Jews have long been associated with comedy, and specifically with the form of comic storytelling called jokes.
There are a lot of theories about why people, and Jews in particular, tell jokes.
Henri Bergson believed that joke telling is a form of social control, in which the victim is made the target of humiliating laughter.
Mikhail Bakhtin thought that jokes and laughter are ways of overcoming the fear of death, transgressing social barriers and hierarchies, and celebrating the “lower body stratum” of human existence including both sexuality and defecation.
Freud thought that the popularity of joke telling among Jews is a form of self-criticism, as well as a way to criticize authority and the excessive requirements of the Jewish religion, and to purge aggressive feelings resulting from the suppression of sexuality.
Jokes seem to be the province of people with a history of oppression. In the United States, the great comedians tend to be African-Americans, Irish, or Jews.
(It is apparently extremely difficult to be a funny WASP — although here I must acknowledge that John McCain excelled in the presidential campaign’s stand-up comedy competition.)
Theories aside, for whatever reason, Jews like to tell jokes.
Everyone knows of famous Jewish comedians – a quick list of classics would include Milton Berle, Woody Allen, Alan King, Lenny Bruce, Fannie Brice, Mel Brooks, Phil Silvers, George Burns, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, Carl Reiner, Jack Benny, Joey Bishop, and Groucho Marx – and a list of contemporaries would include Jerry Seinfeld, Sasha Baron Cohen, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Richard Lewis, Sarah Silverman, and Sandra Bernhard.
But because joke telling has been so highly valued in Jewish culture, lots of ordinary Jews are good at it as well.
A new website called Old Jews Telling Jokes is a homage to non-professional Jewish joke tellers.
The old Jews telling the jokes aren’t professional comedians. Instead, they’re doctors, lawyers, a lumberyard owner, a garment district worker, a wine salesman, a judge – and also the website creator’s mother and father.
It’s very funny.
Sam Hoffman, a film director and writer, and the man who created Old Jews Telling Jokes, explains:
“My dad can tell a story. But he’d prefer to tell a joke.”
“Storytelling is a Jewish tradition. You’ve probably seen Fiddler on the Roof. Whenever they ask the Rabbi a question, he tugs thoughtfully on his beard and says “let me tell you a story.” Then they sing.”
“Jokes are like stories, but shorter and funnier. Old jokes tend to have a stigma, but they only last if they’re good. Some of the best ones provide a window to the culture of a bygone era. They can reveal the concerns of a generation or even the generation before. Anxieties of coming to a new country, of prospering, of assimilating, of having families, of fearing and worrying about, well, everything. Humor was and is the ultimate anti-depressant.”
“My father gathered twenty of his friends to share their favorite jokes. We set three rules for the production: the joke-tellers were to be Jewish, at least sixty years of age and they were to tell their favorite joke – the one that always kills.”
The website promises “A new (old) joke every Tuesday and Thursday!”