Introduction: Taking Comedy Seriously
I take comedy very seriously. Beginning in 2017 and continuing through today, I write a humor column for Mishpacha magazine. It brings a lot of smiles to a lot of people. But oftentimes, people approach me and say, somewhat dismissively, “cute column.” My instinct is always to correct them. Humor is one of the toughest forms of communications. Writing anything that evokes emotion is challenging—writing humor, however, is particularly difficult.
In 1949, a twenty-four year old student at the University of Nebraska completed his undergraduate senior thesis on the topic of “Writing Comedy for Radio.” The student reminds fans of comedy that, “few people realize the preparation that goes into writing a joke.” Comedy may earn some hearty laughs, but it rarely earns respect. “The comedy gag writer,” the thesis reminds, “is truly a forgotten soul.” That student was Johnny Carson, the host of the Tonight Show for thirty years. But underneath the seemingly simple story of comedy is a larger story about what makes us human and how we construct narratives to find meaning within the pain and perceived meaninglessness of everyday life.
There are several theories that try to explain what makes something funny. Some have emphasized humor’s ability to affirm our superiority. Laughter, in this school, always comes at someone else’s expense—and that expense purchases a momentary feeling of supremacy. Others—most famously Freud—emphasize comedy’s ability to provide a sense of relief for our pent up emotions. Freud writes:
If there is a situation in which, according to our usual habits, we should be tempted to release a distressing affect and if motives then operate upon us which suppress that affect in statu nascendi [in the process of being born]… . The pleasure of humor … comes about … at the cost of a release of affect that does not occur: it arise from an economy in the expenditure of affect.
This theory certainly has merit, but it leads to some uncomfortable and questionable conclusions about what makes us laugh. For example, does anyone who laughs at a joke in poor taste have repressed feelings or aggression or bias?
The theory that has always resonated with me is known as The Incongruity Theory of humor. Simply stated, this theory explains that humor arises when a normal sequence is abruptly broken. For instance, a well-dressed man is not expected to slip on a banana peel. The larger the incongruity the more potential for humor. The philosopher Schopenhauer explains it this way:
Many human actions can only be performed by the help of reason and deliberation, and yet there are some which are better performed without its assistance. This very incongruity of sensuous and abstract knowledge, on account of which the latter always merely approximates to the former, as mosaic approximates to painting, is the cause of a very remarkable phenomenon which, like reason itself, is peculiar to human nature, and of which the explanations that have ever anew been attempted, as insufficient: I mean laughter… . The cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity (1818/1844 , Book I, sec. 13).
The setup for a joke establishes a sequential line of thinking—the punchline introduces the incongruity.
The reason I have always found this theory so satisfying is because I think it speaks to one of the primary tools human beings use to cope with the incongruities of life. Whether the jokes are about our mothers, celebrity worship, airport tuna fish sandwiches, or parenting, comedy is commentary on the chaos of life. A satisfying life that unfolds sequentially is hardly grist for comedic material. Life’s frustration, disappointments, and perceived meaninglessness is what makes the comedic lens so valuable.
James K. Feibleman, a little known philosopher, wrote an obscure article in The Journal of Philosophy (35:16, 1938) where he explains what comedy seeks:
Comedy then, criticizes the finite for not being infinite. It witnesses the limitations of actuality, just as a tragedy witnesses the fragmentary exemplifications of the logical order. Tragedy affirms continuity by showing how it exists in every actual thing and event. Tragedy shows the worth of every actual, down to the most ephemeral, and so is always close to the permanent value of the worshipful. Comedy comes to the same affirmation, but inversely and by indirection, just as one might affirm beauty by criticizing the ugly. Comedy catches the principle of unity in every finite thing…
Great comedians are commentators. They highlight a finite world in disarray and through comedy, a lens of meaning is superimposed onto our quotidian lives. Comedy seeks a life with meaning and when situations and circumstances seem bereft of sense, comedy provides one.
In perhaps the grandest sense, the meaningfulness which comedy seeks lies at the heart of our human experience. It is how we ultimately seek to construct our respective sense of self. Life is filled with all sorts of moments and routines that seem short of true import. Comedy is one way in which we criticize the finite moments of our existence and “catches the principle of unity in every finite thing.”
