A woman's grandchild is drowning, as the story goes, and so she prays to God for help. The Lord intervenes and lifts the child safely to shore. Looking heavenward again, the grandmother asks: "What about his hat?"
Credit the Jews for bringing this type of sarcastic, anti-authoritative humor to America roughly a century ago. The cultural journey from Fanny Brice's vaudeville vamp to Jerry Seinfeld's Nielsen-friendly neurotic is celebrated at Chicago's Spertus Museum in a new exhibit, "Let There Be Laughter! Jewish Humor in America," which runs through August 17.
Using English, Yiddish, and mock dialects, immigrant Jewish jesters created a new comic style. They sought to level the playing field by sending up cultural stereotypes, none more savagely than their own. That approach continues with images of overbearing mothers and weak fathers. Author Moshe Waldoks says, "Jewish humor isn't masochistic, and if I hear that line once more, I'm going to kill myself."
The exhibit features video- and audiotapes of celebrated routines as well as Marx brothers movie posters, Barbra Streisand's Funny Girl costume, and stationery with a message familiar to any Jewish son: "So why haven't you written?"
NOW HEAR THIS
The Spertus exhibit's curators pick these historic recordings of Jewish rib-ticklers:
Simcha Time by Mickey Katz (World Pacific). Joel Grey's dad in a riotous Yiddish primer.
My Son, the Greatest by Allan Sherman (Rhino). Songs include "Hello, Muddah, Hello, Faddah!"
2,000 Years With Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks (Rhino). A classic about a 2,000-year-old man.