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Wistful For A Time When We Could Laugh At Ourselves

J. Kates: "It is genial, cultural comedy that seems to have disappeared, the kind of laughter that softens your attitudes toward your neighbor." Pictured, Allan Sherman, who made millions peddling genial, cultural comedy, at the Hollywood Bowl on July 16, 1963. His "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, (A Letter from Camp)" won a Grammy in 1964.  (Don Brinn/AP)
J. Kates: "It is genial, cultural comedy that seems to have disappeared, the kind of laughter that softens your attitudes toward your neighbor." Pictured, Allan Sherman, who made millions peddling genial, cultural comedy, at the Hollywood Bowl on July 16, 1963. His "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, (A Letter from Camp)" won a Grammy in 1964. (Don Brinn/AP)
This article is more than 6 years old.

The boat rocked lightly at anchor, a large yawl in Long Island Sound. Four grown siblings, my mother, her sister and twin brothers, lay in their bunks, half asleep. Peace, quiet, the lullaby of the waves' wap and the waters' wan.

Then, one voice in the dark cried out, "No — not Lieutenant Cohen!"

They burst into raucous laughter. Any thought of sleep shattered.

Perhaps I should not mourn the loss of ethnic humor. It has a cutting edge that can draw a lot of blood.

My mother told us this story to go along with our listening to a scratchy record from the first decades of the twentieth century. "Cohen on the Telephone" was a runaway bestseller of its time, more than a million records sold, a comic monologue of a strongly accented immigrant trying to get his landlord to fix window-coverings brought down by a high wind.

"This is your tenant Cohen. . . . No — not Lieutenant Cohen. . . I want you should send a man to mend the broken shutter. Not two men — one man. . . I'm not telling you to shut up!"

My mother and her siblings grew up with "Cohen on the Telephone," and so did my brother and sister and I. A single catch phrase like "Lieutenant Cohen" always brings back the whole wonderful monologue. Spoiler alert: It ends, "Never mind. I'll do it myself.”

When my wife immigrated, the second book she read in English was “The Education of Hyman Kaplan,” by Leonard Q. Ross (Leo Rosten writing under a pseudonym in 1937). The story collection is a multicultural romp in a night-school class for new citizens, where Mr. Parkhill struggles to teach Kaplan, Mrs. Rodriguez, Miss Kowalski and Miss Caravello the mysteries of English idiom and American history. "Garibaldi — joosta lak Washington! Firsta da war, firsta da peace, firsta da heartsa da countrymens!"

Growing up, I sang Louis Prima's "Josefina, please no leana on the bell." (The neighbors are bothered when her boyfriend backs her up against the doorbell to kiss her goodnight.)

Two Irishmen walk into a bar. . . .

Perhaps I should not mourn the loss of ethnic humor. It has a cutting edge that can draw a lot of blood. It can pitch over into bad taste and the reinforcement of deadly stereotypes. Where does Moms Mabley leave off and Amos and Andy begin?

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The blurring of the ethnic lines of satire has recently been tragically acted out in Denmark and France.

Yet I do mourn that loss. At its best, ethnic humor celebrates the diversity of our country, a diversity we take all too seriously these days. But now, the wit and wisdom of the melting pot is carefully hedged about with disclaimers and trigger warnings.

The question "Who is allowed to say what to whom?" has replaced genial or raucous laughter with rage. Satirical comedy gets a special pass, especially when directed inwardly, within one's own tribe. It is genial, cultural comedy that seems to have disappeared, the kind of laughter that softens your attitudes toward your neighbor, that makes it easier for you to share a beer. Josefina lives next door to Cohen.

At its best, ethnic humor celebrates the diversity of our country, a diversity we take all too seriously these days.

Allan Sherman ("Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh") may have written the swan songs of the Borscht Belt in the 1960s.

The Godfather movies may have put a more chilling end to Italian comedic themes in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, we still long for ethnic humor. We just need "safe" groups to rag on. I remember when The National Lampoon magazine picked on the Dutch, for just that reason. The running joke was, of course, the very safety of it. Our yearning for safe ethnic humor accounts for part of the enduring success of the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” There are few Greek, or anti-Greek, hackles to be raised.

One sign of maturity is an ability to laugh at ourselves. The catch is the definition of "ourselves." As long as we continue to regard certain others as outsiders, the laughter will die in our throats. We will know that we have regained a certain kind of cultural maturity when "ourselves" is broad enough to be comfortable with laughing at, and with, Mrs. Rodriguez and Josefina and Mr. Cohen.

"Sadie, Sadie! Did you hear? The Pope has just announced it — the Jews didn't kill Christ!"

"So? Who did? The Puerto Ricans?"

Related:

J. Kates Cognoscenti contributor
J. Kates is a poet and literary translator who lives in Fitzwilliam, NH.

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