On March 1, Manhattan’s Center for Jewish History opened a new exhibit titled, “Professional Jokers: Jewish Jesters from the Golden Age of American Comedy.

On hand the night before, Leap Day 2016, were comedians Robert Klein, Alan Zweibel, 93 year old Larry Storch, Professor Eddy Portnoy, arist-illustrator-author Drew Friedman, and “surprise guest” Gilbert Gottfried, who reminisced about there lives in comedy and Milton Berle’s penis.

It just isn’t a night of Jewish comedy unless someone mentions a penis. Paul Shaffer also popped by.

The small exhibit – which opens with a poster of Berle and a bust of Sholom Aleichem – is filled with record sleeves, photographs, playbills, board games, joke books, and performance posters from the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Groucho, Joan Rivers (yes, they did include a woman thank god), Rodney Dangerfield, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jan Murray, Milton Berle and lots more who have faded from current memory, as well as mementoes from a few dozen other funny Jews of the post WWII years.

The panel was more exciting than the exhibit. Plus after the panel, YIVO served sour pickles, assorted cookies, and salty chips. What stand up comedian could resist the lure of free snacks?

Zweibel, a writer for the launch of Saturday Night Live, recalled his start writing material for Catskills comedians for $7 a joke. His price later rose to $10 and $12. Decades late, some elderly comedians still use those $7 jokes in their current acts: every Freddie, Morty, Jackie, and Dickie. The first joke Zweibel wrote for Freddie Roman was about a Hasidic Orgy (Men on one side…).

Robert Klein reminisched about his start on stage at Alfred University in the Merchant of Venice. It was a joke he first used on The Tonight SHow with Carson. Lorne Michaels advised him that it was too Jewish, but it worked and launched his career higher. Klein also joked about how he saved Rodney Dangerfield from drowning at a gig in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Dangerfield took out a sailboat in a storm and ecstatically decided to jump into the Atlantic for a swim in 3 foot waves. Klein didnt know rudders or mainsails, he only knew Bronxells. Klein saved Dangerfield as Rodney was about to give up and drown. Klein related how Dangerfield had a habit of eating lustily and sloppily, wiping his face with bread while eating, and then eating the bread.

The panelists reinforced the idea that most comedians were damaged emotionally and had peculiar, edgy quirks. They recalled that Joe E. Ross (Car 54 Where Are You (ooo ooo ooo!), who had the look of a caveman, and the smell of one also, had a habit for marrying strippers and prostitutes, and divorcing them after they slept with his friends. Jack Carter, who recently passed away, was remembered for his humor and immense, loud anger and envy. Everyone had a Milton Berle story, and his behind the scenes behavior was not pretty. Zweibel recalled writing for Berle for an appearance on SNL. Zweibel told Berle that he had made a good amount of money writing jokes about his penis. Berle decided to open his short-length, dressing-room robe to show Zweibel his male organ, when Gilda Radner walked in.

It doesn’t get any more Golden Age than that.

The exhibit runs to May 1.

Coincidentally, at the Museum of the City of New York, there is a current exhiit for New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway A Menashe Skulnik playbill appears at both exhibits.

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