Want to Hear a Dirty Joke? Get a Woman to Tell It
Eileen Pollack on the Courage and Comic Genius of
Groundbreaking Female Stand-Ups
In the past few weeks, flinching in horror at each new revelation about sexual harassment, I realized how much all of us owe female comics, especially those who have insisted on their right to work blue, for creating a climate in which women finally feel free to speak up and describe the treatment to which they have long been subject.
I say this as a woman of 60 who recently moved to New York with the goal of performing stand-up comedy in an actual Manhattan club and getting to know Louis C.K. well enough that I might convince him to fall in love with me. Neither of these ambitions is surprising, considering I grew up at a hotel in the Borscht Belt, a region of upstate New York that gave birth to the stand-up comic. Like most Catskills resorts, my grandparents’ hotel catered to immigrant Jews and their upwardly striving offspring. But while my co-religionists elsewhere worshipped doctors and lawyers, in my hometown comedians were the only kings. Alan King, to be precise. Buddy Hackett. Milton Berle. Henny Youngman. Rodney Dangerfield. Every male guest considered himself a connoisseur of the art. Hour after hour, they sat around the lobby or the pool trying to one-up each other by telling a filthier joke than the one before.
My father, having decided he didn’t want to spend his life unstopping toilets or placating irate guests, put himself through dental school. But he had memorized the routines of every comic he ever heard and enjoyed nothing more than regaling his gape-mouthed patients and his dinner guests, even his wife and son and two young daughters, with whatever jokes seemed most (in)appropriate. I suspect other men told jokes that were meanspirited or misogynistic. But my father’s favorite stories—at least the ones he told in my presence—were good-natured and egalitarian. Sex was sexy. Sex was fun. One of his favorite “true stories” concerns a woman who meets her elderly lover every afternoon to pleasure him with a hand job. One day, she arrives to find another woman has usurped her place. “Nu?” the first woman asks. “What does she have that I don’t?” To which the man shrugs and answers: “Parkinson’s.” After my mother was diagnosed with the same disease, my father enjoyed telling the story even more.
It isn’t an accident so many Jews became comedians. In Eastern Europe, jesters called badkhen entertained the guests at weddings; in America, the profession expanded to include the tumelers who kept the guests at Catskills hotels amused. The Borscht Belt owed its existence to the less-charming reality that Jews weren’t allowed to check in at most hotels or join most country clubs; Jewish entertainers poked fun at the Christians who excluded them.
Most Jewish comics were men. But women like me grew up in a community in which the ability to tell a good joke was highly valued. And Jewish women were less inhibited by the rules of propriety than genteel female gentiles. Unlike Christians, Jews aren’t freighted with the guilt of original sin; even the most Orthodox Jewish man is required to satisfy his wife’s sexual needs on a regular basis. For centuries, Jewish women were expected to go out into the rough-and-tumble marketplace to support their husbands while the men studied Torah. Hebrew was the language of prayer, of holiness. But Yiddish, the earthier, more vulgar language of the streets, was the mama loshen: the women’s tongue.
Women who grew up in Orthodox homes weren’t allowed to stand up on a stage and speak with “unclean lips” unless they wanted to be disparaged as vilde chayes, wild beasts. But most American Jews left their Orthodoxy at Ellis Island. Fanny Brice (whom Barbra Streisand portrayed in Funny Girl) was raised in a saloon, so her parents hardly could object when she dropped out of school to join a burlesque revue. Sophie Tucker, “the last of the red hot mamas,” got her start singing for tips at her family’s restaurant. Gertrude Berg, the star of The Goldbergs, the first nationally popular sitcom (Berg was also the radio show’s writer and director), grew up at her father’s Catskills hotel. Despite her training at the New England Conservatory of Music, Rusty Warren (aka “the knockers up gal”) earned her fame singing bawdy songs and telling risqué stories. Even my mother, who prided herself on her refinement, delighted in telling my father’s jokes when he wasn’t around to tell them (to be honest, she told them better).
The history of Jewish comedy has been well discussed. What is rarely remarked upon is the role Jewish women played in moving comedy from stale one-liners to fresher, more original observational humor based on their own lives. The jokes male comics told were so old they literally had come down from Roman times. The men mocked not only gentiles but also women (“Take my wife … please”). Female comics needed to make up their own material; Rusty Warren joked that women and men both go out on Saturday nights to sow their wild oats, but when women wake up Sunday morning, they pray for crop failure.
As women and Jews, female comics had twice the motivation to mock the mainstream. Early in her career, Totie Fields realized hecklers were going to shout comments about her weight, so she beat them to it by writing jokes about being fat. “My problem is that I’m swollen,” she complained on Ed Sullivan. Then, moving seductively about the audience, she taunted one man, “You’re dying to touch this, aren’t you.” Joan Rivers wasn’t sure she should tell stories based on her personal life until she saw Lenny Bruce’s act and realized the observational humor they were both doing was groundbreaking and important. Belle Barth was brought up on obscenity charges as often as Lenny Bruce, she was just luckier about not getting sent to jail. (Once, two schoolteachers sued Barth for $1.6 million dollars, on the grounds they had been corrupted by her act. A sympathetic judge—or maybe a judge with a sense of humor—threw out the lawsuit.)
