IAS Laughter: A Jewish Joke
by Devorah Baum and David Schneider
8 January 2021
David Schneider, 2016: £350m a week for the NHS, 2019, from his twitter account © David Schneider. Courtesy of the author.
Devorah Baum. How was your childhood?
David Schneider. It was great for a comedian. I was bullied. I was obsessed with my mum.
DB. At what point in that childhood did you or anybody else notice that you might be funny?
DS. At school. I had no friends until I was fifteen or sixteen, bar one other person who was funny. After that, I don’t know what happened. I went to sixth-form and then I started doing drama, making people laugh, and it’s then that I realized: ‘Well I’m funny.’
DB. I always found you an unusual comedian. I’ve met quite a few, and they’re normally not funny. I find comedians can be the most earnest people. The moment they’re off stage, there’s a tremendous aura of seriousness about them. They rarely laugh at jokes.
DS. I’ve aged into loving the experience of a good joke. I’m thinking of an expression such as ‘as useless as a marzipan dildo’, which is from The Thick of It. It gives me such pleasure (not the marzipan dildo itself). You can see how the joke has emerged. A chocolate dildo is fairly funny, but there’s marzipan, something from childhood. It’s a funny word. Then there’s the idea, visually, of a marzipan dildo. It’s like tasting a beautiful wine — in that moment it’s a perfect piece of art. I’m not saying it’s Michelangelo’s David, but from the comedian’s point of view, when you see a bit of poetry in comedy form, it gives you joy.
DB. Joy would be what we intuitively associate comedy with — the happy side of life. But then we think about the sad side too. In your childhood you were bullied. The origins story that you gave me is probably one we are very familiar with: dealing with aggression by turning that aggression on its head.
DS. By being self-deprecating.
DB. That was the mode it took: not to turn it on others, but to turn it back on yourself.
DS. If you can insult yourself funnier than they’re about to insult you, then it takes the power away from them, and you can defend yourself. For me, it’s inevitably linked to Jewishness, the Jewish experience, and the Jewish fool — the badkhn. That’s the sort of fool trying to make his way or her way through the world through wits, because that’s all they have. In a sense, all comedians are Jewish, all people are Jewish. Everyone is a little bit defensive and has to fight their way out of it. This is really your territory, Devorah, with your books. Do you think everyone is a Jew?
DB. It turns out that they’re not. That’s what I found out over the last few years since claiming that they were. But that’s just their opinion. Can we talk about your mother?
DS. Yes. How long have you got?
DB. So what does your mother have to do with it?
DS. My mum never laughed at anything I said or did. The most I’d get out of her was ‘not bad’. My nightmare is of an audience of people saying: ‘Not bad.’ I’m nervous talking about my mum. My mum’s been dead for two or three years now, but I feel that she’s watching all the time. When we had the stone setting for her, I was responsible for putting the stone up and for inscribing it. It was next to my dad’s. I thought, ‘make it look nice, let’s get the same type of inscription, and nice words’. Then, on the way to the stone setting, I just couldn’t get there. Like a dream, it was like a dream. I booked two Zipcars. One wasn’t working, the other one was trashed by these drug addicts. I tried to get an Uber, and the account wasn’t working. And then when I got to the cemetery, the rabbi was outside, telling me to hurry up — he has to churn them through. So I ran. Then when I went to pick up the prayer-book, my trousers ripped completely. Luckily it was in the winter and I had a coat on. I knew that this was all my mum’s doing. It was her sense of humour. When I got to the stone setting itself — the stones, the grave — I could see that I’d done quite a good job. But at the bottom, where it said on my dad’s [stone] ‘may he rest in peace’, I’d forgotten to say it on my mum’s. I’d forgotten to say, ‘may she rest in peace’. I’m convinced that that’s my mum’s sense of humour. She loved slapstick, she loved Jerry Lewis. I think she pushed me to be funnier and funnier in the hope that she would laugh at me one day.
DB. If this was a Lacanian session, we’d end it there.
DS. I’m cured.
