Presidential Comedy: On the Meaning and Task of President Obama’s Comedic Performances


Just yesterday, Zach Galifianakis’s comic interview of President Obama – on his show “Between the Two Ferns” – went viral.  I noticed that some of my friends on facebook were upset about the video and believed that President Obama was trivializing his Presidency by going on the show and doing a comic routine with Galifianakis.  And in a press conference yesterday, Jay Carney was asked about whether he thought it had this negative effect and if it had been discussed before the President decided to make an appearance.  Skirting the issue as to whether or not this tarnishes the image of the President, Carney pointed out that the task of the President was not to just get facetime.  Rather, he was looking to promote the “Affordable Care Act.”  There is ample evidence of this in the interview since Galifianakis gives the President a few minutes to discuss it.   And the comic interview ends with Galifianakis showing the President a bunch of spider bites on his arm.  Given the pitch, one knows the punch line: “Zach, you should look into the Affordable Care Act.  You need a doctor.”  Because, “You,” like many young Americans, “think you are invincible (not “invisible”) but you’re not.”

What has been missed in this discussion about the President’s appearance on the show is the fact that the President has done comedy before.   In fact, I wrote on his comedic performance at the Presidential Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2013.  As I noted, President Obama told a Groucho Marx joke and even played a role in a comic short written and directed by none other than Steven Speilberg.



The fundamental difference between his appearance on “Between the Ferns” and his comedic performance in the film (and on the podium) at the Presidential Correspondents’ Dinner was the fact that in film and on the podium he played the role of the schlemiel.  Here, in contrast, Galifianakis plays the role of the schlemiel while President Obama appears serious.  To be sure, he isn’t doing comedy so much as humoring a schlemiel.

I find this shift in comedic roles to be telling.

The shift is tactical and, obviously, political.  And it shows us how the schlemiel can be used, politically, depending on the context and the goals.  With regard to the comedic performance at the Presidential Correspondence Dinner, President Obama was, at that time, trying to regain the confidence of the public.  As I noted in my blog entry on that performance, President Obama, at the end, tells the audience that the American public has become too cynical and had a hard time trusting him.  And this, one can see, is directly related to why he played a schlemiel of the Eastern European variety: the schlemiel is, in the Eastern European style of Jewish comedy (which has been inherited, in part, by Hollywood), a comic character who, oftentimes, gains the trust of his or her audience by way of absent-mindedness, naivite, and charm.   The schlemiel, in other words, can help to counteract cynicism.  To be sure, Ruth Wisse, in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, notes several times how the schlemiel creates a tension between hope and skepticism (or, at the extreme, cynicism).   But, here, as in many other instances of the contemporary schlemiel, that tension is effaced and gives more power to hope over cynicism.  (And as I have noted in relation to what President Obama did at this dinner, the topic of encountering cynicism finds an interesting correlate in the work of Slavoj Zizek.)

In contrast to his comedic use of the schlemiel, his appearance on “Between the Two Ferns” is serious. Zach Galifianakis plays the schlemiel.  But this performance has a different task.  Instead of gaining trust and effacing cynicism, President Obama is looking to present a serious issue: The Affordable Care Act.  To do this, he must be serious.  Now, instead of being endearing, the naivite of Zach Galifianakis (which is tainted with cynicism, no less) comes across as plain stupid.  Here the schlemiel is depicted as he was by Jews in Germany (not in Eastern Europe); this schlemiel does things that are to be laughed at because they are in need of correction.  His cynicism and lack of intelligence are an obstacle to his health and well-being.  Here, President Obama is out to correct the misguided schlemiel, Zach Galifianakis. The message: don’t be like Zach, sign up and get a doctor; you’re not invincible.  And stop being so cynical.

The fact that the President can sometimes play the schlemiel and other times mock the schlemiel shows us that he is versatile in his comic performances.  But, more importantly, it shows us that the schlemiel has a role in the crafting of his public image and his political strategy.    This is a fascinating twist because, as Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse have pointed out in their work on the schlemiel, the schlemiel is often apolitical.  If anything, it challenges politics.

For instance, take a look at the beginning of Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, and you will see several jokes that parody politics and power.   Here we see the schlemiel employed, on the contrary, for political purposes.  To be sure, there is a lot to learn from this.  The political appropriation of the schlemiel by a Presidential administration is a topic that needs attention and schlemiel theory is leading the way in opening up this new discourse.  I hope to write more on this in the near future.

A Kvetching Schlemiel: On Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” – Take One


You don’t see many schlemiels in Yiddish Literature or Jewish-American literature that spend most of their time kvetching or complaining.   Schlemiels are better known for being dreamers, not complainers.   They live on air (luftmensches); not hot air so much as the air of dreams.  However, it does happen from time to time that one occasions a kvetching schlemiel.   Saul Bellow’s Herzog (from the novel of the same name) kvetches from time to time and so does Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (from the novel of the same name).   We also see a few kvetching schlemiels in contemporary literature.  Kugel, the main character of Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy lets out an occasional kvetch about his horrible situation.

And Larry David, in Curb Your Enthusiasm or in his lead role for Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, turns kvetching into an art form that, for all its repetition, has crafted a popular kind of modern-American schlemiel type.

But all of this kvetching, as is the kvetching of the other schlemiels mentioned above, is lightened by way of comedy.  And if we look deeper into the source of this kvetching we find a trail of bad luck.  But, as Ruth Wisse points out the schlemiel usually creates bad luck but is unaffected by it.  These schlemiels, however, are.  They are, as it were, schlemiels and shlimazels at the same time.

One kvetch that has recently caught my eye is the kvetching of the narrator and main character of Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.”  Edelshtein, the main character, has the kvetch of an immigrant.  He has left Europe and Yiddish behind for America.  And he can’t stop thinking about what has been lost.  His being caught up in what was and how it fails to relate to what is creates a comic rift which also has, for all its kvetching, a sad note.

Ozick’s descriptions of Edelshtein reflect a kind of comic kvetching that hits on many different levels.  Edelshtein’s anger is really “envy.” It is comical, yet painful because he feels that he knows history and that American Jews do not.  He doesn’t think, for this reason, that they should be considered Jews.

Spawned in America, pogroms a rumor, mamalashon a stranger, history a vacuum.  Also many of them were still young, and had black eyes, black hair, and red beards…He was certain he did not envy them, but he read them like a sickness.  They were reviewed, praised, and meanwhile they were considered Jews, and knew nothing.  (129, Jewish American Stories ed. Irving Howe)

Edelshtein looks around New York City and sees a childhood acquaintance from Kiev named Alexei Kirilov.  He wonders what ever happened to him.   How had history swallowed him up?  Did he die in the massacre of Babi Yar or did he flee to Russia?

