This was the premises Edward Portnoy, Ph,D used to open up panel discussion at last week’s comedy lecture at the Society of Illustrators in New York City. Portnoy, who holds a Masters Degree in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University, explained that Jews, at the turn of the last century, were not perceived as being humorous and, particularly in Western culture, were often ridiculed and used as the butt of ethnic jokes (as were the Irish, the Poles, the Danes, and most other newly immigrating groups.) Over time, Portnoy quipped, Jews learned they could do a better job making fun of themselves than the gentiles were doing. This “outsider sensibility” gave birth to Yiddish Theater, the Catskills era, and, most important, the Jewish comedian.
Larry Storch Proudly Displays Vol. 2 of Old Jewish Comedians (the one he’s in!)
Jewish comedians were the main topic of discussion at the sold out event, entitled, From the Borscht Belt to Seinfeld: The Evolution of Jewish American Comedy. Sponsored in part by The New York Council for the Humanities, panel participants included comedian Larry Storch (F-Troop, Car 54, Where Are You?, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales), and writers Tom Leopold (Seinfeld, Cheers, Will and Grace) and Bill Persky (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Sid Ceasar, That Girl). Award-winning artist Drew Friedman, whose portrait exhibit, Old Jewish Comedians, surrounded the event, rounded out the panel. Non-sport card fans will know Friedman from his output at Topps and Kitchen Sink. For much more on Friedman and his brilliant work, read Harris Toser’s recent interview.
The evening was filled with personal anecdotes from all participants. Larry Storch, an old Jewish comedian himself, opened up his segment with a number of rapid-fire jokes. He discussed his friendship with Tony Curtis, growing up with Don Adams, and the fact that he, not Cary Grant, was the originator of the “Judy, Judy, Judy” phrase attributed to Grant, who never actually said it. (Storch was doing his Grant impression when Judy Garland strolled into the club where he was performing). Tom Leopold discussed the thrill of writing a one-liner for Bob Hope when he guest starred on Cheers and how he once “babysat” Jonathan Winters. Bill Persky talked of his somewhat strained relationship with Richard Deacon on The Dick Van Dyke Show and his humble beginnings as a cabana boy for Milton’s Berle’s mother. Drew Friedman spoke of his friendship with Gilbert Gottfried and the humorous interactions he’s had with some of the comedy subjects (i.e. Jerry Lewis) he’s drawn.
Portnoy was obviously being facetious when he postulated that Jews aren’t funny, because based on last week’s evidence, some, at least, can be downright hysterical! The exhibit continues at the Society of Illustrators (128 E 63 St., New York N.Y.) through May 3rd.
(front row) A museum representative with Larry Storch; (back row) Friedman, Persky, Leopold, Portnoy
Drew Friedman & friend