What Kinds of Jewish Jokes Are Okay to Laugh At?

Two old guys sharing a New York apartment panic about their rent going up and host a show centered around comedians and a tuna sandwich inside a deli. Ever read a sentence more Jewish? Oh, Hello, a Broadway show featuring this plot, just made it to Netflix. Watching it from a Jewish lens, I struggled between discomfort and uncontrollable laughter.

“Oh, Hello on Broadway” is a standup comedy routine that stumbled onto a Broadway stage and then got picked up by Netflix. The plot’s thin, but the jokes come thick and fast to cover it up. Defining the show is equal to defining the two main characters, Gil Faizon (Nick Kroll) and George St. Geegland (John Mulaney).

“You know when you get to the bottom of a tub of hummus and you can’t get your carrot in there so you have to use your fingies to get it out? Bam! That’s us!” screeches Kroll onstage, gleefully hawking out a Hebrew-school “ch” in “hummus.”

The guys, who are just as gross and unashamed as that finger-scraping hummus grab, spend the first half-hour slinging jokes about theater and their own careers. Then, the curtain actually comes up, and Gil and George become characters in their own play, “Oh, Hello.” These irreverent wisecrack masters have only one real soft spot: each other. Kroll and Mulaney’s collaboration is seamless (even though parts of the show were completely improvised!).

The next hour is packed with unending weirdness — a momentary interpretive dance, a game show called “Too Much Tuna” featuring the actual Steve Martin, and a loose conflict around Gil and George’s potential eviction that climaxes in Gil wandering the audience to say goodbye. Most bits could be cut without losing much plot, but the last ten minutes are so dramatic and weirdly sweet that they hold the audience captive.

Within this crazy show is a lot of Jewish humor. Punchlines about weird stuff Jews do mingle in Kroll and Mulaney’s mouths with a few Holocaust jokes, all pronounced with extra emphasis on the final syllables. Just like your New Yorker grandma used to do.

It’s complicated to watch this show as a PC Jewish millennial. Living on the Main Line, I’m used to a large percentage of Jews in my schools and in my neighborhood. So I definitely have a context for the humor that Gil and George give out. Their joke about the furtive pose of your dad reading his texts in synagogue? Yep, I’ve seen that. It’s real, and I’ll admit I giggled. But when Gil calls Rudy Giuliani the Gestapo, when he narrates an action as going down stairs “like two walking swastikas,” somehow it’s not as comfortable to laugh.

Is it acceptable to laugh at certain kinds of Jewish jokes and not others? Does it matter that Kroll is Jewish and Mulaney is not? Where is the line between affectionate observation and actual insult?

Humor can absolutely be used as a tool to belittle people, and historically, placing Jews as the targets of disrespectful mockery has gone poorly for us. However, I don’t get the sense that Kroll and Mulaney sought cruelty.

In a present-day world where many are hyper-aware of offending others, watching two odd old geezers run their mouths was novel. I would never want to make the Gestapo-Giuliani comparison, but hearing it made me think of the ways we do normalize the Holocaust, and it made me want to discuss this more with someone. In this way, Jewish-based humor that veers on inappropriate can also spark conversations about why it is uncomfortable to hear.

Jewish jokes within “Oh, Hello on Broadway” raised all these questions for me as I watched. Even though I may not have found all the answers, the one thing I was sure of as I watched the duo take their bows was that it was nice to laugh that hard, and to think a little about why I was laughing.

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