Both Roberto Benigni and Robin Williams are popular, internationally acclaimed comedic actors. Their work does a lot to open up the possibilities of comedy and expand its scope. Perhaps in an effort to test the limits of comedy, they took on one of the most difficult tasks imaginable for a comedic actor in the 20th century: addressing the Holocaust. After Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1997) and Jacob the Liar (1999), starring Robin Williams as Jacob, made their debuts, there was a major debate over whether or not, as Sander Gilman puts it, the “Shoah can be funny.” While Gilman finds these films to have “aesthetic” merits, the answer to his own question is an emphatic no.
Since both Benigni and Williams both played the innocent and naïve Jewish fool otherwise known as the schlemiel, another question comes up which Gilman does not address. Speaking to this issue and hitting on a deeper problem, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in an essay entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?” argues that “what is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter ‘nach Auschwitz’, after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as a building block of a post-Shoah universe”(Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, 2001, p287).
In other words, the question isn’t about whether Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni can accomplish the feat of using comedy, nach Auschwitz, to relate to the Holocaust so much as whether the schlemiel character that they draw on – which is one of the most important stock characters in the Jewish tradition – can or even should exist after the Holocaust.
This question is important to many scholars of the Holocaust and should be important to authors, poets, artists, and filmmakers who address the Holocaust in their work. The task of judging the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s projects – vis-a-vis literature, philosophy, and politics – ‘nach Auschwitz’ was launched by Theodor Adorno in essays and in sections of his books. Adorno is most well known for his claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. He was directing his words toward the poet Paul Celan. However, while some, like George Steiner, took Adorno literally (and making a categorical claim), others, like Lawrence Langer did not. And Langer is correct. Adorno was looking for a new kind of poetics “after Auschwitz.”
Here, the issue is comedy.
Adorno also has a little known essay about comedy and historical disaster entitled “Is Art Lighthearted?” In this essay, Adorno suggests that the lighthearted nature of comedy, after Auschwitz, must be challenged. As in his claim regarding poetry after Auschwitz, here Adorno finds an exception to the rule in Samuel Beckett’s kind of comedy:
In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectivity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)
Adorno’s approach to Beckett suggests that it is possible for comedy to exist after the Holocaust. But this is only because Beckett’s kind of comedy goes beyond the typical dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. And in doing so it creates a “laughter about the absurdity of laughter” and a “laughter about despair.” It is a “laugh that laughs at the laugh.”
Can we apply Adorno’s approach to Beckett’s humor to the schlemiel, which Robin Williams plays in Jacob the Liar? Can (or should) the schlemiel, like comedy in general, live on after the Holocaust? And, with that in mind, can we say that Williams’ portrayal of the Holocaust schlemiel was unethical, amoral, or ethical?
Prior to the Holocaust, the schlemiel was a “building block” for generations of Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement (in the 19th century), left for Europe, and landed in America. The schlemiel gave millions of Jews a way to understand themselves and survive the many defeats of history (which included pogroms). It’s humor gave them a sense of dignity when they were powerless.
In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that although the Jews suffered multiple defeats in history they could still turn to the schlemiel who won an “ironic victory.”
The traditional Western protagonist is heroic insofar as he attempts to change reality. The schlemiel becomes hero when real action is impossible and reaction remains the only way a man can define himself. As long as he moves among choices, the schlemiel is derided for his failures to choose wisely. Once the environment is seen as unalterable – and evil – his stance must be accepted as a stand or the possibilities of “heroism” are lost to him altogether. (39)
The schlemiel comically responds to historical disaster. Through word play, plot, and humor in this or that story or novel by Yiddish writers such as Mendel Mocher Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, Jewish readers could, as David Roskies says, “laugh off the traumas of history.” Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi illustrates this in a book entitled Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination where she includes a dialogue between Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel (Motl, the Cantors Son) to illustrate. He is so innocent and naïve that he can’t grasp the nature of a pogrom and the concept of evil:
I ask him what is a pogrom? All the emigrants keep talking about “pogroms” but I don’t know what they are/ Kopl says, “Don’t you know what a pogrom is? Then you’re just a baby! A pogrom is something that you find everywhere nowadays. It starts out of nothing, and one it starts it lasts for three days.” “Is it like a fair?” “A fair? Some fair! They break windows, they bust up furniture, rip pillows, feathers fly like snow…And they beat and kill and murder.” “Whom?” “What do you mean, whom? The Jews!” “What for?” “What a question! It’s a pogrom, isn’t it?” “And so it’s a pogrom. What’s that?” “Go away, you’re a fool. It’s like talking to a calf.”
