The Haunted Smile book review

Book review of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America by Lawrence J. Epstein (Public Affairs, New York, 2001).  (This review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News.)

Each time I lecture on Jewish film comedy, I am struck by how the comic traditions developed by Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in American cities in the early 1900s have so much resonance here in Australia.  What is it about Jewish comedy (and especially American Jewish comedy) that has become so familiar and which can travel across borders, cultures – and even languages at times – so easily?  Why have both The Nanny and Seinfeld proved to be such hits in the USA, Australia and even Israel?  It is much more than the dynamism (and frequently imperialistic marketing) of American popular culture, and appears to relate to the universality of the American-Jewish experience – and how Jews have communicated that experience to the masses.

Lawrence J. Epstein’s new book – The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America is one of a rare breed:  sufficiently detailed and insightful to act as a textbook on American-Jewish comedy (and help to answer the questions above), but appropriately entertaining to keep on your bedside table, with about as many “laugh out loud” jokes as there are pages (307).  The Haunted Smile is also an astonishingly complete book, easily out-pacing those which have been standard references in the field:  Sarah Blacher Cohen’s From Hester Street to Hollywood and Jewish Wry.

Epstein describes American Jewish comedians as “embarrassingly rich”, and quotes a 1979 Time magazine article, which estimated that whereas Jews made up only 3 percent of the American population, fully 80 percent of professional comedians were Jewish.  Epstein’s thesis is that the triumph and success of American-Jewish comedians is a “stage smile tinged with sadness … (and) 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.”  Epstein also reports on the research by psychologist Samuel Janus, who spent ten years interviewing Jewish comedians in the 1960s and 1970s, concluding that these comedians were deeply depressed and alienated people, who used comedy as a “defense mechanism to ward off aggression and hostility”.

Epstein also believes that Jewish comedians have fulfilled a special mission in American life – “serving as the most important mediators between Jews and American culture”, and exemplifying the themes of assimilation and the search for American Jewish identity. Jews – the masters of handling history’s troubles – have helped American society at large deal with the emerging anxieties of the modern age.  In ways they did not always understand, “each generation of Jewish comedians has drawn on Jewish tradition to find ways to express the truth about America”.  In doing so, they “transformed American culture”. Sound familiar? Think about the movie Jews, described by author Neal Gabler so well in his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, and the Jewish popular musicians from Irving Berlin, Al Jolson and the Gershwin brothers onwards, who effectively invented American popular music.

Although Epstein’s thesis is seductive (particularly to Jews pondering the Jewish role in modern western societies), he does not get so caught up in it as to ignore the diversity of Jewish humour and the comedians themselves.  He presents four periods of Jewish humour: “The Golden Door and The Velvet Curtain” (1890 to 1930), “The Years of Fear” (1930-1950), “The Years of Acceptance” (1950- 1965), and “The Years of Truth” (1965-present).  Along the way, he puts the Jewish comedians into historical, thematic and Jewish perspective: from Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Fanny Brice, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, Billy Crystal, Danny Kaye, the Marx Brothers, to Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern and Rosanne.

The Haunted Smile is not a compendium nor an encyclopedia of American Jewish humour, but for me it strikes the right note between analysis and entertainment: richly detailed enough to teach me many things, and richly illustrated enough to make me laugh and smile.  There is also an excellent and well-organised bibliography.  Let’s hope this book makes it into paperback and becomes widely available.

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