Ruth R. Wisse is seriously funny—emphasis on serious. She wrote a dissertation on the schlemiel. She teaches Yiddish and comparative literature, including a course on Jewish humor, at Harvard University. And once, upon meeting colleagues at the university’s Semitic Museum, she shared this joke told by an audience member at a synagogue where she’d recently spoken:

                Four Europeans go hiking together and get terribly lost.

                First they run out of food, then out of water.

                “I’m so thirsty,” says the Englishman. “I must have tea!”

                “I’m so thirsty,” says the Frenchman. “I must have wine.”

                “I’m so thirsty,” says the German. “I must have beer.”

                “I’m so thirsty,” says the Jew. “I must have diabetes.”

In No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, Wisse guides readers on a multifaceted exploration of the faults and virtues identified by generations of Jewish jokesters. What is Jewish humor? Well ... it’s complicated. It can be cerebral, self-deprecating, anxious or defiant. Examples may be found in the works of Sholem Aleichem, Issac Babel, Saul Bellow, Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry David, Rebbe Nachman, Moshe Nadir, Philip Roth, Sarah Silverman and Henny Youngman. And no matter where it develops—in the “Yiddish Heartland,” “The Anglosphere,” “Under Hitler and Stalin” or in Israel, the “Hebrew Homeland” (chapter titles all)—its existence is tightly bound to the levels of power held or imperilment experienced by the diaspora.

One of many threads Wisse follows in No Joke is that of the schlemiel, her character of expertise. The classic loser-as-winner character played an outsized role in Jewish literature and culture from its inception, born of a culture of extreme vulnerability (i.e., lacking a defensible homeland). “The schlemiel is a type of person who is foolish because he is innocent in two ways, innocent intellectually and innocent morally,” says Wisse. After Hitler, the establishment of Israel and the socioeconomic rise of Jews in the United States and elsewhere, the schlemiel evolves, perhaps. “This new kind of creature is laughable in his way but is no longer vulnerable to the same degree, so he can be held accountable for some of the things that happen to him,” she says. Take Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm. He’s the classic schlemiel since he’s the butt of his own jokes but something has changed. “One of Wisse Coverthe things that is striking is that...there is nothing morally innocent about this person any longer,” Wisse says. “He is unpleasant and insensitive and much of what happens to him he kind of deserves, whereas the classical schlemiel did not earn it, he was just made fun of because he was too good for his own good.”

Wisse notes that the rich, successful Larry David character is a far cry from his poverty-stricken, disenfranchised and persecuted source. Indeed, Jewish humor shone through in darkest hours—for example, an alternative maxim sprung from the German ghettos: “To the motto inscribed over the gate at Auschwitz, Arbeit macht frei, Jews added fun lebn: ‘Work liberates you—from life!’” Wisse writes. Hopefully, they who laugh, last—though Wisse wonders, wonderfully, whether there is a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to laughing at such bleakness.

When asked if her critical skills impede enjoyment of jokes, Wisse says, Ph.D. or non-, we approach jokes initially as listeners and potential laughers. (Analysis comes later, she says.)

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When it comes to Jewish humor, your level of engagement in the culture—where you’re from, when you’re from, if you are or aren’t—may determine the size of the laugh. “Freud makes a distinction between jokes directed by Jews at Jews and jokes directed at Jews by foreigners—not because the former are any kinder, but instead because Jews know the connection between their own faults and virtues,” she writes. It may also determine the material. “Jews joke differently in Yiddish than in English, differently among themselves than in the presence of non-Jews, and differently in constitutional democracies than in totalitarian states.” 

No matter where you’re coming from, No Joke stands to enrich one’s understanding of stand-up, sketch, story, et al. “I just really hope that people enjoy the book and learn something from it,” says Wisse. “If those two things can be combined then I will be very happy and lucky.”

Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @mlabrise.