Tag: Lawrence Epstein

Joan Rivers, “She Was the Bravest of Them All”

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The death of Joan Rivers has left its mark. Many of us have been searching for words. And, as with any death, we try to remember the best things about her. So many things come to mind, but how, I wondered, could I find words. This was too much. After Robin Williams death, I was besides myself and now Joan. All of the joy they brought to my life, the life of my friends, and my family. It felt as if it was all gone.

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As soon as I heard the news of Joan’s death, I went immediately to twitter to check the comedians I follow for insights into who she was and what she did. After learning of her death, Mel Brooks tweeted: “Joan Rivers never played it safe. She was the bravest of them all. Still at the top at the end. She will be missed.”

Something about Brooks’ words resonated deeply in me. Yes, he was right. She never played it safe. She was the bravest of all. Her bravery, however, didn’t have to do with the comic boundaries she broke with her words so much as with her person. As a female comic, she took risks that broke boundaries for other women comics. And this, I thought, is what Brooks meant when he said she was “the bravest of them all.”   And this needs to be recognized and remembered in the wake of her passing.

Lawrence Epstein, in his book The Haunted Smile, gives Joan her own chapter. The title of the chapter and its subtitle suggest that with female comedy had radically changed Jewish comedy in America: “Kosher at Last: Jewish Women Comedians.” Epstein begins his chapter without mentioning Joan’s name. Joan is presented as a woman without a name (“she”):

She was still struggling for recognition as a comedian. Billed as “Pepper January – Comedy with Spice,” she was faced with a hostile audience. The raucous men seated at the tables had a very definite set of ideas about the men and women who stood in front of them to provide entertainment: the men were supposed to tell jokes, and women were supposed to take their clothes off. Here, though, was this thin, loud woman trying to tell them jokes. The audience members began booing. (253)

After writing this description of “her” act, Epstein tells us her name: Joan Molinsky. As with many Jewish-American comic artists (and artists in general), she had to change her name. She went to her agent, Tony Rivers, and he told her that in order for her to get recognized as an American artist she had to change her last name to Rivers. From then on, she was Joan Rivers.

But the name change wasn’t enough. As Epstein notes, after World War II Borsht Belt humor, which Brooks, Reiner, and Allen (amongst many other famous comedians) participated in, “instilled a deep hostility toward women and mothers”(254). But these comedians weren’t doing something that went against the norm. Epstein tells us that they were a part of a “wider American culture” that was changing radically and was anxious about its identity. They, like many Jews, wanted to assimilate as they moved from the city to the suburbs. Given this situation, male comedians, argues Epstein, were worried that women comedians could “retard their entrance into American society.”

Within such a cultural milieu it was hard for a woman comic to survive unscathed.

And while men had an easier time assimilating, Jewish women, argues Epstein, were the “new Jews, the unaccepted minority, the people seeking power who were not allowed to gain entrance into society, in this case the society of comedians”(257).

For this reason, Epstein argues that women comics, like Totie Fields and Joan Rivers, were “unable to engage normal comic subjects.” As a result, a woman comedian was “stuck making fun of herself”(257). Totie Fields was the first to do this.

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And Joan Rivers “built on Fields’s success.” Her humor, like Fields’ was based on self-deprecation.

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However, she was also adept at speaking whatever came to her mind and this helped her to become more independent. However, Epstein argues that it wasn’t until she saw Lenny Bruce perform in 1962 that she became radically independent: 

The real turning point for her…was in watching Lenny Bruce perform in 1962. She saw in Bruce a sort of comedy she wanted to perform, a comedy that came from personal, intimate experiences, a direct and honest approach. Rivers was not interested in the political and religious confrontations that came to dominate Bruce’s material, but she was deeply impressed by his delivery style. She transformed his blunt obscenity into softer words such as tramp or slut. She also made a deliberate choice. She went for the large lower middle class. (258)

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Epstein characterizes her transition as a “change from self-mockery to self-assertion.”   She talked about subjects women never talked about.   For a woman to do this was heroic and courageous.

