This either-way-you-lose equation—ingrown depression or jabbing aggression, tic-ish agitation or unsocialized anarchy, Felix or Oscar, choose your poison—used to be essential to a brand of Jewish comedy that mined laughs from the act of chafing against everything you felt excluded from, less worthy than, or insecure about. (Rodney Dangerfield was in his forties before he found his fame-making gimmick, and that “I don’t get no respect” was the expression of an underlying truth that many Jews believed about their place in non-Jewish America.) It didn’t matter if everyone was laughing with your pain, or at it: Take my strife—please!
In the sixties, when Allen began a successful career as a stand-up, he refined the schnook in a way his predecessors hadn’t (perhaps the culture hadn’t allowed them to): He gave the character both intellectual dimension—he wasn’t afraid of looking or sounding smart and culturally literate—and, perhaps more important, the spirit of a romantic. By the time Allen came to prominence as a moviemaker a decade later, his version of the schnook had grown into something deeper and more complex than Jewish-American humor had previously accommodated—a guy who was accepted by the world but not by himself, someone whose kvetchy woe was connected to high-mindedness, to having standards that nobody else lived up to. (From Manhattan: “You think you’re God.” “I’ve got to model myself after someone.”)
Allen wedded the character to an impassioned view of New York City as the only possible playground for that kind of obsessive thinking—a view that not only flattered all of us but also found a way to unite a class of fans by geography and sensibility rather than age or background. “It’s totally Jewish humor,” says writer-director Noah Baumbach, 39, “but it also brought me into a Manhattan that I wished I could live in. There was something about the way he complained about things, and had all these rules and ethics, what bothered him, what was wrong with the city, what was right with the city, what behavior was and was not acceptable … it was very appealing to me. In Manhattan, when he talks about his favorite things … I mean, I had never read Sentimental Education, I had never been to Sam Wo’s and had the crab, but I took those things and owned them. When I was 17, I thought Annie Hall was my story.”
"David discovered a place where an American Jew can still feel like an exile. Just like the good old days!"
To understand why that particular flavor of urban Jewish comedy seemed to vanish so quickly after Annie Hall and Manhattan, even as New Yorkers young and old held it dear, it helps to remember that Allen walked away from it first. In the eighties, he did his Fellini movie (Stardust Memories), his cheery Bergman homage (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), his claustrophobic dramas (September and Another Woman), his trifles (Alice). Jewish humor—the gags, the one-liners, the cheerful vulgarity, the tsuris—seemed to become old hat to him; tellingly, when he wanted to give it some play, most of the time he did so in period (Radio Days). When he returned to contemporary New York, most successfully in Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, he kept to the margins, deploying himself as minor comic relief. The schnook was no longer the center of Allen’s writing or his thinking—or his movies.
Jewish-American comedy needed to grow elsewhere, and in the nineties, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld stepped into the void left by Allen. Seinfeld, born in 1954, was, generationally speaking, the genre’s logical next step—a New York guy who had, God knows, his quirks, idiosyncrasies, and concealed pockets of insanity yet was also presentable, functional, and, in the most meaningful transformation, fundamentally happy. Seinfeld brought his own well-honed comic persona to his NBC series, but one can feel the hand of Larry David in the ensemble around him. Seinfeld basically split the Jewish comic persona into three distinct branches: Jerry got the jokes, the brains, and the girls. Jason Alexander’s George Costanza (half-Italian and half-Jewish but in every way a member of the Tribe) got the neurosis, the defeat, the exclusion—he was a schnook and a bellower. Kramer (Michael Richards, again Jewish in spirit if not in text) embodied the dangerous unpredictability and the chaos. And every once in a while, of course, we’d step back one generation and visit George or Jerry’s families, the brutal comic implication being, yes, we have our problems, but look at the madness we came from—can you believe we made it out alive?
By the time Seinfeld became a hit, the idea of otherness, or even of depression, as central to Jewish comedy already seemed quaint. And today, in the age of Jon Stewart, it feels downright ancient. Stewart can be smart, impassioned, engaged, shticky, earnest—but neurosis, into which he playfully dips, isn’t the most deeply felt aspect of what he does. When he assumes the stance of a wimp or a weakling, it’s lightly ironic, a costume from the Jewish past he can don for a laugh, then shrug off.