The Top 20 Jewish Comedians of All-Time
Picking only 20 was hard. Comedy is just something Jews do well. I once asked Jon Lovitz, one of many comedians left off the list, why the comedy circuit was dominated by Jews, a people who only make up 2% of the American population and 0.227% of the world's population. He said, "To be funny, you have to suffer, suffer, suffer. Jews, blacks, we've suffered a lot in the past. That makes us funny, I guess."
1. Jon Stewart
Born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, America's foremost political satirist is also a crossword puzzle enthusiast. He even proposed to his future wife, a shicksa (that's Yiddish for a female non-Jew), through a personalized puzzle created with the help of the crossword editor at The New York Times. Who said being the host of a cable talk show doesn't have its perks?
Jon Stewart on how his wife's Catholicism balances with his Judaism: "We're raising the children to be sad."
2. Groucho Marx
Born Julius Henry Marx, the most famous Marx brother will always be known for his thick greasepaint mustache, which has been parodied in countless movies and TV shows. According to lore, the mustache originated during a vaudeville performance when the young performer did not have the time to paste on a fake one. He grew a real mustache prior to hosting You Bet Your Life, which he kept for the rest of his life.
Groucho's retort when his daughter was restricted access into a country club pool (Jews were not allowed in most country clubs at the time): "But my daughter's only half-Jewish. Can she go in up to her waist?"
3. Billy Crystal
A lifelong Yankees fan, Billy Crystal signed a one-day minor league contract with the club in March of 2008 and played in a spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Crystal struck out in his only at bat, but managed to foul off a couple of fastballs. You think his teammates gave him tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) for wearing a Mets cap in City Slickers?
Billy Crystal on being Jewish: "I'm comfortable being old... being black... being Jewish."
4. Adam Sandler
The story of You Don't Mess with the Zohan, about a former Israeli assassin who fakes his own death to pursue a career as a hairdresser, is one Adam Sandler knows well. The character was loosely based on a hairstylist and former Israeli soldier the actor once knew. (Want to hear Sandler sing in Hebrew? Check out our post here and listen to his version of "Hine Ma Tov.")
Although Adam Sandler is a vocal supporter of Israel, and although You Don't Mess with the Zohan is supposed to be set in Israel, the production barely set foot in the Holy Land. Only one exterior shot was filmed in Tel Aviv. When Sandler was in the shot, it was filmed in Mexico.
5. Jackie Mason
This famously outspoken comedian, born Yacov Moshe Maza, never shied away from controversy. His most famous outburst occurred in 1964 when he was banned from The Ed Sullivan Show after allegedly giving the host the finger during a live broadcast. At the time, Sullivan's weekly variety show was the most popular program on television and it took nearly a decade for Mason's career to recover.
Jackie Mason on being Jewish: "I am as Jewish as a matzo ball or kosher salami."
6. Sarah Silverman
Some call her the female Lenny Bruce. But to those who know her best, she's just Sarah. Silverman was fired via fax after her first year as a writer/performer on Saturday Night Live and eventually moved on to stand-up. Her on-stage persona of a naive yet bigoted Jewish girl gives her permission to go against the grain with jokes like: "Of course the best time to get pregnant is when you're a black teenager."
Sarah Silverman on her religion: "I have no religion. But culturally I can't escape it; I'm very Jewish."
7. Jerry Seinfeld
The creator of the most popular sitcom on America television is also an avid automobile enthusiast. He owns one of the most extensive Porsche collections in the world and even rented a hangar at the Santa Monica Airport to store some of the vehicles in collection. Money may not buy you happiness, but it could certainly help with rising gas prices.
Jerry Seinfeld on what he would call himself if he changed his Jewish-sounding name: "Well, I would keep my last name, so as not to offend my parents and I would have to go with Jesus."
8. Larry David
To Seinfeld aficionados he's the voice of George Steinbrenner, but to fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm, he's just Larry—neurotic, misanthropic and incredibly self-centered. The show's popularity has even spawned the term "Larry David moment," meaning one who inadvertently causes a socially awkward situation.
Larry David on being a self-loathing Jew: "Hey, I may loathe myself, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I'm Jewish."
9. Sacha Baron Cohen
A graduate of Cambridge University, Sacha Baron Cohen wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights movement and often juxtaposes his own Jewish lineage with his Borat character, an anti-Semitic reporter from Kazakhstan. For instance, throughout the Borat movie the character is not speaking Kazakh, as one might think, but Hebrew, which Cohen speaks fluently.
If I were a rich man: He acted in a stage version of Fiddler on the Roof while attending Cambridge.
10. Mel Brooks
Like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky, started out as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. He eventually moved on to film where he wrote, directed and starred in some of the most revered comedies of the last half-century, including 1981's History of the World Part I, which spawned the unlikely dance hit, "It's Good to Be King."