What I find so interesting about Epstein’s reading is that it parallels, in many ways, the reading of David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews. But in Biale’s book, there is a different trajectory which moves from the male “sexual schlemiel” to Lenny Bruce.

Biale, to be sure, gives the schlemiel a fundamental role in the creation of American culture and a new, awkward sexuality which finds its best expression in the work of Woody Allen. He argues that the schlemiel doesn’t simply adapt to American culture; it also creates something new.   The sexual schlemiel, with his “comic fumbling,” de-eroticizes “gentile America.”   And in doing so, his comic fumbling and “sexual ambivalence infects gentile women and turns them into mirror images of himself: even gentile Americans become ‘Jewish’”(207). With this unique claim and powerful rhetoric (“infests,” “turns into mirror images”), Biale does something no schlemiel theorist has done before: besides noting how women become mirror images of the schlemiel, he also argues that America has become more “Jewish” by virtue of the schlemiel.

Biale goes on to elaborate that there is a “hidden agenda”(207) that goes hand-in-hand with this “mirroring,” which is “to identify American with Jewish culture by generalizing Jewish sexuality and creating a safe, unthreatening space for the shlemiel as American antihero”(207). And this identification illustrates what he means by “harmonizing” Jewish experience with American culture.   By being the American anti-hero, Biale is suggesting that the “sexual schlemiel” plays an important role in a new American culture that, in many ways, emulates the anti-hero.

Biale’s choice of words is instructive as it suggests that this “unthreatening space” was prefaced by living in a space of cultural anxiety and a desire to get rid of it. In fact, he notes that in “America a deep insecurity about the Jews position in American culture seems to underlie this instinctive turn tot comedy”(207).   Based on this reflection, Biale muses that the distance afforded by comedy may have relieved anxiety by winning over a “potentially hostile gentile audience”(207).   For this reason, Biale ventures a hypothesis about how, if Americans can laugh at Jewish sexual neurosis and see such a neurosis as it’s own, then “perhaps the Jew will be accepted as an organic part of the cultural landscape”(207).  

However, he notes that since Jews put such neurosis on the screen and in novels, one can argue that they weren’t too anxious so much as slightly anxious. Rather, he argues that they “assumed” that the “sexual schlemiel” was a “legitimate part of American culture”(207) And this prompted them to “generalize Jewish sexuality” by way of the schlemiel.

Biale notes that this generalization of Jewish sexuality by way of the schlemiel was challenged by another one; namely, that of Lenny Bruce. He, “perhaps more than any other comedian, broke with the tradition of the Jew as a sexual schlemiel in order to outrage conventional morality with Jewish eroticism”(216). While Roth and Allen have schlemiels who freely talk about sex, these characters don’t challenge the status quo. As we saw above, they create it by creating an identification between being a schlemiel and being an American.

For Bruce, being Jewish means to “be outside the American mainstream, both verbally (mouths) and erotically (bosoms). It means to identify with what was sexually liberated on the margins of American culture”(217). Biale’s reading makes it clear that the schlemiel – though an anti-hero – is a character that belongs to the American mainstream while Bruce’s anti-schlemiel does not. Bruce, in contrast to the schlemiel, is a part of and edgy and “hip” Jewish culture (217) which “was in as much conflict with Jewish convention as with Christian convention…and for Bruce the former was more sexually liberated than the latter”(217). This suggests a political reading of the schlemiel.

However, Biale notes that while Bruce was going against the American grain he was not a feminist. At the very least, he was “able to imagine a male Jewish counterculture that was subversively erotic”(217).   Moreover, Bruce’s kind of comedy – in contrast to the schlemiel’s – taps into a working class ethos. It is Lenny Bruce’s brand of comedy that “captured the bawdy tumult of the Lower East Side culture, from the ribald Yiddish theater to the lurid tales of the Bintel Brief” (219).   His work, along with the work of E.L. Doctorow (namely in his novel, The Book of Daniel), evinces a Jewish sexuality that refutes “America’s erotic and political hypocrisy”(220).

