Tag: Stand-up comedy

(Un)Happy Endings: Existential Reflections on “It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti”

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David Heti is an (un)timely comedian. His comedy speaks to a time that is becoming more and more unhappy with itself. (And I mean this in a good way since I believe that such unhappiness will prompt us to come out of our dogmatic slumber…and think.) Unlike many comedians whose jokes are purely scatological and childish, Heti’s jokes are thoughtful and deeply probing. He respects the intelligence of his audience and his comedy plays with our most deeply held beliefs which span our attitudes about families, sexuality, religion, and the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, Heti’s jokes hit at the fact that while, in the most philosophical sense, we all want to be happy (an insight that Aristotle saw fundamental to being-human), the fact of the matter is that our desire for happiness originates in (and returns to) a state of existential unhappiness.   And today – perhaps because of the internet, globalization, and withering economies – we are becoming more aware of this state of (unhappy) being. Heti’s comedy acknowledges it while, at the same time, giving us some comic relief.

(To be sure, Heti’s challenge is akin to the challenge posed by Judaism to Greek philosophy and culture.   Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, argues that philosophy starts with wonder (which Aristotle associates with unhappiness; wonder is attended by the feeling of “ignorance”) but ends with knowledge (happiness). Aristotle believes that our desire for knowledge will overcome this ignorance once we know the causes of things. In other words, knowledge makes us happy; ignorance makes us unhappy.   In contrast, Judaism puts a greater emphasis on the limits of knowledge. And instead of focusing solely on happiness and knowledge as the answer, it often focuses on time, suffering, and injustice. Centuries after Aristotle, GWF Hegel went so far as to call the Jews an “unhappy people.”   For Hegel, This unhappiness had to do with the fact that Jews live with uncertainty and many unanswered questions. The English critic Matthew Arnold argued that civilization is based on the tension between Jews and Greeks. I would go further and say this tension is between happiness (rational self-certainty) and unhappiness (existential un-certainty). While the Greek part of our society wants to deny this tension, the Jewish part brings it to our attention. And this is (un)timely because it challenges the notion of progress and truth, which, in the West, are both premised on Greek ideals. In modern society we are supposed to be living better than we did in the past and we are supposed to be smarter – and all of this should make us happy – but are we?)

Heti’s jokes are Jewish in this sense. The punch lines of his jokes may start on a happy, Greek note, but they all have a kind of unhappy, Jewish ending. And this is a good thing because they trick us into experiencing the profound contradictions that underlie our experiences of sex, family, culture, and religion (the buttresses of Western, North American Society). The trick is to have us think differently. His humor hits at our desire for happiness and self-certainty. And, to be sure, Heti’s act has taught me that comedy can do a more affective job than post-Enlightenment philosophy to critique our beliefs and self-understandings.

I have seen Heti doing stand-up comedy and have also had a few private conversations with him about comedy, philosophy, culture, and religion. I have also interviewed Heti and have been intrigued with his brand of comedy. I had an intuition that he was doing something (un)timely in his comedy act. But it wasn’t until recently, when I saw his recent comedy film, It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti, that I was convinced that he had something incredibly urgent and important to offer our troubled times by way of comedy.

I’d like to share a few clips and touch on a few of his jokes to illustrate how (un)timely his jokes are.   I would go so far as to suggest that the movement from unhappiness to happiness we find in them suggests a kind of practice that is instructive on how, today, we can – and should – have a comical awareness of the tension between happiness and unhappiness. It informs, to speak, our comical (rather than our tragic) sense of existence. To be sure, the tragic awareness of existence is just as Greek as the emphasis on happiness. But his humor offers us a tension between the two that is, by all means, necessary. Without it, we will to serious (and tragic) or too deluded (and happy).  (I’d also like to note, before I begin, that Heti’s timing and gesture are the important elements that animate these jokes.  This can be seen in the clips I have included.)

[youtube=http://youtu.be/PJqRfFGy80g]

Heti begins his performance with a philosophical joke that plays on the first words of a comic performance:

I know that it’s  convention to be, like, “oh, it’s good to be here.” But the fact of the matter is that I “am” here, you “are” here.  Why ask ourselves how we feel about it?  Let’s just move on.

The underpinning of this joke is clearly existential. Why should we describe our existence as “good” or “bad”? Existence just is….the way it is. Like the title of Heti’s film, we can imagine him responding to the question “How was your performance?” with the existentially neutral: “It was Ok.” Its not great and its not bad. It, like existence, is…not tragic…or wonderful….it’s “ok.”

Following this joke, Heti continues on his philosophical vein by telling his audience to hold back their laughter until the end of the performance. This request is followed by philosophical reasoning. Although each joke “exists unto itself its own particularity,” and can be laughed at, ultimately there is “another, deeper level” which comes at the end where one can laugh at the performance “as a whole.” The joke is not simply on the audience; it’s also on philosophy.   The idea of withholding laugher in the name of a greater laugh – at the end – sounds like a good joke to level at a philosopher like Hegel or Karl Marx who see the “end of history” as the most meaningful moment of all.

But the punch line isn’t here. It’s in the existential insight: “I’m sorry.  I know you come to a comedy show expecting to laugh, and enjoy yourselves…but life isn’t fair.”

Besides playing on existence-as-such, Heti plays on the contemporary philosophical notion – found in Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Martin Heidegger – that the most important thing about existence is relationality.   Heti introduces this idea by pointing out how “I’m here” and you are “over there” and we are “unable to relate” (on the same level). The punch line is that when he was out there, where the audience is, he would think about how he could “do a better job than this fuck!” This comic disclosure brings comedy into an otherwise bland, basic (and oftentimes for Heidegger, a tragic) insight into “relationality.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt5ysAx3RGg&feature=youtu.be]

On another note, which is equally existential, Heti’s jokes about his family follow along a tradition of many Jewish comedians. But they differ in the fact that they are more reflective on the divide between happiness and unhappiness. In one joke about his mother, Heti says that she and I have a “very strained relationship.”