3 Reichs and you're out: His directorial debut, 1968's The Producers, is about the staging of a play called "Springtime for Hitler".
11. Lenny Bruce
The most obscene comic of his day covered a variety of themes, but mostly anything deemed inappropriate. Born Leonard Alfred Schneider, Lenny Bruce was never far from controversy and was arrested on obscenity charges several times throughout his career. By the time of his death of a drug overdose in 1966, nearly every nightclub in the country had blacklisted Bruce. He's lately received somewhat of a resurgence and in 2003 was granted the first posthumous pardon in New York history.
Lenny Bruce on being Jewish and living in New York: "If you live in New York, you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you're going to be goyish even if you're Jewish."
12. George Burns
At the spry young age of 79, George Burns, born Nathan Birnbaum, enjoyed a career resurrection few performers ever experience. He won an Oscar in 1975 for Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, and followed that with Oh God! in 1977. Although Burns had not acted in a film since 1939, Neil Simon was adamant about having a Jewish comedian in the role. Clearly the gamble paid off.
Shame, shame, shame: His 1926 marriage to Gracie Allen, who was Irish Catholic, was considered daring for those times and had to be done in secrecy.
13. Gilda Radner
The Detroit native became famous as one of the original "Not Ready for Prime Time Player," on the first season of Saturday Night Live. Throughout her five-year run on the show, Radner created such memorable characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Baba Wawa, and Rhonda Weiss, the "Jewish American Princess." Although few details were made public at the time, Radner had a brief fling with fellow SNL cast mate Bill Murray. Details of the failed relationship are recounted in her autobiography, It's Always Something .
Gilda Radner as Rhonda Weiss: "You don't have to be Jewish to wear Jewess Jeans. But it wouldn't hurt."
14. Bette Midler
Bette Midler was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she was one of the few Jewish girls in a mostly Asian neighborhood. At the age of 20, Bette relocated to New York, where she would go on to play Tzeitel in the Broadway version of Fiddler on the Roof. She would later hone her comedic acting chops in Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People.
Bette Midler on childhood: "I grew up an ugly, fat little Jewish girl with problems."
15. Moe Howard
Born Moses Harry Horwitz, Moe Howard became famous as the helmet-headed member of the greatest slapstick comedy team of all time. He acquired his unusual bowl cut hairstyle as a boy when he impulsively clipped off his curls. The Stooges just wouldn't be the Stooges with two Curlys.
N'yuck, N'yuck, N'yuck: His favorite Stooges film, You Nazty Spy!, was one of several topical anti-Nazi movies they made during the 1940s.
16. Seth Rogen
At 16 Seth Rogen landed a supporting role on Judd Apatow's short-lived series, Freaks and Geeks. It was the beginning of a professional relationship that would pair the two in nearly every Apatow-produced movie since. He is even rumored to play Curly Howard in the upcoming Three Stooges movies. Strangely enough, Judd Apatow has no involvement in the project.
Seth's character in the 2005 film, The 40 Year Old Virgin: "I touched a guy's balls at Hebrew school once."
17. Andy Samberg
Andy Samberg, born David Andrew, cites Mel Brooks as his inspiration for becoming a comedian. In 2005, shortly after becoming a featured player on Saturday Night Live, his hip hop parody, Lazy Sunday, became such a sensation on the Internet that his digital shorts are now a show standard.
Andy Samberg on his Judaism: "I'm going home for Passover, but I don't really go balls out with it."
18. Peter Sellers
He may be best known for playing Chief Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. But Peter Sellers, born Richard Henry Sellers, was also a master at playing multiple characters. He played three roles in the black comedy Dr. Strangelove, and was even scheduled to play a fourth role as Air Force Major T.J. "King" Kong. However, Sellers bowed out after failing to capture the character's Texas accent.
But was he kosher? Although Sellers was half Jewish, he defended Hitler's favorite director, Leni Riefenstahl, and even championed her documentary on the dictator titled Triumph of the Will.
19. Woody Allen
Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg, the comedic prodigy began writing jokes for Sid Caeser at the age of 15. He recently scored $5 million from American Apparel from a lawsuit after the company placed several billboards and online ads using an image of Allen dressed as a Hasidic Jew in his 1977 movie Annie Hall.
Woody Allen on the three things all Jewish people worship: "God, Chinese food and wall-to-wall carpeting."
20. Howard Stern
The self-described "King of All Media" has made an entire career out of exploiting strippers and midgets, setting the bar low for radio shock jocks. Since moving to Sirius Satellite Radio in 2006, Stern has become the highest paid radio personality in the United States and was even named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine. Although both of his parents are Jewish, Stern often tells his listeners he's "half-Jewish"—the other half being Italian.
Stern on why he tells people he's half Jewish: "It's very hard to be Jewish in this country. My half Jewish side has been beaten with chains."