"We're funny because of the badkhn," says Mel Gordon, a professor of theater arts at the University of California, Berkeley. "Everyone says that Jews are funny because they suffered so much," he said. "That's ridiculous. You think the rest of the world hasn't suffered?" Nor are Jews funny because they've "always been funny," another common falsehood, says Gordon. It's only in the past 100 years, with the rise of Hollywood and nightclub society, that Jewish humor has become a staple of U.S. popular culture. "At the turn of the 20th century, the Jews were commonly perceived to be a humorless, itinerant nation," he wrote in Funnyman, a 2010 book co-authored with Thomas Andrae about the short-lived Jewish comic-book superhero. So it's not genetic, and it's not because of suffering or social marginalization, that led to this thing we call Jewish humor -- it's the badkhn.
The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim schpiels in shtetl society. His humor was biting, even vicious. He would tell a bride that she was ugly, make jokes about the groom's dead mother and round things off by belittling the guests for giving such worthless gifts. Much of the badkhn's humor was grotesque, even scatological. "They would talk about drooping breasts, big butts, small penises," says Gordon. "We know a lot about them because they were always suing each other about who could tell which fart joke on which side of Grodno."
It's that same self-deprecating tone that characterizes the Yiddish-inflected Jewish jokes of the 20th century, Gordon points out. Who is the surly Jewish deli waiter of Henny Youngman fame if not a badkhn, making wisecracks at the customer's expense? Before the 1660s, there were at least 10 different stock comic types in shtetl life, explains Gordon.
One would rhyme, one would juggle, one might sing. Wealthy folks would hire a variety for their simchas, or festive celebrations.But in the summer of 1661, a decade after the Chmielnicki massacres and its resultant famines, leading rabbis from Poland and Ukraine -- the "Elders of the Four Councils" -- met in Vilna to discuss why such evils had befallen the Jewish people. The elders decided the Jews were being punished by God. A return to strict observance was the only solution. Levity and luxury were to be avoided. As one of the new conditions, wedding festivities became much more somber, and holidays such as Purim and Simchat Torah less raucous. The traditional Jewish comics were outlawed.
During one discussion on July 3, 1661, Gordon relates, a rabbi asked his colleagues, what about the badkhn? He's not really funny, said the rabbi; in fact, he's abusive. The elders agreed, and the badkhn was exempted from the ban -- he wasn't a merrymaker and wasn't encouraging levity. And that's how the badkhn became the only Jewish comic permitted in the shtetls, says Gordon, and how his particular brand of sarcastic, bleak humor set the tone for what we know today as Jewish comedy. Before the 1660s, the badkhn was the least popular Jewish entertainer -- now he was the sole survivor. The badkhn's influence is still felt in mainstream culture, says Gordon -- from the Borsch Belt humor of the Catskills to contemporary Italian and African-American comedians who trade in barbed insults and self-deprecation. "Even today, almost all Jewish entertainers have badkhn humor," says Gordon.