She says all she’s ever wanted is for me to be happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved and respected. It’s a real stalemate.

Following this, he notes how he recently went home to see that his mother had remodeled his room “into a place where a kid would have been happy growing up.”   He adds a joke about his father that brings out the tension between happiness and unhappiness more explicitly. It also shows a schlemiel-ish aspect to Heti’s relationship with his mother (something we find in the writings and film of Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Bruce Jay Friedman, et al):

It wasn’t easy.  My father was a little…violent. I remember….I recall as a kid, telling my mom, “one day, when I grow big enough, he’s going to beat the shit…out of only you.

The schlemiel character is in effect here because Heti’s character isn’t going to “stand up” to his father when he grows up. He’s just going to leave and his mother will receive the violence of his father. (Note to reader: do not confuse this joke with reality; to be sure, Heti, like many great comedians, loves exaggeration.)

Although Heti tells jokes about his family, his main jokes, to be sure, turn around philosophical and theological topics. As the performance moves on, these jokes are most prominent.   And all of them hinge on the tension between happiness and unhappiness.

One joke which shows how averse Heti is to happiness deals with a scenario he discusses about how he did a comic performance at a music festival. On his way back, he tells of how he rode in a car with musicians for thirteen hours. During this trip they had “an esoteric/philosophical conversation about the nature of art.” Heti, here, points out why he tells jokes, and, in the process he discloses his own way of comic-being:

Basically, we are only here to be happy, really. And so, for me, what’s funniest is when we’re not happy. And it just so happens to be the case that, just, intuitionally, I tend to subvert, for myself, any happy moment which begins. You know, I see what’s terrible in it. And even for the stage, now doing stand-up, I look for what’s awful in every moment, so my life is a series of unhappy instances and that’s why jokes; that’s why I’m a comic.

But this isn’t the punch line. It comes with his response to the musicians answer to the question of what the nature of art is:

And then so…I asked the musician, I was, like, “Why music? Like, why music?” And, he was like, “well. He said, “when I’m actively listening to music or, like, writing or playing it…like, that’s when I’m closest to the universal;  that’s when I’m one with the universe.” And I was like, “ohhhhhhh…You can go fuck yourself! Like FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOUUUUU….!”

Heti’s answer-slash-punch-line (his FUCK YOU! x3) demonstrates, to my mind, a differentiation between a Greek mind, which emphasizes “unity” with the universe, and a Jewish view which emphasizes existential difference and fragmentation.   I would argue that this difference is by no means arbitrary. To be sure, Heti tells several jokes that speak to Jewish identity, history, and religion. These jokes disclose Heti’s comedy as fragmented on many fronts.

Heti’s jokes on circumcision start off with an interesting paradox. Namely, God is thought of as “unknowable and unthinkable” yet with all of this “we can see that He likes circumcised pensises.” Heti goes on to have the audience imagine God with many dicks in his mouth. And this does a great job of exaggerating anthropomorphisms that Jewish theology would obviously reject.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/5P9Db4gqEKQ]

Heti also tells jokes that deal with the Holocaust. He prefaces this part of the show by noting how “there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.” And that he is “unsure of where” he stands on the “issue of genocide.”

Because, on the one hand, undeniable tragic.  But on the other hand, undeniably funny. I guess it’s just one of those things where you really had to be there.

This joke hits at the existential dimension of genocide (of “being there” for the reality…and the “joke”). But it also speaks to something very interesting; namely, the negative sublime of the Nazis who did the killing. Many, in fact, did laugh at genocide. And for this reason, it hits on a deeply troubling issue which needs to be addressed, an issue that deeply complicates our understanding of humanity and evil.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/7DYmNh7q3M0]

The most complicated joke on the Holocaust is about his grandfather’s relationship to the Holocaust. The very context of the joke brings the audience into a very focused state and into an awareness of how good it is that he has survived it; but the punch line brings us back to the unhappy state of Jews-slaughtered-in-history:

My grandfather was actually one of the few, lucky members of his generation to  grow up Jewish in Europe and avoid the horrors of the Holocaust. Thankfully, several months before the war broke out, he was beaten to death, in a pogrom.

Near the end of his performance, Heti moves from the particularity of Jewish experience to a more general experience of God.   And this joke hits directly at the existential condition and the question of faith:

But what I find most – what I can’t understand most is these people with these extreme physical disabilities…who are nonetheless capable of maintaining religious faith. ‘Cause you’re like – you’d think that…  given what, they are already forced to put up with in this world, God would have at least spared their minds.

This last joke bespeaks the existential state of having a mind that is conscious of suffering. (Indeed, most existentialists find that existential consciousness is afflicted and tortured; especially Sartre and Levinas.) The joke poses the greatest challenge to Aristotle (and Spinoza), on the one hand, who believed that knowledge would create true happiness and on the other to religion which posits faith as an answer.   Heti is perplexed by why God would give these disabled people consciousness. It doesn’t make sense. This is at once a Jewish question and a question that should provoke anyone trying to understand faith in general.

Taken together, Heti shows us – by way of comedy – that true thinking isn’t based on the elimination of perplexity and its attendant unhappiness (which is what Aristotle believed) so much as in dwelling in perplexity. The specificity of Heti’s jokes perform the (un)timely service of reminding us of the existential state of perplexity we inhabit. We need this reminder because we are, so often, distracted by happiness from the true questions of existence that plague us all. Here it is the comedian and not the philosopher or the theologian who can help us to address our greatest questions. And this all happens when Heti delivers the punch line. At that moment, we experience the movement from happiness to unhappiness. And in that moment, we come face to face with our (un)timely comical existence.   And today, more than ever, we need to be reminded. False happiness will only sink us deeper into oblivion. Heti reminds us that comedy can awaken us (as Immanuel Kant once said of David Hume) from our “dogmatic slumbers.”

Go check out David Heti’s website – which has video, tour information, and media – and his new video “It was ok”.

