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Comment: The item shows wear from consistent use, but it remains in good condition and works perfectly. All pages and cover are intact (including the dust cover, if applicable). Spine may show signs of wear. Pages may include limited notes and highlighting. May include "From the library of" labels.
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The Haunted Smile: The Story Of Jewish Comedians In America Paperback – December 17, 2002

4.4 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Epstein (A Treasury of Jewish Anecdotes) has done yeoman work to make this enormous subject accessible. His saga includes nearly all the top-level Jewish-American comedians, from the Marx Brothers and Allen Sherman to Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld. Their stories are contextualized by era: the vaudeville years of immigrant America; the rise of radio and the Borscht Belt before 1950; the "years of acceptance," when Jews entered the mainstream on TV and on stand-up stages; and "the years of triumph" for Jewish comics and filmmakers since the mid-'60s. Epstein offers keen psychoanalysis: many early successful comics had weak fathers who failed in the New World, but ambitious mothers; Mort Sahl's breakthrough suggested that "political and social needs transcended the private needs of audience members." But the book can be enjoyed simply for the funny bits resurrected in the author's mini-profiles. He includes a chapter on Jewish woman comics and an appendix on the Yiddish roots of Jewish humor. Thorough as it is, though, it ignores some contemporary standouts and understandably only touches on the Jewish contribution to situation comedy. Aalthough Epstein speculates that Jewish comics might be able to "enhance the distinctly Jewish culture surviving in America," his definition of what makes comedy Jewish suggests that this question will linger. Seinfeld's language betrays "a distinctly urban and distinctly Jewish approach to dealing with anxiety," and the show's title made no attempt to hide his Jewish name, Epstein states, hinting that the "longstanding tension between Jewish and American identities" is partly overcome because the characters are too adolescent to choose one over the other. (Oct.)Forecast: While this title will not have readers schlepping to the bookstore in great numbers, its historical angle makes it unique, and it should do well on the Jewish circuit.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Early in this entertaining book, Epstein argues that Jewish comedians have "fulfilled a special mission in American life . . . [mediating] between Jews and American culture." It is an intriguing assertion, but one Epstein never fully develops. Instead, he focuses on saying something about every major Jewish comedian to hit the big time in America, from the early days of vaudeville to last year's TV season. This makes for fascinating, if gossipy, reading. Epstein excels at digging up obscure, funny stories about famous comics. His account of the rise of the comedians who made it big on radio--George Burns, Jack Benny, and the others--is especially fascinating. His analysis of Burns and Allen's on-stage chemistry as a Jewish man and an Irish-Catholic woman who together were hilarious, and of how their on-stage personas influenced their work and success, constitutes one of the book's highlights. Those looking for a deeper meditation on the nature of comedy and Jewish identity, however, will have to go elsewhere. Jack Helbig
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (December 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586481622
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586481629
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #253,621 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 13, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is one of only a few books which, after having read it, I wish I had written it. Of course, I am wholly unqualified to undertake such a task. However, I would have thoroughly enjoyed completing the research required and taken full advantage of every opportunity to interview, personally, as many of the Jewish comedians as possible. Also, as many as possible of the (non-performing) Jewish writers of comedy such as Larry David, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon. In a brilliant Introduction, Epstein observes: "The story of Jewish comedians in America is one of triumph and success. But their stage smile is tinged with sadness. It is haunted by the Jewish past, by the deep stains in American Jewish life -- the desire to be accepted and the concern for a culture disappearing -- by the centuries of Jewish life too frequently interrupted by hate, and by the knowledge that too often for Jewish audiences, a laugh masked a shudder. The comedians' story in America includes bitter encounters with anti-Semitism and the lures of an attractive culture along the way. The jokes these comedians told, their gags, and their nervous patter need to be set alongside the obstacles they overcame."

In this volume, Epstein combines the skills of a disciplined historian and cultural anthropologist with a writing style which has Snap! Crackle! and Pop! Obviously, he also delights in the comic art of so many who "exemplified two great themes of American Jewish life: assimilation and the search for an American Jewish identity....Also, they made Jews proud" while entertaining them as well as ever-increasing numbers of others who also went to the movies, turned on radios and then television sets, sat in nightclubs of various sizes, and bought albums.
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By A Customer on October 9, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the complete history of Jewish comedians in America. It is both funny and perceptive. What struck me most was Epstein's assertion that America's Jewish comedians have from the very beginning used their wonderful comic skills to help themselves -- and all Americans -- through difficult times. It's a lesson that holds true even now. Especially now. Epstein's scholarship is impressive, and the great comic routines and one-liners kept me laughing and wanting more, more, more. I highly recommend it.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is full of history, anecdotes, personal stories, samples from comedians' stand-up material and movie dialog, and immigrant sociology and circumstances. He even gives details tying Yiddish language to Jewish American humor. He tells of vaudeville artists adapting to radio, then tv. So many details provided! At first I was not going to buy it (I am a frugal African American who buys paperbacks), but I am glad I did. Also, at first, I thought it was going to be too scholarly and dry, but once I got INTO IT -- I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN!! BUY IT, BUY IT, BUY IT! And share it with your friends.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is masterfully written and sheer joy to read : a truly remarkable blend of laughter and insight. Just in time for the Holiday season, Dr. Epstein has given us all an evergreen gift: I've read this treasure trove three times over and keep finding golden nuggets of delight. And believe me, it will be as welcome under the Christmas tree as alongside the Chanukah menorah as this Season's perfect present!
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Format: Paperback
I just finished reading "The Haunted Smile" and I loved it! I thought it was a perfect combination of history, story telling and wonderfully applicable joke excerpts. Not only did I laugh but I learned a great deal about the history of Jewish comedians in America and about the Jews who immigrated here as well. As a 30-year-old Jew living in America, I've never experienced the same issues which my great grandmother experienced upon immigrating to the United States. I remember her speaking Yiddish but I never could fully appreciate her sacrifices. This made me understand her background a little better and made me proud to be part of a people who took adversity and turned it into laughs. What a beautiful weapon!
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a positive review, but I'm going to start with a word of caution: The cover of the book says it all. The author explains the history and influences that makes our favorite comedians tick. While there are lots of laughs in these words, this is a very studious and serious analysis of how the history of Jews has impacted their humor. If you're looking for a whole bunch of Jewish humor, you're looking in the wrong place.

Nonetheless, this was a fabulous read for smart people. It explains in wonderful detail the method and thinking and history of the icons of humor in America, Jewish or not. But the reason for four instead of five stars is the depths the author went to in making his point. At times, the amount of detail put me to sleep. This is a great book to read before your next dinner party. Tons of great antidotes about the comedy heroes that I want to tell all my friends!
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By Kate on November 15, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I loved the jokes and stories in the book. I thought I knew a lot about comedians, but there was an incredible amount of new information and interesting explanations in this book. It's a great pleasure to read, too. What struck me most, though, was how the emotional struggles the comedians went through and how they used humor to cope with their fear and anger seems similar to the emotional struggles we're going through as Americans right now.
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