This memory and question plies him, but what is he left with from the past?  Edelshtein, like many Yiddishists, turns to language.  But he realizes that the language he so loved is dead.  And he is a schlemiel by virtue of being stuck with a language that no one speaks anymore:

And the language was lost, murdered.  The language – a museum.  Of what other language can it be said that it died in a sudden definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil…Yiddish, a littleness, a tiny light – oh little holy light! – dead, vanished. Perished. Sent into darkness.  (130)

The murder or “sudden death” of this language was, the narrator tells us, Edelshtein’s “subject” – the one “he lectured on for a living”(130).  He constantly recalls it to people in Jewish community centers, synagogues, etc. But while he tells Yiddish jokes to make people laugh he knows – and they know – that the language is dead and that his humor is really meaningless:

But both Edelshtein and his audiences found the jokes worthless.  Old jokes.  They were not the right kind. They wanted jokes about weddings – spiral staircases, doves flying out of cages, bashful medical students – and he gave them funerals.  To speak Yiddish was to preside over a funeral….Those for whom his tongue was no riddle were specters. (131)

He lives in memory of a dead past; he draws life from it.  But his memory is not caught up in Europe alone; he remembers, most clearly, his experiences at the American home of Baumzweig.  Unlike Baumzweig, who was also a Yiddish writer, he had no children.  He had no one to pass on his past too; however, he does watch how Baumzweig’s children speak to him – using English to respond to their Yiddish.  The parents couldn’t adequately pass the tradition on. And this has an effect on him and gives him a sense of the “new generation.”  There was a generation gap.

But then it became plain that they could not imagine the lives of their children.  Nor could the children imagine their lives.  The parents were too helpless to explain, the sons were too impatient to explain.  So they had given each other up to a common muteness.  In that apartment Josh and Mickey had grown up answering in English the Yiddish of their parents.  Mutes.  Mutations.  What right had these boys to spit out the Yiddish that had bred them? (132)

In the midst of all this kvetching, Baumzweig reminds him of the schlemiel and that, though he never had children, Edelshtein has a son, himself

She told Edelshtein he too had a child, also a son.  “Yourself, yourself,” she said.  “You remember yourself when you were a little boy, and that little boy is the one you love, him you trust, him you bless, him you bring up in hope to a good manhood.” (133)

This memory is a kind of counter-memory to his present resentments.  It also prompts the question as to whether he actually did bring his “son” up to a “good manhood.”  Does his son remain a child, and he, a schlemiel?  Or was his “little light” a language that is dead?  Is his son dead if the language is dead?

We also can see his mind wander back to the child in Kiev who, regardless of his kvetching about the end of Yiddish, remains close to his heart.  The question of his “son” and its “maturity” as well as this memory of a child whose fate his unknown  – juxtaposed to the present memory of the death of Yiddish – makes him into a kvetching schlemiel of sorts.

…to be continued….

Fuck You, Thank You: Speaking of Buddy Hackett


In one of his many phases, Walter Benjamin had a moment, near the end of his life, where he was into going through “the trash of history” so as to find things that had historical potentiality.  One could argue that Benjamin saw himself as commentator who, in commenting on trash, could bring it to life and make this or that piece of history into a quasi-kind of history – the kind that lives on in his commentary.  To be sure, Benjamin read Franz Kafka as a commentator.  In a letter to Gershom Scholem, written near the end of his life, Benjamin argues that although Kafka’s work was a comic failure he did, at the very least, succeed in being a commentator.  This idea, which I am addressing in my book on the schlemiel, struck a deep cord because, in a major sense, it relates to the trash of history.   To be sure, Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin describes them, seem to be the kinds of characters you would find in the dustbin of history: they are broken, ragged, and comical.   However, these characters are, if we take Benjamin seriously, the products of commentary.  In other words, Kafakesque comic figures, which seem to have emerged from the trash, are the products of commentary.

Given this logic, I would like to suggest something that may not seem so novel but, when thought through Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, is; namely, that stand-up comedy, especially when it is trashy, has the potential to offer the greatest commentary.  However, as Benjamin wondered with regard to Kafka, what is the text it is commenting on.  When it comes to many comedians, the answer is obvious: they are commenting on society or on our attitudes toward this or that social practice or belief.  But when it comes to some comedians, the answer isn’t so simple. In addition, the position or relation the commentator to the text or comedian commented brings on an added dimension to the reception of this commentary. One comedian I have in mind – whose relation to me is odd – is Buddy Hackett (whose real, more “Jewish” sounding name, was Leonard Hacker):

Why is my relation odd? First of all, I didn’t grow up with Buddy Hackett.  My parents did.  When I look at his comedy, I feel as if I am trying to understand their generation.  Yet, at the same time, I look at him as a Jewish stand-up comedian who is a part of a line of Borsht Belt comedians that stretches back to the mid-20th century.  Not only does Hackett speak a lot of trash, he is also a comedian who emerges out of the trash of Jewish American history.

How do I read him?  And what text is this trash of comic history commenting on?

First of all, I have my own visceral reactions to his face and his gestures.  They remind me of a New York that was, of my relatives and family members from Brooklyn (where he hails from).   There is a way of speaking that is distinctly that of New York Jews.

What I love most about it is his boldness.  He throws his body, his voice, and his vulgarity out toward the audience.  Yet he does so in an endearing way since his gestures and his body (his face, ears, eyes, etc) are child-like and animated.  His body is that of a schlemiel, a man-child.   It has an innocence that is juxtaposed to his saying or gesturing naughty things.  And this creates an odd, and exciting affect since it animates (or as Benjamin might say illuminates)…trash.  His words evince what Benjamin might call a profane illumination about ourselves and the American time and space we share with Buddy. This, it seems, is the social con-text that his comic commentary illuminates.

In his book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand Up Comics, Phil Berger suggests that we read Hackett in terms of his persona on and off stage.  There is a continuum of sorts that, if we look closely, can help us to see the comic’s life.   He looks, first, at his body and ironic demeanor and this hits at what I call the schlemiel juxtaposed to the bad-boy.

Buddy Hackett was a kind of Socrates – as we seen in The Symposium – he appears one way but is another.  He was a…

…man cold sober when up to no good.   He had the bullyboy’s ease, a distinction the very look of him argued against.  The bulbed nose, the crooked mouth, the chreub’s cheeks: it was the best of comic faces – and, it seemed, a masterpiece of illusion. (297)

Hackett was innocent but his name “provoked obscenity filled denunciations, many of which had “off-the-record” tagged to them the moment after they were uttered – and by comics who otherwise stood by their words”(297).

Because of this “history,” whenever people spoke to Hackett they were on their guard.  As Berger notes, by way of citing conversations he had with Hackett’s friends, Hackett was “unpredictable” in public.  He could “say fuck you as easily as he could say thank you.”  Berger recounts a story told to him by the “columnist Joe Delaney” about Hackett’s interchanging of the words “fuck you” and “thank you.”   According to Delaney, Hackett said fuck you in an endearing, unexpected way, and tells of a story of when a fan came up to Hackett for an autograph. When he heard this, he said:

“How would you like to perform a unilateral act?  She said, “I don’t know what you mean?” He said, “How about, go fuck yourself.  Is that clear enough?” She said, {huffily} “Well!” He said, “Then give me the piece of paper and I’ll sign.”

Although this scene is vulgar and rude, it is, nonetheless, read as endearing by Delaney:

I think that if he felt that that lady to whom he said, “Go perform a unilateral act,” was truly hurt, then he would try to make amends…you know what I am saying? I don’t think he’s a hurtful man….He really, he really is a very gentle sensitive man..”

Delaney goes on to recall how, when he read a Haiku poem to Hackett, Hackett broke down crying since the poem was alluding to sudden death.  Berger goes on this note to claim that Hackett played with poetry and was a poet of sorts; but this was conveyed by irony.  He would actually play at being a poet on stage but this was a “quasi-poetic fix to make middlebrow audiences there for laughs feel culture fucked in the bargain.”