Given Biale’s reading, we can say that Rivers also passed from a self-deprecating schlemiel phase to a Lenny Bruce phase. She didn’t simply, as Biale says above, “mirror” the schlemiel. She left this comedic-type behind for a more aggressive kind of comedy. We can also argue that though Bruce was courageous for what he did, perhaps Rivers was even more courageous since she was a woman. And doing what Bruce did, as a woman, was much more difficult.

The question we need to ask is whether Joan Rivers created such a subculture as well.   Epstein suggests she did in the sense that she created a space for women comedians to speak and for Jewish women to feel comfortable with being assertive and bold.

And in this, Mel Brooks was spot on. He suggests that she had more courage than all of them. This means that she had more audacity than the Borsht Belt comedians (who he was a part of) and Lenny Bruce. As a woman, she broke more boundaries then they did. And she led the way for comedy to where we are today with comedians like Gilda Radner, Sandra Bernhard, and Sarah Silverman.

We will miss you Joan. You opened doors for women that were closed and you changed the face of comedy. Your legacy lives on and you were…the hardest working woman in showbiz.

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“You Don’t Hate A Race When You are Laughing at It.”

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These are the words of Jack Benny – whose real name was Benjamin Kubelsky.  And they are – more or less – an affirmation of ethnic humor.  He thought of such humor as – in the words of Lawrence Epstein – “socially redemptive.”  They were spoken in relation to racist and anti-Semitic claims made against Jews and African-Americans during the depression; and the characters that Benny found “socially redeemed” ethnic humor were Mr. Kitzel (a character who “Jewish” mannerisms) and Rochester an African-American character. The two, in fact, shared many skits.  Lawrence Epstein points this out by way of Benny’s own words – in retrospect – on these characters: “I never felt and I do not feel today that Rochester and Mr. Kitzel were socially harmful.  You don’t hate a race when you are laughing at it.”

Given the fact that many an anti-Semite laughed at Jews, this is an astonishing claim.  One of the major anti-Semitic claims made against Jews is that all Jews are weak. Sander Gilman, in The Jew’s Body, points out how Jewish men were often depicted as effeminate.   This, to be sure, is ethnic humor (of a very negative, biased sort).

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When Jews were represented, their bodies are pictured in relaxed, comic, and effeminate postures.  The comic strips were used, in these pieces, to laugh at Jews and ridicule them for being outsiders whose bodies were not “normal” and “graceful” like their fellow German citizens.

Ethnic humor was used to invoke hatred of Jews in Germany from the Enlightenment to the Holocaust.  Caricaturing Jews as power hungry, overweight, scheming, cheap, and weak had a horrific and a comic edge (aimed at exclusion):

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But this, Epstein claims, was reversed on American soil. As Jews learned, the best place to challenge the representations of the Jewish body was on the American stage where weakness could become a Jewish trait that was not so much deplorable as worthy of compassion.  And this compassion served, in some sense, to create a way for Jews to be accepted into an American society that had become, with the depression, hostile toward the Jews.   This observation, it seems, finds much resonance in David Biale’s definition of the schlemiel as “charming.” It also echoes Hannah Arendt’s descriptions of Charlie Chaplin and Heinrich Heine’s “lord of dream” – exemplary schlemiels in the “hidden tradition.”

Lawrence Epstein makes a case for this in The Haunted Smile.  He finds the inversion of an anti-Semitic characterization of Jews as weak – which we see above in the negative ethnic humor and caricature – by way of the weakness in Jack Benny’s comic performance.   Benny, argues Epstein, found a way of countering anti-Semitism by way of two routines that actually adopted anti-Semitic stereotypes and inverted them.

The claim that Jack Benny’s comic act inverts American culture was first made by Susan J. Douglas: “Douglas reads the character as an attack on both masculinity and upper-class pretensions.”  (For more on the topic of masculinity, comedy, and inversion see my blog entry on Daniel Boyarin’s reading of the father of the Hasidim: the Baal Shem Tov.)  Epstein agrees with her that “the Benny character subtly attacked the leaders without ever being political.”  And, in the process, he affected audiences without their even knowing it.  He spoke to the public’s anger at being duped by their leaders who worked in cahoots with the stock market to create the Great Depression.  But this anger was misdirected at the Jews of the time.

