Topical jokes have always been popular. Aristophanes makes fun of Cleon; Jay Leno of Bush. But such jokes don’t last.
Most of the jokes that have stood the test of time were born on the variety stage—the minstrel shows, vaudevilles, and burlesques of the first two decades of the twentieth century.
The old variety comedians played to the prejudices of their slum public. As a result, the stages of the Orpheum and Columbia circuits were filled with money-grubbing Jews, drunken Irishmen, murderous Sicilians, and lazy, shiftless plantation Negroes, the latter played mostly by white men in burnt cork.
Humor based on national stereotypes began to disappear from the theaters about the time of World War I, but for amateur joke-tellers the style never went out of fashion. At parties you still hear stupid racial anecdotes. These have been called outsider jokes. The teller is trying to demonstrate his superiority to a group that worries or threatens him. The jokes tell us nothing about the people being ridiculed, but a lot about the teller’s selfdoubts. So, as most overrated, I nominate not a single joke but a category of joke.
It’s a close call. There are many other overrated categories—knock-knock jokes, stories where St. Peter meets the recently deceased. But because of their popularity and malice, I give my vote to outsider jokes.
There are insider jokes as well. Jewish insider jokes, told by Jews for Jews, celebrate the kind of adaptability necessary for one to survive in a hostile world. Jewish-American humor resembles Russian humor in timing and style. After all, most of the key performers in that nursery of comics the Yiddish Art Theatre were Russian-born and -trained. The bread and butter of the Second Avenue Theatre was an odd mixture of tears and laughter. The plays resembled nothing so much as Chekhov—with his irony exaggerated into farce, and his pathos into sentimentality.
Most of the great Jewish insider jokes were first told to me by a burlesque comedian named Bert Carr, who, as a serious actor, performed with Maurice Schwanz but in mid-career abandoned high art for low comedy. Carr, one of the great buried talents of the American theater, had the rare ability to combine a grotesque persona with a delicate performing style. Here is one of his favorite jokes:
During World War II, a nervous little Jewish man is walking along a street in occupied Amsterdam, carrying a scrawny live chicken.
He is stopped by a Gestapo sergeant.
“Heil Hitler,” says the sergeant.
“Heil Hitler,” says the little man.
“What have you got there?” asks the sergeant.
“What do you feed that chicken?”
“Corn,” says the little man. The Gestapo sergeant promptly kicks him into the gutter.
“Corn is for the army. Don’t feed that chicken any corn.”
The little man, bruised and battered, but still in possession of his chicken, makes his way to the next corner, where he meets a Gestapo lieutenant.
After the Heil Hitlers are exchanged, the lieutenant turns his attention to the bird.
“What do you have there?”
“What do you feed it?”
Wham! The gutter again.
“Oats is for the army,” says the lieutentant. “Don’t feed that chicken any oats.”
The little man picks himself up again and, clutching his chicken, walks painfully to the next corner, where, of course, a Gestapo captain is standing.
“Heil Hitler,” says the captain.
And then inevitably: “What have you got there?”
“What do you feed that chicken?”
This time the little man makes no answer.
“Come, come,” says the captain impatiently. “What do you feed that chicken?”
“Well,” says the little man, “I give him a nickel; he buys what he wants.”
Carr’s chicken owner was no caricature. His art lay in his ability to be idiosyncratic in his portrayals and still suggest that his hero represented all of suffering humanity.
In his Essay on Laughter , the bible of French absurdist comedians, Henri Bergson writes: “Laughter has no greater foe than emotion. Its appeal is to the intelligence pure and simple.” If Bergson means that comedy loses its force when it becomes sentimental, he is right. If he means that humor is destroyed by feeling, he is wrong.
Great comedians like Carr understood the ways in which low comedy could be enlarged without mawkishness to embrace all the moods of life.