In other words, Hackett did and did not have a poetic sensibility.  He was and was not vulnerable.  This ambiguity comes through when he trashes poetry or when he utters trash or vulgarity.  It makes for a schlemiel effect that empties out the trash, so to speak, and brings about a profane illumination of sorts.  But the trick is to get past the vulgarity to the schlemiel core in every joke.  And the irony of it all is that to do that one nearly needs to be ready for the unexpected vulgarity with the understanding that in saying “fuck you” he is really saying “thank you.”  And this juxtaposition is a kind of trashy-kind-of-commentary.

The question, however, is what was the textual basis for this trashy kind of commentary?   Is it the text of a historical relationship between Buddy and the Jewish-American world, a relationship that was, as it was happening, becoming the trash of history?  How was this failure, in Benjamin and Kafka’s sense, a positive commentary?

More later….

A Political-Schlemiel-Crisis: Obama as Man-Child Versus Putin as Real Man, or Sean Hannity’s Humiliation Over President Obama’s Masculinity


I often do my utmost to stay away from contemporary politics in my blog, but I had to write something in response to a sound byte I recently heard in the media.   In a recent radio show, Sean Hannity – the well known TV host for Fox – claimed that “The Russian media keep showing a picture of [Obama] in Martha’s Vineyard, riding his little bicycle with his little helmet on. It’s so humiliating.”  Following this, Hannity evokes an image he had seen of Putin expressing his masculinity.  And he juxtaposes one image to the other:

Just – the picture of Putin swimming the butterfly, which is a real hard stroke. Yeah, big chested – and by the way, it’s in frigid water that he’s swimming across a river … so you got a picture of that juxtaposed next to Obama on a bicycle in Martha’s Vineyard with the goofy helmet on riding his bike.

Meditating on this image, Hannity said he was, for the first time in his life, “humiliated for my country.”

What I find so interesting about Hannity’s juxtaposition of President Obama to Vladmir Putin is that it finds resonance with the way German Jews (and many anti-Semites) thought of Eastern European Jews; namely, as weak, effeminate, and childish (that is, as schlemiels).  They thought of the schlemiel as a remnant of the degenerate “ghetto” Jew and called for what Max Nordau (the Vice President of the Zionist Congress) called the “muscle Jew.”  The New Jew, as Daniel Boyarin and others point out, was envisioned as the anti-thesis of the schlemiel.  Jews, Boyarin argues in his book Unheroic Conduct, were to take David or Bar Kochba, Jewish warriors, as their role models.  Jewish gyms were opened all over Germany and Jewish athleticism was celebrated.

The contrast didn’t come out of nowhere.  To be sure, athleticism and masculinity go hand in hand with state building whether it was 19th century Europe or 20th century America, showing “strength” is thought to be essential to being a nation.  One needs to protect one’s citizens and fight for the country if the state is to live.  A state led by a schlemiel, on the contrary, would, historically, be seen as a joke.  And for that to be a reality would be “humiliating.”  Russia, as Hannity understands it, still lives according to this masculinist paradigm, but America does not.  And this humiliates him.

Hannity, like many Jews in Germany before the Holocaust, wants strong citizens and, most importantly, a strong leader.  His juxtaposition of these images shows us that Hannity sees Obama much like many conservative pundits saw the Pajama Boy (who was the mascot for one of the phases of Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act).   Jay Michaelson, writing for The Forwards, went so far as to dub this criticism of Pajama Boy anti-Semitic.

Writing in response to this, I felt Michaelson went to far.  He was reading too far into it.  Nonetheless, the same issues come up about masculinity and politics.  I think it is worth our time to think about this relationship.  To be sure, Hannity is not wrong to see Putin doing this because Putin is, without a doubt, drawing on the image of leadership and masculinity (take a look at any number of images of Putin running around with his shirt off and a gun in his hand).  Hannity wishes President Obama would do the same.  And, to this end, he sites Benjamin Natinyahu as a model of leadership because Hannity sees him as a “real man.”   And this analogy is telling, given the fact that Israel was in many ways deeply impressed with the idea of the “New Jew” as a Jew who is independent and strong.

That said, what does the image of “strength” mean?  Would we all feel better about being Americans if President Obama was much more intimidating?  Would we all feel better if we saw images of him “swimming the butterfly” or engaging in rigorous physical activity? Would that send a better message to the world?  Hannity sure thinks so.  And because he doesn’t see it, his own masculinity, it seems, has been affected.

After all, Hannity has been wounded.  He is humiliated because in failing to train his body and character like Putin, President Obama has made Hannity – and this country -vulnerable.  Although this is an important ethical moment for anyone who understands what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas means by “ethics” (Levinas characterizes the ethical relation to the other in terms of vulnerability), perhaps it has a different meaning when it is on the political stage.  Levinas understood the political to be a realm where war is the ultimate reality test.  As he says in the preface to his book Totality and Infinity, “the trial by force is the test of the real.”  Even for Levinas, Hobbes seems to speak loudest in the realm that troubles Hannity most (the political realm) since Hobbes insisted that in politics, as in life, there is a war of all against all.  And war, as has been understood for centuries, is about sheer masculinity.

Hannity’s juxtaposition of images of masculinity is read within this context.

Somewhere Between Man and Animal: A Note on Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs


One of the most fascinating things Walter Benjamin notes about Franz Kafka’s main characters is that many of them are what he calls “prehistoric.”  Several of these characters are actually animals or insects: they include apes, bugs, and mice.  They exist in a world that is not outside of history, but before it.  Taking another approach, and addressing Kafka’s animals, Gilles Deleuze (in his book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature) has argued that we must understand what it means that many of Kafka’s characters lived in an ambiguous realm between human and animal.  He believed that Kafka’s characters effaced the line between man and animal by way of language.  For, according to Deleuze, Kafka was not interested in creating a metaphor by way of this or that animal who can speak, think, etc. Rather “Kafka deliberately kills all metaphor, all symbolism, all signification, no lees than all designation(22).  Kafka was interested, instead, in “metamorphosis” and “metamorphosis is the contrary of metaphor”(22).  Based on this claim, Delezue, discussing Kafka’s animals, argues:

There is no longer man or animal, since each deterritorializes the other, in a conjunction of flux, in a continuum of reversible intensities.  Instead, it is now a question of becoming…(22)

For this reason, Deleuze suggests we read Kafka’s man-animals in terms of “the crossing of a barrier, a rising or a falling, a bending or an erecting, an accent on a word.”  He takes this to another level by saying that language barks, roams, climbs around, etc:

The “animal does not speak ‘like’ a man but pulls from language tonalities lacking signification; the words are not “like” the animals but in their own way climb about, bark and roam around being properly linguistic dogs, insects, or mice. (22)

Reading this, I wondered how should I read the descriptions of the main character of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Roy Hobbs.  As I pointed out yesterday, Hobbs, at the outset of the novel, has a kind of mythic and prehistoric kind of existence.  He comes out of nothing, but this nothing has a primitiveness to it.

