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From Moe Howard to Jack Benny
“It was a good beginning,” Epstein told an amused audience who packed the house at Millard Auditorium on June 15 for the Lillian Margulies Singer Lecture on Jewish Humor presented by the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies. In fact, it was the beginning of a journey that led the Suffolk Community College English professor to write The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America…and to understand the gestalt of Jewish humor and its profound influence on American comedy.
Introduced by Greenberg Center director Richard Freund, who paved the way for the evening of entertainment with his light-hearted “top 10 list of reasons why people keep coming back to the Greenberg Center and the Sherman Museum,” Epstein peppered his talk with bits of trivia and one-liners, courtesy of Jewish comedians past and present.
Among his bagful of Jewish comedic lore:
- The first comedian to mock Hitler and the Nazis on film in the days prior to World War II was Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.
- In 1948, when Milton Berle was offered one shot at a television show by Texaco, he booked the “Negro” singer Pearl Bailey and the Spanish Jew Senor Wences. Pundits predicted his failure, but his show was a wild success. And Texaco gave him a permanent spot.
- Woody Allen – who started out doing political humor (“I’m doing a non-fiction version of the Warren Report”) – was the first comedian to state explicitly in his films that he was Jewish.
- Joan Rivers was the first Jewish woman to break through the male-dominated world of stand-up.
“Jack Benny, who was known for his cheapness, was once handed a ball to throw out at a ball game. Instead, he put it in his pocket. People loved it. It was the Depression and he helped them deal with their own poverty with their pride intact.”