The Cracker Barrel: Laughing matters

Amazing as it might seem in today’s anything-goes culture, the comics of yesteryear managed to craft jokes presentable to listeners of all ages.

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I recently rediscovered a bunch of jokes originally delivered by the so-called Jewish Catskill comedians of many years ago, some of whom went on to fame and fortune in the fledgling medium of television and eventually came to be regarded as national treasures.

Reading them, I was struck by the absence of swear words in their comedy. Amazing as it might seem in today’s anything-goes culture, the comics of yesteryear managed to craft jokes presentable to listeners of all ages.

Instead of relying on gutter talk, they offered time-tested observations about the human condition.

For example: “I just got back from a pleasure trip. I took my mother-in-law to the airport.”

And: “I’ve been in love with the same woman for 49 years. If my wife ever finds out, she’ll kill me!”


I was further struck by how willing the old boys were to make fun at their own expense, and how often their humor seemed to grow out of things that had gone amiss.

“The doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill so the doctor gave him another six months.”

“The Harvard School of Medicine did a study of why Jewish women like Chinese food so much. The study revealed that this is due to the fact that Won Ton spelled backward is Not Now.”

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“Why do Jewish divorces cost so much? Because they’re worth it.”

The more I read, the more I began to wonder if the fact that so many of our earlier comedians came from Jewish backgrounds had something to do with suffering. Subjected through the centuries to endless sorts of mistreatment and abuse, and haunted by the horrors of the Holocaust, the ability to see the glint of humor in catastrophe may well have become something of a survival mechanism.

"A drunk was in front of a judge. The judge says, ‘You’ve been brought here for drinking.’ The drunk says, ‘Okay, let’s get started.’”

“Short summary of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

“A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has a part in the play. She asks, ‘What part is it?’ The boy says, ‘I play the part of the Jewish husband.’ The mother scowls and says, ‘Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part.’”


Obviously Jewish comedians have no monopoly on humor. Recent decades have seen the flowering of all sorts of minority group comedians, and the connection between hard times and laughter probably stretches back to prehistory.

But wherever it comes from, the ability to turn grief into giggles is an enormously valuable gift, and one that benefits us all. It seems to me we owe the Catskill comedians recurring thanks for lightening the burden of everyday life and transforming scowls of worry into smiles.

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Craig Nagel, Columnist

“There is a big controversy on the Jewish view of when life begins. In Jewish tradition, the fetus is not considered viable until it graduates from medical school.”

“Q: Why don’t Jewish mothers drink? A: Alcohol interferes with their suffering.”

“Q: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? A: (Sigh.) Don’t bother. I’ll sit in the dark. I don’t want to be a nuisance to anybody.”

It’s clear that laughing matters.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

Opinion by Craig Nagel
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