Hobbs stumbles in and out of a kind of primitiveness and comes in and out of prehistoric state.  But rather than read Roy as a metaphor, perhaps we should take Deleuze’s reading as a cue and read Roy as sounding out new tonalities of a wild, American language.  But, how, I wonder, can we separate Roy’s story from this kind of language.  To be sure, his dreams, his blindness, and his absent-mindedness are connected to this language.   His pre-historic state, as Benjamin might call it, is to be found in the America he encounters as he comes face to face with the possibility of being a star. He doesn’t understand it, but he desires it.  He’s simple, as is his language.  And his encounters with physical reality,  people, and dreams bring out a simple and wild American tonality.

At the outset of the novel, before he encounters people Roy gets up bright and early to eat breakfast.  His movements into his clothes are “acrobatic” and highly physical.  Malamud’s language brings out this tactility and animality which, it seems, is ready for anything:

Roy peeled his gray sweatshirt and bunched down the white ducks he was wearing for pajamas in case there was a wreck and he didn’t have time to dress.   He acrobated into his shirt, pulled up the pants of his good suit, arching them high, but he had crammed both feet into one leg and was trapped so tight wriggling got him nowhere…Grunting, he contorted himself this way and that till he was last able to grab and pull down the cuff with a gasp.. (4)

After he is fully dressed, and steps out, Malamud reminds us of the man-animal dialectic:

Dropping on all fours, he peered under the berth of his bassoon case.

Seeing him on all fours hunting for his case, the porter, who comes by asks him, indirectly about the case: “Morning, maestro, what’s the tune today?”  Roy responds, “It ain’t a musical instrument.”  He tells him that what is in the case is something he has “made himself.”  The porter, hinting at the pre-historic and the primitive asks, “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

But in response Roy tells the porter that it is nothing natural; rather, it is “just a practical thing.”  Following this, there is a volley about what’s hidden in the case.  He gives several guesses which, in a  comical manner, mock out the meaning of “practical”: “a pogo stick,” a “foolproof lance” a “combination fishing rod, gun, and shovel.”

Instead of answering, Roy changes the subject to where they are going and how long it will take to get there.  From their discussion, we learn that Roy has only visited two places, both of them in the west: Boise and Portland, Oregon.  He hasn’t been to any major city.

When he tells him that he is going to Chicago, “where the Cubs are.”  The porter perks up and asks, sarcastically, if there are also “lions and tigers there.”  Roy, in response, says that the Cubs are a ball team.  But this is the game.  He’s playing Socrates to Roy and looks for him to say it.

For after saying it, we see the punch line; namely, that the porter asks if you “are one of them” (a ballplayer).  When Roy says yes, the porter bows and says: “My hero. Let me kiss your hand.”

This makes Roy smile but it also “annoys” him.  This foreshadows his ambivalent relation to his fans.  He does and does not want to be recognized as a star.  And this may have much to do with the fact that his relation to others, other humans who recognize him, is different from his primitive relations to things.

He may have a playful relationship with the porter, which makes him smile, but it is based on a set of conditions.  A ball player must be successful; his relations to physical reality, evinced by all of the words and tonalities brought out in his waking movements into clothing, disclose another aspect of language and a different way of life.

This relation to the porter also includes a language with its own rhythm, but this language is based on something historic not pre-historic.  It is based on the fact of recognition and the fact that Roy may make history and be a hero for others.  And this irks him.  In other words, making history is and is not of interest to him.  He is unsure. And this, I would argue, has to do with the fact that his relations to “the ball” are ambiguous. Are they the relations of an animal or pre-historic being to “the ball” or are they the relations of a hero?

The fact that the ball is called a “pill” – later in the novel -indicates that his entering history has to do with entering into a game that feeds addiction.  And, perhaps, this is an addiction to heroes and success.  This is a human and an American addiction which, nonetheless, emerges from something pre-historic.

And this is something both Franz Kafka (in his book Amerika) and Walter Benjamin understood about America.  It was a land where the pre-historic entered history in the form of the “natural theater.”  However, had they read Malamud, one wonders how they would have conceived of the relation of man to animal.  At the outset of this novel, Hobbs, “the natural.” dwells on the cusp of history and somewhere between man and animal.  In this space we can hear the new tones of a new American language that is struggling to speak.

An American, Created Out of Nothing: A Reflection on the Birth of Roy Hobbs in Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural”


One of the most intriguing aspects of the Bible is the fact that it evinces a creation “out of nothing.”  Creation, it seems, comes out of nowhere.  We have no idea why God creates the world.  We only see the fact of creation (as the expression of God’s radical freedom).  And this turns the will of the creator as well as the creation into a mystery.  What follows from creation, however, is sometimes less a mystery.  Many characters in the Bible, for instance, are archetypal.  They rise and fall.  They go from innocence to experience.  And there is a lesson to be learned.  However, although the story of someone’s journey from innocence to experience is typical, the mystery of creation offsets this journey because it suggests that we may not know why someone has to go through this transition; perhaps it, too, is a mystery.

Drawing on the myth of the creation out of nothing, the beginning of Bernard Malamud’s first novel – perhaps the best novel ever written on baseball – The Natural marks the beginning of an American life from out of the darkness.  Roy Hobbs, the main character and first word of this novel, comes out of nowhere.  He is a mystery and each of his movements, at the outset, is shrouded in mystery.

In the first scene of the book, Malamud uses a register that suggests that Roy is like an animal or primitive child who is looking through the window of a womb (Malamud plays on this by calling it a “berth window”).  He paws it and lights a flame before he passes through a dark tunnel:

Roy Hobbs pawed at the glass before thinking to prick a match with his thumbnail and hold the spurting flame in his cupped palm close to the berth window, but by then he had figured it was a tunnel they were passing through and was no longer surprised at the bright sight of himself holding a yellow light over his head, peering back in. (3)

To emphasize the mystery, Malamud focuses on Hobbs’ gestures and the gestures of the train.  Each of the words used to describe these gestures (such as “yanked,” “thundering,” “kneeling,” “splurge,” “bulked,” and “sprays”) brings out something pre-historic and primitive:

As the train yanked its long tail out of the thundering tunnel, the kneeling reflection dissolved and he felt a splurge of freedom at the view of the moon hazed Western hills bulked against night broken by sprays of summer lighting, although the season was early spring.  (3)

Hobbs watches the land “flowing” by him “despite the lulling train.”  And as he watches he “waits” with a “suppressed expectancy for a sight of the Mississippi, a thousand miles away”(3).  Hobbs comes out of nowhere and is born into a world of flows and gestures. They bring him out toward the Mississippi.  He is born or rather flows into America.  And at birth he has a “splurge of freedom.”

In the midst of this mythological birth and primitive experience of freedom, we learn that he has no sense of time since “he has no timepiece.”  In primitive America, things flow past him in the river of time.  One of things he sees, as things flow past him, is a vision of a an American child throwing a baseball in front of a “bone white farmhouse with a sagging skeletal porch.”  The emphasis on bones reminds me of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones in the valley and his question, “Will these bones live?”

Malamud suggests that Hobbs has a kind of mystical vision of a boy who plays baseball, a boy that emerges out of a vision of sorts.   The house is “alone in untold miles of moonlight, and before it this white faced, long-boned boy whipped with train-whistle yowl a glowing ball to someone under a dark oak, who shot it back without thought, and the kid once more wound and returned”(3).

