Laughter Thru Tears

Louis C.K. and the Jewish Comedy Tradition

I came across this fascinating article sparsely titled Non-Jews Telling Jokes, after reading about Louis C,K,’s next project — a feature film, which he’ll write, act, and direct, as he does so effectively on his show. I couldn’t help but think of Woody Allen, who also famously acts, writes, and directs his own projects. Furthermore, both men’s work has New York embedded in its very DNA, even though Louis is originally from Boston. Interestingly, C.K.retains much of the vulgar rough-and-tumble spirit of Beantown, but has nonetheless fully assimilated himself into the style and sensibilities of his adopted home of New York. So much so, it’s easy to forget he isn’t from there.

But what does a New York comic look like? Like Louis C.K. That nebbish and self-deprecating observational style humor that traces its roots back centuries, but more recently grew out of the lower East Side immigrant Jewish population, and characterized by sardonically irreverent wit, and influenced by colorful storytelling, Yiddish Theatre, Vaudeville, Borscht Belt comedy acts, old school roasts, and a rich — yet challenging — history of migration, persecution, guilt, skepticism, heritage, tradition, perseverance, and survival. But at the very core of all that hardship and heartbreak, is the one thing the Jewish people never surrendered: their laughter.

The only problem is, Louis C.K. isn’t actually Jewish. But he must be! His whole sensibility screams Jewish humor. As it turns out, he’s an honorary “schlemiel” — the Yiddish word for a stupid, awkward, or unlucky person. Louis so effortlessly slipped into the skin of a New Yorker, he even managed to pass and fool nearly all of us — including many Jews, who just took him to be a part of the tribe. Yet C.K. has always been honest about his upbringing, and never intentionally mimicked the style of his Jewish peers. As it turns out, the reason America has always had a love affair with Jewish humor is because it was clever, unthreatening, self-deprecating, and most of all — deeply human — with all its failure and awkward clumsiness. Louis C.K. is doesn’t have to be Jewish to be a ‘schlemiel’ — just a goofy and unlucky everyman that we can all see ourselves in. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Jewish comedians are being paid tribute in spades. (but as one might expect from a schlemiel, getting none of the cash or the credit! Oy vey!)