Uncategorized

Look at the World, Look at These Pants: A Review of Jeremy Dauber’s Jewish Comedy a Serious History

 

i

An oft-told joke — I’m sure you’ve heard it and can tell it better than I can, but bear with me — has a Jewish tailor taking a walk one day in Berlin when he runs into none other than Adolph Hitler.  Hitler pulls out his revolver, points it at the tailor and says “Jewish swine! How dare you pollute this pure German soil with your presence?! Get on all fours like the dog you are and eat dog feces!”  Mindful of the gun, the Jewish tailor gets down and does as he’s told. Hitler finds this so funny he starts laughing and drops the gun. The Jewish tailor grabs the gun, points it back at the Fuhrer-to-be and says “Finish it up!”  Hitler does and the two go their separate ways. That night the tailor gets home and says to his wife “Honey, you’ll never guess who I had lunch with.”

This joke displays two approaches to comedy.  One belongs to Hitler who enjoys how fear can strip a Jew’s pretence to being a human, and turn him into a terrified animal.  The other, the joke teller’s, finds it funny that the same people who can sit down to lunch together under normal circumstances can also humiliate each other, degrade each other, threaten each other with death, make each other eat excrement.

What does the fact that comedy has these two sides — that what is funny to Hitler is different from what is funny to the joke teller — tell us about comedy?  For a start it tells us that comedy is hard to think about and hard to pin down. It’s hard to define the funny and hard to decide if it’s good or bad, since for Hitler what’s funny is a Jew being humiliated, while for the joketeller what’s funny is that having lunch with someone can mean two very different things.  

Jeremy Dauber’s “Jewish Comedy: A serious History” deals with this double-sided, difficult topic.  To make the elusive, slip-through-your-fingers nature of comedy a little easier he refracts it through a topic everybody can agree upon — Jews.   What’s our deal? What makes us special? If Wittgenstein is right that concepts are family resemblances, “Jew” is a concept where deciding the list of who is in the family and who isn’t has real world consequences, and where the family members get to weigh in on who belongs and who doesn’t.

Dauber circumscribes his topic with two pieces of definition.  First, “Jewish humor has to be produced by Jews.” [xii] and second “Jewish humor must have something to do with either contemporary Jewish living or historical Jewish existence.” [xiii]”

The first formulation as I’ve mentioned is bloodily, screamingly contentious — is Freud Jewish?  Louis C.K.? Jesus? Paul? — but let’s first focus on the second.

Jews don’t fly off the Earth and into the sky.   So the law of gravity has something to do with both contemporary Jewish living and historical Jewish existence — but humor about gravity is not what Dauber has in mind.  It’s too broad. But an alternative — that Jewish humor has to do with Jewish experience and history insofar as they are Jewish  — that it deals with Jews qua Jews, is both too narrow and overstates the considerable self-obsession of Jewish comedy.  Now certainly when being funny (or tragic, or sentimental, or horrified) Jews can and do worry about their Jewishness but but they also worry about other things that don’t particularly have to do with Jews. Death, God, gentiles, the sky, love, hate, erections, animals.  To say a Jew making a joke about death is not part of Jewish comedy because all human beings die, would be as absurd as saying “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth” is not an example of Jewish religion because none of the entities mentioned — God, the heavens, or the Earth — is a Jew.  (If you think God is a Jew you are an idolator and hence not Jewish.)

Perhaps we should interpret Dauber’s formulation — Jewish comedy has to deal with Jewish experience and Jewish history — as meaning Jewish comedy deals with experience and history in a distinctively Jewish fashion.  Maybe Dauber believes Jews worry about those questions in a particular Jewish way — for example Jews have a particular poignant sense of the distance between a transcendent God and suffering humanity, or Jews have a particular take on history as pointing towards an endlessly deferred Messiah, or Jews are particularly bookish. or maybe Jews have an ineffable particular vibe that if you are Jewish you can grok in on, and if not not.  

But if that’s so, why do so many non-Jews find Jewish humor funny?

Ii

Dauber’s approach is to sidestep these issues of definition and tell seven historical stories which define Jewish comedy in sweeping narratives from biblical times to the present.  The seven are:

1.Jewish comedy is a response to persecution and anti-Semitism

  1. Jewish comedy is a satirical gaze at Jewish social and communal norms.

3.Jewish comedy is bookish, witty, intellectual allusive play

  1. Jewish comedy is vulgar, raunchy, and body-obsessed.

5.Jewish comedy is mordant, ironic, and metaphysically oriented.

6.Jewish comedy is focused on the folksy, everyday, quotidian Jews.

  1. Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself.