The scene is mythical because it is “unique” and happens over and over again.  Malamud, here, suggests that in America baseball has a mythical core.  The ball is caught up in a kind of Nietzschean eternal return.  And while Roy is aware of this vision, he finds something problematic about it since it reminds him of a confusing dream.

Roy shut his eyes to the sight because if it wasn’t real it was a way he sometimes had of observing himself, just as in a dream he could never shake off….of him standing in  a strange field with a golden baseball in his palm that all the time grew heavier as he sweated to settle whether to hold on of fling it away.

The dream puts before him his destiny.  Should he or should he not, so to speak, take the ball?  His decision to keep the ball leads the ball to become increasingly heavy.  He then gives up and, upon making this decision, the ball becomes “fluffy light” and a “white rose” breaks out of its hide.  As it “all but soars” off, he swears to “hang on to it forever.”

As the novel unfolds, we learn that his emblematic scene is destructive.   It is an Ameircan dream that emerges out of the primitive landscape of America.  It is the dream of success.  In the following paragraph, Malamud writes about the elements and returns to a gestural language.  However, here, the language emphasizes how things are off kilter.  And, in getting caught up in this language, the narrator forgets that a window separates Hobbs from the world:

As dawn tilted the night, a gust of windblown rain blinded him – no, there was a window – but the sliding drops made him thirsty and from thirst sprang hunger. (4)

I would like to suggest that we read this in terms of a mythological sequence.  The confusion about the window indicates that Hobbs is and is not damaged by the elements outside the train of birth.  He is protected by the train – which throttles through the landscape – but Malamud wants to point out that the movements of the train make Hobbs thirsty and hungry.  Hobbes dream, in other words, is not pure.  It is tainted by hunger and the desire for movement.  And this, as the novel goes on to show, will lead him to make reckless gestures.

What I like about Malamud’s creation of Hobbs is that he is a mystery of American creation whose childlike dreams are tainted by the wild and free movements of an American train through the primitive landscape.  It suggests that Hobbs’ struggle with failure and success – which we see throughout the novel – are born out of his relation to the American journey.

He paws at the window and scratches at the match behind the window with his thumb.  He has primitive beginnings.  His vision comes out of the flowing landscape, but it also passes away and leads to hunger.  His childishness or primitiveness, which he brings to the game of baseball, is constantly in the background of everything he does.  It marks a kind of innocence that, for me, is of great interest because Hobbs has many qualities that are shared with the schlemiel.

What Malamud has managed to do is to depict an American myth that is caught between visions of success and the reality of failure.  Hobbs is a “natural.”  He emerges out of the landscape. But, at the same time, he is not a natural.  He is pawing at the window, but from behind it.   He imagines that nothing separates him from his dream and that he can become a hero.  But in reality, this dream is unnatural and has devastating consequences.

The American dream, Malamud seems to be telling us, comes out of something primitive and seemingly natural, but it, like the schlemiel, has its blind spots.  The twist, here, is that Hobbs is not a comical figure but his innocence and blindness are.  His dreams, as they overshadow reality, have a tragic-comic feel only because they are so innocent.  They emerge out of the mystery of creation…Ultimately, Malamud seems to be suggesting that his innocence, his dream, and his birth out of nothing – like America itself – are a mystery.

More later….

He Gave Him Another Six Months: Comedy, Economics, and Dream Interpretation in Henny Youngman and the Talmud


I don’t know what’s come over me, but I’ve had a strong desire over the last day or two to watch, listen, and read Henny Youngman’s one-liners.   To be sure, Henny’s nickname was the “King of the One Liners.”  There’s a special kind of quality to them that is drawing me to them and I’m trying to figure it out.  Some of the punch lines resonate or rather hit on so many levels; and by way of indirection, they hit at some of the things people like to hide.  The jokes do so in a hit and run fashion.  And, for the listener, this creates a frenetic sensibility.

Phil Berger, in his book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand Up Comics, likens Youngman’s effect on comedy to the Ringling Brothers effect on America:

Henny did to the performing minute what Ringling Brothers did to the coupe.  He got it full up . In random fashion the jokes came.  No comedic paragraphs for Youngman.  He just hit the note and waited, moving into the breach to crank the next, treating them all with a curious neutrality.  (7)

Strung together over a few minutes, his one-liners have a kind of quasi-moral effect.  They bring us through many things that we dissociate from being moral; but, in doing so in a public manner, these jokes make our secrets manifest.  But they come across in a flash, and his “curious neutrality” – while telling them – suggests a of philosophical kind of division between ourselves and our thoughts.  We watch, in listening to his humor, the duration of consciousness.

But, as one can see with any one liner, there is only a brief moment for reflection and public response.  One must laugh and move on to the next dirty secret that slips through the cracks of each punch line.  This rapid movement of the joke has a kind of filmic, cut-up effect; and, as I pointed out above, a comic sense of duration. Each one of Youngman’s jokes is a kind of acknowledgment of consciousness that is made-in-passing.

But there is something more at work that just comically taking note of consciousness in its duration; to be sure, Youngman puts us into a comic relationship that is structured on the schlemiel-schlimazel relation.  As the poet Charles Bernstein said of Henry Youngman and his own poetry, we are schlimazels and the poet or comedian is the schlemiel.

Bernstein draws on the classic joke of the schlemiel who spills soup on schlimazel in illustrate.  One falls and creates bad luck out of his one-liners, while the other, surprised, receives it.  In other words, we are the one’s who get “spilled on” or, as I would argue, stained by the poet/comedian.  If anything, we share the soup.  But only we are stained, the schlemiel is not.

In this clip from the Dean Martin Roast Show, Youngman tells jokes that pick at men getting caught having affairs, not wanting to give to the poor, killing oneself, psychiatry, and, of course, wives.  In each punch line, we are stained with the things we would rather not think about or talk about.


For someone who publishes and shares work within the Emmanuel Levinas community, the joke that hits at the poor was, for me, the most interesting of all.  It takes aim at the ethical relation to the other and refuses it, comically:

A beggar comes up to an old lady’s house.  Asks, “Can I have anything to eat? I’m hungry.  She asks, “Would you eat yesterday’s soup?” He says, “Yes.” She says, “Come back tomorrow.”

In a sense, this joke spills the soup on us.  We are stained with the realization that we enjoy this displacement of sustenance.  Levinas talks about how giving bread out of one’s own mouth to the other is a figure for what he means by ethics.  But here we find the opposite tendency.  But we also find a fascinating alteration of time.  Come back tomorrow when today’s soup will become yesterday’s soup.  But, more importantly, leave now.  This gesture of refusal may sound simply and angry, but, communicated this way, is existential and not simply egotistical.  It’s a reaction to the stranger and, of itself, discloses how one is, in Levinas’s terms persecuted by the other.  But it translates that persecution into humor.  It seems to reject piety but it also discloses our being exposed to the other, albeit comically.  That is the irony, for me.

Youngman, it seems, is quite aware of how he is exposing this gesture.  He does this in ways poets cannot; he does it, ironically.   And, in doing so, he communicates the refusal of the other as a kind of open secret.  I would argue that this joke does more important work than any philosophical claim about the relation to the other since it exposes us to the refusal in an ironic way.  (After all, philosophy is not supposed to have any secrets.  It’s job is to directly describe the relation to the other.  Nonetheless, Levinas does discuss the importance of hyperbole in communicating it.)

