Jewish Sketch Comedy & Stand-Up

1970s & '80s stand-up & sketch comedy: Seinfeld's start, Andy Kaufman, Saturday Night Live

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

Gentrified Comedy

"He looks and talks like he just fell off Edgar Bergen's lap." --David Steinberg on Gerald Ford

A trend beginning in the early '70s was the gentrification of standup comedy. Once the province of sleazy nightclubs and strip joints, standup found a new home and a mainstream audience in comedy clubs such as Catch A Rising Star in New York and The Comedy Store in L.A. Comedian Lewis Black (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) recalls how, since 1971, "the number of clubs doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled--then there were a ton of them."

Many of the young standup comedians working the comedy club circuit were Jewish, among them Richard Belzer, David Steinberg, David Brenner, Jerry Seinfeld, Elayne Boosler, Rita Rudner, and Paul Reiser.

Why was this brand of comedy so attractive to Jewish entertainers? "One of the reasons," says Rabbi Bob Alper, a standup comic and author of Life Doesn't Get Any Better Than This: The Holiness of Little Daily Dramas, "is that we Jews love language. Comedy is an art built on love of language."

Several successful standup Jewish comedians credit their Jewish upbringing. Lewis Black, known for his comical rants on sociopolitical matters, says the ranting comes from "my Russian Jewish family as much as anything else. After five minutes of yelling and screaming, my grandfather would announce, 'It's a great life; I was born in Russia, and they're going to bury me in Jersey!'"

Susie Essman attributes the boldness of her sexually candid comic monologues to her Jewish roots. "Jews in general are less ambivalent about sex," she says. "In Judaism, sex is life-affirming."

It was in the '70s that female comedy writers rose to prominence, among them Nora Ephron (Crazy Salad, Heartburn), her sister Amy (National Lampoon), Fran Lebowitz (Social Studies), Elaine May (A New Leaf), and Treva Silverman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). A generation earlier, Jewish men had broken into comedy writing on the strength of the postwar economy; in the early '70s, the catalyst for women was the feminist movement.

Uncle Andy's Nuthouse

Andy Kaufman

"It wasn't an act; it was a happening." --Carl Reiner, about Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman was one of the first comedy stars whose genesis was wholly the comedy club circuit. Considered by some as the father of modern performance art, Kaufman both amazed and baffled audiences with his defiantly postmodern routines, which often consisted of singing corny children's songs or reading aloud from The Great Gatsby for 15 minutes straight in a snooty British accent, then scolding the audience for booing.

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Arie Kaplan

Arie Kaplan is the author of the critically-acclaimed nonfiction book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (JPS). He's also a comic book writer and a screenwriter. Recently, Arie wrote the story and dialogue for the upcoming House M.D. videogame. Please check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.