Benny did address and invert this anger by adopting and playing on stereotypes; and did this, specifically, through the schlemiel:

Benny mocked his own prowess with a violin, a musical instrument widely identified with Jews, and the Benny program produced two Jewish ethnic stereotypes as characters, Mr. Kitzel and Schlepperman.

Interestingly, Epstein says many people in the American audience didn’t even know he was Jewish. Rather, he played with images that had some kind of, as the postmodern sociologist Pierre Bourdieu might say, symbolic power. And, in relation to them, he gave Jewish stereotypes a more positive valence. That said, the expressions he came up with went viral and this had a good effect of, in Epstien’s view, defusing anti-Semitism.

For instance, when Mr. Kitzel cried out, “with a pickle in the middle,” such diffusion was at work.  The expressions of Mr. Kitzel – the expressions of a schlemiel- did this cultural work. Audacious, odd phrases, in a Lyotardian sense, created a new “idiom” which, when repeated, gave Jewishness a new currency that it never had before (even though much of the American audience may not have picked up that it was a “Jewish” dialect that was being displaced).

To be sure, it is Mr. Kitzel’s absent-mindedness, which he is blind to, that is most charming.  The audience’s response, Epstein says, is “empathetic” as opposed to “being antipathetic.”  And this small element of empathy, argues Epstein, was enough to sway an American audience to accept not necessarily Jews as Jewishness (which, he claims, they may not have even consciously noticed) as something non-threatening.

The key to this charm was the identification with Jack Benny, the man-child schlemiel.  The lesson we learn is that the schlemiel’s charm can be used as a way of fostering a kind of American populism that is based on an openness to weakness.  We see this in Benny and we see it in the latter part of the 20th century in Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen (amongst many).  The strategy of weakness is the strategy of assimilation and a way of deflecting anti-Semitism, or so it seems.  However, this appears to miss the fact that, today, Jewish comic traits of weakness are no longer Jewish.  You can find them everywhere.  And this can come out in a turn of phrase, a gesture, or a situation.  Take, for instance, Napoleon Dynamite or the Dude from the Cohen Brothers film The Big Lubowski:

Their way is the way of the peaceful, inept, yet (unconscious) charming warrior.  While the association of ethnicity with weakness seems to have fallen away in America,  weakness (as such) remains.  I’ll leave it at that….

Jewish Comedy and Theft

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Many postmodern writers incorporate the texts of other writers within their own texts, and oftentimes they don’t cite them.  This practice has been called pla(y)giarism by Lance Olsen, Kathy Acker, and others.    These writers take great honor in the fact that they “steal” and retool texts.  One of my favorite theft-texts is Kathy Acker’s Don QuixoteIf anyone were to read this text, one would see that she is not telling the same story as Cervantes.  In fact, the novel she writes plays more or less on the structure of Cervantes’ novel (namely the relationship between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote).  But in her novel, the characters accompany each other in transgressive sexual exploits.  The exploits bring Acker’s Don Quixote to the edge of madness as they go outside of the sexual “norm” into uncharted territory.  That said, Acker, in this novel and in many others, pla(y)giarises and oftentimes has characters who, as in many a Jean Genet novel, steal, murder, and rape.

Although I have given thought to novelists or fictional characters who “steal,” in a fictional or authorial sense, I never gave much thought to authors who were actually thieves and how such thievery could aid their work as novelists.  I recently came across this idea in Lawrence Epstein’s book, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America.   But Epstein uses theft vis-à-vis Jewish comedians, not writers.    He provides evidence that many Jewish comedians were thieves (or had aspects of thievery) and suggests that this had influenced their comedy in some way.  What makes his suggestion interesting is what it brings out about the American dream from an immigrant’s perspective.