Today, I came across another Youngman joke that made me think of a passage in the Talmud about a person whose fee was connected to his interpretations of dreams.  The Youngman joke goes along these lines:

A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.

In this joke, the interpretation of the man’s condition is altered when the doctor finds out that he “couldn’t pay his bill.” Upon hearing this, he changes his interpretation of his life: “So he gave him another six months.”  The lack of money to pay changed the interpretation of how long he would live.  Now that he owes, he all of a sudden has more time.

This reminded me of the Talmud Passage on Bar Hedya and his interpretations of dreams.  It comes from tractate Berachot 56a:

Bar Hedya was an interpreter of dreams. To one who paid him he used to give a favourable interpretation and to one who did not pay him he gave an unfavourable interpretation. Abaye and Raba each had a dream. Abaye gave him a zuz, and Rab did not give him anything, They said to him: In our dream we had to read the verse, Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes,4  etc. To Raba he said: Your business will be a failure, and you will be so grieved that you will have no appetite to eat. To Abaye he said: Your business will prosper, and you will not be able to eat from sheer joy. They then said to him: We had to read in our dream the verse, Thou shalt beget sons and daughters but they shall not be thine,5  etc. To Raba he interpreted it in its [literal] unfavourable sense. To Abaye he said: You have numerous sons and daughters, and your daughters will be married and go away, and it will seem to you as if they have gone into captivity. [They said to him:] We were made to read the verse: Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people.6  To Abaye he said: You have numerous sons and daughters; you will want your daughters to marry your relatives, and your wife will want them to marry her relatives, and she will force you to marry them to her relatives, which will be like giving them to another people. To Raba he said: Your wife will die, and her sons and daughters will come under the sway of another wife. (For Raba said in the name of R. Jeremiah b. Abba, reporting Rab: What is the meaning of the verse: ‘Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given to another people’? This refers to a step-mother.) [They further said]: We were made to read in our dream the verse, Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, etc.7  To Abaye he said: Your business will prosper, and you will eat and drink, and recite this verse out of the joy of your heart. To Raba he said: Your business will fail, you will slaughter [cattle] and not eat or drink and you will read Scripture to allay your anxiety. [They said to him]: We were made to read the verse, Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, [and shalt gather little in, for the locusts will consume it].8  To Abaye he interpreted from the first half of the verse; to Raba from the second half. [They said to him:] We were made to read the verse, Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy borders, [but thou shalt not anoint thyself, etc.]9  To Abaye he interpreted from the first half of the verse; to Raba from the second half. [They said to him:] We were made to read the verse: And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon thee, etc.10  To Abaye he said: Your name will become famous as head of the college, and you will be generally feared. To Raba he said: The King’s treasury11  will be broken into, and you will be arrested as a thief, and everyone will draw an inference from you.12  The next day the King’s treasury was broken into and they came and arrested Raba: They said to him: We saw a lettuce on the mouth of a jar. To Abaye he said: Your business will be doubled like a lettuce. To Raba he said: Your business will be bitter like a lettuce. They said to him: We saw some meat on the mouth of a jar. To Abaye he said: Your wine will be sweet, and everyone will come to buy meat and wine from you. To Raba, he said: Your wine will turn sour, and everyone will come to buy meat to eat with it.13  They said: We saw a cask hanging on a palm tree. To Abaye he said: Your business will spring up like a palm tree. To Raba he said: Your goods will be sweet like dates.14  They said to him: We saw a pomegranate sprouting on the mouth of a jar. To Abaye he said: Your goods will be high-priced like a pomegranate. To Raba he said: Your goods will be stale like a [dry] pomegranate. They said to him: We saw a cask fall into a pit. To Abaye he said: Your goods will be in demand according to the saying: The pu’ah15  has fallen into a well and cannot be found.16  To Raba he said: Your goods will be spoilt and they will be thrown into a pit. They said to him: We saw a young ass standing by our pillow and braying. To Abaye he said: You will become a king,17  and an Amora18  will stand by you. To Raba he said: The words ‘The first-born of an ass’19  have been erased from your tefillin. Raba said to him: I have looked at them and they are there. He replied to him: Certainly the waw of the word hamor [ass] has been erased from your tefillin.20

Subsequently Raba went to him by himself and said to him: I dreamt that the outer door fell. He said to him: Your wife will die. He said to him: I dreamt that my front and back teeth fell out. He said to him: Your sons and your daughters will die. He said: I saw two pigeons flying. He replied: You will divorce two wives.21  He said to him: I saw two turnip-tops.22  He replied: You will receive two blows with a cudgel. On that day Raba went and sat all day in the Beth ha-Midrash. He found two blind men quarrelling with one another. Raba went to separate them and they gave him two blows. They wanted to give him another blow but he said, Enough! I saw in my dream only two.

Finally Raba went and gave him a fee. He said to him: I saw a wall fall down. He replied: You will acquire wealth without end. He said: I dreamt that Abaye’s villa fell in and the dust of it covered me. He replied to him: Abaye will die and [the presidency of] his College will be offered to you. He said to him: I saw my own villa fall in, and everyone came and took a brick. He said to him: Your teachings will be disseminated throughout the world. He said to him: I dreamt that my head was split open and my brains fell out. He replied: The stuffing will fall out of your pillow. He said to him: In my dream I was made to read the Hallel of Egypt.23  He replied: Miracles will happen to you.

Bar Hedya was once travelling with Raba in a boat. He said to himself: Why should I accompany a man to whom a miracle will happen?24  As he was disembarking, he let fall a book. Raba found it, and saw written in it: All dreams follow the mouth. He exclaimed: Wretch! It all depended on you and you gave me all this pain! I forgive you everything except [what you said about] the daughter of R. Hisda.25  May it be God’s will that this fellow be delivered up to the Government, and that they have no mercy on him! Bar Hedya said to himself: What am I to do? We have been taught that a curse uttered by a sage, even when undeserved, comes to pass; how much more this of Raba, which was deserved! He said: I will rise up and go into exile. For a Master has said: Exile makes atonement for iniquity. He rose and fled to the Romans. He went and sat at the door of the keeper of the King’s wardrobe. The keeper of the wardrobe had a dream, and said to him: I dreamt that a needle pierced my finger. He said to him: Give me a zuz! He refused to give him one, and he would not say a word to him. He again said to him: I dreamt that a worm26  fell between two of my fingers. He said to him: Give me a zuz. He refused to give him one, and he would not say a word to him. I dreamt that a worm filled the whole of my hand. He said to him: Worms have been spoiling all the silk garments. This became known in the palace, and they brought the keeper of the wardrobe in order to put him to death. He said to them: Why execute me? Bring the man who knew and would not tell. So they brought Bar Hedya, and they said to him: Because of your zuz, the king’s silken garments have been ruined.

The point of the story is that “all dreams follow the mouth.”  The meaning of dreams is in the hands of the interpreter.  Bar Hedya was caught at his own game.  He always could have given a good interpretation, but he decided to create bad interpretations if he didn’t receive any money.

The irony of Youngman’s joke – if read in terms of this Talmud passage on Bar Hedya – is that the life of the patient was extended another six months because he couldn’t pay.  This implies that his life would be interpreted as shorter if he had really paid, but because he didn’t pay…he had another six months to pay.   Regardless of this irony, however, what is most interesting is that money is always involved in the interpretation.  The Talmud teaches, however, that it shouldn’t be.

