The Jewish Friars’ Influence on Comedy

The American award season is in full swing and for the second year in a row “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is showering in the hardware. While the Amazon web series may be receiving accolades for its inspiring representation of a strong, Jewish protagonist, it also serves as a testament to the influence of the Jewish community on the New York City comedy scene that goes back decades.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is set in the late 1950’s and follows Miriam “Midge” Weissman, an upper-middle-class Jewish housewife who discovers her knack for comedy in the clubs of Greenwich Village. The pinnacle representation of a “good housewife,” Midge sheds her domesticated demeanor after her husband leaves her, and embarks on a journey through comedy.

The first streaming series to win an Emmy for best comedy, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” has received its fair share of critical acclaim, but beneath the snappy jokes and scintillating sets of 1950s popular culture is an underlying theme of Jewish humor and the deep roots it has in New York City comedy.

Mrs. Maisel highlights this point when the vulgarity of Midge’s comedy act has her taken by police and thrown in the back of a cop car. Already seated inside is famed Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce; historic for his crude, crass and boundary-pushing sets. It is small nods like these that tip their hat at the foundation that Jewish comedians have laid for New York comedy.

That very foundation can be traced through the years in the work of well-known Jewish New Yorkers such as Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis who got their start in the crowded streets and dingy clubs of the Big Apple.

Fostered as youth under the bright, burning lights of world-famous clubs like the Comedy Cellar, Gotham Comedy Club, Caroline’s and Dangerfield’s, Jewish comedians have weaved their influence into the fabric of New York comedy. But it isn’t just about the stars that have been made, but what their continued support has done to cultivate a flourishing scene in the five boroughs.

The list of Jewish, New York comedians rocketed to superstardom is seemingly endless, and yet, a sense of community remains in the comedy scene. Many performers still show up for sets at the local clubs where they first got their start as an open-mic’er, thus giving exposure to the lesser-known comics who come on before them. It’s all part of keeping the scene alive and thriving, giving back to the city that made them who they are.

On any given day, many of these high-profile celebrities can be found in midday business meetings or discussing their craft over lunches of lemon sol at New York City’s Friars Club, an exclusive hot-spot widely known for hosting celebrity roasts, a mainstay of Jewish comedy.

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Take Jerry Seinfeld for example, creator of one of the most popular television sitcoms of all time. Not only did he base his show in New York City, but he anchored it in New York culture. Jerry even titled an episode after the aforementioned Friars Club in 1996, where, in typical Seinfeldian fashion, Jerry loses a club jacket and sets off a series of dramatic events that put his membership in jeopardy.

In addition, self-proclaimed “roastmaster general,” and proud Jew, Jeff Ross had his career launched from a joke at Bea Arthur’s expense during the roast of the very same Jerry Seinfeld at the Friars Club.

It’s this sense of community among the Jewish performers that has been so integral in keeping comedy alive and prosperous in New York City.

With thriving comedy scenes all over the United States – Los Angeles pumping out its own breed of west-coast acts, and Chicago improv serving as a proverbial “minor leagues” for Saturday Night Live stars, it is the Jewish comedians that are keeping New York City comedy alive and on the main stage. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” doesn’t just acknowledge this fact, but actively displays it and builds off this platform as a core theme of the show.

It’s the support and continued presence from successful Jewish stars that nurtures the comedic reputation of today’s New York. Whether it be stories in the media, power lunches of perogies at the Friars Club or entire concepts of fictional comedy series, the active influence the Jewish community has on New York comedy is irreplaceable.

About the Author
Formerly from Israel, now in Delaware, I have owned, run and worked with food, technology and politics, beginning with the MFA and several Knesset members.
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