While David Foster Wallace, beloved writer and teacher, was no stranger to tragedy, he wrote eloquently of comedy. In an address later published in Harper’s, he discussed the challenges of teaching the absurdist humor of Kafka:
The psychology of jokes helps account for part of the problem in teaching Kafka. We all know that there is no quicker way to empty a joke of its peculiar magic than to try to explain it—to point out, for example, that Lou Costello is mistaking the proper name “Who” for the interrogative pronoun name “who,” etc. We all know the weird antipathy such explanation arouse in us, a feeling not so much of boredom as offense, like something has been blasphemed…And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get—the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke—that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding on this door, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking etc. That, finally the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.
Read important takeaways from the intro in our Weekend Reader.
Gary Gulman: This Impossible Life
Like most, I was introduced to Gary Gulman’s comedy with his incredible set (embedded below) on Conan, imagining a documentary about the naming of the states.
I watch a lot of comedy, but this set struck me as different. You could sense his love of language and his folksy decency. I became an instant fan. I watched some of his earlier sets about trivializing Hitler, discmans, and Trader Joe’s. Of course I laughed, but I was also struck at his ability to weave meaningful stories from the overlooked minutiae and frustrations of life.
Then his comedy changed. Unbeknownst to most viewers, Gary suffered through a very challenging mental health episode. Performing a comedy set on Colbert, without mentioning the word depression once, he spoke about living with depression. With imagery of fork prints in ice cream and unchanged Brita filters, he vividly describes a life in normalized chaos. “I know your world,” he says—mostly in jest but also revealing the deep sense of empathy evident throughout his work. “I know your world,” I understand completely how the smallest task of replacing the toilet paper on the holder seems insurmountable. “I know your world,” because I live it. His comedy transformed into something more than comedy. It became a way to discuss some of the most painful parts of daily life. “The thing they don’t tell you about life is this,” Gary says plaintively, “life: it’s every, single day.” You can feel his words getting heavier as he says “every, single day.” In 2019, he released The Great Depresh, a charming, inspiring—and of course hilarious as always—special on HBO, about his battles with depression and mental health.
At some point, through a rather circuitous and fortuitous chain of events, I not only became a fan of Gary—I became a friend. He became a mentor and role model for how to lead a more empathetic life and, most of all, how to become friends with yourself.
I don’t have an HBO special, nor is one in the works, but I have spent years writing comedy, albeit on a much much smaller scale. My most significant contribution to comedy has been talking about what kind of shirts Jews like to wear (spoiler: It’s Charles Tyrwhitt). So, I have a way to go. But there is something about the process of comedy and personality of comedians that reveals a tremendous amount of doubt and insecurity. It’s an industry built on soliciting a reaction. And in a world where you’re constantly beholden to an audience’s reaction, it can become easy to equate their reaction with your self-worth. It’s a phenomena present within nearly every industry, but I think it is far more acute in comedy.
In 2019, Gary spent the entire year tweeting a daily tip on comedy writing. I once asked Gary over lunch if he ever considered becoming a full-time professor or teacher. I loved his response. “I think what I do now is teaching,” Gary explained. Comedy makes us laugh, but it also elucidates how we see the world.
In the 2002 documentary, The Comedian, which follows an established Jerry Seinfeld and a young comedian named Orny Adams, there is a moving exchange between the two about the anxieties of the profession.
Orny, ever impatient, complains to Jerry about how his friends in other industries are moving up and he feels left behind. I was always struck by the scene because in many ways I have felt the very same doubt Orny expresses. Not as a comedian, but as an educator. You watch your friends establish careers, make partner, find stability, and—as the funhouse mirror of life often reflects—your own life accomplishments feel out of sync. It’s an insecurity that is far more universal than comedy. It’s about the role of our professional accomplishments in our personal identity. What do you do?, Americans are fond of asking in open conversation. Jerry Seinfeld’s response is dismissive and marvelous: “Is there something else you’d rather have been doing?” Jerry seems comfortable embracing the unknown, the chaos, the confusion of the industry, as Orny struggles to superimpose a more sequential and predictable narrative on an otherwise chaotic profession. While Orny is trying to make it in show business, Jerry fell in love with comedy.
