UC Professor Takes On Jewish Intergenerational Humor In First Book

For Jennifer Caplan, assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati Judaic Studies department, Jewish humor has been foundational to her life and career.

“My dad had gone to clown college, he was a comedy actor and director,” she said. “I grew up steeped in classic comedy like the Marx Brothers.”

Now, Caplan is coming full circle with the publication of her new book “Funny You Don’t Look Funny: Jewish Humor from the Silent Generation to Millennials.” The book not only explores how Jewish comedy changed its relationship to Judaism from generation to generation, but how non-Jews have interacted with, and adopted, aspects of Jewish comedy more broadly.

“I focused on examples of comedy that engage [with Judaism] and aren’t just [like], ‘Oh, we’re just gonna say this is Jewish humor because it’s done by a Jew,’” Caplan said.

The book, Caplan’s first, comes soon after a period of transition: Last year, Caplan moved from Maryland to Cincinnati to become the new Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Chair in Judaic Studies. Her road to Jewish Studies, and writing about Jewish comedy, has been anything but straightforward.

“Initially out of high school I wanted to be a rabbi,” Caplan said. “My first year in college, I was a Jewish Studies major. And I promptly failed out of Hebrew.” 

She tried studying different subjects ranging as wide as astronomy until taking an American religion class. “This is all the parts I liked about Jewish Studies, you know, the history and the culture, but in English,” Caplan joked.

Her scholarship has been on more than just Jewish subjects and she credits that work with helping bring her back towards Jewish studies. “My master’s at Harvard was on interpretations of Jesus and American theater,” she said. “I was kind of moving more into Jewish Studies.”

Caplan initially proposed the idea for her book as a joke to her advisor. “Well, maybe I’ll just propose to do my dissertation on Jewish humor,” Caplan thought, assuming that the advisor would laugh and know, “Ah, funny joke.”

To Caplan’s surprise, her advisor found it to be a great idea.

The book explores the pendulum swing of Jewish comedy and culture that goes from the silent generation to millennials. One of the themes is the shift of each generation’s relationship to their individual Jewishness and Jewish institutions. 

The silent generation, Caplan argues – covering authors like Phillip Roth, Bernard Melamud, and comedian/filmmaker Woody Allen – were against Jewish institutions. “They all had little interest in or respect for organized religion…they would make fun of religion, but they didn’t really make fun of Jewish peoplehood,” she said.

This translated to a protectiveness about Jews as individuals, which “makes sense for a generation who were deeply impacted by World War II,” Caplan said.

Even with authors like Phillip Roth who “spent most of his career being labeled as a self loathing Jew…I got to read his stuff and suddenly got this idea that he’s deeply protective of the Jewish people.”

This antagonism toward Jewish institutions continued with the next generation. “The baby boomers out in the first half of their careers looked like the silent generation,” Caplan said. But as Gen X reached maturity, that attitude started to shift. 

“Seinfeld,” the popular TV show ostensibly about nothing, was emblematic of that shift. The show featured individual Jewish characters as unlikable but tended to protect Jewish institutions and practice. 

“The characters are slightly redeemable through their interaction with Jewish rituals and institutions,” Caplan said. Caplan also points to Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song as the moment Gen X’s comedic engagement with Judaism was cemented in popular culture.

The next shift the book explores is from Gen X to Millenials. According to Caplan humor is a key way millennials connect to their Jewish identity. Focusing on shows like “Broad City.” “In ‘Broad City,’ they’re going to shivas and they’re still talking about Jewish practices, and they’re still engaging in the world Jewishly.”

Caplan also explores how non-Jewish comedians use what was traditionally a Jewish model of comedy to explore their own identities. “If Jewish humor is a type of humor, then I don’t think it’s mostly being done by Jews anymore,” Caplan said. “I think it’s Rami, I think if JoJo Rabbit is Jewish humor, then so is Inglourious Basterds.”

Engaging with comedy over the past half century has become integral to Jewish American identity. “This is a part of their engagement with Judaism, just as much as Midrash might have been 1500 years earlier,” Caplan said.

“Funny you don’t look funny” is available on Amazon and on Wayne State university press