Jew Out of Water

Published: October 8th 2010
in Culture » Movies

Annie Hall
Pic: MGM

All of which goes to testify to the secret Jewish life of the American comedy film. The history of American comedy is inextricably intertwined with its Jewish leading lights, from Ernst Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers to Stiller and Judd Apatow, and it was inevitable that some of that Jewish spirit would rub off on the films they made. There was a private language being spoken, and its humor was often evident only to those who understood its source. The Marx Brothers’ humor positively reeked of herring and the shtetl. “All along the river, those are all levees,” real-estate speculator Groucho points out to Chico in their first film together, The Cocoanuts. “That’s the Jewish neighborhood?” Chico wonders. Even Jerry Lewis, née Jerome Levitch, got into the act, remaking Sunset Blvd. as a Sunday-afternoon lark with some show-business friends. The new film was called Fairfax Avenue, after the main artery of Los Angeles’ Jewish district, and its plot now turned on a point from Jewish dietary law: “Yakov Popowitz eats ham.”


In recent years, Apatow has poked fun at his Jewish characters (“You’re hiding some Judaism,” Adam Sandler’s star comedian tells Seth Rogen’s assistant/protégé in Funny People), but it is Stiller who has perfected the art of playing the Jew-out-of-water. What is the joke of David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster, after all, but that Stiller’s whole search for his parentage is a ludicrous, unnecessary farce? How could his agitated, neurotic Mel Coplin be anything but the son of his adopted parents, the equally agitated, equally neurotic, equally Jewish George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore? “I’m Finnish,” the first of his potential mothers tells him, by way of genetic explanation. “I knew that!” Mel gratefully exclaims, as if finally grasping his lifelong appreciation of herring and Sibelius. Inheritor of the crown once worn by Hoffman, and Allen, Stiller is, always and ever, the Jew out of water.


This article originally appeared on Heeb Magazine and was written by Arye Dworken.

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