Laughing Like a Jew
By Chris Hanna
Julia Child often laughed about her experience being raised as a child on tuna noodle casserole in Southern California. It wasn’t until she was in her twenties and sat down to her first Parisian meal that she knew in her heart that she was actually French. Myself, I didn’t have to wait that late to discover my hidden identity - and it didn’t arrive with a foreign meal. No, all it took me as a young boy was a television dial and a typical evening in front of the TV with my Irish American family: Leave it Beaver, Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies. Everyone around me laughing loud -- and my wondering just what they found so funny.
Then one particular evening the dial got moved to a program we didn’t usually watch, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and came to life right away. The show’s two bickering side characters, Maury Amsterdam and Rosemarie, were my favorites. Their dry banter seemed so much funnier than the over the top guffaws of most sit coms that I thought their dialogue was the funniest set of lines ever written. I asked my parents why more characters didn’t joke like that on the shows we watched and I still remember my mother’s somewhat startled response:
“That’s Jewish humor, sweetheart.”
The rest of the family was soon cackling again to Art Carney’s antics on The Honeymooners, but my mother’s explanation had been an inspiring springboard for me. Home alone on sick days I soon discovered Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx, Jerry Stiller, and my absolute all-time favorite: Burns and Allen. George Burns’ wry comments to the camera, cigar in hand, drove me to convulsing laughter every time. He was dead serious, pausing only when absolutely necessary for a sly smile suggesting, ‘laugh now if you want,’ like a dentist giving permission for a quick rinse between fillings. Somehow, by not trying to be at all funny, he was hilarious.
So I had a Jewish sense of humor. Who knew? And because laughs were my passport through the countless discomforts of adolescence, I might as well been Bar Mitvah’d at thirteen along with the rest of my Westchester classmates.
By the time I entered my stage career years later, American theater seemed to have lost its sense of humor; particularly its Jewish humor. Regional theaters, like our wonderful Virginia Stage Company, had risen to prominence and they were focused primarily on producing culturally significant work. Back then comedy wasn’t considered cultural or significant unless written before 1800 (another Lysistrata anyone?) or by British playwrights. And within that rarified world of theatrical art, everyone agreed on the importance of banishing our public enemy number one: that old time Jewish jokester, Neil Simon.
Neil Simon’s plays had earned big profits for Broadway producers over decades but Artistic Directors at regional theaters considered them pedestrian fluff. Audiences were allowed rhyming couplets of Twelfth Night and the mindless quips of Private Lives but Neil Simon’s plays were left to community and high school stages.
Styles change everywhere, of course, and the stage is no exception. No change has made me happier within the theater world over the past decade than the reevaluation of Neil Simon’s talent. Although written decades past, his plays have never seemed more contemporary or funny than they do today. Like any great master of Jewish humor (including Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who came along after Simon’s heyday) Simon understood that stories don’t have to be serious or funny. They can be both, and that can happen at the same time. Simon’s humor comes from the confrontation between human eccentricities and the realities of everyday living. What makes them so unique to us these days is that they manage to stay so warm hearted, even as they x ray the human soul. Witty banter doesn’t take away the tsuris but it sure makes for a lot of fun.
For the characters of The Odd Couple, as for George Burns and Groucho Marx before them, cigars can be a big help too. I hope you can make it down to the Wells for our terrific production.