitism were the order of the day. Not all people respond to persecution, oppression, discrimination, rejection, defeat, exile, persecution and despair with angst and humor, but Jews certainly did.
Of course, the classic example of Jewish humor in literature is Philip Roth’s 1969 bombshell Portnoy’s Complaint, in which the sex-obsessed, guilt-ridden Alexander Portnoy shares his life’s frustrations and neuroses with his psychotherapist. Dismissed by many reviewers as filthy, vulgar and salacious, the book continues to shock. Portnoy announces, “Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” And “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!”
There’s self-deprecation, the overbearing, guilt-inducing mother and the critique of American cultural norms and of Jewish traditions and expectations. There’s the desire to “escape everything” he finds loathsome about his “cultural inheritance.” There’s wordplay, as Roth shifts back and forth between Yiddish and English. There’s the earthy, with long digressions about masturbation.
Then there’s the unforgettable concluding punch line. After Portnoy rambles on for 289 pages, his therapist says, “Now vee may perhaps to begin.”
With its distinctive mixture of irony, self-deprecation, neuroticism, satire, social commentary and linguistic wit, Jewish humor—through literature, film and stand-up comedy—has now become a central element in American humor, much as the Southwestern humor of Mark Twain and his forerunners—Joseph Glover Baldwin, George Washington Harris, Johnson Jones Hooper, Augustus Longstreet, Thomas Bangs Thorp, among others, with their emphasis on the grotesque, the tall tale, hoaxes and deceptive trickery, and on con artists, braggarts and lovable rogues—shaped an earlier generation’s ideas about humor.
Historically, outsiders, outcasts, interlopers and minority groups—Black, Jewish, queer, immigrant—have played an outsize role in shaping American culture. It’s not, then, a surprise that this country’s hovering, micromanaging helicopter and tiger parents embody many of the traits previously associated with the stereotypical intrusive, demanding, guilt-inducing Jewish mother, who lives through her children.
Also, it should come as no shock to realize that in a society filled with anxiety; that suffers from neuroses, overthinking and various hang-ups; that struggles to cope especially with the complexities of family relationships and that is searching for ways to speak about cultural differences, societal norms and prejudice in ways that aren’t hypermoralistic, Jewish humor has become comedy’s lingua franca.
For all of humor’s risks, I think we need to bring it into the college classroom. We will never be able to offer our students the amount of clinical therapy and support that they need. But humor can help with coping and resilience. It can deflate pretensions and help our students find ways to find laughter in the challenges, disappointments and frustrations they face and the absurdities and nonsense they acquire. It sure works for me.