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'Let There Be Laughter': Modern Jewish Jokes Poke At Assimilation

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'Let There Be Laughter': Modern Jewish Jokes Poke At Assimilation

Author Interviews

'Let There Be Laughter': Modern Jewish Jokes Poke At Assimilation

'Let There Be Laughter': Modern Jewish Jokes Poke At Assimilation

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Michael Krasny's new book is called Let There Be Laughter. He tells NPR's Scott Simon about this treasury of great Jewish jokes, and why they matter.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Michael Krasny joins us now from his studios at KQED in San Francisco, where he hosts Forum, the highly regarded daily program which is also on Sirius XM. He's also an author and professor of literature at San Francisco State.

And he has a book, "Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury Of Great Jewish Humor And What It All Means," which boasts on the cover more than 100 of the funniest Jewish jokes of all time. Michael, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL KRASNY: Delighted.

SIMON: So tell us joke number one, please.

KRASNY: Well, older man in Miami Beach falls down, is hurt. And someone puts him on a stretcher and says, are you comfortable? And he says, I make a living.

SIMON: (Laughter) What about the guy on his deathbed who smells noodle kugel?

KRASNY: Well, that's another classic joke. His daughter is dutifully there. And he says, I smell kugel. And she says, yeah, Mom is making some kugel. And the curtain is just about to fall. He's on his last breaths. And he says, just to taste Kugel once before I die. And she says, of course, Daddy.

And she runs into the kitchen, gets back. She sits down. She folds her hands. He says - barely even able to say the words - where's the kugel? And she says, Mom says it's for after.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KRASNY: It's one of those jokes that, really, in some ways, presents the Jewish mother in a bad light. And there are a lot of them. And you get into this question. And this is what I try to take up. What do these jokes mean? And where do they come from? And what do they tell us? And that joke tells us of things that are both strangely misogynistic, perhaps, one could say, but also celebrated about the toughness of Jewish women.

SIMON: What about the idea that a lot of the Jewish sense of humor springs from suffering?

KRASNY: The old line about that is, you know, Jewish humor - all masochistic. No, if I heard that one more time, I'm going to kill myself.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KRASNY: But yeah, a lot of it did come out of suffering. There's no question about that. But as Jews became more prosperous and secular, as they became more assimilated, that did change. And it changed to the point where you see almost the alternative of suffering.

SIMON: You say in the book that modern Jewish jokes often take aim at assimilation or at least the idea that American Jewish families, for example, will take on names that you would never hear in the shtetl or in the old country. I - actually, I was pleased to see my own name come up in a joke about a kid named Shlomo.

KRASNY: It's a joke about a kid who is walking with his father in the middle of the 21st century. And someone says, your son is so handsome. And he says, thank you. I'm flattered. And so is my son. He says, what's your son's name? He says, his name is Shlomo. Shlomo? What kind of name is Shlomo? He says, well, he was named after his dead grandfather, whose name was Scott.

SIMON: (Laughter) The joke being that some of us got a name like Scott to make it more American than - I think mine was supposed to be Solomon.

KRASNY: That's exactly the joke. You've done a good interpretation of it.

SIMON: Do you have any concern that, in writing a book about Jewish humor that doesn't engage in some analysis, you'll just make the jokes not funny?

KRASNY: Well, there's always a danger in that, you know, like, when you go see a movie and you analyze it after. Or you read a novel and people start talking about, what does it mean? - and so forth. But I find this fascinating. And it's not just a game. You know, there's a lot to learn from these jokes. There's a lot about the considerable role that Jews have played in comedy and in movies and in so many facets of popular American culture, particularly where humor is concerned.

SIMON: Has Jewish humor become all tied up with American humor?

KRASNY: I think it has. When you think about, you know, all of the extraordinary number of Jewish stand-up comics that have been dominant in terms of American comedy, you think of shows like Seinfeld.

And it almost stands to reason that American humor would, in some ways, take on so much of the nuances and coloration of Jewish humor. You take a Woody Allen and Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar and so forth. That's the American locus, often, for humor.

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UNIDENTIFIED HOST: Now here he is, your man Friday, Milton Berle.

MILTON BERLE: Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort. And one of them says, boy, the food at this place is really terrible. The other one says, yeah, I know - and such small portions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Genghis Khan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Genghis Cohen was his real name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY SEINFELD: I saw a thing - actually, a study - that said speaking in front of a crowd is considered the No. 1 fear of the average person. No. 2 was death. This means, to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I know a good audience when I see one. And when I see one, I'll let you know. Good night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE YOU MORE")

SARAH SILVERMAN: (Singing) Jewish people driving German cars.

SIMON: Michael Krasny - his book "Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury Of Great Jewish Humor And What It All Means." Thanks so much for being with us, Michael.

KRASNY: Thank you, Scott.

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