Brow Beat

Difficult People May Not Be a Great Show, but Its Jewish Jokes Are Perfect

Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner talking about mezuzahs in Difficult People.


The Amy Poehler–produced Hulu original series Difficult People, which was just renewed for a second season, stars real-life pals Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner playing the meanest possible versions of their pop-culture loving selves. The show’s shtick revolves around their struggling comedy careers and how they can’t figure out why other people are succeeding where they’ve somehow failed. As a result, their alter-egos aren’t the nicest of people—their insults may be buried in references to Smash, but they still hurt—which sometimes makes the show a bit, well, difficult to watch. (The first episode featured a much discussed, criticized, and not particularly funny joke about Blue Ivy Carter.) The show overall is uneven—it feels like it would make a funny Web series that you’d share with your friends and enjoy telling people you liked before HBO bought it and ruined it—but there’s one thing it does perfectly: Jewish jokes. The jokes are just Jewish enough to feel like they’re not superficially offensive even as they unabashedly mock Jewish culture. And they somehow straddle the line between “too Jewish for goys to understand” and funny enough for that not to matter.

The first episode—five episodes are currently available on Hulu and new ones are released on Wednesdays—features Julie’s mom, playing a classic Jewish mom on steroids (she’s a therapist, of course), asking her daughter: “Did you get that article I sent you about Palestine, because I’m about to resend it.” (Don’t worry, it’s not just Israel; she also has thoughts on Lena Dunham.) Later on in that episode, Billy’s ex-boyfriend shows up to an Oscar party wearing a yarmulke and tells Billy he “started going to shul more.” SHUL! Shul is like the in-word for synagogue. (It’s actually the Yiddish word.) Just hearing that word on an edgy TV comedy is surprising, but the context it’s used in is perfect—a guy decides to become more religious so he starts wearing a yarmulke and calling synagogue shul. Sure, the jokes broadly target Jewish culture—for example, a mom obsessing over when she’ll have grandchildren—but they also spoof the minutiae of actual religious practice.

These aren’t the only top-notch Jewish jokes we’ve recently seen on TV; last month Slate’s Willa Paskin—singing the praises of Netflix’s great Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, wrote: “No piece of pop culture has been this Jewish since Seinfeld. There is a running joke involving a Shofar.” Difficult People takes the Jewish in-joke one step further. There are no shofars yet, but there’s a hilarious obsession with Yom Kippur (the entirety of the fourth episode takes place on the holiest of Jewish days, though not a moment of it is in a shul) and with Judaica—specifically mezuzahs, the boxes containing the prayer “Shema” that Jews affix to their doorposts.

In one episode, Billy goes on a tirade about how much he hates Judaica, using a clay mezuzah as the prime example; in another, he has a throwaway line about the number of mezuzahs on his brother’s (played by Fred Armisen) door. To be fair, there are a lot. Jokes about mezuzahs, let alone multiple jokes about multiple mezuzahs, are a rare breed on TV. When Curb Your Enthusiasm covered this territory, the joke was mostly about just how baffled Larry David was by the concept of the mezuzah—in the end, he hangs it up with a nail that had originally been used in The Passion of the Christ. But Difficult People doesn’t interrogate the absurdity of Judaica; it takes Judaica for granted, using it as fodder for offhand quips that are given as much heft as jokes about reality TV and Twitter. Now if the show can figure out how to make the non-Jewish jokes equally funny, Season 2 might just be great.