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It’s A Goy! Gentile Appropriation of Jewish Self-Deprecation in Modern Comedy

About the Author: Maryam Gilanshah

Maryam Gilanshah is a Junior studying Creative Writing and English at The George Washington University. She also minors in Psychology and Journalism. Interested in media from a young age, she particularly enjoys exploring how identity manifests itself in film and television. Currently, she uses her interdisciplinary course load to analyze unseen connections between literature and modern society. Maryam hopes to continue integrating cultural criticism with personal narratives through her thesis in fiction next year and in her own writing post-graduation.

By Maryam Gilanshah  | General Essays

“Bear with me and I will speak, and after my speech you may mock.”
Iyov 21:3

As mainstream America becomes more accepting of Jewish culture, it is easy, even preferred, to classify all attention as positive. For a group that has suffered at the hands of countless individuals, from the Pharaoh of Exodus to Adolf Hitler, this increasing philosemitism provides a wide-scale appreciation unlike anything in Jewish history before. Unfortunately, the channels in which non-Jewish, or Gentile, Americans express their enthusiasm for Jewish culture only proliferate the otherness that oppressed Jewish individuals in the first place. Furthermore, the most popular of these methods – comedy, whether it be stand-up or scripted programming – not only marks Jewish Americans as inherently “other,” but also appropriates the self-deprecating humor that brought Jewish comedy into the mainstream after the 1960s.

Jewish culture associates itself primarily with self-deprecation as its chosen brand of humor, mocking one’s existence along with the characteristics of this culture. Jewish individuals reclaim the anti-Semitism they faced and the long suffering of their people, twisting such hatred into a comedic and ironic mockery of themselves. With such deprecation comes self-analysis and an examination of why they face such oppression despite being “the chosen people” (Mintz 4). This phenomenon provides more depth to the material of Jewish comedians, as they explore their character and examine how history treated their people, all while cloaking such darkness in humorous anecdotes. Elliott Oring also characterizes Jewish humor as “defensive” in his article “The People of the Joke: On the Conceptualization of a Jewish Humor.” Any attempt to call attention to their heritage rebels against historical oppressive efforts (268), forcing the audience to notice this Judaism and immerse themselves in the culture, even if it is through a stand-up routine. Sigmund Freud also describes the humor as pathological, where “stories [are] created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics” (qtd. in Oring 269). Freud also insists that these stories help Jewish people cope while highlighting the underlying self-hatred within the Jewish community (270).

According to Stephen Whitfield’s “The Distinctiveness of Jewish Humor,” the need to self-deprecate and constantly point out flaws in themselves or their people also stems from an underlying inferiority felt as a Jewish individual. Even in moments of success, Jewish people can cope with this incongruity between what they have accomplished and how the world views them by finding faults in themselves, instead of people telling them their weaknesses (245); this individualizes their brand of humor, allowing them to stand out from non-Jewish comedians. Lenny Bruce’s “Religions, Inc.” demonstrates such deprecation when he jokes that his family personally killed Jesus, satirically agreeing with the prejudice against Jews as “the one[s] who killed our lord” (Whitfield 249). Jews can take the causes of such prejudice and use it to motivate their acts, providing some positivity to all the negativity they face, while goyish, or non-Jewish, comedians can only detract from the tradition, as they do not have a place in the rich culture that legitimizes such Jewish deprecation.

Bruce’s act also highlights the influence of deicide on Jewish humor, dating back to early rabbinical texts, such as the Talmud and Midrash. Since Jesus’s time, “mocking Christendom was embedded into the daily discourse of Ashkenazic [European] Jewry” (Tanny). This mockery began as Christians targeted Jews for their supposed deicide, but it continued to grow and influence new humor into the present day. Although this “cultural…anti-gospel” existence faded in the early 1900s among Jewish performers (172), it returned in the post-World War II period, as comics like Bruce used it to mark their uniqueness, thus inciting from Gentiles “an obsession with the Jew that marks him as inherently different” (182).