Such was the milieu that nurtured me. As a little girl, I hadn’t yet read Freud’s theory that if two men are telling a dirty joke, a woman is always present, at least in the two men’s minds; this invisible woman is the butt of the teller’s joke, and the joke a way of punishing her for not making herself sexually available to the teller. But even as a child I understood that when my father and our neighbor Sidney Appelbaum sat on our porch on a summer’s night, the darkness lit only by fireflies and the glowing tip of Sidney’s cigar, the jokes the men told were a way of exerting power over the women who were inside, cleaning up from dinner. For all I know, the men weren’t aware I was lurking on the steps (although I am fairly sure they knew). But I sensed if I was physically present when they were telling their jokes, rather than in the kitchen with the women, the jokes didn’t apply to me.
As I grew older, I tried to impress the men I dated with my ability to tell off-color stories. I cursed in creative ways. Not surprisingly, all this did was make the men treat me as if I were elbowing them aside at a urinal, pulling out a dick I didn’t have and peeing.
Once, when I was in Las Vegas, I dragged my significant other to see a show by a female comic. She was an attractive woman, and her act made us both laugh. But as we were leaving the club, my boyfriend remarked he would never want to be married to a female comic. “You wouldn’t?” I asked. “Why not?” Well, he said, any man who dated a comedian needed to be afraid she would get up on stage and make fun of his penis. “You aren’t serious,” I said. But he was.
As much as I love telling dirty jokes, I never seriously considered a career as a stand-up comic. Like most women, I couldn’t imagine a life that consisted of hanging around in bars until three in the morning, fending off boozy come-ons, and living in strange motels. Instead, I decided to become a writer. Maybe, if the stories I wrote were funny enough, I could get my laughs that way. The trouble was, I couldn’t find a model for the stories I wanted to write.
Then, my senior year in college, I took a creative writing class. The professor, John Hersey, assigned “Murderers” by Leonard Michaels, in which a gang of Jewish schoolboys climbs to the top of a roof and spies on their rabbi and his wife making love and dancing naked to the Miami Beach Rumba. Really, I thought? A writer could write about a naked rabbi dancing with his wife, the rabbi a “short bearded man, balls a-fling, cock shuddering like a springboard”?
After that, Hersey gave us Grace Paley’s “Goodbye and Good Luck,” in which a feisty Jewish aunt regales her niece with the story of her lifelong affair with a married actor. “My mother nursed me till I was six,” the actor says, to which the narrator replies: “My goodness, Vlashkin, six years old! She must have had shredded wheat there, not breasts, poor woman.” I knew that narrator’s voice. She sounded like my own Aunt Marion!
Later, on my brother’s shelves, I found Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire, which opens with a description of the protagonist’s childhood at his parents’ Catskills hotel. The social director, Herbie Bratasky, not only can imitate every sound that might be emitted by the rear end of a guest, but even the “rasp of a zipper being undone. Then a most enviable stream belting an enamel bowl. Next the whoosh of the flush, followed by the gargle and hiccup of a reluctant tap commencing to percolate. And all of it emanating from Herbie’s mouth.” Herbie Bratasky? I knew a million Herbie Brataskys!
I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to see if I might write about women’s lives with the same dark, sexy, comic honesty as Paley, Michaels, and Roth. Admittedly, I had a lot to learn. But it didn’t help that my male classmates took it upon themselves to inform me women can’t be funny. I might have believed them, but when I read one of my stories to a packed room at an event for female writers, I had everyone in the audience rolling on the floor. True, there weren’t any chairs. But the audience members, including a few men, laughed so hard they rolled.
Years later, a senior colleague who loved telling dirty Jewish jokes blanched when I tried matching his stories. When I gave him a draft of one of my novels to critique, he told me it had “too much sucking and fucking.” Undaunted, I wrote a raunchy murder mystery about a woman who grows up at a Catskills hotel and, despite everyone’s objections, determines to become a comic. The question I wanted to ask was: Can a woman can tell a dirty joke without the joke being on her? When my agent sent the manuscript around to editors, nearly all of whom were women, they told her no one wanted to read a raunchy novel with a female protagonist. And how would a novel titled The Bible of Dirty Jokes get sold at Walmart?
As an experiment, I drew up a list of male editors whose authors had written comic novels. I invented a gender-neutral pseudonym, then asked my agent to try the editors on my list. A week later, she told me several had called to say they loved the novel. But their enjoyment never resulted in a deal. Did they look at my agent’s webpage and figure out the Bible’s author was a woman? Did the marketing departments nix publishing a novel whose female protagonist cracked such smutty jokes? I put that novel in a drawer and turned to writing serious domestic literature while I tried to explain to the students in my Jewish comic fiction class why our reading list included eleven male authors and three women.
