Can Old-School Jewish Humor Survive in the Future?

Illustration for article titled Can Old-School Jewish Humor Survive in the Future?

Get Smart is essentially the comedy equivalent of one of William Gibson's recent novels. It's present-day science fiction, filled with superspies and high-tech gadgets that just might exist in real life if you squint. Looked at from that perspective, you'd think the film would be a slam-dunk. Steve Carell plays the nerdy klutz Maxwell Smart who saves the world, Heroes' Masi Oka has a bit part as the cute engineer who makes a buggy cone of silence, and kicky Anne Hathaway plays Maxwell's sidekick Agent 99. And the tone of the flick is generally true to Mel Brooks and Buck Henry's original schmendrick-as-hero tone. So what made this fun little movie movie fall short? I think it's because the old-school Catskills Jewish humor of the original clashes so intensely with what is ultimately a zany, futuristic tale. (Spoilers ahead.)


Consider Get Smart alongside the summer's other goofy Jewish spy flick: Don't Mess with the Zohan. Like Smart, Zohan is a Jewish intelligence agent on a series of wacky adventures. The difference is that Zohan comes from the contemporary world: He's an Israeli ninja, fleeing contemporary political intrigue. He's openly Jewish, makes hummos jizz jokes, and basically takes the whole wacky Jewboy thing to its extreme. It works because we exist in a world where Israelis are, in fact, super-ninjas of the intelligence community. This is contemporary Jewish humor: It acknowledges that Jews can be tough, but that they might in fact aspire to be something else. You know, like hairdressers.

But the original Get Smart comes from a time when Jewish identity, and Jewish humor, were tickled by a very different set of issues in the West. It was an era when Jews in the U.S. were still struggling to be seen as anything other than mouth-breathing nerds or commie spies. Maxwell Smart is a Jew from that era: He's a total dork who struggles to be a super-agent. In fact, he's not even openly a Jew, though every Jew who watched that show knew what was up. (Jewish pranksters Mel Brooks and Buck Henry created the show, and a ton of Jewish guys worked on it as writers.) What's jarring about the movie remake is how little the writers tried to update the humor.


The new Get Smart film's references to nudniks, and Alan Arkin's hilarious hand-wavey schtick, seem retro because they are still the covert Jewish jokes of the 1960s. They are straight from an era when Hollywood Jews were closety about their ethnic backgrounds. Despite the fact that the Get Smart TV show featured a robot named Hymie and was packed with Yiddish references, you can bet that most of its audience had no idea they were giggling at Jewish humor. To update Get Smart for a new generation, the writers needed to make all that old-school covert Jewishness into something hilariously overt, or just get rid of it.

The anachronistic Jewish humor of Get Smart is indicative of the film's entire problem, which is that it can't decide whether to be a futuristic spy satire, or to pay homage to a bygone era. It strikes an awkward balance, incorporating a post-feminist Agent 99 (who is Maxwell Smart's boss this time around) and a black Agent (Dwayne Johnson, who turns out to be the bad guy, so much like a schwartze, nu?). And then are the two nerds, including Oka, who are supposed to represent the iPod generation but unfortunately figure very little into the plot. Basically we're left with a temporally-challenged satire.

Get Smart also tries unsuccessfully to update the Cold War scenario with KAOS vs. CONTROL. There are a ton of funny places they could have gone with this. KAOS could have evolved into the Russian mafia, or could have joined up with those cartoonish "terrorists" from Iron Man. And CONTROL could have been absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security. Whatever — I'm not asking you to give me a writing job in Hollywood, I'm just saying there are a lot of funny ways they could have updated the Cold War humor and they didn't. It was still basically KGB vs. CIA, and the premise fell as flat as a Shelley Berman routine would today.

I'm not saying the movie wasn't fun — it was, especially for a person like me who grew up with a family that worshiped Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx. Will it work for a generation that loves Sarah Silverman, the Beastie Boys and Adam Sandler? Probably not — but it missed by this much.


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Annalee Newitz

@Tim Faulkner: I didn't say Zohan succeeded. I just said it was an example of contemporary Jewish humor. In the sense that it's aiming to be contemporary Jewish humor, it does well.