- Kvetching and Shpritzing: Jewish Humor in American Popular Culture by Joseph Dorinson
The pervasiveness of Jewish humor and performers across America's comedy landscape is unmistakable. Turning on a television, watching a movie, listening to the radio, or seeing a live performance likely means an encounter with Jewish humor. Even if the performers do not identify with the so-called people of the joke, there is a good chance that the writers do. If that claim seems questionable to you, then Joseph Dorinson's Kvetching and Shpritzing ought to change your mind. In the book, Dorinson, a professor of history at Long Island University, references [End Page 137] dozens of Jewish humorists drawn from the annals of American popular culture. His history of Jewish merrymakers, though not comprehensive, effectively covers an impressive breadth of performers, authors, and directors. Arguably, Dorinson's ability to draw out examples across media—from the Borscht Belt stage to the literary page—is the volume's greatest strength. The book, for this reason, is most valuable for the reader interested in a retrospective on Jewish comedians in America.
The book begins with a brief chapter introducing the concept of Jewish humor in theoretical, though plainly written and accessible, terms. Dorinson's translation of scholarship from the sometimes incomprehensible into the delightfully readable, at times quite funny, ranks among the finest qualities of his book. His history plays equally well for the scholarly audience as the popular. The chapters that follow, with a few exceptions, present a pair or trio of Jewish comedians together in relation to their preferred medium or shared characteristic. For example, Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar are featured in a chapter emphasizing the resorts of the Catskill Mountains; Mel Brooks and Woody Allen are paired as filmmakers of different Jewish stripes; Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce appear together in a chapter on stand-up; and Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud speak to Jewish literature in America. This organizational structure, though at times seemingly random—for example, Red Buttons, Robert Klein, and Billy Crystal are grouped together as funny Jews from the Bronx rather than as performers of a certain kind—makes the book an accessible resource for a reader researching a specific comedian, medium, or genre.
In addition to the historical and biographical material, Kvetching and Shpritzing also provides its reader the occasional provocative theoretical argument. Chapters on Jewish stereotypes in jokelore, the importance of Yiddish in Jewish culture and humor, and the connection between African American and Jewish comics all speak more to the concept of Jewish humor than to any Jewish comedian in particular. Unlike the historical chapters, the more conceptual sections are a mixed bag. The chapter on Yiddish—and Dorinson's regular use and explanation of cultural vernacular throughout the text—is tremendously valuable for a goyish (non-Jewish) scholar such as myself.
The argument connecting Jewish humor and African American humor, however, falls a bit short for this reader. Although Dorinson cites Eddie [End Page 138] Cantor's performances with Bert Williams as an example of a Jewish and a black comedian sharing the stage, his movement from Williams to Al Jolson in blackface and then to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor is perplexing. I read his argument as a suggestion that black and Jewish humor share some qualities and together had a revitalizing effect on American popular culture, but the case for their interconnectedness is somewhat confusing because it could also be read to suggest that the appeal of black humor in America should be attributed to Jewish comedians. This less gracious reading of Dorinson's thesis is amplified by his problematic treatment of Al Jolson that offers little interrogation of his use of blackface, which may have opened stage doors to black players, but also lined his pockets.
Earlier in the book, too, Dorinson gestures at his argument for the interconnectedness of Jewish and black humor as he discusses, briefly, Dick Gregory along with Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl in his chapter on stand-up. Grouping the three...