Michael Krasny invites you to yuk it up with him
By Lou Fancher
Joyful, Jewish and often just plain old funny, Michael Krasny’s new book, “Let There Be Laughter” (William Morrow, $19.99, 304 pages), is jam-packed with jokes.
The humor comes in all flavors: surface silliness in which the sheer yahoo of saying Yiddish words like “schlemiel” is half the fun; slapstick from Milton Berle, the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges; stereotype-based or salacious stuff from Joan Rivers and others; satirical or sardonic jokes from contemporary comedians; sophisticated wit that arrives slowly in columns by Calvin Trillin or in books from Philip Roth; and comedies by filmmakers Woody Allen and Nora Ephron. The variety is staggering: Krasny even references near-anti-Semitic jokes and hawkish humor to leave no stone unturned.
At the heart of it all is the phenomenal prevalence of Jewish comics — experts and casual observers have at various times estimated that as much as 80 percent of all successful American comedians are Jewish.
To balance the all-laughs tilt, the Marin-based author, educator and radio host flexes his scholarly straight man muscles to include historical insights and jovial or profoundly tender personal anecdotes from interviews he’s conducted and from more than four decades of collecting Jewish jokes.
Krasny is host and senior editor of Forum, KQED-FM radio’s award-winning news and public affairs program, and a frequent interviewer or commentator on radio, television and at public events. A professor of English at San Francisco State University, he’s a widely published writer of columns and books that include “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest” (2010).
Predictably, an interview from his KQED office is sprinkled with jokes. Introducing a joke from the book sent to him after he issued a challenge to have people send him a joke he’d never heard before, he agrees that it should be saved for readers of “Laughter.” From his real life, he offers a funny story about an audio book he’s just finished recording.
“My publisher said an audio book company asked if I’d like to do the recording myself. I said I was interested. The publisher went off and then came back and said it was a go, but they had one question. They wanted to know if I had any experience with public speaking.”
The humor and timing — and Krasny’s delivery makes it plain that he relishes the punchline’s irony — make the anecdote arguably Jewish. It would be funny if a well-known public speaker of any ethnicity were asked this question, but Krasny, while acknowledging the universality of humor, posits that Jewish humor has recognizable signature features: “differentness, separateness, chosenness and loss,” with subtexts that includes one-upmanship, self-deprecation mixed with self-congratulation, pain, suffering, and Jewish history, culture, expressions and faith.
“I have a sense of humor that could be described as Jewish ethnic: It’s irony, sarcasm, parody, satire, but it’s affected by pop culture, scholarship, developing attitudes through the years,” he says.
Providing an example of a joke he found funny — a line in Woody Allen’s “Café Society” — Krasny says, “I howled when one guy quotes Socrates and says, ‘The unexamined life’s not worth living.’ The other character says, ‘The examined life is not such a bargain, either.’ ”
Krasny isn’t highly organized and says his handwritten jokes were hardly card catalogued. He wrote the first draft in the style of the guest appearances he performs: “I riffed. I wanted the humor to be almost like a little steamroller.” When advised that organization would benefit the book, he arranged the jokes according to themes, such as Jewish Mothers, Suffering, and Schlemiels and Schmucks (Losers). The categorized jokes are mini-narratives that cluster under cultural, historical and attitudinal themes that often relate to gender or generational differences.
Calling it “panhandling like a miner after gold,” Krasny says he searched for the jokes’ meaning and what they reveal about Jewish humanity. His conclusions often involved celebrities that he’s interviewed — the name-dropping made him initially self-conscious. “I had stories about people I’ve had the good fortune to interview. I even issue a “name-drop” alert in the book. Eventually, I thought, why not include them, they’re in the quiver, they’re part of my life.”
Krasny cut some jokes he considered divisive and “too radioactive” in today’s society. “I didn’t want to contribute to racial discord,” he notes. But he included misogynistic jokes and did reference some Holocaust humor that some people think is hurtful. “And yet, there it is,” he says. “Holocaust jokes. Pain turned into something that offers a diminishment of pain: humor.”
Of course, many of the book’s jokes depend mostly upon standard components of humor such as wit, street corner schtick, hyperbole, sarcasm, vocal intonation, timing and surprise. “I’d never presume to divine what other people think is funny,” Krasny says. “Humor is an odd thing. It affects people in different ways. Some people like slapstick; some don’t.”
Above all, with jokes lowbrow and high, Krasny says he wrote the book to entertain, craft an elegy to Yiddish culture, and inspire appreciation and enjoyment of the variety and range of Jewish humor. He wrote the book to make people laugh, and with more than 100 jokes included, it’s likely they will.