And within comedy one can find profound love, depth, and meaning. During the height of the pandemic, I was asked during a panel session, what do you do to find stability? I responded, I listen to comedy. Great comedy serves as a level of sorts—finding the perfect balance between tragedy and monotony to transform life into meaningful commentary. As I once shared in an article about my love of comedy, I learned about the value of comedy during a funeral. My friend, Josh Grajower, shared the following at his wife Dannie’s funeral:
When we came to New York for Sukkos, unfortunately we had to go straight to the ER. When realizing we would be stuck in the hospital all Shabbos, just the two of us, I grabbed two books to read. The first was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Yes, an intense choice. It was actually Dannie’s copy of the book and she had underlined certain parts. One thing she underlined was a comment Frankl made about the surprising role of humor in concentration camps. He wrote the following lines about humor, and they were some of the few lines underlined by Dannie: “It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds… The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.”
Gary’s HBO special was produced by Judd Apatow, a major figure, to say the least, in comedy production. Judd was a student of the late Garry Shandling, a comedic visionary perhaps most well known for his HBO show, The Larry Sanders Show. Garry, fittingly enough, passed away on Purim of 2016. Judd produced an incredibly moving documentary on Garry’s life called the Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. The documentary is based upon snippets from Garry’s actual diaries he left to Judd after he passed. It’s a moving testament to the inner struggles of comedians, and more generally human beings, grappling with finding centeredness and fulfilment in their lives. Garry was a master comedian, but, as often is the case, was plagued with self-doubt and insecurity. He was perpetually trying to overcome those insecurities with his professional achievement and fall in love with comedy. In a passage where Garry is grappling with comedy during a particularly dark period in his life, he writes to himself:
Maybe your comedy is a natural gift to be given to others with joy to help them through this impossible life and you sharing it, with no desire of getting anything back.
And maybe that’s the gift of comedy. It’s given to an audience with love and, if done correctly, it can only be for the smile—never just for business. Because the only way to make others smile is to share with joy. And that, even for only a few seconds, can help us through this impossible life.
Read important takeaways from Gary’s interview in our Weekend Reader.
Leah Forster: Of Comedy and Community
In 2013, an unusual clip of a stand-up comedy performance appeared online. It was unusual because the person on stage was wearing a black hat and a jacket. It seemed as if he stepped right out of the Beis Medrash and, without changing his clothes, proceeded directly to the stage. His name is David Finkelstein and the performance has been viewed over 100k times on YouTube.
It was a solid comedy set, though it was certainly aided by the surprise of seeing a fully decked-out yeshiva student standing in front of the Broadway Comedy Club backdrop. His appearance is part of what makes the comedy work so well. In general, comedy is a negotiation between the comedian and their audience. Comedy thrives on the specificity of personal experience that can resonate with a larger community. If it’s not specific and personal enough, comedy becomes too generic. If it’s too niche and local, comedy may never find a community.
There’s a fabulous Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dentist, Tim Whatley, converts to Judaism. At Jerry’s next dentist appointment, Dr. Whatley peppers his language with Yiddishism (“a shtickle floride”) and Jewish jokes. Jerry, somewhat offended by Dr. Whatley’s newfound penchant for Jewish jokes, asks the dentist if he should be making such jokes. “Jerry,” Dr. Whatley explains, “it is our sense of humor that sustained us as a people for three thousand years.” Five thousand, Jerry corrects him. Frustrated with Dr. Whatley’s continued jokes, Jerry visits Dr. Whatley’s former priest:
JERRY SEINFELD: I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism just for the jokes.
FATHER CURTIS: And this offends you as a Jewish person.
JERRY: No, it offends me as a comedian.
—Seinfeld, episode 153: “The Yada Yada”
Comedy is built upon personal experience. A dear friend, Shulamis Ross, wrote a masterful essay on the mechanics of offensive humor. Comedy, they explain, has the capacity to create community:
Getting back to ethnic jokes, one might say that they foster a sense of community in two ways. Perhaps the more obvious one—or at least the one most often criticized—is in excluding others. One cannot have a strong group identity, goes the claim, without defining oneself against other groups. One might ask: what would Red Sox fans be without the Yankees? One might answer: just another bunch of people whose team wins the World Series once every 86 years or so. Why else is “Yankees suck” heard at Patriots rallies? Not being New Yorkers is what being a New England sports fan is all about, one might say.
(I would never say that, of course. I’m a Yankees fan in Boston, and I like having the full use of all my vital organs. But one might.)
