- On Kanter’s LunchOld Jews Slurping Soup and the Fate of Jewish Humor
“Gary and I are not old enough yet to eat soup,” declares TV writer and producer John Rappaport, who, along with voice actor Gary Owens, represents the youthful contingent of the veteran comics documented in the film Lunch (Donna Kanter, USA, 2012). “So they all have soup,” Rappaport continues. “There’s always a matzo ball and the cabbage and everything else . . . and Gary and I just sort of kill time until they’re all done slurping, then we can join in.” Slurping matzo ball soup is just one of the many rituals that transpired every other Wednesday for the past forty years, when Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Hal Kanter, Arthur Hiller, Monty Hall, Matty Simmons, and other Jewish writers and directors who shaped the comedy of Hollywood congregated to nosh, kibitz, and kvetch at Factor’s Famous Deli and other Los Angeles eateries. Lunch’s intimate look at the merrymakers of the mid-twentieth century is entertaining but hardly unique, having been released almost concurrently with When Comedy Went to School (Mevlut Akkaya, Ron Frank, USA, 2013), the tendentiously titled When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig, Canada, 2013), and the ongoing web series Old Jews Telling Jokes (Sam Hoffman, USA, 2009–).1 Although the quest to capture the voices of old Jewish jokesters in their twilight years is a laudable one, and future generations will likely appreciate such intimate encounters with comedy’s elder statesmen, all these productions [End Page 201] propagate and perpetuate certain myths about the fate of Jewish humor in America and, by implication, the fate of the Jewish people.
There was indeed something special about this generation, who on the surface share a similar biography: Born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, they entered comedy by way of vaudeville, the theater, radio, and often the Catskills, then made their way to Hollywood, where they rose to fame writing and producing for film and television. In retirement they have lived out their golden years in rapidly declining health but still enjoying each other’s company, eating pastrami, telling jokes, bickering over punch lines, and eagerly sharing their musings on humor with anyone willing to listen. They believe and contend that their cohort was pivotal in shaping American comedy not merely because of their talent but because of their yichus—the Jewish culture they inherited—and because of the constellation of forces that allowed them to stake out a career in the burgeoning entertainment industry in post–World War II America. “There have been a lot of wonderful Jewish writers and Jewish comedians through the history of show business, because it was one of the things that was open to Jews,” Carl Reiner avows in Lunch. “You couldn’t be a doctor, but they couldn’t stop you if you could make them laugh.” And they were well positioned to do so, as “the Jews, who have been persecuted for centuries, have always survived,” according to Hal Kanter, “because they did build up a wall of protection through humor.” “You had to have a sense of humor, for Christ’s sakes,” muses Jerry Lewis in When Comedy Went to School. “That’s what got the Jews through it; it was our salvation and it was our understanding that we’ll get through it if we’re not too terribly serious.”
Anti-Semitism thus engendered Jewish wit, and it came in the form of complaint—a vociferous, passive-aggressive discontent with everything, from God to family to poverty to persecution. Such humor took shape following the eleventh-century Crusades, according to Michael Wex, a popular Yiddishist and author of Born to Kvetch, when a series of Christian massacres devastated the Jewish communities of the Rhineland; suffering and complaint became Jewish modes of expression.2 It need not be stated that neither Wex (who inherited this old Jewish sensibility from his grandparents), nor Carl Reiner, nor Sid Caesar were at the Crusades to document the alleged gestation of this cultural trait, and most recent scholarship argues that Jewish humor emerged far...