Then, in 2005, a stunningly obscene documentary called The Aristocrats hit the screens. In the film, more than 100 comics are asked to discuss the significance of a hoary old story comedians have been trading for years. The story concerns a family of vaudevillians who pitch their incestuous, scatological act to a talent agent. There’s no punch line; the object is for the comedian to shock his comrades with the escalating vulgarity of each detail. Although the majority of the comedians interviewed in the documentary were men, the director included nine or ten female comics, among them Phyllis Diller, Carrie Fisher, Whoopi Goldberg, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, Rita Rudner, Wendy Liebman, and Margaret Cho. Best of all, the comedian who stole the show—and upstaged all the male comics—was sweet-faced, baby-voiced Sarah Silverman, who tells the joke as if it were a true story about her experiences as a child performing in her family’s act. In what turns out to be the most prophetic punch line in history, Silverman finishes the joke by claiming the talent agent raped her.
Like every other female comedian who works blue, Sarah Silverman owes an unpayable debt to such aforementioned pioneers as Belle Barth and Rusty Warren (as well as the brilliant black comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who not only joked about sex and racism but came out as a lesbian in the 1920s), along with later trailblazers such as Roseanne Barr, Kate Clinton, and Lily Tomlin. But the audience for Silverman’s outrageous brand of shock humor might have remained miniscule if not for the success of Bridesmaids. When the movie came out, some feminist critics wondered if all it did was demonstrate women could engage in the same juvenile gross-out humor for which male directors like Judd Apatow had long been famous. But this was no small feat, given that the movie proved both genders found Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig funny enough to shell out ten or fifteen bucks to see them. If not for the commercial success of Bridesmaids, we might never have been blessed with the comedic genius of Amy Schumer, Leslie Jones, Abbi Jacobson, or Ilana Glazer.
In the seven years since Bridesmaids appeared, female writers and performers of all kinds have felt the loosening of the old restrictions. In 2014, I received an email from an editor who previously had turned down The Bible of Dirty Jokes; she couldn’t stop thinking about my characters and wanted to publish the novel. On a recent first date, a man I liked challenged me to tell my favorite dirty joke. Warily, I told my father’s story about a woman who goes to a doctor to get inoculated for a cruise. After a series of misunderstandings in which the doctor castigates the woman for her limited vocabulary and faulty knowledge of human anatomy, the doctor asks what disease the woman wants to be inoculated against. “Smallcox,” the woman tells him. “Smallcox?” the doctor says. “Don’t you mean smallpox?” To which the woman replies, “Doctor, you might have a very fancy way with words. You might even know a great deal about anatomy. But you don’t know the first thing about women, do you?” And lo and behold, my date laughed so hard he nearly drove us off the road.
Not everyone sees the success of female comics who work blue as a victory. My friend Joy thinks female comics have done nothing but lower the tone of our public discourse even further than male comics—and our current president—already lowered it. And Joy might have a point. If a woman insists on remaining in the room when a dirty joke is being told, even if she insists on telling the joke herself, isn’t her butt still the butt that’s being laughed at, or even spanked?
In their introduction to the recent scholarly tome Woman and Comedy: History, Theory, Practice, the editors opine that the hallmark of female comedy should be an affinity for attacking the powerful and dismantling barriers. Feminist humor might originate in anger, but the comedian transforms her rage into a challenge to her opponent. “Women’s humor has a purpose beyond sheer entertainment,” the editors write. “As stand-up comedian Elayne Boosler explained, ‘The best who stand up, stand up for something.’”
As much as I admire Elayne Boosler, the first female comic to get her own hour-long special on cable TV, reading that list of requirements for female comedy makes me want to jam a vibrator in my eye. The freedom to stand up on a stage and tell the truth about women’s lives is a cause in itself. Female comedians, by their very existence, break down the myth that women are incapable of belching, peeing, defecating, or sucking on a dick, myths that have been used to “protect” women from violating their purity by working in a factory, serving in the armed forces, competing in an Olympic sport, or pretty much anything except standing on a pedestal looking pretty.
Looking back, I’m not bothered by my propensity to tell dirty jokes to men, or even by their disapproval. What bothers me is that I told such jokes to win their approval in the first place. When Toni Morrison traveled to Africa, she realized writers there don’t write with a white audience in mind, the way she had always done in America. From then on, she decided she would write for black readers. If white readers happened to enjoy or be enlightened by her work, fine, but she didn’t care about their reaction.
Female comedians can take a cue from Morrison and gear their acts to a female audience. If the men in the audience refuse to laugh, if they strip the comedian with their eyes, if they fantasize about having sex with her—the comedian can refuse to care.
This isn’t some minor victory. The rise of female comics who work blue has paved the way for actors, singers, directors, and literary writers like me to break the rules of propriety that once constrained us, and for ordinary women to step out of the shadows and give voice to the previously unspeakable truths about their lives. Which might be the most important lesson I learned growing up at my grandparents’ hotel: even a guest with a number tattooed on her arm could gain a victory by turning the Nazis into jokes.