 

 

An Interview with the Stand-Up Comedian David Heti

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Schlemielintheory.com had the opportunity to recently interview the stand-up comedian David Heti.  Samples of his work – which include videos, podcasts, and blog entries – can be found on his website/blog: http://davidheti.com/

I ran into David recently when he did a show with a group of comedians in Toronto. We talked after the show and agreed to have an interview by way of the email.  Here is the interview.  (Do note that I will be posting a blog or two on his comedic work over the next week as a follow up to this interview.)

 

SIT: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by the Schlemiel-in-Theory Blog!  I am very excited to be interviewing you since you are the first comedian Schlemiel-in-theory – a blog that is only 6 months old – has interviewed.  In the near future, we hope to interview more.  The point of these interviews is to understand how you, the comedian, understand yourself and what you do best.  (You can reply if you wish.)

DH: I could use help in understanding how I understand myself. Thank you. Thank you very much for this opportunity. As a comedian schlemiel-in-fact, perhaps—at least, that’s the subtext here, no? (It’s ok, I’m ok with it)—it’s nice to have found maybe somewhat something of a home. Indeed, I first came to your blog when in need of some comedy theory succor, and now here we are. So it’s a beautiful thing.

SIT: One of the interesting things about comedy that can be learned from the Talmud is that a Rabbi should open with a joke before teaching a lesson.  The reason for this is because it “opens up the senses” and makes it easier for one to learn something that can deeply affect them.  That said, what joke would you like to tell?

DH: But that whole first paragraph was a joke. Come on, what do you mean? No, but really, I think that’s a fascinating, entirely humbling tradition. I’m no Rabbi, but…

If you ask yourself whether life’s worth living…and…if you think about it…and, I mean, really think about it…like…all the time…like…if that’s all you ever do…like if that’s all you ever do…then…it really isn’t.

SIT: Why did you choose that joke?

DH: There are many reasons. First, it’s my joke. It is one, though, that I can recall telling only a handful of times, most presumably on account of it having never really worked. (Accordingly, the wording may not be quite right, as it’s yet to have come into any ostensible final form.)

Second, I feel like it’s a joke that attempts to speak to universal themes with respect to both life and comedy, not to mention—keeping in mind both the interview and blog—the schlemiel and rabbinic traditions. What is life? What is comedy? Why is life a comedy? Is life a comedy? Necessarily? For whom? Etc.

I also like how the joke isn’t—at least in my opinion—so expressly funny. Most especially with respect to a joke about life itself, the fact that a joke may not be funny can in fact contribute to its comedic merit. Sometimes a joke may simply set the stage for other jokes or whatever else is to follow.

Also, one time after telling this joke, a comic whom I’d never met before came up to me and said, somewhat curiously somberly, that he really appreciated it. And it’s making these little in fact not so insignificant connections—with comics in particular—that makes telling jokes—if at least only apparently so—feel so possibly meaningful or important.

SIT: Tell me about yourself.  Where do you come from? What kind of family did you grow up in?  And why did you decide to become a comedian?

DH: I come from an upper-middle class Jewish-Hungarian background, though I was born and raised in Toronto. My parents are professionals, both working in the sciences, whereas my one sibling—an older sister—like, more or less, myself, is in the arts. (Her name is Sheila Heti and she’s a wonderful writer.)

My family was very small, without too many extended relatives or at least very few whom we ever saw. There was pretty much absolutely no religious feeling in the home, though we did go to my grandmother’s for the holidays, though it was very much really about family only, not religion. I’d say my sister and I were quite free to speak our minds and question whatever we liked.

I’m not sure why I decided to become a comedian. I mean, there’s not that very much in the world that holds my interest or seems worthwhile (i.e., for me or perhaps even ultimately), so in one way it’s a sort of default response. (I’d imagine that if most things didn’t appear so ridiculous to comics, then there’d be no comedy. Comedy most certainly addresses what is, but by way of an immediate evading. Comedy, for me, is a ceaseless cutting down and exposing.) Divorce.

SIT: In your pantheon of comedians, who are the most important and why?

DH: My reply to this question has pretty much always been Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield. As a child, through my father’s love of his films, I was exposed to an inordinate amount of Woody Allen. So it’s perhaps somewhat just an accident of history. He was in effect my Walt Disney.

It’s hard to say whether I would’ve taken to these comedians later in life had I not been exposed to them so early on. That is, it’s possible that they were, quite literally, my formative comedic influences. I would say, though, that most likely a sense of humor is secondary, in that it must come after and in response to a more foundational sentiment of life. Woody Allen speaks to my sense of the absurd and ridiculous. Also, it’s always heartening to listen to recordings of his stand-up and recognize that intelligent comedy can succeed, find an audience and be amazing.

Rodney Dangerfield is just such an artist or craftsman. His stand-up comedy is so unbelievably simple and immediately accessible. He gets away with telling the simplest, silliest, dumbest and cleverest jokes, but in a way which makes you think that he’s the greatest genius you’ve ever seen. To be able—through the presentation of yourself as a buffoon—to command the highest respect, is such a hilarious, magical, innocent trick.

Aside from stand-up comics, Monty Python played a huge role too. I seem to recall singing their dirtier songs around the house (e.g. sit on my face and tell me that you love me) before even knowing what they lyrics meant. Maybe I just knew.

SIT: What makes your stand-up comedy unique and different from other comedians?

DH: I believe that I’m much happier than most other comics to leave the audience feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps most especially on account of our greater and general, traditionally post-modern disillusionment with ideas of truth, sincerity, objectivity, simplicity, etc., there’s something now intrinsically, sometimes painfully unfunny about somebody’s standing before you with the intention I’m going to go make you laugh, and then going and making you laugh. What could possibly be unfunnier than that? What could possibly more satisfy an audience’s expectations as to what the world ought or is supposed to be, which is precisely a non-comedic experience?

I’m not trying to make audience members feel terrible about themselves or that they’ve wasted their time, but in a very real way, if you’re not fucking with the audience or you’re not fucking with the form of stand-up comedy itself, then I’m not really sure what you’re doing. It’s ever-evolving and inward-turning—as what comedy is changes as what comedy is changes (or vice-versa)—but if comedy is to be in any way meaningful and more than just simple joke-making or entertainment, then it must be critical, which means self-critical. I believe that comedy—properly and at its best—is entirely, infinitely destabilizing.

