Jenni Frazer

Really a laughing matter

For Jewish News Feb 2024

In a gravelly voice, a man faces the camera and tells the audience: “Two old Jews on the Titanic. One starts sobbing. The other say, what are you crying for? It’s not YOUR boat”.

Welcome to “Is Anything Okay?”, a series of riotous, free, online webinars from YIVO, the New York-based Institute for Jewish Research, exploring the history of Jews and comedy in America.

Launching on March 21 and running for seven weeks, the comedy masterclasses dig deep into the essence of the Jewish funnyman —and woman. On board will be 12 comedians, five film-makers and producers, 20 academics and writers, each uncovering a different aspect of what has shaped comedy in America.

YIVO has come up with hundreds of unique archival objects which will be included in the sessions, from vintage joke books, early comedy records, film, radio, and television clips, photographs, and posters. Drew Friedman, known as the Vermeer of the Borscht Belt, proudly displaying his collection, says it’s his “Jewseum”.

Among those paying tribute to the roots of kosher comedy will be the Black stand-up W. Kamau Bell, Lewis Black (well-known as a serial ranter about history, politics and religion), stand-up comic, and writer Judy Gold, presenter of a podcast called “Kill Me Now”, Israeli-born comedian Modi Rosenfeld, actor Paul Reiser, and the Yiddish specialist Michael Wex, author of, among other things, the definitive handbook, Born to Kvetch.

The presenters say that Jewish comedy has echoes of “survival because of living on your wits”, and examine how “complaining becomes an art form”. One comedian, asking what were taboo subjects, speculates as to whether “they were cracking jokes at the Pyramids”. Certainly, if you want to add to your store of terrible simcha jokes, this is the place to be.

You can sign up now at:

  • 20 February, 2024
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