This obsession, sometimes referred to as philosemitism, encouraged Jewish comedians at first, as audiences were overly enthusiastic to hear about a culture largely unfamiliar to them. Such promotion of explicitly Jewish culture allowed these comedians to thrive as themselves rather than having to suppress their identity. However, as comedy progressed into its present state during the 1960s, an increasing number of writers, actors, and comedians began to heighten this philosemitism. Instead of appreciating Jewish humor as a unique comedic subgenre, Gentile entertainers appropriate the self-deprecating tradition for their own gain, mocking Jewish culture in the same way Jewish comedians do. Although the material between these two groups has similarities, when a Gentile comedian presents it, there exists no understood appreciation for the Jewish community. Gentile comedians possess little background of the culture to substantiate such jokes, which not only takes material away from Jewish comedians, but also culturally others Jewish Americans, just as they existed under past oppressors.

In “Jewish Humor, Self-Hatred, or Anti-Semitism: The Sociology of Hanukkah Cards in America,” author Nancy Jo Silberman-Federman conducts a sociological study where Jewish and Gentile participants were asked to decide whether or not different Hanukkah cards were humorous, offensive, pro-Jewish, pro-Christian, and sexist, then using these Hannukkah cards to analyze the “microcosm of the American Jewish experience” (228). In doing so, Silberman-Federman outlines the structure of Jewish comedy in relation to Gentile humor and highlights the importance of Jewish people telling their own jokes, rather than Gentile comedians using Judaism to appeal to the mainstream. She defines the sociology of humor as a channel for the persecuted to express their frustration and unite as a marginalized group, however dispersed. In addition, humor provides a way to voice “malice and hostility” (214) without repercussions, creating more creative choices for comedians and freeing them from having to please other ethnic groups that rank higher in the social hierarchy. With this newfound independence, Jewish Americans finally had freedom to discuss what they wanted without fear of retaliation, as comedians melded their experiences into enjoyable material for the (largely Gentile) masses.

Silberman-Federman then defines the uniqueness of Jewish American humor post-1960s, a time when Lenny Bruce existed as the favored comedian, despite his blatant Jewishness. Self-deprecation, word-play, manuscheln – the “specifically Jewish” pause after explaining something (215) – and the schlemiel character, who continuously proves a fool and a failure all differentiate Jewish humor from the mainstream. This definition of Jewish humor reveals the new opportunities afforded to Jewish Americans: they could now assimilate and pay tribute to their culture at the same time. However, as previously mentioned, this growing acceptance of Jewish humor only provided a stronger basis for Americans to appropriate this uniquely Jewish comedy.

Once Gentile comedians noticed the popularity of Jewish self-deprecation, they began adapting similar commentaries of Jewish culture regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or cultural upbringing. The final piece of Silberman-Federman’s article focuses on why Jewish self-deprecation works solely for Jewish comedians. Springing from millennia of oppression, this “tool of self-defense” (220) took power away from anti-Semitic rulers or behaviors and gave it back to the people, conditioning Jewish people to others’ mockery of them. Making fun of their own culture, language, or appearance proved successful because the Jewish comedians telling these jokes highlighted faults and values of Judaism, providing an endorsement of their culture while still pointing out its weaknesses (224). And although Silberman-Federman uses these parameters to evaluate Hanukkah cards, by adapting the same qualifications and characteristics for Jewish stand-up and scripted humor, one can see how using self-deprecation in a Gentile routine walks dangerously close to anti-Semitism. As non-Jewish comedians noticed the success of material deriding the Jewish community, they began to craft similar jokes, gaining popularity from the public while further deriding the Jewish community under a well-intentioned guise of comedy.