And in a way I feel like an idiot because I really don’t want to suggest that I don’t respect or take pleasure from comics I see who don’t attempt anything like this. It’s just for me, at least at this time, I’ve little to no interest in putting out into the world any other kind of comedic performance.

SIT: Do you like telling jokes that may offend people?  And what’s the worst response you have received from a joke?  What happened?

DH: I’m not sure that I ever really want to offend. First, I just don’t think that’s a very nice thing to do. Second, I’m not sure what’s gained by an audience’s feeling only, mainly or even just very much offence; I’m not sure what that engenders. To confuse or create self-questioning or self-doubt in an audience member (e.g., as to whether they ought to feel offended) is wonderful, but that’s different than to cause offence, which to me suggests something far simpler.

I’ve had, I would imagine, my fair share of angry outbursts from the audience, but I’d say that the worst response I ever received from a joke was when a man with whom I was sort of friends just sort of silently walked out of the room, in what I can only imagine was incredible anger and hurt. At the time, I’d been telling jokes for about only a couple of months.

What happened was that I had one really nice joke about the telling a joke about the rape and murder of this woman…which the man in the audience loved. It turned out that his wife or mother (I can’t remember which) had in fact been raped and murdered, and he really, genuinely appreciated the joke. I remember him speaking to me after a set and we had a really lovely conversation about art, comedy and performance.

Bolstered, I suppose, by this incredible response to what was obviously a dangerous subject-matter, I then wrote a joke about my telling that joke. It just ended up being incredibly contrived, unartful and uninspired, and I suppose somewhat incredibly exploitative of my then newfound friend’s goodwill, pain and openness. It was just a dishonest process and intention.

I don’t believe that I’ve ever hurt someone more with a joke. I don’t think anyone’s ever had as much reason to be upset with a joke of mine.

SIT: When I heard you do a little stand-up, I noticed a few Jewish jokes.  You also mentioned that some people may consider you a “self-hating Jew.”  Do you consider yourself a Jewish comic?  And what do you think of those people who may think you are self-hating?  Do you have a message for them?

DH: Hmm…I’m not sure, but I think that the joke you’re referring to has me asking myself whether I think I’m a self-hating Jew. It’s not about others’ perceptions.

I most certainly consider myself a Jewish comic, but then what does that mean? I don’t think that there’s such thing as a universal comic or joke or comedic sensibility. Every joke assumes particular epistemic, linguistic, cultural, moral, etc. understandings and assumptions. I am Jewish, and Jewish feeling, history and values inform everything that I do and all the jokes that I tell, even if the jokes themselves may not be expressly about Jews or Jewishness. I suppose, though, ultimately, I would say that I have a fairly traditional Jewish comedic sensibility, yes.

As for the last part of your question, to those who may think I’m self-hating, I might say that hate is a very strong word. Certainly, I have self-doubt, but then I suppose that’s my value, but then I suppose that’s because that’s who I am. Am I supposed to disconfirm these people’s suspicions? Really, others can think what they like, about both me and self-hating.

SIT: What, to your mind, is the relationship of comedy to depression and suffering?

DH: I don’t think that one needs to suffer or be depressed to create or appreciate comedy. Perhaps in a perfect world there would be no possibility or place for comedy, but depression and suffering to me suggest terrible extremes. An appreciation of the comedic requires not only the intellect to understand, but the emotions to feel. For instance, can one identify something as funny without experiencing it as such? Can I think something objectively funny if I don’t find it subjectively so?

I think that contentment doesn’t necessarily lead to comedy, but then neither does the inability to feel happiness. Really, though, it’s been my experience that most comics aren’t the happiest people, or so it seems. Of course, the world of comedy itself is tough, but I think it attracts those who feel a kind of ultimate discomfort.

SIT: What “culture” do you most identify with and how does this culture come into your work?

DH: If I’ve understood the question correctly, I probably most identify with what I understand to be Mediterranean culture. Maybe I’ve a completely incorrect, romanticized idea of what that is, but their values, truths and aspirations appear to be very honest and undeniable. There’s sun, sand, simple food and half-naked bodies. This may come into my work by way of affecting a bluntness or directness or simplicity. There’s also an acknowledgment of the finitude of life, in addition to the utter poverty of any metaphysical basis for whatever notions of good or right.

SIT: In one of our conversations, you mentioned that you saw a blog post I had on Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner.  And what struck us both as most interesting was the fact that Gene Wilder said he didn’t always find his jokes so funny?  What kind of jokes make you laugh?  And do you laugh at your own jokes?  And do you think it is a comedians job to make people laugh? Or feel better through humor?

DH: I like jokes that reveal to me an absurdity which I’d never before thought of or recognized. Also, I like just sublimely ridiculous jokes. Sometimes I laugh at my own jokes. If it’s a new joke, I may laugh on stage, but then I can also laugh when listening to recordings of older sets.

Whether it’s a comedian’s job to make people laugh…this is a tough one. This is a tough one no less because of what I like to try to achieve with my own stand-up. I think that what belongs to a comedian’s art is humour. But humor isn’t synonymous with laughter. Laughter is only one kind of response to humour. (Though if we’re talking about the comedian’s job, then, yes, it is about laughter, but then beer and ticket sales too.)

This is also a very hard question, but, no, I don’t believe that belongs to a comedian to make people feel better through humor. I think that, more often than not, audiences feeling better is a byproduct of what a good comedian normally does, but that’s not the essence of comedy. For instance, if you look at the old Soviet era jokes, they were unimaginably bleak. What they ended up doing was revealing even deeper injustices and absurdities than the listener may have been aware of. In communicating to the listener I understand what you’re going through and we see the world similarly, you will almost invariably make them feel better, but then you can do this while at the same time revealing that the world is shit. This is a very complicated question.