Epstein notes that in the Lower East Side, Jews saw an abundance of goods and foods in the streets: a reality that had not experienced in Eastern Europe:

Deprived for so long of the certainty that there would be food for the next meal, Jews embraced the abundance of food in the Golden Land.  Mothers, especially, urged their children to eat.  Food was a living symbol of the Jewish drive for survival.  The aroma of a Shabbes meal sustained many with its rich assurances and its heady promises of even greater success. (13)

But in the midst of all this abundance, there was a lot of poverty.   And although there was such poverty, Jews knew that, in the last resort, they could always find food or a loan.  Espstein calls this “family in a broader sense.”   Nonetheless, Epstein tells us that many Jews would still steal.  And many of them became comedians:

Many of the young immigrants were young thieves.  George Burns always claimed that he took his name from the Burns Brothers coal yard.  He and his brother would steal the coal, and the neighbors would shout: “There go the Burns brothers.”…. He also claimed that he had gone to the Automat with a sister’s hairpin, stood by the stew, and after someone bought the stew, Burns slipped in the hairpin, preventing the door from closing. (16)

And the list goes on:

Phil Silvers stole gum from pushcarts and sold stolen pipe.   Fanny Brice stole gum from her mother’s store and then began shoplifting until she was caught.  Eddie Cantor stole from pushcarts.  At thirteen, he stole a purse.  Burt Lahr stole form local stores and resold the goods at an open market on Saturday mornings. (16)

Epstein notes that “Groucho Marx didn’t exactly steal,” but his mother knew that Marx took the change when he got bread for her.  She let this happen, says Epstein, because “she thought it showed initiative.”  He notes that although they stopped stealing at an early age, it “had an effect.”  According to Epstein “the antiauthoritarian nature of such thievery helped to make them feel apart not only from the rules of society but also from their own Jewish culture and sometimes, even, their Jewish families”(16).

Besides setting them apart from society, Epstein claims that we can find “a sort of assertion” and “transgression” in these acts, which “would in subtle ways influence the Jewish comic voice.”   Following this, Epstein also notes how – when they were children – many Jewish comedians would also skip school.

Epstein is basically claiming that the audacity of Jewish comedians is drawn – in some way – from their “deviant” past.  This is an interesting thesis, but as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Epstein also suggests that the audacity to question also has a “theological” basis since Jews are taught to question (from the Torah and the Talmud).    In addition to this, Epstein also suggests that the Yiddish language has many rude and audacious expressions.

Regardless of the reasons Epstein brings to explain the audacity of Jewish comedy, I find the fact that he saw thievery as a major factor worthy of more thought.  But I do so not simply in the genetic sense (that comedians are audacious because they were once thieves).  I think it is thought-worthy because the relationship of theft to comedy can be read in a number of different ways.

I’ll cite just one.  One interesting way of looking into theft is in terms of smuggling things that are illegal and then brandishing these things.  In Jewish comedy, we often find that a joke is a way of smuggling in views and perspectives.  The very structure of the joke is based on this.  The first part often says something authoritative, while the second part of the joke smuggles something that defuses the authoritative nature of the first part of the joke.  In a sense, it steals the authority away from the first part of the joke and brandishes this theft in plain view.

What’s left in the wake of this is, more or less, an empty shell: something is stolen.  We see this, for instance, in this joke by Woody Allen: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.”

What this joke does is more or less secularize the theological by juxtaposing it with the historical.  In a way, this is a theft.  And although Allen wasn’t a thief when he was a child, at the very least he was exposed to a theft effected by history and radical change.

In relation to this note, Epstein is correct in noting that Jewish humor was not the main staple of religious Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement.  Rather, it was the product of  a theft, so to speak, the theft of the religious life that was affected by the wave of secularism, violence, and massive migration to America.  By way of all these factors, the Jews lost something.  Yet, at the same time, they also gained something: humor.  To be sure, humor helps to deal with this loss and it also presents something in its wake.  And, more importantly, as Allen shows and as Epstein suggests, humor is best when it “steals the rug” from underneath things that have too much authority.   (However, Ruth Wisse rightly associates this kind of humor with the tension between hope and skepticism as it suspends the authority without completely negating it.  However, in her view, sarcasm – extreme irony – makes a total theft and destroys its “target.”)   In the wake of such a theft we may realize that “the emperor has no clothes.”

Insecure Immigrants, Americans, and Jewish Comedians

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Is there a unique relationship between America and Jewish comedy?  And is the immigrant experience the only source of Jewish culture, comedy, and literature?  Irving Howe held that the immigrant experience was the high point of Jewish culture and literature.  And he feared that as the Jewish immigrant experience faded into the past and Jews assimilated, the basis for Jewish fiction, humor, culture, and identity would also disappear.