But these jokes also involve a more positive form of community building, and for this insight I’m indebted to an article by Ted Cohen. Ethnic jokes involve a wealth of shared knowledge; one needs to know that, say, Poles are stereotypically stupid, that the Irish are stereotypically drunkards, that Jews are greedy, that Scots are stingy, and so on, and so forth. If you don’t recognize the stereotypes being played on, the joke doesn’t work; that the teller and the hearer share the knowledge necessary to make sense of the joke reinforces a sense of community. I could tell you several lightbulb jokes involving particular Jewish groups (Lubvitchers, Satmars, Breslovers, Reform Jews, etc.), but most of you reading this essay wouldn’t understand them. “Part of the kick in joke telling,” Cohen argues, “is [the teller and listener’s] implicit awareness that they are joined to one another.”
Seven years after David Finkelstein’s black-hatted comedy set first appeared on YouTube, a moving documentary was released about his foray into comedy entitled, “A Jew Walks Into a Bar.” The film details how David grapples with his Jewish identity while trying to connect to a wider stage. There’s a tinge of sadness throughout. David knows the black hat is both the key to much of his distinctive voice, but also yearns to distinguish himself without it. His Jewish identity is both what makes him different and, in his mind, what holds him back from having broader appeal. I don’t know what happened to David Finkelstein. Since his original set, he’s posted very little new comedy online. But his story is a powerful rumination on the interplay between comedy and community.
That dynamic lays at the heart of the work of our next guest, Leah Forster. Leah is an extraordinarily gifted comedian and character actress. Her weekly “Tichel Tuesday” videos have developed a large following on Instagram and she has a full-length show in the works. But navigating community and comedy has not been easy for her. Having left the ultra-Orthodox community in which she was raised, Leah still shares personalities and experiences from that community with an obvious sense of joy and playfulness. That is a large part of what I find so remarkable about Leah. She has every reason to be bitter. She has every reason to have more of a cynical edge in her Jewish comedy. But that’s not what she does. From her signature greeting, hello hello hello, her comedy serves as an optimistic tether to a community in which she was once fully entrenched. Negotiating between personal experience and your audience can be a delicate balance. As I discussed with a noted user on Twitter, your audience can be both an outlet and a constraint. It’s heartening to find people who, even under these imposing constraints, find ways to make people laugh.
Read important takeaways from Leah’s interview in our Weekend Reader.
Daniel Feldman: Punchlines with Boundaries and Opportunities
The famous Jewish comedian, Jackie Mason, began his career as a Rabbi Jack Maza. His Bar Mitzvah speech was fairly sophisticated and later published in his father’s rabbinic work. His story was later immortalized in an episode of The Simpsons where Krusty the Klown confronts his disappointed rabbinic father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky. Jackie Mason played the voice of Krusty’s father. In the episode, Krusty, after choosing a career in comedy, is disowned by his father.
Lisa: Excuse us, Rabbi Krustofsky?
Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky: Oh, what can I do for you, my young friends?
Bart: We came to talk to you about your son.
Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky: I have no son! (slams the door)
Bart: Oh, great. We came all this way and it’s the wrong guy.
Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky: I didn’t mean that literally. (slams the door again)
This is a common Hollywood trope. The first film with sound, The Jazz Singer, had a similar plot. However entertaining these plotlines may be, they’re also misleading. Watching The Simpsons, The Jazz Singer, or a Coen Brothers’ movie can give one a caricature impression on the rabbinic approach to comedy and humor. Sure, rabbis are serious, but they also take comedy seriously.
There is a moving story in the Talmud about the value of comedy. The Talmud in Taanis recounts:
אדהכי והכי אתו הנך תרי אתי א”ל הנך נמי בני עלמא דאתי נינהו אזל לגבייהו אמר להו מאי עובדייכו אמרו ליה אינשי בדוחי אנן מבדחינן עציבי אי נמי כי חזינן בי תרי דאית להו תיגרא בהדייהו טרחינן ועבדינן להו שלמא
In the meantime, two brothers came to the marketplace. Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka: These two also have a share in the World-to-Come. Rabbi Beroka went over to the men and said to them: What is your occupation? They said to him: We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed. Alternatively, when we see two people who have a quarrel between them, we strive to make peace.
