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Twilight of the Tummlers

At the movies, Allen’s most natural heir and the most successful representative of the new Jewish humor is Judd Apatow, who has pointedly put Jewish characters in many of his mainstream comedies (a genre that tends to omit potentially discomforting details like religion). To those of us raised on Allen’s films, Apatow’s schlumpy, relaxed good guys may hardly seem Jewish at all—they’re more defined by their status as slackers, stoners, horndogs, and underachievers. They might have grown up asking the Four Questions at the Seder table, but they wear their religious heritage with a casualness—neither obsessive nor dismissive—that is light-years from the scratchy suit in which Allen seemed trapped. “Fuck you guys, I’m glad I’m not Jewish,” grumbles the excluded-feeling non-Semite in Seth Rogen’s Knocked Up posse. “So are we,” Rogen shoots back with a smirk. “You weren’t ‘chosen’ for a reason.”

Even fifteen years ago, some comedy elders might have derided the, let’s call it, Reform Jewish humor of Stewart and Apatow (and Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Adam Sandler, and countless others) as “assimilationist.” Today, the charge is irrelevant. The new comics haven’t assimilated; rather, they were born into a comedy culture that has Jewish humor so deep in its DNA that they’re naturally at home in it. They don’t stand outside anything—except, that is, the set of assumptions that ruled their parents’ generation (success means blending in) and their grandparents’ generation (there are some things you just don’t joke about). When Silverman, for instance, remarks that her grandmother got a “vanity” tattoo at “one of the better concentration camps” (“It said BEDAZZLED”), she’s not only transgressing by making a Holocaust joke but also by assuming a persona—a vaguely homophobic, vaguely racist Jewish-American princess who’s so self-absorbed that she’s oblivious to the effect she produces—that is, to dust off the old phrase, officially bad for the Jews. (On the other hand, she wears her identity so boldly that nobody will ever accuse her of trying to pass.)

Silverman may be an extreme example, but the way Stewart slips in and out of a “Jewish” accent with the dexterity of Oprah Winfrey toggling between her “black” and “white” voices within a single sentence, the ease with which Apatow throws the Jewishness of his characters into scripts as a piece of information rather than a personality trait, and the ability of Sandler to get Hollywood to let him spend a movie playing with an Israeli stereotype in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan are all markers that the old rules have been tossed entirely.

It used to be unspoken that there was a tough, stinging style of humor that Jewish comedians aimed at Jewish audiences (who, like any ethnic group, loved being tweaked for their own idiosyncrasies when nobody else was around to hear) and another, less rough-edged style you brought out for mixed company. With those distinctions eradicated and Jewish comedy now dominated by a generation that never felt like the embodiment of otherness, is there still a home for old-world comedy?

There’s probably nobody who has come up with a cleverer answer to that than David. Curb Your Enthusiasm is by leagues the most successful current example of the sore-thumb style of Jewish humor, as Larry David, playing a guy called Larry David, hangs out, schmoozes, mopes, gripes, grimaces, offends, and generally makes life miserable for everyone around him. One of the most brilliant aspects of the show, which is soon to go into production on a seventh season, is that David, almost alone among his peers, has figured out a way to make Jews into outsiders again—by moving them to Los Angeles, where what makes them alien isn’t Christianity (although TV Larry is in a mixed marriage), but the health, youth, optimism, relaxation, and cheerfulness with which Hollywood proudly defines itself. He’s discovered a place where an American Jew can still find a way to feel like an exile. Just like the good old days!

That may be why, when word spread that David would star in Allen’s new movie, lovers of the Jewish humor that roots itself firmly in misery got so excited. Allen’s gloom tends to turn inward and almost physically shrink him; David’s sprays outward, forcing everyone to step back and allow him a perimeter of clamorous exasperation. How would these two come together?

They almost didn’t. David had had a couple of bit roles in Allen’s movies in the eighties—he’s in one shot in Radio Days, and he and Allen have a swift but pleasing exchange in New York Stories. “But I opened this script up,” says David, “and there’s Boris all over page one. I turned to page 50, and there’s Boris. I went to the last page and saw that Boris had a big speech. And I thought, I need to tell him I can’t do this, really. I called and said, ‘I think you’re under the wrong impression about my acting from the show, because it’s all improvised, and it’s all in my wheelhouse. I haven’t really played a character before.’ ”