SIT: From our discussions, I have learned that you were a philosophy major in University and then you went on to law school and actually practiced law.  Does philosophy or even legal practice or legal issues ever enter into your comedy routines or jokes?

DH: I wouldn’t say that I have jokes about philosophy or law per se, but certainly my comedy is informed by a philosophical disposition and way of understanding the world through the philosophical and legal. I enjoy playing with ambiguity, especially with respect to questions of morals and propriety. What’s potentially most comedic is that which speaks to what’s gravest or most sacred. What’s gravest or most sacred are notions of truth and morality, etc.

SIT: Sarah Silverman has said that it is, so to speak, healthy for a comedian to be offensive and travel the edge of racism, sexism, etc.  She says that by doing this, she is working through things that we all have in us whether we admit to it or not.  Do you agree with her?  And do you have anything to add to this?

DH: I agree with her more or less. Again, perhaps to offend is just one element. Certainly, though, it’s healthy to provoke self-questioning.

SIT: In the Sarah Silverman show, Sarah had a controversial episode where she sleeps with “God” and the next day tells him to leave. Here’s the clip: http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/vzk83c/the-sarah-silverman-program-the-morning-after  What do you think of this joke?  What does it accomplish?

DH: I think it’s a funny premise and a cute sketch. I’m not sure if I’m missing some subtext or something, but this was controversial somehow? To whom? It doesn’t deal in or with reality. What it accomplishes is a nice little break in my day. (And I really like Sarah Silverman! But this sketch to me isn’t so representative of what makes her great.)

SIT: Last question: The classical American schlemiel joke has three players in it: the schlemiel, the shlimazel, and the nudnik.  Here’s a slightly modified version of it: All three of them go into a restaurant to eat a meal.  The waitress is nowhere to be found so the shlimazel asks the schlemiel to get him a bowl of soup.  The schlemiel gets the soup and brings it to the table, hoping not to screw up.  But when s/he gets to the table s/he drops the soup in the shlimazel’s lap.  The shlimazel gets up, screams at the schlemiel, and laments his ever asking the schlemiel to do anything.  In the midst of this, the nudnik gets up and says, “Ah that’s too bad…What kind of soup was it?” Of the three comic characters, who do you most identify with and why?  (If you wish, you can pick more than one.)

DH: Can I be the soup?

(I’m not sure why the schlimazel has to yell at the schlemiel after the soup is dropped, but I do like how he says that we don’t have to be without food just because the waitress isn’t around. Perhaps I identify most with the schlimazel’s irreverence.)

SIT: Thanks for this interview; its been a great pleasure and a learning experience (?)  Do you have anything you’d like to say before you “close shop?”

DH: Just thank you very much for the opportunity and very thoughtful questioning. These were some difficult questions I had to ask myself. I hope you continue with these interviews.

 

 

 

 

 

Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufmann and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part IV)

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Sanford Pinsker, in his book Schlemiel as Metaphor, points out that Phillip Roth – in one of his autobiographical accounts – thinks of himself in the tradition of Franz Kafka, who he calls a “sit down comic.”  The book that placed him squarely in that tradition was Portnoy’s Complaint.  But what is a “sit down” as opposed to a “stand up” comedian?  What’s the difference?

As Pinsker correctly notes, this book is Roth’s debut as a sexual schlemiel.  (The term “sexual schlemiel” comes from David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews.)  As far as being a man, Potrnoy, the main character, is a half-man.  His only power is to be found in his vulgarity and wit.  But, ultimately, his sexual obsessions and antics are all associated with impotence.  And, strangely enough, he admits to this form of failure.  He can’t “stand up.”

But Portnoy is a different kind of schlemiel and his “sit down” comedy is of a different variety.  Unlike traditional schlemiels, Roth is obsessed with targeting his listeners, his mother, and women who reject him.  And unlike Woody Allen, Roth’s sexual schlemiel is not charming.  He is pathetic.  And this makes him into a target of sorts.  Nonetheless, he targeting of others overcompensates for this and he, so to speak, hits them when they are not looking.  He doesn’t “stand up” to them, but when he does, toward the end of the novel, he is shamed.

Portnoy’s Complaint is structured as a discussion with a psychologist.   Portnoy is telling his story – from youth to the present – to the psychologist.   And this suggests that he wants to “work through” his past.   What we find from the story is that he has many comic targets – his mother, sexuality, his father, and women – which he fires at so as to feel superior.  However, he is a schlemiel insofar as this targeting does nothing to change his situation.   And the more he does it, the more he himself becomes a target of the reader.

In relation to his mother, Portnoy says many angry things.   One exemplary moment comes up when he recalls “Ronald Nimkin’s suicide note” which Nimkin’s mother found “pinned” to his “nice stiffly laundered sports shirt.”  It is the “last note from Ronald to his momma.”  The note is about how Mrs. Blumenthal called and won’t be able to play “Mah-Jong.”  Commenting on this, Portnoy notes, in the most sarcastic way, that Ronald was a “nice Jewish boy” to the very end.  He goes on to mock Ronald’s mother and all Jewish mothers:

Say thank you, darling.  Say you’re welcome, darling. Say you’re sorry, Alex.  Say you’re sorry! Apologize! Yeah, for what?  What have I done now?  Hey, I’m hiding under my bed, my back to the wall, refusing to say sorry, refusing, too, to come out and take the consequences.  Refusing!…Oh..why did Ronald Nimkin give up his ghost…? BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANYMORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHER’S ARE TOO MUCH TO BEAR! (120-21)

Sexual propriety is also targeted since he talks at length about masturbation.  In fact, there is a whole section of the book entitled “Whacking off.”  Let me cite a little:

Then came adolescence – half of my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splay, up against the medicine-chest mirror….

I’ll stop there as the account becomes much more detailed and vulgar.

