Despite many Jewish people being employed in Hollywood, it is hard to find many overtly Jewish comedies these days. For what reason this occurs, we may never know, but as if to compensate for that void, there have been a few brilliant Jewish comedies over the years. These comedies are canonically Jewish because the characters, themes, and stories all tie into the Jewish experience, existence, and narrative in some way. This does not mean in any way that gentiles or non-Jews can enjoy these films; they’re made for everyone to teach and understand the Jewish experience.
Plus, let’s be realistic, distinctly Jewish humor has been enjoyed by many people ever since the Book of Job (just ask the millions of Seinfeld fans). Outside the many moving films about World War II and Shoah, it’s very hard to have a Jewish picture or story without a bit of comedy, and these films are no exception. It is part of Jewish culture to crack jokes about just about everything, either to cope, to bond, or to just be funny (we are a funny people). Jewish stories deserve to be heard and made; the ones on this list are perfect examples of that.
5 The Meyerowitz Stories
Shockingly, the name does lie a little: The Meyerowitz Stories is probably the least Jewish film on this list. Outside of name and assumption alone, the characters themselves never directly state that they are Jewish (even though fellow Jews Ben Siller, Adam Sandler, and Dustin Hoffman all headline). While that is never necessary, it can be important for some viewers. Despite all of this, the film focuses on Jewish men and definitely has a Jewish aspect to it.
The Meyerowitz Stories is more about familial struggles and how a family interacts with each other as kids grow older. It’s not a bad thing that the story and film is not explicitly Jewish, it does not negatively affect the film in any way. Since it a Noah Baumbach film (whose father is Jewish, and also directed Stiller in Greenberg), it also carries his affinity for family drama interwoven with comedy. The Meyerowitz Stories may not be the most Jewish (though it is “the most Jew-ish,” according to the writers ar Reform Judaism) but it is a great family-centered comedy nonetheless.
4 Obvious Child
Actress Jenny Slate is not only Jewish but embraces that in her comedy and life as a whole. Playing Donna Stern in Obvious Child, Slate embraces her Jewishness within this character’s own Jewishness. The basic story has nothing to do with Stern’s religion; in fact, it’s a bit of a rom-com about abortion, which is not exactly super-religious. However, by Stern embracing her Jewish identity throughout the film, it makes Jews watching feel seen in the character, as for many of us it makes up a big part of our personalities as well.
Slate and her character demonstrate this throughout the film in perfectly timed comedy. Embracing your Jewishness is not at all a bad thing; Slate emulates this in Obvious Child and in her day-to-day life as a whole (except perhaps when she’s voicing the beloved Marcel the Shell With Shoes On characterwith a movie out this summer.
3 A Serious Man
One of the more obviously Jewish stories on the list, A Serious Man is the story of one American Jewish man, but encapsulates the group of us as a whole. It is the perfect example of the American Jewish experience and how religion affects one’s day-to-day existence when that religion is in the minority. The story opens in ancient Jewish times, and then is set in the 1960s, illustrating that the problems that Jews face are often ever-present throughout time.
This film has a more serious tone than the others on the list, but it is still darkly funny in a deadpan way; it’s a Coen Brothers comedy, after all. That pair has a way with dark comedy like no one else, and A Serious Man is a great example of that. As a Jew in America, A Serious Man is a perfect example of the struggle and comedy that comes with all of that.
2 Shiva Baby
Shiva Baby can not hide its Jewishness, and frankly, it does not want to. Considering Shiva is in the title, it is hard to miss this one as a Jewish film. If you do not know what a Shiva is, it is an event at the family’s home after a loved one has passed. Those that know you come to visit and give condolences; this usually lasts a few days and happens after the funeral, as a kind of extended version of the gentile Wake. In this film, a young woman and her parents attend the solemn Shiva of a family friend to find that her sugar daddy and his wife are also in attendance.
Crazy concept, right? That means it’s the perfect place for some classic Jewish comedy and some classic Jewish anxiety; it’s funny enough and uncomfortable enough that it should have gotten a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The tension and anxiety developed in this film get to the level that you as the viewer feel like you’re put directly into the story in the worst way possible, something that The Forward called a “Jewish anxiety horror movie.” Maybe do not watch this one with your parents, but it is a perfect depiction of what a Shiva looks like when you have no idea what you’re doing with your life and everyone is asking questions, so be afraid.
While not the most religiously Jewish film, Spaceballs can not not be Jewish; it was directed by Mel Brooks, people. Every Mel Brooks film has some semblance or piece of his Jewish identity which he expresses through comedy (as previously mentioned, we Jews are pretty funny). Spaceballs is probably Brooks’ most obviously Jewish filmwith Princess Vespa as the blueprint for the Jewish American Princess that can be seen all over America.
Despite her being “Druish,” it is easily discernable that her character is meant to emulate the JAP stereotype in a comedic format. On top of this, her dialogue and the general aura of her character is Jewish in nature, creating a space for jokes related to the Jewish experience as a whole. Mel Brooks is known for his genre parodies and connecting it to his personal experience and ideals, Spaceballs is no exception to this; the idea of a Jewish sci-fi adventure is just funny off the bat, even before realizing that Joan Rivers (a Russian Jew born Joan Molinsky) plays C3-PO. May the schwartz be with you!
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