DB. It’s a confusing moment in comedy: whose side are jokes on? There was a very long period, perhaps until 2015–16, where joking seemed to be the art of liberals. Then we met Milo Yiannopoulos. He said that the political right should no longer present as sincere. He took the language of the internet and the making of memes and made these tools tilt to the alt-right. Slowly but surely it’s become clear to liberals that jokes can no longer be relied on. They are as slippery as their punchlines.
DS. Or they can be, at least. The great thing for the right is the view that they can make jokes and be uninhibited by who they hurt. They use jokes to hide their truth. Think of ‘lulz’, used by the Daily Stormer blog. They do have these very offensive views, but as long as they can say ‘I was joking’….
DB. You know, I observe you secretly online. And on the whole, I dislike everybody I find online, everyone, I dislike them all, almost without exception. They’re horrible! And this includes people I agree with — particularly the ones I agree with. They seem to have exactly the same problems in their voice — in the posturing — as the people I don’t agree with. They just all seem the same to me. But — and I say this honestly — you are an exception to the rule.
DS. Because we are friends….
DB. No! I’ve been watching my friends! And I don’t like them either! I find you a really curious combination of: profoundly politically engaged, meaning it, really wanting to make a difference, extraordinarily funny, and very polite.
DS. I think politeness is so important on social media. If more people could be respectful then maybe Twitter wouldn’t be such a hell hole. Sometimes I say, ‘stop spreading hate and division’. Then people from the right — or people who disagree with me — quite rightly point out that all my little satires are targeted at Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, and that makes division as well.
DB: What’s humour doing there, in these political engagements?
DS. For me, humour is like a Trojan Horse. Whenever I see something and become angry, I could just tweet, ‘Bloody Nigel Farage saying that we should privatize the NHS.’ People might agree with it to a certain degree, but on its own it won’t spread widely. That’s where humour comes in. The other day I tweeted: ‘2016: “Let’s give the NHS £350 million a week.” 2019: “Let’s make £350 million a week from the NHS.”’ This isn’t a brilliant joke — I’m not going to win a BAFTA for that joke — but it’s phrased in a joke form, so it becomes what might be called a jokeme: the essence of a joke is there, and it’s more likely to spread. But there is a danger in this: it can make you feel better without doing much at all. We think we all share a laugh about Nigel Farage or the far right — we all make a joke about it, we make a meme, and then we feel we’ve done something — whereas we should really get politically engaged. Peter Cook, a satirist in the ’70s, once said: ‘The 1930s in Germany was a boom time for satire.’ There was so much to satirize. But does satire really change anything?
DB. This is something that people are becoming aware of, isn’t it? Inviting people like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg onto Have I Got News For You turns them into household names and allows them to be funny and cuddly. But that was where they recruited a fan base, and it was these performances that enabled them to propel a populist insurgency later on. You take somebody and you make them funny and —
DS. — they are funny, Boris is funny, Boris plays funny —
DB. — I think Jacob Rees Mogg is funny, too, he does his character so well —
DS. — they’ve been given a platform. But there’s another way of saying it, and if we weren’t such liberal lefties, we would say: they know how to be funny, how to use being funny to progress their agenda. That’s where we might be left behind by the right.
DS. Yes, fun.
DB. You’ve been left behind? I haven’t thought enough about that. But it’s true they’ve been much more successfully funny than you….
DS. I feel good about myself now.
DB. Unless — and who knows? — maybe more is going on. Perhaps you’re doing more than we are aware of.
DS. I’m writing Boris’s jokes.
DB. The point of the Have I Got News for You example was that there was an assumption that this was satire from the left. We thought that they were being portrayed as buffoons by a liberal sensibility. But in fact it was their platform and they were using it in their own ways. That said, I genuinely think that being funny in the way that you are online has the capacity to change people’s thoughts and feelings in a way that other kinds of humour and politics do not.
DS. I hope so. Among the few people who have changed an opinion on Twitter — changing your mind must be against the terms and conditions — it’s not so much that satire has changed their minds, but rather politeness. That’s what really throws people. I am an arch-Remainer, and this is something that Remainers must learn. The biggest weapon that we have that we are not really accessing is politeness: listening and listening politely, engaging politely. Perhaps that could be more effective than satire.