Self-deprecation and cultural commentary fill Larry David’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live in 2017; however, he still received a large amount of negative feedback despite possessing Silberman-Federman’s qualifications for proper and effective humor. Beginning his monologue, David speaks of his early love life, insisting: “I didn’t date much at that time. I was very desperate. Yet, I was also very particular. I had that in common with Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.” David sets the tone of the subsequent monologue and the rest of the show by highlighting his faults and aligning with a famously hideous character. Although David does not establish his Judaism until later, this outright mockery proves a strong example of self-deprecation and exposes the viewer to the comedian’s attitude towards himself. David’s stage persona mocks any positive trait he possesses, and his ability to immediately make fun of himself, both in personality and appearance, highlights the self-deprecating influence of his culture.

David then swiftly transitions into a specifically Jewish commentary when talking about sexual harassment. He establishes that he “couldn’t help but notice [that] many of the [recent sexual] predators are Jews.” David then resigns with the Yiddish “oy vey iz mir,” or “woe is me,” and pines for more positive times in Jewish history, like when “Einstein discover[ed] [the] theory of relativity” or when “Salk cure[d] polio,” instead of “Weinstein took it out.” Although David infuses current widespread sexual harassment revelations with an even more charged fact that “many…are Jews,” he still remains within the boundaries of un-offensive humor, as David himself establishes his Judaism, which provides the authority to comment on the prevalence of Jewish sexual predators. He still qualifies as comedic, rather than strictly offensive, to Jewish identity, because he remarks on his own culture, praising it with the past victories of Salk and Einstein while openly admitting the present faults of Jewish sexual predators. As a Jewish comedian, David has a more holistic vision of the Jewish faith and culture, so he can sufficiently speak on the topic while assuring viewers that he understands the nuances of the situation, instead of entirely co-opting the issue of anti-Semitism as an excuse to scorn the Jewish faith.

In the conclusion of the monologue, David depicts himself as a young Jewish man in a Polish concentration camp, wondering: “Would I still be checking out women in the camp? I think I would.” David then builds a scenario, as he asserts that “the problem is there are no good opening lines in a concentration camp” that could facilitate a conversation with someone. This imagined persona approaches a fellow prisoner, asking, “How’s it going? They treating you okay? You know, if we ever get out of here, I’d love to take you out for some latkes.” David’s jokes split the public, with Twitter reactions like “I’m not a Jew, but I’m low-key offended by Larry David’s holocaust jokes. Not cool.” to “Oh look. A bunch of non-Jews are telling Larry David, a Jew, he can't make holocaust jokes. I hate 2017” and “Dark gallows humor is a very important part of Jewish culture. To criticize Larry David for it is reprehensible” (“Larry”). In these reactions rather than in the material itself, one can already notice the harmful effects of Gentiles appropriating Jewish humor. Although David exists as an outspokenly Jewish man with a career partially built on his culture, a large part of the public refuses to indulge these jokes for fear of offending the general population, just as Gentiles did in Silberman-Federman’s Hanukkah card experiment. David possesses the reverence, knowledge, and cultural background to appropriately inform his jokes about Jewish culture and history, and does not display the “loss of heritage” that Silberman-Federman says threatens today’s Jewish population. David takes power away from those who used the Holocaust as a tool of subjugatation by joking about the challenges of concentration camp romance, especially for a “loser” such as himself, showing the audience that they cannot intimidate him and his people into submission. However, the public seems to prefer more mild-mannered jokes about Judaism, as seen in Twitter reactions to David’s monologue, even if they come from a Gentile comedian with little basis to joke about the culture/history. By supporting Gentile comedians over Jewish ones, audiences continue to strip away the individuality of Jewish experience from Jewish comedians themselves, even if they originally established the humor tradition. Such a rejection of Jewish identity supports Gentile philosemitism, approving the idea of appreciating Jewish culture without supporting the actual people within that community. 