Motl, like many Yiddish schlemiel characters, is innocent. And Ezrahi argues that the idea of preserving Jews from historical trauma was not just a modern practice; it was used in relation to the attempted genocide against the Jews in Purim which is remembered on Purim. As a part of the holiday, Jews celebrate the “aborted catastrophe” and turn “defeat into triumph.” The Jewish world is “turned topsy-turvy (nahofokh-hu) for one day each year and saints and villains become interchangeable.” (“Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” are exchanged in a day of celebration where the Rabbis suggest that the Jewish people should drink so much as to not know the difference between them.) Ezrahi suggests that this carnivalesque and comical act spares Jews of having to get caught up in the trauma of history; it distances them from the disaster.
But can this act be done after Auschwitz?
Like the Purim story, Ezrahi argues that the schlemiel was a modern, Yiddish version of the comedic rewriting of history. Jacob the Liar, however, falls after the Pogroms that Aleichem included in his novel from the early 20th century and after the Holocuast.
Writing on the film (and book), Ezrahi notes that it is a “self-declared counter-narrative” to the Holocaust. It effaces the historical dimension of the ghetto and the Holocaust:
The mise-en-scene has been identified by readers as the Lodz ghetto, where Jurek Becker (the author of the novel) himself was incarcerated as a child. But like the other ghettos and camps in the fictions under consideration, the ghetto is never named, and takes on a generic quality.
Ezrahi argues that this generic quality is the “baseline” for the novel. It looks to return everything back to normal and we see this in the central theme of Jacob and his lies which look to desperately turn the clock back:
The lie that Jakob fabricates, his possession of a radio that broadcasts good news to the ghetto, is simply an editorial projection of the normal onto the abnormal. The recipients of the lie are the inhabitants of the ghetto (or all its gullible inhabitants) but its primary target is a young girl, Lina, whom Jakob adopts when her parents are deported. (Note that Ezrahi uses the original Jakob while the American film changes it to Jacob.)
Ezrahi focuses in on the fact that Jacob’s heroic efforts “are aimed at preserving the innocence of her childhood world at all costs.” To be sure, in saying this, Ezrahi is hitting on something we find not just with the Yiddish schlemiel but also with Charlie Chaplin. Williams, much like Charlie Chaplin, plays the schlemiel and uses comedy to preserve the innocence of different characters (including himself).
Ezrahi makes a daring move and suggests that the issue of using comedy (and denying history) goes deep: it hits at theological issues. In the wake of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres argues that laughter is “a priori…hostile to the world it depicts.” While tragedy “quiets us with awe…laughter revolts” against the world.
Ezrahi suggests that the basis of this revolt – with respect to the schlemiel – is not simply a rejection of history because it can’t live in it. Rather, it evinces a messianic kind of hope that is implicit in the Jewish tradition: the hope for a better world and return to a world and a history without evil. This wish is at the core of Jewish eschatology and a utopian dream wish for a better world which smashes history.
What’s most interesting is that the audience “colludes” with the schlemiel. And this suggests that we have been very influenced by this belief in a better world so much so that we are willing to go along with this or that lie to save “innocence.” And, in the wake of disaster, the schlemiel is the vehicle for such collusion. Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he – like other authors of the schlemiel and actors who played the schlemiel – wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.
Upon hearing of Robin Williams passing, I, like millions of other fans, felt we have lost one of the best comedians of the last century. I’m not able (nor do I want to attempt) to write up an overview of his comedy career noting its highlights and main themes. However, I would like to say a few things about the energy and the mystery that ran through his improvisational kind of comedy. Unlike many comedians who would let their mania go out of control, Williams tempered it with a charm and calm. His comedic energy was infectious and solicited great laughter in his audiences. And his act had a kind of kinetic appeal to it that was new and surprising for many people living in America. But, in its wake, it left us with a kind of darkness or mystery. And for this reason, it touched on a kind of truth that is or may be possible through a kind of comedy that makes the audience “explode” with laughter.