But as I have pointed out in my blog entries on Gary Shteyngart, this is an issue that concerns us today.  What I found in Gary Shteyngart is something that Lawrence Epstein – in his book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America – also finds in the Immigrant experience; namely, the “insecure immigrant” who lives within the uncomfortable place between being an outsider and wanting to be an insider.

What interests me most about Epstein’s argument is 1) his description of this insecurity and 2) the proof he brings to the fore when he argues that Jewish immigrants to America, who happened to become famous comedians, managed this anxiety.  According to Epstein, Jews drew on their own history, language, and optimism to make a unique contribution to American culture and, in the process, created a new kind of Jewish identity that could only have been devised by Eastern European Jews who were turning to comedy rather than religion for security.  But this identity didn’t come out of a vacuum: Jewish humor evokes, as the title of his book suggests, a “haunted smile.”   Insecure immigrants-who-became-comedians were not just fighting with the insecurity of being an immigrant or with a religion that no longer seemed to grant security; they were fleeing a horrible and impoverished life.  And America motivated them, in Epstein’s view, to address all of these anxieties and create something new.

At the outset of this book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, Lawrence Epstein cites the New York Times columnist Frank Rich who states that the “very basis of American history was that insecure immigrants came to settle that land.”  Adding to this, Epstein notes that the Jews were the “most insecure” and could “serve as a symbol for Americans as they could for no other people.”

Epstein marks out why, historically, Jews were unique.  Epstein thinks that the great generation of Jewish comics emerged from the immigration at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  During that time, the largest number of immigrants came from Eastern Europe (at that time the majority of the world Jewry lived in Eastern Europe and Russia; but that changed with immigration and history):

In 1880, there were 80,000 Jews living in New York. By 1910, that number swelled to 1,250,000.   By one estimate, a typical block consisted of 2,781 people – and no bathtubs. (11)

This wave of immigration emerged out of an insecurity that developed out of thwarted hopes and the horrors of history.  Jews had, since the 18th century, been forced to live in the Pale of Settlement.  Jews were often at odds with the Russians.  And although the Haskalah movement (The Jewish Enlightenment) made its way from central Europe to Eastern Europe and gave Enlightened Jews hope that Russia would one day become a democracy, the laws against Jews and forced conscriptions flattened the optimism of many.  But during the time of Czar Alexander II of Russia, there was a small window of hope (of a few decades in the middle of the 19th century) when Jews were allowed to leave the Pale of Settlement for Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Jews were allowed to enter universities and take on typical professions.  This prompted many Enlightened Jews to imagine that they had finally become equals.

But this was short lived.   Alexander II was assassinated and Jews were blamed and this led to Pogroms and violence against the Jews.  His plan was to solve Russia’s “Jewish problem”:

One third would emigrate, one third would be converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and one third would starve to death. (6)

Following this, Jews were killed in mass during several different pogroms and were forced to give their children over for military conscription.  In the midst of this horror, America offered some form of hope.   Epstein describes the trip across the Atlantic in detail so as to show how difficult it was and how Jewish immigrants were willing to go through all of these difficulties in order to live a better life.

This desire met with an America that was looking for a way to deal with “changes in American society itself.”  Epstein makes the case that Jews used their ingenuity to address American anxieties about these changes:

Searching for a way to deal with the emerging anxieties of the modern age, America turned to the Jews, the masters of handling history’s troubles.  Jewish humor, so useful in helping generations of anxious Jews, was called to action to serve the similar needs of the wider American community.   An immigrant generation found in the Jews a people repeatedly practiced in starting over again in a new place while feeling marginal and scared.  (xii)

Epstein’s reading suggests that Americans and Jews were, at this time of history, a good fit since both were “insecure.”  And what Jews had to offer to a fledgling America (which lacked the history of Europe and its internal coping mechanisms) was a humorous means of dealing with modernity and radical historical change.