John Mulaney’s 2012 stand-up New In Town highlights this preference towards milder Jewish jokes as Mulaney discusses his Jewish then-girlfriend, now wife, Annamarie Tendler. Throughout the routine, Mulaney details specific characteristics that draw him to Jewish people, especially Jewish women. He hypothesizes: “I think a lot of problems that people have in relationships are with communication. With Jewish women, you do not have to guess what they are thinking. They will tell you,” adding after some uneasiness from the audience, “this is going to get playfully anti-Semitic, so just allow it to go there.” As Mulaney picks out traits that make Jewish women stand out and openly admits the slightly anti-Semitic nature of the material, the audience continues to laugh and applaud. Although Mulaney is not an anti-Semite, his characterization of Jewish women is not inspired by the upbringing that a Jewish comedian would have if they were performing the same material. As Mulaney borrows from the Jewish humor tradition, he robs the Jewish community of the confidence they built through self-deprecation, mocking parts of the culture that Jewish comedians would praise or simply acknowledge. Even though he recognizes his goyishness, Mulaney still feels empowered to joke about specifically Jewish traits, highlighting how an increased enthusiasm for Jewish comedy takes away from Jewish individuals more than it benefits them. The audience’s continued support of Mulaney, rather than David, shows that they would rather hear less ethnically-charged jokes, even if it comes from a non-Jewish comedian who cannot understand why Jewish deprecation works solely for Jewish comics.

Mulaney takes the routine even further as he speaks in an impression of a Jewish American, using a volume shift from his own speaking voice and quick, scattered questions to differentiate the accent. He begins imitating his girlfriend with a sharp “my stomach hurts!” as he highlights her directness as opposed to his past Gentile partners, and transitions into a longer bit about the constant worrying of modern Jews, saying “they go: ‘Who’s that? Who’re you? What’s that? Put that down. What’s that over there? Don’t do that!’” Here, Mulaney provides traits he assigns as specifically “Jewish” to further proliferate past cultural otherness projected upon Jewish people. He changes his voice, speaking pattern, and even mannerisms to establish the degree of otherness of these Jewish habits. Although other Jewish comedians highlight these stereotypes, Mulaney does not possess the context necessary to use these comedic techniques successfully in the cultural sense of Silberman-Federman. Regardless, the audience continues to laugh at his impression, despite him explicitly stating his lack of Jewishness. Mulaney bookends his routine with a more detailed description of what draws him to Jewish people, pointing out how “[they are] very focused [and] in the moment,” and highlighting how “Jews don’t daydream ‘cause folks are after them. They gotta stay sharp. They haven’t let their minds wander since Egypt.” Mulaney praises these traits, which helps to soften his harsh depictions. However, as Silberman-Federman highlights, self-deprecation comes from the need to rise above constant oppression; so, as an Irish man raised Catholic, Mulaney’s Jewish jokes cannot fulfill the situation that incited a need for such humor in the first place, stripping any justification for his humor about this topic.

This appropriation is also present on network television, as seen in Tina Fey’s three-time Emmy winner 30 Rock, which utilizes Jewish culture as material that can reliably please larger audiences. Even though 30 Rock maintains a firm grasp on Jewish culture and naturally draws from the large Jewish population within Manhattan and the entertainment industry (Heilman), the writers and actors cannot justify the use of such pointed jokes, as the creators and portrayers of such lines do not possess the cultural understanding necessary to use stereotypes in a non-discriminatory manner. In the season four episode “Stone Mountain,” Alec Baldwin’s character, network executive Jack Donaghy, insists “the audience doesn’t want elitist, East Coast, alternative, intellectual, left-winged—” a description cut off as head writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) insists: “just say Jewish, this is taking forever.” Here, neither the characters nor the actors are Jewish, but they still emphasize traits that they define as off-putting and specifically Jewish. Not only do Jack and Liz set these parameters themselves, but they also mesh these traits so that it seems like most of America dislikes such strongly Jewish characteristics. The fact that the writing and acting portrays this behavior as normal further complicates the Jewishness of 30 Rock’s material. New York magazine describes this bit as “the perfect joke” (Harris), yet the scene does not celebrate Jewish culture, so one cannot even excuse the behavior as admiring philosemitism. Instead, Fey, Baldwin, and episode writer John Riggi take the self-deprecation tradition that proved incredibly popular, and use it to their advantage without paying tribute to positive attributes of the people and culture that bolstered 30 Rock’s popularity.

