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Behavior: Analyzing Jewish Comics

3 minute read

Although Jews constitute only 3% of the U.S. population, 80% of the nation’s professional comedians are Jewish. Why such domination of American humor? New York City Psychologist Samuel Janus, who once did a yearlong stint as a stand-up comic, thinks that he has the answer: Jewish humor is born of depression and alienation from the general culture. For Jewish comedians, he told the recent annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, “comedy is a defense mechanism to ward off the aggression and hostility of others.”

Janus has spent ten years and $20,000 of his own money traveling around the country to interview top comedians and give them psychological tests. So far, he has tested 76 Jewish humorists, including Milton Berle, George Burns, David Brenner, Sid Caesar, David Steinberg and Mort Sahl. Most, he says, were ambivalent about their Jewishness and compulsively turned to humor to ward off their private demons. As Joan Rivers told Janus, “If I were marching to the ovens, I’d be telling jokes all the way.” What makes them funny, says Janus, “is their pain.”

Many of the comedians had been in psychotherapy and almost all had major traumas in early childhood. The late Totie Fields’ mother died when Totie was five; Art Buchwald’s mother died shortly after his birth. David Steinberg’s older brother died young, says Janus, “and the family never stopped mourning.” In general, the psychologist believes, these comedians had overprotective, constricting mothers and a drive to break out of the Jewish world and gain general acceptance. Says he: “Only a few will talk about their Jewishness with any sense of pride; Alan King, Jack Carter and Don Rickles are rare exceptions. But most of them talk about their work for non-Jewish causes or what they did for the Cardinal. The one thing they live for is acceptance. They are always working for it, always worrying and insecure—like Rodney Dangerfield, they ‘don’t get no respect.’ There is never enough respect.”

Janus discovered a generation gap among the comedians. Most who reached prominence before the 1950s grew up in large, Yiddish-speaking immigrant families in Brooklyn or on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. About 80% came from kosher homes and 90% later anglicized their names. Younger comedians are better educated, have less contact with Jewish ritual and are more likely to break away from traditional Jewish humor to deliver social or political messages in their acts. Says Janus: “The older ones changed their names and relieved their tensions with booze. The younger ones lie about their age and dabble with pills and coke.”

The angriest and most frustrated Jewish comedians, according to Janus, are the “Catskill comics” who have never been able to break away from the Jewish resort circuit and play to outside audiences. Says the psychologist: “There are 30 to 40 of them you’ve never heard of, all making over $100,000 a year. They all say, ‘Don’t mention me as a Catskill comic.'”

Jewish comedians, he argues, are “overwhelmingly anxious” people who turn most of their humor on themselves. Though self-deprecation is traditional in Jewish humor, says Janus, it has a special function in America: it serves as “ritual exorcism” for conflicts shared with Jewish audiences, and it assures Gentile audiences that Jewish humor is not threatening.

Abe Burrows once told Janus that the comedian must practice his comedy in order to avoid destroying himself; and the psychologist agrees that the comics are successfully using humor as a form of self-therapy. All told, Janus says, the comedians are bright, sensitive and relatively stable. But, he adds, “they are not happy guys.”

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