In The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comedy, Phil Berger introduces Robin Williams near the end of the book. To show how unique he was, Berger points out how different he was from other comedians who were managed by Rollins Joffe & Brezner (a talent management firm). They managed comedians like Billy Crystal, Woody Allen, David Letterman, and Martin Short. And most of the comedians they managed had a similar shtick. Robin Williams was different, and this had much to do with his energetic style and his uses of improvisation in his act. He would efface the line between himself and the audience and go with whatever he came across:
In the case of Robin Williams, the problem was that his energy-charged act was so different from those of other comics that Los Angeles talent managers couldn’t get a fix on him. Williams lived on the improvised moment, doing takeoffs on Shakespearean plays, cracking up audiences in spur-of-the-moment iambic pentameter. Plucking a flower from a ringside vase: “….and look, a gentle rose, dying here anon…like myself.” He would plunge into the crowd, reacting to what he saw or heard. Lifting a carafe of wine from a patron’s table: “Hello, Laurence Olivier for Ripple wine.” He might even retire to a table in the audience and heckle himself: “I’ve heard all that stuff before. Your material is derivative.”
Williams’ ability to switch roles on the dime made him unique. In Williams, Brezner saw a “manic” energy that had the affect of something like a “wind tunnel”:
With Williams, the challenge was to take his nearly manic, stream of consciousness style (Brezner: “He had comedic energy that rebounded through the room. It felt like you stepped into a “wind tunnel.”) and not let it get out of hand. This meant giving the act structure – a beginning, middle, and an end – that had enough slack in it for Williams to dazzle audiences with his improvisational wit and energy. “If he just did his thing,” said Brezner, “the effect was that people laughed a lot, but they wouldn’t know who he is.”
Brezner’s last line is very interesting. It suggests that Williams, at the outset of his career, didn’t have a persona like Woody Allen. Rather, Williams was trading in a kind of energetics and play that has resonance with Woody Allen’s Zelig – a character who was likened to a chameleon.
In Zelig and Williams there is a mysteriousness that is born out of a transformational and manic energy. It is highly mimetic and performative. The laughter he evoked, as well, had a mysterious character to it. And it may have this mysteriousness because it touches on something hidden, dark, sad, and even tragic.
Writing on laughter, Jean-Luc Nancy, argues that laughter is a “gaze brought to bear on tragedy itself, in its tragic truth…the laughter is the knowledge of this truth. But it doesn’t know this truth as the content of knowledge”(“Laughter, Presence,” 366). For Nancy, it is in the moment of laughter and comedy that “it is known, it is in laughing that laughter is the truth.” And this truth comes forth in energetic “bursts” or “explosions,” which, when they withdraw, leave a mysterious silence.
The one bursts with the other and from the same burst, truth withdraws into laughter, into the “dim glistening of the mystery.” That is why the laughter remains mysterious – more, it is the exposition of a mystery. The burst of laughter reveals that the structure of its truth is to be hidden. (366)
Whenever I saw Williams doing comedy, I always had a sense of this kind of darkness in the wake of his routine which came across as a series of comic explosions. It was as if he pulled back from his laughter – and the explosions – so as to expose us to a dark truth. Sometimes there would be a kind of violence to his “nearly manic” routine. We see it here, in this mime routine within a film.
We also see energetic uneasiness in his earlier routines. The laughter it evokes, like the laughter that Andy Kaufmann would evoke in many of his routines discloses how Americans survive from one rapid change (or “explosion”) to another. The movement from character to character – as Zelig does – evinces a departure from identity and a series of rapid fire changes.
Williams stand-up routine, near the end of his life, brings out a kind of comedy that uses energetics to deal with a series of shocks that are distinctly America. His comedy reminds us of what many of us share. And it shows us how survival of these shocks, as he presents them, is an American-kind-of-thing to do.
Yet, at the core of this sudden outbursts and shocks, which he comically stages for us, there is a mystery about where all of this is going. He takes us on a journey of sorts through many states, but it is really the future that is the mystery. It is not simply (or only) as Brezner believed, related to Williams’ identity. Not only do we not know who Williams is (in the wake of each of his routines), we also don’t know where we are all going. He reveals something common to us that emerges in the wake of a series of shocks that permeate out time.
Thinking back over all the comedy I saw him perform I now feel as if I understand him better than I ever did. What Williams gave me, as a child, was a way of feeling I was a part of something larger than myself and that the best way to touch that was through exaggerating experience and playing out the things that shocked me. By improvising these things, I felt as if I could touch something real and alive. But the bigger question always lingered – as it did for Zelig – who was he and who are we? And where are all of these changes taking us?
You will be missed, Robin. Thanks for making comedy real and for tapping me in to existential questions that I share with many Americans; questions that emerge out of rapid changes and the flight of history. Thanks for exposing me to the mystery of being alive, now, at this time.