Later in the season, Canadian actor Danny Baker (Cheyenne Jackson) questions a coworker’s tone, asking “I’m sorry, are you being sarcastic? Canadians have a hard time recognizing it, [since] we don’t have a big Jewish population” (“Secret Santa”). Again, in an episode written by Fey herself and acted by Cheyenne Jackson, there remains no Jewish presence to legitimize this Jewish deprecation. The audience most likely realizes the joke’s well intentions, but when one employs Silberman-Federman’s structure and history of Jewish humor as a lens, the lingering insensitivity remains apparent. Pointing out Jewish humor’s tendency to rely on sarcasm and cutting jokes, Jackson’s character emphasizes a negative quality of Jewish culture without providing any redeeming qualities, painting the Jewish community as cold and unkind to the uninformed viewer. This practice of Jewish mockery continues because many viewers enjoy it, but even with this apparent societal approval, such jokes do not carry the understood acceptance of Judaism as they would with Jewish comedians.

In a season six episode entitled “Alexis Goodlooking and the Case of the Missing Whiskey,” written again by John Riggi, NBC page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) laments his failures, complaining “If I can’t even get my friend Liz—at least I thought she was my friend—to respect me, how will I ever run a network and boss around those Jewish executives that were trained from birth to argue?” Here, 30 Rock indulges in the argumentative Jewish stereotype, as Kenneth fears his Jewish peers destroying him. In his book The Psychology of Stereotyping, David J. Schneider cites a 1962 study, which found Jewish stereotypes centered around “sticking together in business, preventing others from having a fair chance; being overaggressive; never being content; [and] trying to get the best jobs.” Schneider also includes a 1975 study that recorded teenagers seeing Jews as “selfish and bossy” (461). Although our modern society is more accepting and equal in many ways today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, it is interesting to notice that researchers recorded these stereotypes around the same time that Jewish humor entered the mainstream, highlighting how Jewish comedians and their self-deprecating routines may have accelerated the acceptance of such stereotypes. Riggi and McBrayer continue this humor tradition, making fun of the same stereotypes prevalent in the 1960s, without indicating any sort of awareness or gratitude towards the Jewish community that provides them such fodder. Hyperbolically characterizing these executives as “train[ing] from birth to argue,” Kenneth comments on Jewish culture as a whole and emphasizes the perceived aggression of the Jewish community. Although this joke does not carry any hints of support for eugenics or the Holocaust, the similarities in Jewish characterization parallels other examples of Gentile mockery of Jewishness, preventing the joke from being  unproblematically funny.

Set a decade before 30 Rock in the same city, Seinfeld successfully includes Jewish characters and jokes about Jewish culture without undermining it, creating nuanced and entertaining characters and plots that still represent the creators’ Judaism. Although Jerry Seinfeld remains the only canonically Jewish main character, three-fourths of the main cast and a large portion of the writers identify as Jewish (“Seinfeld”), creating an environment of understanding and connection to Jewish culture that weaves itself into the material, regardless of how explicitly Jewish it is. However, the lack of Jewish characters and plots centered around specific Jewish cultural traits highlights the need to dilute Jewish-specific narrative elements in order to appeal to a wider audience. To gain the public’s attention and favor, Seinfeld could not strongly display Jewish elements of the culture for fear of alienating the mainstream, which dictates whether or not the show has the necessary ratings to continue. In this dilution lies a recognition from the Jewish creators, writers, and actors themselves of the cultural otherness that Gentiles place upon them, both within comedy and general society, and how they must moderate their portrayal of their culture to be accepted by the mainstream audience. Non-Jewish comedians, however, can display these ethnic characteristics however they perceive them, because the audience knows of their goyishness and does not fear culturally othering themselves as they would with Jewish comedians talking about things they, the audience, cannot understand.