Bar Hedya should always have given good interpretations regardless of whether or not he received money.  Perhaps the lesson is that, today, positive interpretations – which can perhaps transform a bad dream into a good one – will always involve money.

Bar Hedya was punished by a Roman official for this.  His arms and legs were attached to two palm trees that were drawn back.  When they released him, his body was immediately split in half.

In this world, however, perhaps Charles Bernstein is right: the comedian is the schlemiel we are the shlimazels because, like the patient, the meaning of our life – literally -changes on the drop of a dime.   Moreover, this structure is undergirded by Youngman’s “curious neutrality” while telling one-liners.  The effect of this is to give us a sense of duration by way of comedy – through it we can watch it move and, at the same time, we can bear witness to our structural relation to the schlemiel.  This effect, I would argue, is passed down from Youngman to many other comedians.  But there is a trick to it all.  If the comedian can’t keep a “curious neutrality,” we may fail to witness the schlemiel structure.  The same goes for the schlemiel in Yiddish literature.

Both the king of the one liners and the great Yiddish writers of the schlemiel teach us that the Talmud is right about dream interpretation: the dream goes after the mouth.  But how could one talk about Jewish comedy without talking about money.  After all, as in any schlemiel joke, someone must always pay.

…..and the show goes on….



The Schlemiel and Allen Ginsberg’s IGNU


Unlike Uncle Walt (Walt Whitman), Allen Ginsberg’s poetry isn’t all pathos (although it does have a great deal of that).   To be sure, there is a comic element in his poetry that many people often overlook.   Poems like “Howl” or “Kaddish” are very serious poems, but they do have comic elements in this or that part.  In fact, most of Ginsburg’s poems are peppered with comedy.

One poem which recently caught my eye was a poem entitled IGNU, which can be found in his Kaddish collection.  It is, without a doubt, a comic poem.  In this rare audio clip of Allen reciting the poem in 1973 – in a tribute to Kerouac at Salem State College – Ginsberg explains that the word IGNU was a word invented by Jack Kerouac around 1948 or 1949.

Ginsburg goes on to explain the meaning of the term by way of mysticism and comedy.  An IGNU stands for a “Gnostic ignoramus….a great bullshit artist.”  After stating this, he qualifies that by saying that an IGNU is not someone who suffers in the mystical “cloud of unknowing.”  Rather, an IGNU is someone like “Harpo Marx” or the “Three Stooges.”

Immediately after he notes these comedic examples of the IGNU, he begins his poem (written in New York in 1958):

On top of that if you know me I pronounce you an ignu

Ignu knows nothing of the world

What I find so interesting about this is that comedy, in this instance, displaces mysticism.  To be sure, the Ignu sounds like a schlemiel: he knows “nothing of the world.”  But he is not a mystic so much as a comical figure.   More importantly, the first words of Ginsberg’s poem indicate that if you know “me,” that is the voice of the poem (or Allen Ginsberg), you become a fool.  He calls you an ignu and, so to speaks, shares Ignu-ness with the other.  One becomes an Ignu by hanging out with Ignus which is exactly what we see with Harpo Marx or with The Three Stooges.  Everything they touch, everything a schlemiel touches, becomes comical.

And, for Ginsburg, the comical is the angelic.  As we see in the following lines:

Ignu has knowledge of the angel indeed ignu is angel in comical form

W.C. Fields Harpo Marx ignus Whitman an Ignu.

The punch line is that not just comedic figures but even Whitman, the poet of pathos and America, is pronounced an Ignu.

In his pronunciations of Ignu, Allen’s poem mixes mysticism, American culture, and comedy from beginning to the very end.  I’ll cite a few different lines to illustrate:

The ignu may be queer though like not kind ignu blows arch-angels for the strange thrill

Ignu lives only once and eternally knows it

He sleeps in everybody’s bed everyone’s lonesome for ignu ignu

Knew solitiude early


He listens to jazz as if he were a negro afflicted with jewish melancholy

And white divinity

Ignu’s a natural you can see it when he pays for cabfare


Pulling off the money from an impossible saintly roll

The Ignu, like the schlemiel, is a saintly and comic character and he “sought you out.”  He’s the “seeker of God and God breaks down the world for him every ten years.”  He “sees lightning flash in empty daylight when the sky is blue.”  The Ignu’s comedy, like the comedy of the schlemiel, is existential:

A comedy of personal being his grubby divinity.

And like many a schlemiel, such as many an Aleichem character, he is bound to experience juxtaposed the mystical.  Like the schlemiel, the Ignu has a foot in this world and another world.

Knowledge born of stamps words coins pricks jails seasons sweet ambition laughing gas

History with a gold halo photographs of the sea painting a

Celestial din in the bright window

One eye in a black cloud

Ginsburg ends the poem with a meditation on two diamonds that are in the Ignu’s hands (one diamond is “Poetry” and the other diamond is “Charity”).  Defying logic, he argues that these diamonds “prove” two things. Both, I would argue, disclose our relation to the schlemiel: 1) “we have dreamed” and 2) “the long sword of intelligence over which I constantly stumble like my pants at the age of six – embarrassed.”

The last line evinces the schlemiel who is a dreamer and spreads dreams and who always seems to be caught up in his youth, unable to advance.  And, much like the man-child we see in Robert Walser’s poetry, he stumbles.

Allen’s Ignu evinces, for him, some kind of new man that emerges into a new era.  He is a tainted holy fool of sorts; a “comedy of personal being” informs his “grubby divinity.”  This dirty, comic, bum Ignu finds himself stumbling though America and he pronounces you, because you happen to know him, a fellow Ignu.     But, with all his stumbling and embarrassment, I think its safe to say that he’s a melancholy comic.  His revelations are all fragmented, he is between worlds, and, as the poem seems to show, he is caught up in an endless, comic repetition.

But he is not alone.  He reads his poems to you.  And rather than cry, Ginsberg prompts us to laugh and join him in his community of Ignus: an ironic community of the mystically inclined.  Perhaps one can call this a community of the question since, ultimately, Ginsberg, like all those who listen to him, is in search of some kind of truth.

Harold Ramis: Comedy and Jewishness, American Style


After I learned of Harold Ramis’s death, I spent some time on youtube going through clips of his work.   One of the most interesting things I stumbled upon was a talk he gave on Groundhog Day.   Ramis begins and ends his reflection on the film with a Jewish joke.

At the outset, he recalls a telephone call from one of the producers on the day of the film’s premier in California. He told Ramis that there are picketers at the film’s opening in Santa Monica.  In shock, Ramis asks what they are protesting and the producer tells him: “They aren’t protesting.  They are Hasidic Jews walking around with signs saying are you living the same day over and over again!”  While he cracks the joke, he has a big smirk on his face.

Following this, Ramis points out how a number of groups identified with the film: Buddhists, people in the Yoga community, Christians, and psychologists.   He notes that everyone obviously “projected” something on to the film.  However, he adds that “as a Jew, I kept thinking that people finding so much in this movie” and finding something new in it – every time – has much in common with the reading of the Torah:

The Torah is read every year, start at the same place, in the same day…every Jew reads the same form the same day, in the same cycle.  The Torah doesn’t change, but every year we read it we change.   And every time we read it we read something different.  So, the movie doesn’t change.

