One Clove Away from a Pomander Ball: The Subversive Tradition of Jewish Female Comedians
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One Clove Away from a Pomander Ball:
The Subversive Tradition of Jewish Female Comedians

"Let the fat girl do her stuff!" yelled the audience one night as a young Sophie Tucker came on stage. Even then, Tucker knew that size didn't matter "if you could sing and make people laugh" (Tucker 11). Tucker is one of six veteran comedians profiled in the Jewish Women's Archive's documentary film, Making Trouble, who used not only her body, but her subversive Jewish wit to make people laugh. Of the group, only writer Wendy Wasserstein didn't go on stage herself, but joins the other funny women in this film by dint of her legacy of thought-provoking, trouble-making, female characters. Like the others, Wasserstein doesn't so much laugh at women, but at the things that women find strange and funny. She wanted to give them their dignity, rather than render them as caricatures. "Women who shopped at S. Klein's and Orbachs," Wasserstein comments. "Women who knew their moisturizer," like Gorgeous Teitelbaum, the bloozy matron of The Sisters Rosensweig (MT).

Fanny Brice, Molly Picon, and Gilda Radner mugging it up may not seem dignified, and certainly Joan Rivers clowning about fallen vaginas looking like bunny slippers is anything but (MT). However, these comedians' performances show that Jewish women can be proud of the comic tradition in which they have been trailblazers. While the predominance of Jews in American comedy is well-known (one frequently cited statistic is that the minute proportion of Jews in the United States made up 80% of the comedy industry), Jewish women's comedy has largely gone unnoticed.1

Exceptions to this critical failure include, most prominently, Sarah Blacher Cohen, whose pioneering studies of Jewish comedy included a formative article, "The Unkosher Comediennes: From Sophie Tucker to Joan Rivers," published in her 1987 anthology, Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor, and June Sochen, whose essay, "Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker: Blending the Particular with the Universal," appears in Cohen's 1983 collection, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American [End Page 123] Stage and Screen. Cohen's piece on "unkosher comediennes" featured such "brazen offenders of the faith" as Sophie Tucker, Belle Barth, Totie Fields, and Joan Rivers, all of whom gleefully violated the Torah's conception of feminine modesty. "As creatures of unclean lips," Cohen wrote, "they make dirty, they sully, they corrupt," but they also shattered taboos and liberated their audiences (105). Focusing on Brice as well as Tucker, Sochen portrayed the theme of the female "victim" in addition to the "aggressive" type created by Tucker and later vilde chayes, the "wild women" that Cohen writes about in her "unkosher" article.

Some two decades later, the Jewish Women's Archive film, Making Trouble, showcases a trajectory of three generations of funny Jewish women, including Molly Picon, Gilda Radner, and Brice from the gentler side of the comedy spectrum, as well as Tucker and Joan Rivers as representative vulgarians. Additionally there is playwright Wasserstein, who thought of herself as a comedy writer, highlighting the significant role played by Jewish women authors in developing Jewish humor.

Fulfilling the Archive's mission of chronicling and transmitting the hidden story of Jewish women's contributions to American history and culture, Making Trouble proclaims that yes, Virginia, there has been a veritable tradition of Jewish women's humor. From Yiddish theater and film, to vaudeville and burlesque, to nightclubs, improv and stand-up clubs, radio, television, the Broadway stage, and Hollywood cinema, Jewish women have made us laugh in a myriad of performance venues. In each of these arenas, they challenged conventional modes of joking. When they speak up, stand-up, or even sit-down (like the four younger comedians in Making Trouble—Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Corey Kahaney, and Jessica Kirson, who guide us through the film as they chat in New York's famed Katz's Delicatessen), these women create humor by speaking through their female sensibilities. Writer Ann Beatts, interviewed in the Gilda Radner segment in Making Trouble, joked that none of the writers on Saturday Night Live (SNL) saw the humor in a line that a character was a...