 

Does this list help us get a bead on what the specifically Jewish nature of Jewish comedy is?  Obviously Jewish comedy is more concerned with anti-Semitism than Native American comedy, because by definition Jews are the targets of anti-Jewish hostility.  However under a broader description — the comedy of racial difference, or the comedy of being condescended to by an outside group — Navajos participate. And the more general categories — worrying about the mind and the body, noticing the difference between how people really are and how they pretend to be in society — this list isn’t specifically Jewish at all.  We still want to know what makes Jews mocking Jewish hypocrites different from Danes mocking Danish ones. (Other than that the Jews may find the word “prune Danish” funny and the Danes not so much.) What if anything is specifically Jewish about Jewish comedy?

As I’ve mentioned, Dauber, wisely avoids philosophical analysis in favor of historical storytelling.  In each of his chapters he starts in ancient times and spins a yarn bringing us to now: taking us from the Babylonian Talmud to the pegging episode of Broad City.  Each of them brings in the book of Esther what he calls “that grand unifying comic text of ours” [103] because it includes disguise and pretension, stupid gentile kings, sexy Jewish Queens, randomness, reversal, and a God who is only present by not being mentioned.

The sweeping historical narratives are impressive, interesting, well-informed but ultimately strike one (or me anyway) as a bit quixotic.  Quixotic because, well, is the Book of Esther actually funny? I would say resoundingly, no!, and not just because it raises the specter of the genocidal slaughter of non-Jews both in Esther’s time (over 75,000 of them) and in the time of Baruch Goldstein.  I also think it’s not funny because it just doesn’t seem funny — it seems to play in the gardens of the fairytale and romance rather than where the Marx brothers dwell. And there’s not much evidence that anybody from the past found it funny either. It’s associated with carnival, and the Russian critic Bakhtin (no connection with the hangnail medicine) connects comedy and carnival, but are carnivals funny?   They’re a time of dark lawlessness and masks, when weird things are afoot, but so is a Klan rally. Not to say that Purim parties are Klan rallies, but just that Bakhtin is describing anarchy and anarchy and the subversion of expectation is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for comedy. Tragedy and horror and revolution, scientific and political, all subvert expectation, but that doesn’t make them funny.

 

Iii

For me Dauber’s most promising thesis is his seventh one — that “Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself.”

Number seven is our best bet for a distinctively Jewish subject matter — the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness does seem like a distinctively Jewish take on life, one not shared by Danish or Inuit comedy.  But in this one the heat on his first stricture — Jewish comedy is comedy produced by Jews — causes that pot to boil over. Because in America today, what makes a Jew a Jew?

Dauber acknowledges this question is “dicey” and he quotes Jewish comedians of the modern era being all over the map on how Jewish their comedy is.  Groucho (who believed or claimed to believe that most people thought the Marx brothers were Italian) didn’t like being put in the Jewish box. “When one critic “anointed him the “symbolic embodiment of all persecuted Jews for 2000 years” Groucho carped, “What sort of goddammned review is that?” [255]  Mort Sahl said “I don’t have any kinship with a Jewish background.” On the other hand Saul Bellow thought there is something about the Jewish comic sensibility that is “characteristically Jewish”. “In them, laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two.” [Bellow quotes p. 190]  And for Mel Brooks

“comedy comes from the feeling that, as a Jew, and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society.  It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.” [259]

Brooks’ comment reveals something about the Jewish status as outsider a status reflected equally in their love of Jews, hatred of Jews, love of gentiles, and hatred of gentiles.  The Jewish vaudevillians Weber and fields would enter Ziegfield Follies “when they needed a big laugh right away, they’d enter singing “Here we are, an Irish pair” with their hands covering their noses.” [ 225]  At some point there was so much self-hating Jew-face going on that Jews needed to form an organization called the “Chicago Anti-Stage Jew ridicule committee” [226] Dauber has canny things to say about the potential hypocrisy of Jews clinging to their outsider status while at the same time having the benefits of being insiders, being oppresser’s who claim the prerogatives of victimhood.  As the joke goes, look who thinks they’re nothing! Can you be pretentious about how unpretentious you are? You betcha!