Homages to modern Jewish culture drive certain plots, including in the season three episode “The Pen,” which focuses on Jerry’s parents in Boca Raton, where Jewish stereotypes are prominently visible as Larry David’s writing credit overlays the opening scene of the Seinfeld family’s bright, pink-and-green, pattern-adorned condo. Jerry’s mother Helen immediately falls into the “excessive, overprotective, neurotically anxious and ever present” Jewish mother stereotype that derives from Biblical times and the actual Jewish mother’s need to protect her family in the face of oppressors (Antler). She prods Jerry about his future, incredulously asking “What do you have to go scuba diving for? For fun?” Jerry’s father, Mort, exclaims: “Oh my god, she’s gotta make a big deal out of everything!” Mort inhabits another Jewish stereotype, haggling over a debt as Mort tries to get more money out of his neighbor Jack than he actually owes.

Mort: “Alright, make it 20 bucks.”
Jack: “It’s $19.45.”
Mort: “19.45?”

With an overbearing mother, a stingy father, and two passive-aggressive exchanges within one scene, Jewish stereotypes abound in this episode. However, because two Jewish men, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, created the series, their personal experiences provide a basis for the portrayals and interactions of these characters, rather than just the superficial stereotypes they may also represent. Additionally, the faults of these characters—their argumentative exchanges and stinginess—exist alongside positive traits of kindness and warmth, like when Helen rushes to help when Elaine is hurt after sleeping on a pullout couch. Here, the Jewish characters are present and run their own storylines, instead of Gentiles dictating how they live according to stereotypes or ethnic jokes.

Seinfeld moves on from simply depicting Jewish characters and tackles Gentile appropriation of Jewish humor, specifically in the season eight episode “The Yada Yada.” Jerry reconnects with his dentist Tim Whatley, a newly converted Jewish man, who recounts his time at the gym, saying “I just sat in the sauna. It was more of a Jewish workout.” This conversion, along with Whatley’s pointed jokes, disturb Jerry for the remainder of the episode, as Jerry exclaims, “the guy’s Jewish for two days, he’s already making Jewish jokes!” Here, Seinfeld portrays the confusion that Jews feel towards such appropriation and their confusion as to why non-Jews must co-opt their humor. The exchanges between the men highlight how “Jewish humor and the humor of modernity are merging” (Oring 271), along with general American disinterest in seeing how Jewish people react to such appropriation. Jerry then tries to talk to Tim about his conversion, but the two create more strife when Tim adopts more Jewish culture into his speech than his heritage should allow.

Jerry: “Tim, do you think you should be making jokes like that?”
Tim: “Why not? I’m Jewish, remember? Jerry, it’s our sense of humor that sustained us as a people for 3,000 years.”
Jerry: “5,000.”
Tim: “5,000! Even better!”
Tim does not display any sensitivity towards Jerry’s concerns or Jewish history in general, using them as easy subjects for his jokes instead. In replying “even better” to the five-millennia-long suffering of the Jewish people, Tim fails to express the views of the community in which he wants to be included. As Whitfield explains, Jewish people believe in the “enduring qualities [and] the tenacious resilience of Jewish peoplehood,” (250) emphasizing the importance of community support, while Silberman-Federman establishes that Jewish people regard everyone within their religion as a part of their family (219). However, because Tim does not have the cultural background to understand such values and distinguish what one can safely joke about, his Jewish humor lacks the justification of any Gentile’s attempt. Jerry tries to address Tim’s cultural insensitivity several times in the episode, but because Tim does not show any interest in Jerry’s concerns or beliefs regarding Judaism and Tim’s conversation,  a selfishness that Judaism renounces in its focus on community (Jacobs), Tim’s behaviors can never change, causing Jerry―and, by extension, the larger Jewish population―to suffer. Although Gentiles may work increasingly hard to integrate themselves into the Jewish community, just as Tim does, they lack a legitimate appreciation for Jewish culture and comedy as long as they use it solely for personal gain.