Death and dying
DS. I did stand-up for many years. I’ve died on stage, and the experience is nightmarish. When you come off stage, no one looks at you, it’s like you’re not there. But also, when you’re dying, you have an out-of-body experience. You say: ‘This normally works.’ Time slows down. You watch yourself, you float away, hovering, leaving your body behind. You think: ‘That joke normally kills it.’ That, to me, feels like death. But you’ve had a death, too, haven’t you?
DB. Yes. You were there.
DS. Tell me about when you died.
DB. You were there because we did an event together. You and I were on that scary panel with Julie Burchill. That night I tried to tell a joke and nobody laughed at all. It was so painful. Then I was asked what my thoughts were about the contemporary political moment. I feel as though we are living in a time where what happens in your dreams at night might well take place the next day. And I’ve had this dream — and then this literally happened to me — a big audience of people, I’d just told a joke, and nobody laughed. Then somebody asked, ‘What are your thoughts about the future of politics?’ and I said, ‘I have no ideas, only my fears’. That happens in my dreams. I go in front of a big group of people, and then that’s all I have: my fears, nothing else.
DS. That was the Lacanian therapy session — and we’re about to end it. The event you’re describing was a Jewish event, and I think what you said was really well expressed. A lot of people had fears in that room. You simply did what a good comedian does, and made an observation.
DB. That was the most anti-comic moment in the panel. All I had was fear. I had nothing else. That’s basically the root of everything for me.
DS. That’s the root of comedy, you could say.
DB. Why do we talk about Jews so much?
DS. We’re Jews and we’re self-obsessed.
DB. Is that the answer?
DS. No one else will have us.
DB. I quote you in my book, The Jewish Joke. Your mother was a Holocaust survivor. You really do come out of this history. It’s strange that that’s where your comedy comes from, but I think it does. In that sense it’s a little like the best Holocaust joke I included in my book, which is this one: ‘A Holocaust survivor dies, gets up to heaven, meets God, and tells God a Holocaust joke. God doesn’t laugh. The survivor shrugs: “I guess you had to be there.”’ It’s a brilliant, deep joke.
DS. It’s a very complex joke. You couldn’t just say, ‘Where was God during the Holocaust?’ No one listens. But you tell that joke and then, wow.
DS. Think about that Julie Burchill moment. She loves Jews —
DB: — in quite a weird way —
DS. — we take what we can get. She said something like: ‘Jews are so clever.’ And I heckled her — I should never do that again — and said, ‘Well, there’s quite a few stupid ones.’ She came back straight away: ‘Yes, those that back Corbyn’ — meaning me. There’s part of me that thought, ‘oh, bloody hell’. But part of me just enjoyed the reply. As with the joke you told, it’s so enjoyable because it’s so out there. It's dangerous, it’s playing with a taboo, and it’s intelligent — it’s just a piece of art. And that’s what jokes are like at their best.
DB. One of the first abilities that seems to appear in the child is laughter, and being able to distinguish the joke from the non-joke.
DS. And that’s the world. We’re all in this adult world, we’re all individuated into this terrible oppressive world of the super-ego. But a joke, for a moment, destroys it — just as poetry can. For an instant we’re children. The same as with a pun — a really good pun or a bad good pun — which can just take the structure of language that sit oppressively on us, and refuse it all. A pun like that can say: ‘No, actually I’m in control.’ Just for a moment, we’re children again, and we’re not oppressed by the word and the father. And that’s what a great joke, a truly great pun can do. We are reminded of the pleasure of being children again, of being tickled. That’s why I love good jokes.
DB. That was very beautiful. So that’s there where we end the psychoanalytic session. I’m on my third glass of wine.
David Schneider is a comedy writer, performer, and director. David co-wrote the BIFA-winning and BAFTA-nominated film, The Death of Stalin. He wrote and appeared in Alan Partridge: Knowing Me, Knowing You, and many other TV shows.
Devorah Baum is an Associate Professor in English Literature and Critical Theory at the University of Southampton. She is the author of Feeling Jewish (A Book for Just About Anyone) (Yale, 2017) and The Jewish Joke: An Essay with Examples (Less Essay, More Examples) (Profile Books, 2017). She also co-directed the feature film, The New Man (2016).
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