The biggest target of all is a Sabra named Naomi. He meets her in Israel.  She sexually defeats him and, in the process calls him a schlemiel.  Their dialogue is worth quoting at length since it touches directly on humor and targeting. Naomi’s great insight is that Portnoy doesn’t simply use humor to target others but to target himself:

The way you disapprove of your life! Why do you do that?  It is of no value for a man to disapprove of his life the way that you do.  You seem to take some pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own humor.  I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life.  Everything you say is somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’.  All day long the same thing.  In some way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating.  Self-deprecating?

In response, Portnoy says that the Sabra should appreciate what he is doing since playing the schlemiel is, historically, a staple of Jewish humor: “Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “self-deprecation is, after all, a classic form of Jewish humor.” In response, she notes that this is not Jewish humor but “ghetto humor.” As an Israeli, she is saying that she has gone beyond that kind of humor.  In response to her identification of his humor as ghetto humor, Portnoy says he resembles her remark and mockingly identifies with the “Diaspora Jew” who is “frightened, defensive, self-deprecating, unmanned and corrupted by life in the gentile world”(265).

After hearing her discourse, he sarcastically says: “Wonderful.  Now let’s fuck.”  Disturbed by this reply, Naomi stands up to him and calls him several names: disgusting, a self-hating Jew, a coward, and last but not least, “schlemiel.”  He also calls her names.  But, after she calls him a schlemiel, she leaves him while he carries on.  But at a certain point he tries to prove to her that he’s not a schlemiel but a “man”: “Only I leaped from behind, and with a flying tackle brought this red-headed…dish down with me onto the floor.  I’ll show her who’s a schlemiel”(268).  What ensues is a struggle that turns comic.  When it comes to the moment of sex, he is impotent:

How has it come to this?  “Im-po-tent in Is-real, dad a daah,” to the tune of “Lullaby in Birdland.”  Another joke? She asked.  And another.  And another.  Why disclaim my life.” 

The final pleas of this “sit down” comic are pathetic.  In laughing at him, we aim at a clear target.  To be sure, he takes on the target and says, comically, that he is going home.

We target Portnoy “as” a sexual schlemiel but he doesn’t care.  He sings the song “impotent in Israel” and calls the Sabra names so at to target her and to say that he has won a “verbal victory.”  This victory, however, is ironic.  We see him as a target of his own humor.  Portnoy is blind to the fact that his ironic (and word-crafted) victory conceals his “real” impotence.  This knowledge or insight exposes us to his blindness and to our being better or superior to him.  He’s a schlemiel while we are not.  However, this superiority is at the expense of his verbal victory.  We knowingly exclude him by valuing masculine “normality” over comic abnormality.  And in this we are complicit with Naomi.   We target him and see that he targets himself as a schlemiel (of the negative variety).   However, we are still blinded by this gesture as we are not exposed to our complicity or to our targeting.

The problem with a novel, as Levinas points out in his essay “Reality and its Shadow,” is that it requires an interpretation. Without interpretation, the character, he claims, will be stuck in endless repetition or what he calls “mythology.” The time of the character is what he calls “the meanwhile” or “the interval.”  Instead of changing the character in the novel – here, the schlemiel – will not change (as time requires a movement or a form of becoming from one kind of being to another).  This is consonant with Bergson, but with Levinas laughter alone is not sufficient to pull a story or a character out of the interval or mythology.   Moreover, we, the readers, will also bewitched if we simply laugh at Portnoy.  By laughing at the schlemiel, Levinas would say that we, too, are caught in the interval.

I would deepen this argument to include another element: targeting.  What happens in Roth’s novel is that we are not exposed to our targeting and that is what maintains another kind of mythology; namely, the mythology of superiority and selfhood which makes the contrast between the half-man, schlemiel in the novel and the reader who is not a schlemiel.   In this structure, which is the classical structure of comedy and comic theory, we have no sense complicit.  We know we are “in on the joke,” but we aren’t exposed to this targeting.

I would argue that complicity is harder to read with “sit down” comedy that it is in “stand up” comedy because we can’t see the face of the other in a novel.  (Although I would argue there are comic novels that do in fact expose us to targeting.  Portnoy’s Complaint, however, is not one of them.  It serves, in this blog entry, to make an important point of  contrast.)  For this reason, it’s easier for us to target and judge Portnoy as an impotent failure.  It’s easier for us to subscribe to traditional theories of humor when targeting and judging this sit down comic.

In the next blog entry, I will introduce the case of Andy Kaufman which provides us with the case of a “stand up” comic who exposes us to our targeting and our complicity.  He provides us with an opportunity to bring a Levinasian reading to bear on comedy.  In Roth’s comedy, we find that a Levinasian reading isn’t as prescient as a classical reading of comedy which targets the comic character – here, the schlemiel – as inferior.

The Schlemiel and the Sabra or Portnoy’s Final Complaint

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In The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and Jewish American Literature, Sanford Pinsker devotes an entire chapter to the work of Phillip Roth.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  Although the chapter is dedicated to Phillip Roth, the majority of the chapter is on Roth’s most popular and controversial novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.  For Pinsker, the other two novels that are mentioned in the last part of the chapter –  The Ghost Writer and Counterlife – do not so much illustrate the schlemiel as put forth a new type of postmodern novel that emerged after Portnoy’s Complaint.  Pinsker suggests that these novels were not so much about the schlemiel as an attempt to leave the schlemiel behind for the novel within the novel and writing as such.

One of the most interesting elements of Pinsker’s treatment of Portnoy’s Complaint is the evidence he marshals to prove that Portnoy is a schlemiel.  Pinsker stages his argument by pointing out Portnoy’s favorite pastimes: masturbation and mouthing off.    To be sure, Portnoy violates all decorum by speaking in detail about his masturbation and mentioning all the places he has left his semen.  Ruth Wisse and Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi would argue that this “mouthing off” is an important trait of the schlemiel. Portnoy’s words give him, as Wisse would say, an “ironic victory.”  But, for Pinsker, this isn’t the only thing that makes Portnoy a schlemiel.

Rather, the key trait of the schlemiel can be found in Portnoy’s memory of failure: “What he remembers most, however, about these masturbatory binges are his darkly comic failures.  In this regard, none is more spectacular that his disastrous episode with Bubbles Girardi.”