Jewish self-deprecation highlights the values and facets that define Jewish culture. As this form of comedy became more accepted, Jewish people could talk more openly about their lives and their culture and receive praise for this cultural expression, a phenomenon that they had never experienced before. Gentile audiences welcomed Jewish family dynamics, holidays, and slang, providing Jewish comics and their community with more pride and creative freedom. However, as Gentile writers co-opted this material, the genuine acceptance that Jewish people received twisted into prejudice.
Jewish culture in comedy increasingly exists as fodder for Jewish and Gentile comedians alike. For Gentile comics, though, stereotypes merge with honest depictions of Jewish culture — Yiddishisms blend with goyish phrases and the mere presence of a Jewish character on a TV series acts as a comedic device instead of a well-rounded individual. In her Huffington Post article, Shira Hirschman Weiss praises the film This Is Where I Leave You for its educated portrayal of Jewish culture, especially in depicting the seven-day mourning period of shiva. Weiss later emphasizes a need for writers “who have the Jewish background to enlighten us to areas of Judaism previously unexplored and shed light on where we Jews find the humor.” She also lauds the depictions of Jewish culture in fellow Jewish writer Jill Soloway’s Transparent. This ability to find humor in an accurate representation of Judaism acted as the necessary empowerment for early Jewish comedians, and continues to fuel their modern-day counterparts. But because modern audiences do not realize how much circumcision jokes and over-exaggerated surnames eclipse actual Jewish culture (Rakhe), no one can push for change, allowing comedians of all backgrounds to adapt Jewish material without concern for its cultural roots. It may not be malicious, but there exists a certain degree of selfishness in co-opting one’s culture for personal gain, which more people can mitigate if they realize that joking about Judaism does not support the culture, but rather ignores the stolen potential of comedians who have the background to make justified and unproblematically comedic Jewish jokes.

However, the fact that comedians usually appropriate from Jewish culture without harmful intent complicates the argument against the co-opting of this culture in comedy, as the opportunities for Jewish appreciation remained slim throughout the twentieth century. In adapting Jewish comedy, Gentiles have an easy route to show their support for Jewish culture as they emulate characters and stories from Jewish contemporaries. They create their own success and increase awareness of Jewish comedians, working with the culture to inform audiences that may not have learned about particular aspects of Judaism otherwise. But if we expanded Jewish comedy to include every comedian that uses Jewish slang or every TV show that features Jewish characters, what is left of actual Jewish culture becomes even slimmer than it was before this deprecation tradition became popular. Since the 1900s, Jewish comedy has evolved into a simultaneously self-loving and self-loathing community that provides Jewish people a space to exist as themselves while capturing the attention and praise of larger American audiences. However, if American society embraces this Gentile appropriation, it would also curtail the progress that Jewish comedians have made in bringing Jewish culture to the mainstream. There would exist more opportunities to trivialize the Jewish culture and faith, and, more significantly, to lessen Jewish comedians’ popularity when compared to their Gentile counterparts.

Jewish individuals found a chance to prosper and rise above the Anglo-Saxon culture, one which dominated them for centuries, in the entertainment industry. If we allow the comedy community to dissolve the unique type of humor that they forged, their power and identity will evaporate as well. As Silberman-Federman asserts, “assimilation and loss of heritage [remain] problems for Jews today” (225). Thus, if we, as the entertained, allow our entertainers to co-opt any brand of humor they see fit, we will not only create an inequality in the comedy industry—we will help lessen a culture. It is true that aspects of Jewish community are not limited to comedy. Traditions, holidays, and family dynamics remain important parts of Judaism, and the religion will not crumble. But destroying the uniqueness of Jewish comedy will erode the links between Jewish culture and mainstream America, creating rifts in society and providing more opportunities to appropriate other facets of Jewish culture and the unique characteristics of other ethnicities. Without a proper understanding of the various cultures in the United States we will lose some parts of the experiences that comprise our diverse and collaborative community. Realizing when to support and when to object, even in comedy, will help to create the encouraging setting that allowed Jewish self-deprecation to appear in the modern comedic landscape in the first place, and may allow future comedic styles to improve our lives and our TV shows to an even greater extent.

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