Some of my most anxious moments have been when I know I need to finish my humor column and I just have nothing. I’m tired, fatigued, frustrated, and feel empty of any creative output. I remember one time I was feeling particularly lost and I reached out to my friend and editor, Sruli Besser, for some words of encouragement. He just sent me this passage. As he often does, he reminded me that making others smile is an act invested with holiness. But, I think the Talmud is transmitting something even more profound than simply the importance of comedy. The jesters are identified in this story as two who have a share in the World-to-Come. Simply read, the Talmud ascribes comedy with the capacity to merit a share in the World-to-Come—meaning it is a holy endeavor. More fundamentally, perhaps, the Talmud is ascribing an other-worldliness to comedic instinct. There’s an old aphorism, “comedy is tragedy plus time.” The first time this was in print seems to be in a 1957 Cosmopolitan interview with Steve Allen, the original host of The Tonight Show:
When I explained to a friend recently that the subject matter of most comedy is tragic (drunkenness, overweight, financial problems, accidents, etc.) he said, “Do you mean to tell me that the dreadful events of the day are a fit subject for humorous comment? The answer is “No, but they will be pretty soon.”
Man jokes about the things that depress him, but he usually waits till a certain amount of time has passed. It must have been a tragedy when Judge Crater disappeared, but everybody jokes about it now. I guess you can make a mathematical formula out of it. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.
Perhaps that is why comedians are described by the Talmud as coming from “The World to Come.” With enough time, distance, and perspective, the humor of the world can finally emerge.
Rabbi Daniel Feldman is a brilliant Talmud scholar and author of several books. He’s not quite the inverse of Jackie Mason, but before becoming a rabbi he built a reputation as someone with a gift for humor. Many yeshivos have a custom of putting on a play before Purim, known as a Purim Shpiel. It has been the source of some controversy over the years, as students generally imitate their teachers to raucous laughter. Rabbi Feldman famously starred in many such Purim Shpiels, providing an uncanny imitation of his eminent teacher, Rabbi Hershel Schachter.
He has both written and spoken about the value of humor in Jewish thought. In fact, we were co-panelists in a written interview discussing the role of pop-culture and humor in teaching Torah. In our discussion together, he cited a brilliant article in Tradition by Rabbi Shalom Carmy, entitled “Homer and the Bible.” There, Rabbi Carmy discusses the danger of saturating spiritual ideas with overly modern clichés and sensationalist asides. He couches his concern (with a wink) in an episode of The Simpsons. Homer begins a marriage class. After failing to capture the attention of his students, he begins sharing the salacious details of his own marriage—much to the chagrin of his wife, Marge. This, explains Rabbi Carmy, is the mistake so many Jewish educators make. They substitute salaciousness for substance. He writes:
Yes, I have noticed that many students indeed “prick up their ears” the moment such subjects are mentioned. I don’t mind the momentary spike in attention that goes with a change of pace. Yet when marginal pursuits become invested with heightened significance and interest, simply as a result of their novelty or shock value, this is a cause for suspicion rather than self-satisfaction. If anything, those in whom consideration of the most intimate and most fundamental elements of religious life induces giddiness, rather than sobriety, are the least qualified to take part in and influence these discussions.
An educational mission dependent on the fleeting morbid pleasures of debunking, relying on the desperate stimulation of reflexive skepticism cannot stand.
It’s doubly clever, as only Rabbi Carmy is, to couch his skepticism for the educational uses of pop culture in an episode of The Simpsons. It’s also a wink, as Rabbi Carmy knows clearly it’s possible to be done well, but is just too frequently abused. Humor, comedy, and pop culture can both elevate and denigrate. As I once discussed in an article about the uses of humor on Twitter, constructive humor is spiritual; destructive humor is cynical. Learning the difference takes work, patience, and graciousness.
If you listen closely to Rabbi Daniel Feldman, you’ll find someone who is sensitive to the balance. That’s not altogether surprising. Much of his works deal with the human element of Jewish thought. Whether comedy, kindness, negative speech, or human dignity, much of his scholarship surrounds the human condition. His works may make you laugh, they make you think, but they most certainly will highlight the beauty of being human.
Read important takeaways from Daniel’s interview in our Weekend Reader.
As we live through the ups and downs of life, laughter begins to play an invaluable role in our mental well-being. Perhaps comedy can provide a helpful lens through which to view the sometimes stressful responsibilities of our life.