As Pinsker recounts, Bubbles made a deal with Portnoy’s friend Smolka to “jerk off one of his friends.”  However, there are two conditions:  1) the individual will have to leave his pants on and 2) she will “count fifty strokes” and no more.  Portnoy is elected to receive the “prize” but “the result is comic schlemiel hood of the first water”(149).

What Pinsker finds comic is that Portnoy is brought right to climax, but Bubbles stops at 50 strokes.  Portnoy cries out:

JUST ONE MORE! I BEG OF YOU! TWO MORE! PLEASE! N-O!”

Portnoy reflects on his failure and decides that he’ll have to finish the job whereupon he cums in his eye: “I reach down and grab it, and POW!  Only right in my eye.”

The greatest insights in Pinsker’s book on the schlemiel – and in his chapter on Roth – follow upon this passage.

Pinsker notes that “Portnoy’s sexual antics are the stuff of which Borsht Belt stand-up is made, but as he keeps on insisting, this is no Jewish joke, no shpritz (machine gun spray of comic material”(150).

And this is the ironic denial that makes him a schlemiel.  Roth is doing Schlemiel Stand Up.  Unlike Lawrence or Joyce, Pinsker tells us that Roth doesn’t take his failures with a “high seriousness”(150). Rather, Roth is a tumbler (an acrobat of sorts): “Roth reduces to the anxious flip.  The cunning of history is to blame here; when Portnoy shouts “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN THE YID! The effect dovetails a domesticated Freudianism into the jazzy stuff of popular culture”(150).

What does Pinsker mean by this “jazzy stuff of popular culture?”  Pinsker notes that what Roth has popularized and made comic is the stuff of tragedy: guilt.  And who else but Franz Kafka is the teacher of how to make guilt a comic affair.  To be sure, Roth said this in his book Reading Myself and Others (1975).  There, he notes that he got his stand-up routine from a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka: “I was strongly influenced by a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka and a very funny bit he does called ‘The Metamorphosis’… Not until I got hold of guilt, you see, as a comic idea, did I begin to feel myself lifting free and clear of my last book (Portnoy’s Complaint) and my old concerns”(150).

Pinsker uses this line as evidence that Roth may have come from Kafka and he may practice the schlemiel, but he wants to lift himself “free and clear” of this character.  For Pinsker, all of Roth’s future books were more mature while Portnoy’s Complaint was all about “enjoying being bad.”  Portnoy’s kvetch, his complaint, and his enjoyment of being bad differ, Pinsker tells us, from Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” since Portnoy is not the man in the sense that Whitman portrayed himself to be.  He is afflicted by his own misfortunes and guilt.  Whitman is guilt free, Roth is not.  Here, Pinsker suggests that Portnoy’s mouthing off doesn’t change his reality.  He is still caught up in his masturbatory dreams and his guilt, which he can’t seem to escape.  His stand-up comedy doesn’t make a difference.  It seems, more or less, like impotent rage.

What Pinsker overlooks, however, is the fact that Portnoy’s greatest humiliation – his greatest and final complaint – comes at the end of the book with Naomi, the Sabra (native Israeli).   This time, he gets to sleep with a woman.  But before he does, he comes to realize that he is no match for her.  This dialogue brings out the crux of the new Jewish-American schlemiel who lives in the shadow of the Sabra.

Naomi deftly describes the difference in her characterization of Portnoy’s stand-up routine in which self-ridicule is the most prominent feature:

You seem to take some pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own peculiar sense of humor.  I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life.  Everything this somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’  All day long the same thing.  In some little way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating. (264)

After Naomi goes on to discuss how powerlessness got Jews nowhere, Portnoy says, flat out: “Wonderful.  Now let’s fuck.”

In response, Naomi calls him “disgusting” and then they engage in a name-calling match in which Naomi puts the nail in the coffin by calling him a schlemiel.  Notice that in the following, “Schlemiel!” (in italics) is the final word:

“Right! You’re beginning to get the point, gallant Sabra!  You go be righteous in the mountains, okay? You go be a model for mankind!  Fucking Hebrew saint!” “Mr. Portnoy, “ she said…”You are nothing but a self-hating Jew.” “Ah, but Naomi, maybe that’s the best kind.” “Coward!” “Tomboy.” “Schlemiel!” (265)

Portnoy, cursing under his breath says, “I’ll show her who’s the schlemiel!”  But he fails, sexually. He’s impotent.

As you can see from these lines, Naomi has the last word. And that word is schlemiel. She is strong and he, a man, is weak. What we have here with Naomi is the new, Israeli Jew (which scholars like Daniel Boyarin, David Biale, and others discuss at length).  In the face of Naomi, the Sabra, all Portnoy has for power is his wittiness and vulgarity.  But the irony is obvious.  Roth is showing that Portnoy’s words are no substitute for her physical power.  Rather, his wittiness differs and competes with her power.  And, like any schlemiel it loses in the end.  What remains in the aftermath of all his verbal acrobatics is his failure.  (The acrobatics metaphor which I mentioned in my last blog on Beckett and Federman fits well here.)

Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi interprets the meaning of Portnoy’s failure in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination.  Ezrahi notes that Portnoy explicitly confesses to his loss when he sings a self-depricating song, which he has created for this specific situation of failure: “Im-po-tent in Israel, da, da, da”(226).  Ezrahi’s interpretation of this moment of failure is telling.

On the one hand, Ezrahi says that the novel demarcates the “very moment when the schlemiel as cultural hero is superceded by what the critics of Zionism call the “tough Jew,” when “images of Jewish wimps and nerds are being supplanted by those of the hardy, bronzed kibbitznik, the Israeli paratrooper, and the Mossad agent.”   On the other hand, she notes that in Roth’s later novel Operation Shylock the schlemiel becomes a competitor: “What has happened to turn powerlessness into a competing cultural claim and Diaspora into the most authentic and secure form of Jewish existence?”(226).

