When I was a kid, maybe 6 or 8 years old, I used to beg my mom to let me stay up to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. No telling how many movie plugs and novelty acts I had to sit through before they got to the good stuff. I should have been in bed by the time before these guys came on: Jack Benny, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Shelley Berman, Shecky Greene, and later, Rodney Dangerfield, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers and Buddy Hackett. The Borscht Belt had come to a semi-rural suburb of Nashville, Tennessee and I had no frame of reference for it. This was pre-“Hee-Haw,” the creme-de-la-corn-pone that passed for humor in the South. We didn’t know from schtick.
George Burns once told a story on The Tonight Show about Harpo Marx, who was prone to antics on the movie set. A little inebriated, Harpo went off script and decided to hang upside-down from a tree limb and pee in a mighty stream; it was one of his favorite tricks. Carson was pretty tickled by this story and completely unsure about where it was headed. Burns, with impeccable timing, paused, took a puff on his cigar and said, “If I did that, I’d piss up my nose.”
Most Jewish performers who wanted to work for mainstream audiences at that time had to change their names* and minimize their Jewishness. Never mind that they weren’t really fooling anybody. Groucho Marx, in spite of his success, couldn’t get into a Waspy country club. Intermarried, he said, “My kid’s half-Jewish. If we join so he can swim, couldn’t he just go in up to his waist?”
Fast forward to the 90s, the era of Seinfeld. His character (really him, just with less money) accused his dentist of converting to Judaism for the jokes. Is that what I did? Was it all those years of classic Jewish comics that made such an impression on me that I was willing to throw in my lot, for life, with The Chosen? There would be worse reasons to attach yourself to the funniest freakin’ tribe of people who ever lived.