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Funny Girls

Gorgeous, fearless and profane—that's today's successful female stand-up Jewish comics.

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Spring 2004

Nothing is off limits to Sarah Silverman, whose off-Broadway show, Jesus Is Magic, sold out its two-week run a few years ago. Edgy and controversial, she takes on everything from the Holocaust to porn to racial stereotypes and Jewish self-image in her act—sometimes almost simultaneously.

Susie Essman plays the princessy Beverly Hills wife of Larry David's agent on the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. As Susie Greene, she's quick to go off on a vitriolic rant. Her most famous line is directed at her TV husband.

She calls him "a fat f—" so often that it's become her trademark. When people recognize her in line at Zabar's in New York City or the Fairway Market, near her Upper West Side apartment, they ask her to shout it into their cell phones, presumably at their spouses.

Judy Gold is a touch less raunchy. But then, she's the only one who's a mom. And she spends much of her act heaping amusing abuse on her mother.

One day Gold is at her agent's office and calls her mom—because it's on his dime, of course. They're chatting when Judy accidentally bumps a button on the phone and cuts off the call. Mrs. Gold, thinking her daughter is at home, immediately calls Judy's apartment; when Judy doesn't pick up the phone, the mother kicks into high anxiety. In an outer-borough accent thicker than Ratner's potato soup, she leaves this message on the answering machine: "Judith, are you all right? Did you fall down? What happened to you? Maybe I'll call Marjorie [the next-door neighbor] and tell her to go over and find out what happened. (long pause) JUDITH, WHERE ARE YOU??? (pause) So long."

So long? She thinks her daughter is lying dead on the floor and she says "so long"? Of course, this is the woman who, for Judy's 40th birthday, bought her daughter a lifetime Hadassah membership.

You gotta love her. And you gotta love Gold for saying the things that we all think, but dare not utter, about our own mothers.

The new generation of comics doesn't so much break from the past as continue in the long and proud tradition of ribald, overtly sexual Jewish funny women—like Sophie Tucker and Belle Barth —who paved the way. In at least one respect, though, today's Jewish comedians, in their 30s and 40s, are radically different from many of their predecessors: they don't put themselves down.

The earlier big successes, like Joan Rivers and Totie Fields, built careers on acting unattractive. Much of Totie Fields' act related to her weight. One well-known joke: "I've been on a diet for two weeks and the only thing I've lost is 14 days."

Joan Rivers, though always slim and stylishly dressed, in her performing heyday in the 1970s and '80s focused on how ugly she felt. "I have flabby thighs, but fortunately my stomach covers them," goes one of her jokes. She has now plastic-surgeried her way to a look she seems more comfortable with, but turns her self-disgust outward, focusing on other women's looks. On Elizabeth Taylor she once quipped: "She's so fat, she puts mayonnaise on aspirin."

Perhaps this emphasis had more to do with being a woman in American culture than being a Jewish woman. Non-Jewish comedian Phyllis Diller, who preceded Roseanne in getting big laughs for riffing on being a housewife, made herself ugly on stage with a fright wig.

But today's women are different: they're hotties, and they know it.

Sandra Bernhardt dresses slinky-sexy on stage, showing off her long, lean figure.

Silverman, late of Saturday Night Live, favors jeans and T-shirts over girly looks, and says that she's not sure how being attractive has shaped her career. "I just never focused on that type of self-deprecation," she says. "I don't dress hot or anything. I'm a hairy ape. Admittedly a hot hairy ape."

Even if they don't fit into the Victoria's Secret stereotype of beauty, they don't criticize themselves—and they mock anyone who does.

Awhile back, Gold was booked for a dramatic role on Law & Order. The day before the taping, the show's costumer calls. In a voice sounding something like Valley Girl meets Queens, the costumer says, "Judy, we're so excited that you're coming. I just need to get a few details so we can get ready, okay? How tall are you?"

Judy, deadpan, tells her: "Six foot three."

Costumer: "Okay, how much do you weigh?"

Judy: "One eighty."

Costumer: "Umm, what size shoe do you wear?"

Judy: "Twelve."

Costumer: "Okay, like do you have anything in your closet you think your character would wear?"

Gold puts the spotlight on someone else's discomfort with her size but makes no joking comments about it herself. Like her colleagues, she is grounded in a self-acceptance that seems to be new in this generation.

"You can see where the culture is now," says Sarah Blacher Cohen, the editor of Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor and author of Sophie, Totie and Belle: The Unkosher Comedians. "There's greater acceptance of women in our society, and the women's movement has empowered women in their sense of themselves so they don't have to make their weakness a sign of their humor, but make their strength their humor. These are Jewish women celebrating their own valor with a good sense of humor."

In the view of Gold and Essman, predecessors such as Fields and Rivers had to be self-deprecating because audiences coming out of the uptight 1950s wouldn't laugh at anything else.

"They weren't allowed to be sexually free in the way that I was allowed to be not married and living my life as a sexual woman," says Essman. "It's a generational, societal thing for women in general. Audiences might not have accepted them if they'd come on and been powerful and independent. So many female comics have depressed mothers, which I understand—having to make your mother laugh. But that entire generation of women was depressed because they were boxed in to some kind of role they might not have wanted to play."

The successful Jewish female comics of the time, internalizing those strictures, gently picked on their inability to squeeze into them but dared not attack them head on. And the current crop of comics acknowledges a debt.

Those women "opened the door, and now we can say a lot more than they could," says Gold. "The role of women has changed so much that you can be intelligent, you can be political, you can have an opinion and not be threatening. Thank God for those guys. In their time no one wanted to hear it, but now women's thoughts and opinions and views on life are more respected."

