In celebration of the Jewish New Years (Happy Rosh Hashanah!), National New York Day, and Throwback Thursday, we would like to recognize some of the first Jewish comedians to hit NYC! Below are some of the very first stand-up comedians of Jewish descent that either was born in new york or got their start here, maybe both! Take a look…
Side Fact: Between the 1920’s and 1970’s there was a circuit of hotels along the Catskill Mountains in New York known as the “Borscht Belt,” where many Jewish comedians got their initial start performing for New York City vacationers; before moving on to greater recognition.
Lenny Bruce was born in New York and eventually returned after a short stint in California in order to establish himself as a comedian. Apparently, in 1947, Lenny earned $12 and a free spaghetti dinner for his first stand-up performance in Brooklyn! One of his most famous performances occurred in 1961 at Carnegie Hall during a massive blizzard. Recorded and later released as a 3 disc set, Albert Goldman, an American professor and author, described Lenny’s humor: “His idea was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall.”
Alan King (Irwin Alan Kniberg) was born, raised, and worked in New York City during the 1930’s through to the 21st century. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Alan King supposedly used humor to survive tough neighborhoods by performing impersonations on street corners for pennies as a child. The time came for him to drop out of high school and join many other Jewish comics at hotels in the Catskill Mountains. Known initially for a one-liner style, he adapted it to a more conversational style used in everyday life for his humor. Comedians such as Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry David attribute inspiration to him.
Rodney Dangerfield – Like many other Jewish comedians of the day, Jacob Cohen, aka Rodney Dangerfield, got his start performing at hotels along the Catskill Mountains in New York during the 1930’s. He became known eventually for his last-minute replacement of another act for The Ed Sullivan Show which led to a total of 35 appearances on The Tonight Show, and his one-liner style of standup comedy. He even made a clean entrance into the world of film comedy by starring in Caddyshack and Easy Money. His career in NYC is further remembered and intact at the longtime Upper East Side stand-up comedy venue aptly named Dangerfield’s.
Last but not least, some of the most recognized and honored names in female comedy, Fanny Brice, Barbra Streisand, and Bette Midler…
Fanny Brice – Born Fania Borach in 1891 in New York City, she became professionally known as Fanny Brice; an American comedian, singer, and actress with many stages, radio, and film appearances. Her initial start came with her headlining of Florenz Ziegfeld’s, “Ziegfeld Follies” in 1910 to 1911. In the 1921 Follies, Fanny sings “My Man” which becomes both a huge hit and her signature song. Later in 1930’s, she became a well-known radio presence as a bratty toddler named Snooks. She was such an anchor and inspiration for Jewish women in comedy that thirteen years after her death Barbra Streisand portrayed Fanny Brice on the Broadway stage in the 1964 musical Funny Girl, which eventually won Streisand an Oscar for her portrayal of Fanny in the 1968 film adaptation.
Barbra Streisand – One of the greatest names in American film, song, and acting, Barbra Streisand continues a career spanning six decades so far. Born in 1942 in Brooklyn, NY, she got her start by auditioning at the Bon Soir nightclub near MacDougal street in the 1960s, she was the opening for comedian Phyllis Diller. This helped gain her notoriety and self-confidence, so she began developing and improving her stage presence by speaking to the audience between songs in her Brooklyn-based style of humor. All of Barbra’s career has remained within singing, acting, and comedy; she is still kickin’ it as one of the greatest names alive!
Bette Midler – Not originally a New Yorker, but born in Honolulu by two New Jersey parents, Bette Midler landed her first professional onstage role in 1965 in Tom Eyen’s off-Broadway plays, which were children’s plays by day and an adult show by night. This is what begins to bring Bette into her musical comedy genre. As recently as starring in the Walt Disney comedy fantasy film, Hocus Pocus in 1993, Bette Midler has been a force in theatre, film, and musical comedy since her inception to Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof in the late 1960s. Perhaps her most well-known performance is of “Dr. Long John,” shown above. Please take a seat and open your ears for one of the greatest singer, songwriter, actress, and comedians of all time.
Be sure to catch the next generation of comedians at Stand Up NY, with shows every night of the week and a special show, Bring It!, pairing New and Pro comics every Saturday night at 5 pm. Stand Up NY also hosts an open mic for anyone hoping to test their material.
Hope you enjoyed this rundown of some of the big names in NYC Jewish Comedy pre-2000s! Happy Rosh Hashanah!