What makes something funny? From a giggle to outright belly laughs?
Humor is so subjective. From physical slapstick to quiet innuendo, what makes something funny? In a day and age where the boundaries seem blurred, it’s easy to feel attacked or maligned. And then the argument begins, claiming people are just too sensitive, that they don’t get the joke. My belief is if you have to ask, then you crossed the line. On a gut level we all know what works; when we’re laughing together and everyone is comfortable with the comments.
We can get away with far more when it centers around our own lives. Lucille Ball was famous for making fun of herself and the crazy situations she got herself into. But even then, there are limits we need to observe. So why does some comedy work perfectly while others are tasteless or inflammatory?
I was watching an episode of Frasier over the holidays. A woman helped Frasier’s father pick out a menorah to honor the two faiths Frasier had been raised with before the divorce. Learning Frasier is a famous single doctor, she introduces him to her daughter. They make a great couple until the daughter realizes the misunderstanding, he’s not the eligible Jewish bachelor Mom thought he was. You have to understand, for all Jewish girls, our parents stereotypical dream- especially our mothers- is for us to marry a Jewish doctor! Being one myself produced a singularly interesting quandary. Fortunately, I met my future Jewish spouse in medical school and ended that concern.
In the show, Frasier’s family is asked to pretend to “be Jewish” while the Mom is visiting before she and the daughter leave for their Christmas travels. What could have been offensive was instead hysterical, drawing pointedly, but sweetly, on Jewish quirks when Frasier’s father says,
“I don’t know how to be Jewish.”
“It’s easy, just end each sentence with a question.”
“Like what?” asks his father.
“You don’t know what?”
“What am I supposed to do?” Dad asks again.
”Do I have to explain everything?” Frasier replies.
”What” his father answers, ”you’re not going to help me?”
“You have to whine about everything?” his son responds. Then claps his hands and says, ”Exactly, Dad, that’s perfect.”
Being the consummate hosts a bottle of wine is opened and food prepared. As they’re pouring glasses they look at each other and ask simultaneously, ”What if they’re expecting Jewish wine?” Frazier pauses for a moment, thinks quickly, and responds, ”Then add a cup of sugar!” For anyone who’s ever tasted the classic “Jewish wine”- Mogen David – that’s a perfect description!
Later, the entire charade is exposed when Niles walks in dressed as Jesus for a holiday play. The mother is horrified, the daughter chagrined. Both talk at and over each other.
“ I just didn’t want to upset you.” The daughter shouts.
“So, you lie to me instead?” The mother replies.
“You make me feel awful, like I can’t make my own decisions or I’m letting you down.”
“So, I should stop loving you? Wanting what’s best for you?” Mom cries.
“You need to let me live my own life.” Her daughter cries back.
As the argument gets more and more heated, tears are shed and guilt thrown like knives, hitting obvious tender spots. When they both go a step too far they gasp, cover their mouths in horror and realize what they’ve just said. In a dance you’re sure they’ve played out multiple times before, they break down, clutch each other and affirm their never ending love and respect.
All lasting a few minutes.
They exit the room full of hugs and kisses for everyone, all signs of the recent heartache gone. A shocked and emotionally spent Fasier and his father remain in their wake. Looking at each other they speak simultaneously, “It must be a Jewish thing.”
It was one of the funniest segments I’d ever watched. They weren’t making fun of Jewish people. They weren’t being malicious. We weren’t the butt of the joke. Instead they embellished upon perceived Jewish stereotypes. Ones even we can’t deny, and sometimes make fun of as well. Who among us couldn’t relate to the scenario in some way, regardless of our background, and see it as hilarious? That’s what made it funny without being mean.
Knowing which stereotypes work and which cross the line. The difference between laughing with, not at, the group. Our diversity is empowering. Our quirks make us different and special. Enhancing those characteristics appropriately can be funny in the right hands. In the wrong ones, devastating. Humor should be uplifting, thought provoking and in the end, just downright fun!