WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Writing about humor is hard.
Many people, including professional writers, find it easy to tell a good joke and to tell it well. If you have to explain one, as anyone who has experienced the stony silence that often follows a joke that falls flat, it isn't funny anymore.
“My Favorite Year,” a film about the early days of television comedy by Mel Brooks, includes a valuable illustration of that very point. Benjy Stone, a comedy writer loosely based on Brooks in his early years, tries to teach his date how to tell a joke. He is trying to disprove her contention that some people just are not funny.
He tells her a joke about a guy who walks into a psychiatrist's office with a duck on his head and then asks her to repeat it. She does, but mangles it badly, destroying the punch line and rendering it confusing as well as just not funny.
Trying to explain what makes a particular comedian funny, without simply repeating a side-splitter, is hard. Trying to explain an entire strain of humor without losing sight of what is funny and why has proven to be the downfall of more than one capable scribe.
In “The Haunted Smile,” Lawrence J. Epstein, professor of English at Long Island's Suffolk County Community College, takes up the task of explaining the impact Jewish humor has had on American culture for gentiles and Jews alike.
"The story of Jewish comedians in America is one of triumph and success, But their stage smile is tinged with sadness," he writes in the introduction.
"It is haunted by the Jewish past, by the deep strains in American Jewish life -- the desire to be accepted and the concern for a culture disappearing --by the centuries of Jewish life too frequently interrupted by hate. ... The comedians' story in America includes bitter encounters with anti-Semitism and the lures of an attractive culture along the way" -- not a cheerful way to open a book about funny people.
Epstein's point, however, is quite valid. The Jewish experience in America is a story of assimilation. Through their unique style of humor Jews managed to inculcate themselves into the national fabric within a relatively short period of time, the rhythms of the Yiddish language becoming a central part of American comedy.
Starting with vaudeville, Jewish comics gradually took center stage, becoming what most people would acknowledge to be among the funniest Americans ever produced.
Born in Waukegan, Ill., just outside Chicago, Benjamin Kubelsky transformed the stereotype of Jews as cheap into an enduring character beloved by Americans from coast to coast. There were probably few people who though much, if at all, about Kubelsky's religion while being entertained by his radio and television programs. They were too busy laughing, making Jack Benny into a national treasure who ruled the entertainment roost for almost 25 years.
The success of television as an entertainment medium is largely attributed to one man -- Milton Berle. As host and star of the “Texaco Star Theater” in the late 1940s and early 1950s -- Tuesday nights at 8 -- Berle is credited with spurring more than 500,000 American families to purchase television sets, so great was their desire to see his program, earning him the nickname "Mr. Television."
In the 1950's it was monologist Alan King who, in his repeated appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” spoke for the millions of suburbanites frustrated in their dealings with the phone company, airlines, children, doctors, insurance companies and other routine aspects of life in suburbia.
King "was the voice of the put-upon suburbanite, taking on the powerful institutions that shaped the living environment," Epstein writes. "In laughing at what was annoying, King relied on the Yiddish foundations of Jewish humor, on the use of humor to make us accept what is beyond our power to change."
The impact of Jewish comedians on the American psyche, Epstein concludes, was profound. “The Haunted Smile” explains how popular affinity for the characters they created and the manner of their storytelling helped blur the anti-Semitic feelings that were all too common outside American urban centers for much of the 20th century.
"Jewish comedians were pioneers for American Jews; the comedians cleared a pathway to acceptance. They made Americans comfortable with Jews and Jews comfortable with Americans," Epstein writes.
The most obvious proof of that observation, at least in the realm of American culture, is the enormous popularity of NBC's “Seinfeld” sitcom, which frequently finished No. 1 in the Neilson ratings and is still popular in syndication.
The intricate story lines that tie together in the last moments of each show, the self-effacing absurdity, and the ways in which the characters of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are often found at the mercy of fate all have their roots in Jewish cultural traditions and humor.
That all of America could so embrace such a program is a profound comment on the impact Jews and their humor have had on America's ability to determine what is funny.
"All comedians in a general way help the audience laugh at and thereby ultimately accept life's difficulties and absurdities," Epstein says in what is a delightful yet serious treatment of a very funny subject.
(“The Haunted Smile: The story of Jewish comedians in America” by Lawrence J. Epstein, Public Affairs, 356 pages, $27.50.)
(Peter Roff is a UPI senior political writer.)