Epstein’s account of what Jews bring to this situation – vis-à-vis their history – is worth noting.  He points out that “they drew on their heritage in ways they didn’t always understand”(xiii).  And this act was transformational: “As they used that heritage to find ways to express truths about America, they transformed American culture, making Jews and Jewishness acceptable, even enviable”(xiii).

The greatest feature that Jews can draw from their history is their sense of anxiety that is the product of living on the margins of history: “Jewish comedians could sense majority anxieties early and transform them into humor, giving these anxieties a shape and a name as well as a way to cope”(xiii).

In this situation, Epstein argues that the schlemiel fit perfectly: “One of the most famous Jewish comic types is the schlemiel, a clumsy, maladjusted, hard-luck loser”(xv).  The schlemiel addresses these majority anxieties.  But instead of citing the immigrant comedians of the early 20th century as an example, Epstein turns to Woody Allen:

Sometimes, as in the classical schlemiels created by Woody Allen, this poor character is profoundly neurotic,  His one liners reflect negative emotions (When we played softball, I’d steal second, then feel guilty and go back”) or a sense of being trapped by unfeeling institutions (“I went to a school for emotional disturbed teachers”). (xv)

Epstein says that his body and demeanor were a “standing sight gag” and that his “distinctive New York voice added the effect as he told his audience the story.”  The story he cites is the “moose joke.”

Following this, Epstein turns to the Marx Brothers and describes each of them in detail.  He contrasts them to Allen by noting that they – together – “created a different comic type, the free soul who doesn’t so much criticize all social mores as mock and ignore them.”   Epstein names a few other “types” (that range from the “fool” (Ed Wynn and Rodney Dangerfield), the “observer” (Jerry Seinfeld), and the Social Critic (Lenny Bruce), but ends on the note that all of these types emerge out of a history and culture that is “extraordinarily verbal”:

Words form the center of study, of prayer, and of entertainment. The emphasis of language and on the argumentative patterns of Talmudic reasoning provided Jews with a style of thinking.  (xviii)

And he even goes so far as to say Jewish comedy also emerges out of a “theology” in which Jews were “permitted, even encouraged to question.”  This includes the challenges made to God we find in the Torah, the Talmud, and the Hasidic tradition.  This challenge to authority is the “hallmark of Jewish humor.”  And “Jewish comedians were notable in their willingness to test their audiences’ sense of which subjects and words were acceptable”(xviii).

Taken together, Epstein argues that these aspects of Jewish history were of great interest to the insecure American majority of the post-Civil War and rapidly industrializing America of the early 20th century.  Jewish comedians, who emerged out of the uncomfortable space of immigration, were of interest as they gave Americans new ways of dealing with radical historical change.  And this way became the basis for Jewish-American identity.

Epstein goes so far as to say that Jewish-American comedy offered a new kind of secular Jewish identity that displaced the security offered by religion.  In America, Jews could be secure with their insecurity and use it as a basis of identity.  As a recent Pew Poll shows, Jewish comedy is still a major basis for Jewish identity.

But after pondering Epstein’s thesis which he makes at the outset of his book, I wonder how, historically, it is the case that the comic American-immigrant fiction of Gary Shteyngart is so popular.   Is it because America is and will always remain a country that can learn from “insecure immigrants”?  Will America always be insecure and in need of new ways of coping with crisis?  And will comedy always be in great demand for this very reason?  Epstein seems to suggest that this is so…

If that is the case, the major question for schlemiel-in-theory is to figure out what the every changing basis for “insecurity” is and how comedy comes to address it.   But is it the case that, as Daniel Itzkovitz in his essay “They are All Jews” (in You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern Culture) claims, that Jewish comedy has become so common that it is indistinguishable from American comedy?  And what might this imply about the Jewish contribution to American comedy?  Insecurity may remain in America, but are Jews still really insecure about being Jews in America?  Are comic Jewish-Immigrant writers like Gary Shteyngart an exception?  And is Larry David’s comedy a product of his New York Jewishness which is out of place in Hollywood?  Is he an inter-American immigrant like Woody Allen was in Annie Hall (1976) when he went off for Hollywood at the end of the film and went back with his tail between his legs?