Dauber correctly notices ambivalence, skepticism and anxious comedy stalking the notion that Jews are a chosen people through history.  He channels the fear:

“Who are we kidding, what with the superiority complex.  Look at where they are and look at where we are: we’re history’s joke, not them.” [180]

And he notes the unique status in the ancient world of believing in a God that on a good day we can sass a little.  He recalls that Talmudic aggadah of sages ignoring a series of miracles rebutting their legal reasoning in favor of their legal reasoning.   Rabbi Natan wondered how God felt at having his miracles ignored and asked the prophet Elijah. Elijah replied that at that the “God laughed, saying “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” [182]

Very unusual!  In the Greco-Roman world when deities find something funny it’s time to run — your stew will turn out to be your kid or something similar.  And this sassing of the Creator continues to the modern era. Daubert tells the joke:

“A man went to his tailor and asked him to make him a suit.  The tailor told him to come back in six days. “Six days?” asked the buyer.  “So long? Why, God was able to make the world in six days!” “True,” replied the tailor, gesturing to his samples.  “But just look at he world–and look at these pants!”

iv

Maybe Dauber is right and Groucho is wrong.  Maybe there is something uniquely Jewish in the Jewish take on the funny.  Maybe you could write a history of Jewish fear or Jewish horniness or Jewish love, and hence of Jewish comedy.  And if it’s possible to do it would that mean that I a Jew could open such a book — maybe Dauber’s — and figure out if the impulse to laugh I’m feeling now is distinctively Jewish?  What would that be like? Presumably it wouldn’t be that I’m laughing at hypocrisy, or the body, or the mismatch between the sufferings of life and the hopes of some day achieving a perfect world, because non-Jews could do that.  I would have to be able to learn from my history something about how I, a Jew found things funny, that helped explain me to myself. But what would that be like?

The puzzle of what makes our group special is just a more complicated version of the narcissistic conundrum that faces each of us one by one — what makes me special?    Can I tell if my love is the same sort of love that others feel or is it special love? Can I tell if my jokes are a sign that I know what’s funny or just that there’s something deeply wrong with me?  

It’s not a question I can answer by doing research.  I might be a weirdo, my feelings might separate me from my fellows, or I might be much more common than I thought, but learning that my father and grandfather were equally weird, or weird in the same, or a similar way, won’t tell me anything. It won’t tell me if I’m worthy of love.  It won’t tell me if my jokes are funny.

I learn if my jokes are funny by telling them.  And that’s risky! I could die up there! Or I could find that my weird obsessions with my body, or sex, or God, or the early 1970s television nature show Hodge Podge Lodge are shared.  Or maybe we should say by running the risk that I might die up there I cause them to be shared — the audience responds to me and I change them; they become something new.  In the same way I don’t know if I’m too weird or quirky to be loved by thinking about it, but by opening myself up to another person, risking rejection, asking for love.

So it is with Jewish comedy and Jewish jokes.  Maybe they were once just Jewish. But once Jews shared them and made other people, non-Jews laugh, they created a bond between Jews and non-Jews.  What once was Jewish became human and created a new world that could look back and say that Jewish comedy was funny all along.

Needless to say for the readers of this blog, that bond or bridge provokes anxiety at the same time as it soothes.  It makes us connect and feel less alone but also afraid that we are no longer so special.

v

Luckily Jewish comedy is also the solution to that anxiety.  Like that other Jewish invention — Christianity — it provides the cure for the disease it is.

Dauber writes:

“The great American  Yiddish humorist Moyshe Nadir (a pen name for Isaac Reiss, with the rough meaning of a gentler version of “up yours”) chronicled the tale of a man hired by an enterprising Jew to work at a picturesque locale that, to become a real tourist magnet, lacks only one thing: an echo effect.  The creative solution: hire someone to serve as said echo. The problem is that the employee gets carried away, and so when someone shouts “How are you?” the echo replies, “Not bad, and how’s by you?” [83]

In this audio version of the Duck Soup mirror routine a man doing a weird thing, pretending to be an echo, becomes less weird when he stops pretending to be a copy and instead responds.  That actually makes him less weird.

So you could say in answer to our initial puzzle that the distinctively Jewish thing is to be a vulnerable people who stand apart, seduced by and afraid of their fellow non-Jews.   This apartness causes us to look at the world in two ways — as vulnerable, separate Jews and as humans. And that distinctively Jewish doubleness in turn is what makes us like everybody else.  

Because everybody else is in the same boat, though some may be slow on the uptake.   Non-Jews also feel like they are the center of the world and have to learn that they aren’t.  Non-Jews also want to be safe but aren’t. And non-Jews like Jews have to more forward despite this vulnerability, as Kierkegaard puts it “by virtue of the absurd”.  And he was not just not Jewish,he was really non-Jewish. Scandinavian.

What is weird and distinctive about Jews and their sense of humor — our perilous position in history, our dramatic on-again off-again relationship with the ultimate bad boyfriend, God — is thus shared by everybody.  Oddly the question we started with –what is it, if anything, that makes Jewish comedy unique — is like the question — am I like you?

Advertisements
Standard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s