Follow TV Tropes


Borscht Belt

Go To
Vadda you know from funny?

"It's Yiddish. An older generation of comics uses it to further distance itself from a young audience."
Cornfed, Duckman

"Borscht Belt" is a style of Jewish comedy. The actual Borscht Belt is a region in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that was a popular resort destination in the 1920s through the 1970s for Jews who were excluded from other resorts. Due to the heavily Ashkenazi ancestry of New York Jews, the area is named for borscht, a type of beet soup popular in Central and Eastern Europe.

It was common for families to stay at such a resort for a month or more in summer, with the men working in the city during the week and driving out on Friday afternoons; this meant that even with performers moving between resorts, there was a constant need to develop fresh material since you'd be performing in front of the same audience every couple weeks. That made it an ideal training ground for radio and TV.

The Jewish comedians who performed at these resorts developed a style of humor that became very popular in the entertainment industry. Borscht Belt humor is characterized by stereotypical Jewish traits, such as Self-Deprecation, insults, complaints, marital bickering, Hypochondria, wordplay and liberal use of Yiddish. The Alter Kocker character type was developed here as well. The sterotypical attire includes a cigar, combover and cheap tuxedo.

Comedians who have worked in the Borscht Belt or have used the style of comedy include:

Compare Vaudeville and Burlesque.

Works featuring Borscht Belt comedy or characters include:

    open/close all folders 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Coming to America features Eddie Murphy performing as an old New York Jew who tells a classic Borscht Belt joke: An old Jew asks a waiter to taste his soup, refusing to elaborate further. The waiter finally agrees to taste it and asks where the spoon is. The Jew smiles and says, "Ah ha!"
  • In Goodfellas, Henry and Karen watch Henny Youngman after their famous steady-cam walk into the theater. He tells the classic joke, "I take my wife everywhere, but she finds her way home!" Youngman's trouble with his lines was the biggest obstacle to getting the shot.
  • Any role played by Mel Brooks in his own movies is most likely an example. Most notable though is the Rabbi in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
  • In The Princess Bride, Miracle Max and his wife are borscht belt-style characters, with their shrill bickering, haggling over money, complaining, and Yiddish accents.
  • Dirty Dancing is set at a Borscht Belt resort, though Borscht Belt comedy does not play a major role in the movie.
  • In Mr. Saturday Night, Buddy Young is a Borscht Belt comedian who made it big.
  • In A Walk on the Moon, a vast majority of the film is set in a Borscht Belt bungalow colony during the summer of 1969. There is a brief scene where several of the parents are in a ballroom watching a Borscht Belt comic: "Now I want to invite you all up on the floor to dance, because it's my turn to laugh!"
  • Catskill from Heartbeeps is a standup comedian robot modeled after a bad Borscht Belt comedian, complete with a database full of horrible Henny Youngman style jokes.
  • Mel Brooks' History of the World Part I features a lot of Borscht Belt style comedy, including a sequence where Brooks plays a stand-up comedian in ancient Rome. There are cameos by a number of Borscht Belt comedians, including Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason and Henny Youngman.
  • The blacklisted comedian Hecky Brown is forced to return to working the Borscht Belt in The Front.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Alan interviewed a Borscht Belt style comedian in the Las Vegas episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. This being Alan, he failed to get most of the comedian's humor and then told an offensive Jewish joke.
  • Buddy on The Dick Van Dyke Show is a former Borscht Belt comedian turned comedy scriptwriter.
  • In F Troop, the Hekawi tribe is built around Borscht Belt characterizations and played by Jewish actors.
  • Robert Smigel's Triumph the Insult Comic Dog character is based on a particularly blue Borscht Belt persona, as evidenced by his accent and use of Yiddish, such as "schtupping."
  • Jimmy Barrett from Mad Men is an old-school Jewish insult comic. His Jerkass persona gets him in trouble starting with his Establishing Character Moment and he seems pretty unhappy, but he gets to deliver a scathing "The Reason You Suck" Speech to Don for sleeping with his wife.
  • The Nanny often indulges in Borscht Belt comedy, being centered around its Jewish-American protagonist.
  • The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Midge's family goes on vacation in a Jewish resort in the Catskills every summer. During her first summer after starting her stand-up comedy career, she tries to stick to her normal traditions, but is eventually pressed by Susie into doing gigs at the local Borscht Belt resorts. Her first gig ends up being a "naughty" late-night spot at the Concord where she's expected to "work blue," and after its success, she ends up working a few more gigs at other resorts.
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch has a subplot in one episode where Hilda puts on a "Borscht Belt," which is an actual belt that forces her to tell these types of jokes ("I took my ex-wife everywhere. It was easier than having to kiss her goodbye!") and she ends up with a stand-up routine on the Other Realm network.
  • British comedy brothers Mike and Bernie Winters, both London Jews, had a strong streak of Borscht Belt, or perhaps in this case Cockney Kosher, running through their act, which was a well-loved mainstay of British TV variety shows in The '60s and The '70s.

    Puppet Shows 

  • NPR's Yiddish Radio Project featured recordings of radio broadcasts from Yiddish-language radio stations in the New York City area. Many of these excerpts feature Borscht Belt style comedy, especially a comedy routine based upon commercials for the Joe and Paul Clothing Store, which was frequently performed in the Borscht Belt.

  • The musical Top Banana gives this sort of background to its comedian protagonist, Jerry Biffle, in the Opening Chorus: "He was found on a Catskill peak / Where they booked him for one split week."

    Video Games 
  • Fallout: New Vegas features Borscht Belt style comedian Billy Knight, complete with an inexplicable New York accent.

    Web Videos 

    Western Animation 
  • Dr. Zoidberg in Futurama is a thinly-veiled Space Jew of a Borscht Belt-style mooch.
  • Boris and Minka, Tommy's maternal grandparents in Rugrats.
  • Sheila Broflovskii of South Park speaks this way, though the accent is a little more subdued in later seasons.
  • In some iterations of his backstory in The Simpsons, this is where Krusty the Klown's career began.
  • In The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries episode "Moscow Side Story", the Borscht Belt turns whoever wears it into a comedian.
  • King of the Hill: In his pursuit of a comedy career, Bobby Hill adopts a Yiddish accent, and turns "Vat are you talkin' about?" into his catchphrase.
  • Henny Youngman voiced a caricature of himself as a chicken in an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures, where he comments about his jokes hitting "below the Borscht Belt."
  • On Jellystone!, Lippy and Hardy are now Eastern European Jewish and they are retired comedians. They only had one comedy album, which apparently killed their career.