It’s the unkindest thing one can say about a dead comedian, but it’s the sad truth: Milton Berle wasn’t that funny. At least, his work doesn’t stand the test of time. He practiced a brand of physical comedy—all pratfalls, cross-dressing, and sight gags—that thrived in the ratings for about three years in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. His style worked marvelously on small fuzzy TV sets. His mania sliced through the static. Bob Hope once quipped, “I think he ought to be investigated by the Atomic Energy Commission.” But as the sets got bigger, the picture clearer, Uncle Miltie increasingly seemed overwrought, a vaudevillian out of his element. There was a reason that he was left hosting Jackpot Bowling at the end of the ‘50s.
In truth, Berle’s greatness has little to do with his demented energy or the way he tumbled over a couch or cracked wise about his wife. His greatness has to do with the strange fact of his celebrity: Television’s first star was an unabashed Jew, a very Jewy Jew.
Before television, there was vaudeville, and Berle took a turn on the circuit. Nostalgia for this time began as soon as the era ended. But the troupes of performing Jews who toured the American hinterland were essentially minstrels. Some practiced a form of dialect comedy that made merciless fun of Yiddish accents. (Fanny Brice had to learn her famous mama-loshen shtick.) Others, take Jack Benny and Groucho Marx, appropriated Jewish stereotypes—the cheap Jew, the bookish Jew—and made them the essence of their comedy.
There was an element of this in Berle’s work, too. It was undeniably funny to hear him pepper his gags with words like tuchus or kishkas. But there was no self-consciousness about his use of Yiddish. Unlike Benny, whose TV character celebrated Christmas, Berle didn’t think twice about referring to the holiday of Sukkot, or as he called it “Sukkos.” It was just the way a kid from Upper Manhattan talked, not a play to his audience’s stereotypes. Sure, he’d humiliate himself for a laugh. But with his physicality, his tall frame, his too-confident demeanor, his seeming strength, he was the anti-Woody Allen, the unnebbish.
Berle was a Jewish star for his times. He rejected the ethos of the Hollywood moguls like Louis Mayer and Adolph Zukor, who, as Neal Gabler’s book An Empire of Their Own shows, did everything in their power to abnegate their identities and promote assimilation. And Berle had an identity that jibed with the Zionist post-Holocaust Zeitgeist, the moment that Jews cracked the academy’s quotas and shattered the boardroom’s exclusionary policies. Long before Joe Lieberman, Berle showed that you could exist as Jew in the mainstream without changing your identity or assimilating.
The networks didn’t agree. By the end of the ‘60s, the ethos of the Hollywood moguls returned. As television ceased to be a seat-of-the-pants experimental medium, the suits decided that Jews couldn’t sell in the hinterlands. Berle, Sid Ceasar, and Phil Silvers were some of the stars the networks deemed too urban and too Jewish. When Carl Reiner produced a 1960 autobiographical pilot about his life, the executives insisted that he make his character less intellectual; they transported him away from New York and made him a goy. And Carl Reiner couldn’t play himself. The role went to Dick Van Dyke and it became The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Aside from Lenny Bruce, who lives in myth, this brief golden age of comedy has been largely consigned to the archives. Good luck even finding Berle or Silver on late-night reruns. But it’s worth remembering that Caesar and Berle had more latitude to joke about their ethnicity than Rhoda or Seinfeld. (While Jewish in a general sense, Seinfeld never expressed his identity in a more profound way than necking at a screening of Schindler’s List.) They were unworried about ethnic sensitivities, their own or others. Intuitively, they understood America to be a pretty tolerant place. If Hollywood had paid closer attention, it would have seen that the country had a Jewish uncle called Miltie. And even though he sometimes told some real stinkers—whose Jewish uncle doesn’t?—they loved him.