Celebrating Jewish women in comedy

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

The seemingly eternal and mysterious love affair between the Jewish people and humor was celebrated at an event sponsored by Nishmah: The St. Louis Jewish Women’s Project, the organization’s first fundraiser and the first to which men and women were both invited to attend. Over 200 people attended the program at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.

The program, titled “Nishmah’s Making Trouble,” featured the film Making Trouble, a project of the Jewish Women Archive in Brookline, Mass., explores in depth the remarkably successful careers of six women comic entertainers: Molly Picon, Fannie Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner and the playwright Wendy Wasserstein. In a splendid device, the film is hosted by four of today’s very successful Jewish funny women: Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Corey Kahaney and Jessica Kirson, seeking to tell “the true saga of what it means to be Jewish, female and funny.”

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Words of welcome were offered by Lynne Palan, Nishmah president and Ronit Sherwin, executive director, and by the co-chairs of the event, Jenny and Rich Wolkowitz and Karen and Howard Sher. “This is our first-ever fund-raising event,” Sherwin said. “Nishmah is completely independent and very organic. This is also our first co-ed event. Nishmah’s mission is to empower Jewish women and girls, and of course we understand the importance of the men in our lives, husbands, dads and sons, and we are pleased to welcome them this evening.”

Making Trouble, directed with great skill by Rachel Talbot, an experienced documentarian whose work includes being producer on NBC’s the First Five Years of Saturday Night Live (2005), addresses the imbalance in the attention paid to the genders in various fields. A recent Jewish Women Archive press release lamented the fact that in a list of “The 100 Greatest Stand-up Comics of All Time,” 90 men made the list and just 10 women. “While Top 100 lists don’t usually lend themselves to credibility, a 9-to-1 male/female ratio is glaringly pitiful…not so different from the mere five women in this year’s ‘Top 50 Rabbis in America.'”

Different perspectives on the gender imbalance in comedy are offered by comedians quoted by the Jewish Women Archive. Comedian Eddie Brill is quoted as having told the Washington Post: “My gut tells me that society doesn’t like to see a woman in power, and standing on a stage (telling jokes) is a powerful position. Some of the best comedians on the planet are female. But a lot of men are afraid to laugh at a woman. It sometimes can turn insecure men into even more insecure people.”

And one of the still-active women comics featured among the six profiled in the film, Joan Rivers, says, “Most girls, when they’re young, realize that they don’t get attention for being funny…(Girls) want to be pretty or sexy. Funny isn’t sexy. Comedy isn’t sexy…(Stand-up comedy) is a very masculine form. You’re taking an audience and dominating them. You’re like a ringmaster in a lion’s den. You have to be very strong.”

The film has a Jewish female version of a “Greek Chorus” to frame the exploration of the six iconic women in comedy. Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Corey Kahaney and Jessica Kirson are shown discussing their craft at the popular Katz’s kosher deli in New York City. As they chew over pastrami and kosher dill pickles, they also discuss their own careers and those of the comics in the film. All of them described the feeling of a successful stand-up routine as an almost addictive rush, superior to any feeling they have experienced if the audience responds with enthusiasm to their work.

Cory Kahaney’s popular show, The JAP Show: Princess of Comedy, and Judy Gold’s one-woman show, 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, are examples of the current comedians’ works.

The women profiled in the film include: Molly Picon, who began in the once wildly popular Yiddish Theatre in New York, moved into silent Yiddish films and made the transition onto mainstream Broadway and Hollywood films, and whose wide-ranging talents endeared her to generations of audiences. Fannie Brice, depicted by Barbra Streisand in the plays and films Funny Girl and Funny Lady, achieved immense success on stage as both a specifically “Jewish” comic, although she spoke very little Yiddish, and as a general comedic figure, working for The Ziegfield Follies, the most successful variety ensemble on Broadway at the early part of the 20th century.

Sophie Tucker, who achieved fame with her signature song, “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas (“One of These Days”), moved from being a plain-looking girl who tried to lure people into her parents’ popular Jewish restaurant in Hartford, Conn., into becoming one of the most successful singers and comic performers in America, traveling to far-flung cities by train.

Gilda Radner became one of the most successful members of the comedy team of Saturday Night Live during its halcyon days. Alan Zweibel, another featured speaker at the 2008 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, where he spoke movingly about his long, platonic and very close friendship with Radnor, is interviewed in the film about Radner’s brave battle with cancer, to which she ultimately succombed despite a valiant, almost defiant struggle.

Indeed, tragedy has often stalked the lives of funny women and men. Sophie Tucker had a child early in her career, who was raised by her sister, and from whom Tucker was mostly estranged for decades; Gilda Radner’s cancer shortened her brilliant career, and Joan Rivers’ husband, Edgar, took his own life. Finally, Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright who penned the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning plays The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosenzweig, also had her career and life cut short by a debilitating disease with which she had struggled for years.

To paraphrase Tonio, the sad clown in the opera I Pagliacci by Leoncavallo, we “laugh, so that we do not cry.” Jews, who have suffered through the centuries from anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust and currently, from global terrorism, have never lost their innate sense of humor. Even Sigmund Freud, not known as an especially humorous man, wrote an entire book on Jokes and Their Relationship to the Subconscious. The aggressiveness of comedy is not physical so much as it is emotional and intellectual. There were even jokes told by Jews in the Nazi death camps, and humor has helped us cope with the pain of repeated loss.

Nishmah and the Jewish Women Archive deserve applause for giving us the opportunity to choose life through laughter to help us better deal with the “necessary losses” that are part of Jewish — and general human — existence.