To a point. It's still a tricky business being a woman on stage—especially a Jewish woman.

"I always say that in every profession except perhaps nursing and teaching, it's harder for women in this country," Gold says. "Stand-up comedy is not a feminine profession at all, and you're armed only with your words. There are times when people don't want to hear a woman elicit some kind of response or have some kind of power over them. There's nothing more threatening to a man than a female comic. I love what I do and try never to think about it. But I'm very edgy in my act, and maybe if I was a guy I'd be in a different position now professionally."

"Comedy is very much a boys club, as most professions are," says Essman. "Basically, at this point people don't f— with me so much. But sometimes I feel like I'm treated like a little girl by producers, people like that. It's hard to get heard. It's insidious. They don't even know they're doing it. It could be someone who loves women. I know how to work it, which you have to do because everything's political, but it's annoying. It's an uphill battle."

"Stand-up in particular is a male art form," she says. "It's very aggressive. There's hostility involved. It's confrontational and incredibly powerful when you're standing on stage alone with the mike—the phallus symbol."

Essman has seen changes in the comedy business, though. "Male comics now are different than when we started. Then, it was understood among the male comics that women were not funny. And we had to prove ourselves. The next generation of comics coming up had people like me, Judy and Joy Behar, really strong female comics, and the men didn't have the same prejudice. They used to be so patronizing. It would fuel me. I'd have to go up and completely take control of that room. I definitely had something to prove as a female."

Still, "It's much easier for a mediocre male comic to succeed than a mediocre female comic," Essman says. "But who wants to be mediocre anything? I kind of like the struggle, because it's made me better. I hear female comics complaining about the sexism, but I think it makes you work so much harder so you're undeniably good."

Part of being a female comic on stage involves cutting men—like everyone else—down to size. At a Friars Roast of Jerry Stiller a few years back, one of Essman's opening lines was addressed to comedian Alan King and got a big laugh from the comedy hero alter-kakhers filling the stage and audience: "Alan, did you ever think you'd get so old your prostate would be as big as your ego?"

Sometimes these Jewish women find that they're too Jewish, even for Jews. Especially for Jews.

The worst audience Essman ever had was one of Hasidim in a Borough Park, Brooklyn, caf. "They so didn't want to see a Jewish woman up there. The booker, an Italian guy, said I'd do great. I couldn't get a laugh out of them for anything. I died up there because my very being was offensive to them. I would have done much better if I was not Jewish."

Native New Zealander Deb Filler, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, in 1992 produced a one-woman off-Broadway show in New York called Punch Me in the Stomach. Its subject was her "whirlwind tour" of Eastern Europe death camps with her father, and it managed to be funny. Filler traveled the world staging the show, but "especially in Jewish quarters I was told we don't want any more of the Holocaust,' " she said from her mother's house in Auckland, where she was resting after a successful run of her new show in London.

Though Filler Up! wrestles with many of the same issues, she wrote it to be universal. The show has 27 characters—young and old, American and Greek and New Zealander, gay and straight, Jewish and Gentile. Filler plays them all.

Another thing that today's Jewish female comics don't have in common with many of their predecessors: unlike Fanny Brice (born Fanny Borach), Belle Barth (Anabelle Salzman) and Totie Fields (Sophie Feldman), they don't change their names.

More than once, Hollywood executives have told Sarah Silverman that Winona Ryder wouldn't get roles if she were still known as Winona Horowitz. "That fact sickens me," she told The Forward newspaper last year.

Judy Gold says that "my act is very Jewish because I'm very Jewish. I tend to un-Jew it when I'm in non-Jewy areas where they're not going to understand it, but being Jewish is who I am. I can't lie on stage, because if you do, you're not funny."

Raised by parents she describes as "left-wing liberal-progressive anti-religious people with a Jewish sensibility," Essman is not religious, but "my sensibility is Jewish. I feel part of a tribe," she says, "and it affects my worldview." Essman finds that being female is more of a professional obstacle than being Jewish, but says, "In Los Angeles they constantly say, euphemistically, you're too New York,'which is Spanish for you're too Jewish.'"

Her friend Gold agrees: "There are a lot of short, male, Jewish agents in Armani suits who completely deny the Jewish thing—they say everything is too Jewish.'"

Silverman also comes from a secular background. "I grew up in a very Catholic town in New Hampshire with very little Jewish identity," she says. "My sense of identity as a Jew was almost solely based on the fact that I wasn't Catholic like everyone else in my world."

But between her looks and her name, being overtly Jewish has posed a challenge in her acting career. "Every year for the past 10 years people have said to me, This is your year.' But it never is," Silverman says. She appeared in a supporting role in the movie School of Rock and shared talk show hosting duties with her then boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel. She was a regular on Saturday Night Live and has made frequent guest appearances on shows from Conan O'Brien to Seinfeld and Frasier.

"I just can't get past the bitchy-girlfriend or best-friend roles. I call them dark-hair roles. It's fun at first, but as time goes on and it's all you're offered, you start to think is this the highest a girl like me can go?' Maybe so."

In comedy, Silverman says, "I don't think there's much importance on what religion the comic is." And she is very definitely an equal-opportunity offender, making fun of every racial stereotype around. "I talk about Jews as a Jew, but I talk about blacks, Mexicans, Asians, AIDS, 9/11, everything," she says. "It's others who call me a Jewish comic'—which I embrace—but, truthfully, I just think of myself as a comic."

In her act, she says, "People are always introducing me as Sarah Silverman, Jewish comedienne. I hate that. I wish people would see me for who I really am—I'm white!"

Debra Nussbaum Cohen, author of Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant (Jewish Lights), frequently writes about religion for The New York Times.

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