By Jeff Friedman ‘19
I get to tell jokes for my summer research. And I don’t mean pun-making before hunkering down to grind out an experiment. I mean I literally get to tell jokes and do research about it.
Not just any jokes—à la the interdisciplinary nature of the liberal arts, I’m researching the history of Jewish humor, comedy that deals with tragic topics like the Holocaust, and making (less grave) jokes of my own all the while. And Pomona is actually funding me for it.
Through Pomona’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), just about anything is possible in the realm of research. So long as the student shows an intellectual passion. And the project shows serious academic focus. For the most part.
SURP has two major prongs. Students can either apply to be a research assistant for a professor’s already-existing project, or they can design their own independent project and select a Pomona professor to advise them on the process. I designed my own, but, before I knew it, it began to design itself.
The title of my project is “Close to Del Close: Historical Links Between Improvisational Comedy and Jewish Humor.” I developed this idea with the guidance of the amazing Carolyn Ratteray, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at Pomona.
I met Carolyn (ever since she introduced herself as “Carolyn,” I’ve never considered calling her “Professor”) on the first day of her basic acting class the spring of my first year.
Then, in the spring of my sophomore year, she cast me in her play “In Love and Warcraft,” a Theatre Department showthat explored asexuality and the ever-popular role-playing computer game. Carolyn and I have grown close over my years at Pomona, and she jumped on board immediately when I told her about my research ideas.
Carolyn also hosted an interview with Jason Alexander of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and other landmarks of Jewish humor’s rich history over Family Weekend in spring 2017. It was at this event that I grew interested in researching this topic. During the Q and A with students, I asked Mr. Alexander if he had a strong Jewish identity of his own and whether that affects his character work as an actor. Though viewers may associate Mr. Alexander with Judaism, he has little to no Jewish identity of his own. His answer surprised me and got me thinking about the use of stereotypes in humor.
In her Basic Acting class, Carolyn also introduced me to the amazing world of improvisational comedy. With the help of Pomona’s sponsorship, I’ve had multiple opportunities to take improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre—first in New York through the Theatre Department’s Curtain Raisers Scholarship Program, then in Los Angeles through SURP this summer.
And then I found the connection between these two passions of mine: improvisation is a hallmark trait of Jewish humor. Not only is Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm highly improvisational, but this tradition goes back to the Catskills comedians, vaudeville, even to groups of concentration camp prisoners who sat around planning hypothetical and highly unlikely dinner parties.
My SURP has three major components—academic research, improv classes and performance, and a series of interviews. On the academic side, I’ve centered my research on Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse’s book No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, and had the pleasure of interviewing her last week. I’m enrolled in “Improv 301: Harold Structure” at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles. I’ve also interviewed a variety of entertainers with some air of Jewishness—standup comedians like Marla Schultz, Steve Mittleman, Lou Charloff of “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” and Mark Schiff; writer-producer Billy Riback; actors Tom Gallop and Richard Kind; and Pomona’s faculty novelist Jonathan Lethem—with the promise of hearing from Jason Alexander in the near future.
And if you’re like my mother and are wondering what I plan to do with all this “research,” I intend to turn it into my senior thesis project in media studies. Bachelor of Arts, here I come.