- Ethnic Comedy In American Culture
It was only about seventy years ago that a scholar, Constance Rourke, first covered the subject of American humor synthetically. 1 Particularly important was her understanding that in addition to the external framing of our racial and ethnic groups in comic stereotypes, these minority peoples also possessed their own comic traditions that were a part of American humor. 2 She reminded her readers that American culture was a pluralistic composite of many discrete local, regional and ethnic subcultures. 3 Implied in her work was the appeal to colleagues to explore American humor’s many origins.
Unfortunately, Rourke’s early encouragement still has not produced an overriding interpretation about the ethnic factor in American humor. Over the last few decades scholars have indicated, of course, the existence of our cultural diversity and especially its connection to our popular culture. But other than references to entertainment produced for and by African Americans or an occasional examination of humor in a particular group [End Page 144] literature, scholarship still awaits any overarching, multidisciplinary theory of humor that incorporates America’s diverse group experience. 4
Let There Be Laughter! Jewish Humor in America, The Spertus Museum’s exhibition, is a pioneering, largely successful and hence important step in the quest to illuminate the relationship between group and national culture. Originally scheduled to be open from early February to mid-August, 1997, it was so popular with visitors that the Museum extended its tenure to 8 February 1998. In both word and image Let There Be Laughter shows how Jewish humor, from its origins in ancient and medieval Europe, to its role in that people’s frequent migrations, to the group’s arrival and settlement in America, ultimately did become a significant and integral part of the nation’s comic tradition.
The Spertus Museum is probably little known to the general public outside its regional area. Located in downtown Chicago and easily accessible on one of the city’s major thoroughfares, Michigan Avenue, it is a part of a larger educational facility, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. The Institute in turn evolved out of an earlier college of Jewish studies that dates back to 1924. 5 The central purpose has always been to provide higher education in Judaica for Chicago’s students and teachers. More recently, that goal has expanded to include a more secular and broader cultural education in fields of Jewish interest.
The original College languished after the Depression until the 1960s when two wealthy businessmen, Maurice and Herman Spertus, helped revive the institution with both financial gifts and donations from their own art collection. The Spertus brothers helped open the Museum in 1967 with a specific grant and other aids. Three years later the trustees changed the name of the institution to its present title in gratitude to the Spertus patronage. The Institute and Museum moved to the current central location and formally opened in 1974.
The permanent collection, largely the Spertus brothers’ donation, consists of the more conventional religious artifacts. However, more recently the Museum’s exhibits have been more broadly cultural and eclectic, including both the fine and folk arts. The two curators of Let There Be Laughter, Professor Kugelmass and Ms. Romeyn, are currently in the Humanities Program at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Let There Be Laughter owes its success to the clarity of its organizational structure and to the prodigious research of its curators. Its framework is an intellectually coherent set of topical displays arranged and linked generally chronologically. Thus it offers a logical continuity for the [End Page 145] written narrative. The imaginative variety of visual and sound artifacts captures the close attention of the viewer throughout. In general these several qualities allow the exhibit to appeal to a wide audience, both lay and academic, of any generation.
The introductory sections orient the audience with a theoretical overview—the significance of ethnic humor...