The punch line is that he denies the comparison after making it and then plays with it: “I’m not comparing Groundhog Day to the Torah; it’s more entertaining. And the Bible was not a good movie…John Huston’s movie.”  But the take away is that “there is something in it that can help people to reconsider where they are in life and to question their habitual behaviors.”

This analogy – and the joke that conveys it – is telling.  It suggests that Ramis sees the film and the Torah as something that can help us to recognize our mortality and prompt us to change who we are.  And we do this by way of reflecting on the story that we see which he suggests has a timeless element to it.  What lives on and changes – besides ourselves – is the interpretation of the story.  But the point is to make the interpretation.

Reflecting on this, I thought about how, in many ways, Ramis’s films were, for me, like the Torah.  I used to watch them over and over again.  I was especially fascinated with the juxtaposition of Bill Murray (John) to Harold Ramis (Russell Zisky) in Stripes.

Zisky plays the humble and intelligent American Jew while John plays the ironic and bold American rebel.  Zisky and John are both schlemiels.  And this is brought to bear on us by way of the fact that they come from a different America than the soldiers they join.  They are urban and intellectual; they are ironic and this gives them a vantage point.  However, as the film goes on they learn to overcome whatever distance separated them from the others in the platoon.  But this distance, though seemingly large, isn’t big.

The first scene of the film shows us this fact. Zisky is an educated man who is teaching “Basic English” to Immigrants.  We can see that the job is meaningful to him, but it is not allowing him to tap into his full potential.


John is also stumped.  Both of them are friends who want, as the Jewish-American writer Bernard Malamud put it, a “new life.”  To be sure, Malamud joined Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, and other Yiddish writers whose schlemiels all yearned for a “new life.”  The question, in all of their novels and stories, was whether such a life was possible or what that new life meant.   Moreover, would any of these schlemiels change, fundamentally? Or would they remain schlemiels, still, after the transformation?

When Zisky introduces himself to the platoon in Stripes, he comes across as a pacifist and his words fall flat.  None of the other Americans in the room, even John Candy in front of him, can understand or identify with what he is saying or his pledge that he will put himself on the line when they are in danger.


In contrast to Zisky, the American-Jew, is John.  His talk is that of a ironic, self-important-cool-populist.  The majority of the platoon laughs and smiles when he talks.  Everyone can identify with him.  He ends with an homage to the leader of the platoon.  But the leader sees this all as a lot of talk and, as the film goes out to show, he does all he can do to break John down and make him into a soldier rather than a populist comedian.

As the opening clip shows, the American-Jew and the cool, ironic American are completely different.  They are regarded differently by the platoon.  That changes over time.  But the initial moment gave me a lot to reflect on as a Jew growing up in small town America.  My father and mother were both natives of New York City.  They were oddballs in my small town.  My parents had more in common with Zisky than I did.

For this reason, looking back I can understand why I liked this film so much.  I tried to be more like John than Zisky.  But in the end, I saw that Zisky was also accepted.  But to be accepted, he had to prove that he could put himself on the line for other people in the platoon.  And John also had to change.  But that change was something that came from the leader of the platoon.  The basis for this had to do with making John more humble and respectful.

As a recent Village Voice article points out, this feat of making the American more humble was not realized in films like stripes, however.  It was realized in Groundhog Day.    According to the author of the article, Ramis established himself by making Slob vs. Snob comedies.  While the theme had its power and reflected life in the 80s, it still gave the “white American” slob too much power.  The author suggests that this is displaced in Groundhog Day because Bill Murray plays a character who is radically different from characters like John in Stripes.  Ramis and Murray, according to the author, figured out that Murray – of Stripes and Ghostbusters – is the “asshole of the age”:

At some point, Ramis and Murray and whoever else seem to have figured out that the Bill Murray of Stripes and Ghostbusters (both co-written by and co-starring Ramis) is the asshole of his age, a self-entitled boomer horndog interested in no perspective other than his own, engaged with no aspect of culture he hasn’t decided he already favors.

For this reason, they created a new Murray character in Stripes who, the author points out, now plays a “snob” rather than a “slob.”  The effect of this transformation, is that “he is rightly seen as a privileged dickhead instead of some hypocrisy-exposing hero of the people.”  The new lesson, he claims, is that Murray learns that there is more to the world than himself; the world is something you share with others.

I found this article to be interesting since it reads Groundhog Day, as Ramis suggests, by way of a different time.   It points out that the film has not changed, but we have.  Nonetheless, I wonder how Ramis rather than Murray fits into this reading.  Did his character change?  And what does this all have to do with Jewishness?  And, in all of this, what happened to the schlemiel?

The other day, I blogged on Ramis and pointed out how, in Knocked Up, he played the Jewish father to Seth Rogen.   As I noted, the scene I refer to is the scene of tradition and the idea that the son and father encounter is very Jewish.  The father is happy to have grandchildren.  He is happy to see the future embodied in a grandson.  The encounter, so to speak, shows us Zisky years later.  Unlike Bill Murray, he hasn’t gone through a fundamental transformation.  Ramis, in doing this, shows us that though the Jew may age, his or her humility and priorities remain the same.  Zisky isn’t the “asshole of the age.”  He just wants to help.

I’d like to end this blog post with a clip from the film Walk Hard where Ramis plays a Hasidic Rabbi who, in this scene, visits, Dewey, the main character, in prison.  Dewey is a parody of the American rock star who rises to fame, but ends up in hard times.  In an ironic twist, he speaks to him in Yiddish and Dewey replies in kind.

Here’s the rough translation:

Rabbi: Lean closer, I want to talk to you in mother tongue for the guards should not understand what I’m saying.

Dewey: You must be able to do something. I am not yet 21 years old. My whole life is waiting for me.

Rabbi: I think we need to do a retreat.

Dewey: How can we do that?

Rabbi:  You must go to a rehab

I recently noted that Woody Allen, in Take the Money and Run, briefly plays a Hasidic Rabbi. But that scene emerges out of a joke: it is a “side effect” of a drug he is asked to take in prison.  Here, however, we find something different.  This Rabbi is a wise man who looks to help Dewey to live “a new life” the kind of life that he can live if he goes through rehab, that is, a transformation.

The twist, I think, is that the Rabbi initiates the change; he helps Dewey to change his old habits.  He helps him to look at himself differently and gives him hope.  For me, this is the keynote that Ramis hit at in his talk on Groundhog Day.  It articulates what he thinks of the Torah and what he thought of his greatest film.  The idea is not simply (or only) that the white American guy realizes that he is an asshole and he can share the world with others, as the author of the Village Voice article suggests; it’s also that the this realization or rather transformative thought is scripted by a Jewish filmmaker and screenwriter named Harold Ramis.  He brought his Jewish wisdom to his films and, hopefully, this blog post steps in the direction of better understanding how this was so.  To be sure, Ramis’s own words – which I brought out above – suggest that we do so.

After all, the movie may not change, but we do. But the other side of this is that the movie, if read closely, can also prompt us to see who we are and to change our lives.  Herein lies the wisdom of a good script and a close reading, something Jews have, for centuries, been familiar.  What Ramis has done is to make this structure popular; he has created an offshoot of Jewishness.  And he has done it in an American style.