The lines that follow this question, however, demonstrate that Ezrahi doesn’t believe Roth’s project has left the schlemiel behind. The claims he makes in Operation Shylock are still based on powerlessness:  “Once again Roth’s hero is defeated in Israel, but this time in a battle, fought with weapons – the pen and the sword – no less phallic but more consequential.  Israel has become the place where Reality writ large has the same affect on the psyche as Naomi did on the libido”(226-7).

In other words, Roth’s characters are still schlemiels but now Exile, “redefined as “Diaspora,” is no longer limited to the realm of therapy (as it was for Portnoy) but extends to the much larger realm of fiction.”

Fiction and not the libido becomes the resevoir of the dream and fantasy while Isreal becomes Reality (Israel IS-REAL) or the reality principle.  This contrast shows that, for Ezrahi, the schlemiel’s battle is not simply psychological as it was with Naomi.  Portnoy’s problem may be psychological, but the narrator and main character of Operation Shylock – whose names all happen to be Phillip Roth – have a problem with Israel.  In other words, their Jewish identity is ruptured by its very existence.

But, to be sure, we also see that this problem exists in Portnoy as well.  His problem is not merely psychological.  After all, he tries to call Naomi names so as to show he is more powerful, but it is to no effect.  Reading Ezrahi’s take on Roth, one cannot help but think that Roth is fully aware that he is on the side of the dream; and the side of the dream, as even Roth suggests, will always be the side of guilt and failure.

If Roth takes his task from Kafka, as Pinsker tells us, Ezrahi’s observation is very telling.  Roth admits that he saw Kafka as a “sit-down” comedian who took the tragic notes out of guilt by making guilt comical.  As Pinsker argued, Roth believed that by writing he would eventually be done with guilt and the schlemiel. But as Ezrahi argues, this project, inevitably failed.  Why?

For Ezrahi, this project to leave schlemiel-hood can never be completed since there is a competing claim; namely, the claim of reality (the claim of Israel). And this claim demonstrates that the real basis for the schlemiel, for Ezrahi, is the difference between dreams and reality (or as she puts it, Exile and Homecoming).  For her, language, without a land, provides (and has, traditionally, provided) nourishment for the exiled Jew.  The schlemiel’s words, as Wisse would argue, give people a sense of dignity in the face of failure.  But, as Ezrahi suggests, fiction, like the schlemiel, can’t stop dreaming.  Given these premises, I would suggest that Ezrahi can argue that Roth is not simply a schlemiel in the sense that he doesn’t know what is going on in reality.  No.  He is a guilty schlemiel.  We see this above, in the citations from Portnoy’s Complaint.  He, so to speak, enjoys his symptom.

Ezrahi suggests that in Operation Shylock Roth makes it explicit that he may fight with Israel but, ultimately, he will always be a comic failure.  His identity, as a Jewish-American writer will be ruptured.  He knows that his homeland is in a text while being cognizant that Israel is now a reality.  Ezrahi suggests that he knows that he has refused history in the name of fiction.   But do Jewish-American writers share this awareness?  Are they, like Kafka and other pre-Israel schlemiels, not able to properly enter history? To be sure, as a result of this failure, which they were not fully responsible for, Ezrahi tells us that they had to live in a “substitute” land with a “substitute” sovereignty. Today, Ezrahi argues, one no longer has to do this. A Jew can go home and “recover” their history.   But writers like Roth consciously opt not to.  And this opting-not-to constitutes their comical identity.   So, today, the schlemiel and its comic relationship with guilt remains but now it has a different basis.

What amazes me most about all of this is that what Roth and Ezrahi both seem to be saying is that to be an American Jew –and to resort to a constructed identity, fiction, and dreams – is to be a schlemiel.  Ezrahi calls this a “diasporic privilege.”  Based on this logic, one can say that living an ironic, schlemiel-like existence is a “guilty” pleasure that is had at the expense of returning to the land.  American Jews, as schlemiels, enjoy their symptom.   Now, being a schlemiel has a price; but before Israel was Real (for many before 1967), being a schlemiel was, as Ruth Wisse argues, necessary for Jewish survival.

For Ezrahi, Jews are forced to answer a question: What side are you on?  On the side of Portnoy or Naomi the Sabra?   One can brazenly be a schlemiel and deny any guilt, but at what price?  This, I think, is one of the main questions Ezrahi wants American-Jews to ponder.  Unfortunately, no scholar I have met who has read Ezrahi has figured it out.  For some strange reason, they miss this question and, instead, think Ezrahi is praising Diaspora.  This misreading, though unfortunate, is telling.

I won’t make this misreading.  I’m here to ask this question and to reflect on what it means.  Should I read Roth as she does – in terms of his comic acknowledgment of a guilt that is based on saying no to Israel?  Or should I consider myself to be a “New Jew” (see David Shneer and Caryn Aviv’s book New Jews: The End of Diaspora, who, according to these authors, is not bound by the distinction of Diaspora and Homecoming)?

What better time to pose this question than today on the 65th Anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1948?  Ezrahi has every right to ask us to ponder such guilt since she lives in  Israel and knows full well that there is a difference between being Jewish in Israel and being Jewish in America.  I do not see it from her perspective.

I read and write about the schlemiel, but with a difference.  As an American-Jew, I understand that with Israel’s existence, my enjoyment of the schlemiel can be thought of as a guilty pleasure.  And I clearly understand that her reading hinges on Jewish history.  If an American Jew thinks he or she is beyond the dream of having a land of his or her own, he or she is thinking ahistorically.  Though this is possible, and happens often enough (since, unlike Phillip Roth, many Jews lack an acute sense of what is at stake with Israel or how they are a part of a long history of Exile), one needs to ask oneself what is at stake if we totally lose our “Jewish guilt” which, today, is not tied to anything primordial but, quite simply, to Israel.  Can a Jew simply leave the schlemiel behind, which, for Ezrahi, would suggest that one leaves Israel and history behind?  Or are Jewish American novelists – like Shalom Auslander or Nathan Englander (to name only two) – willing to embrace this character and its ironic relationship with the Isreal?  Will the schlemiel remain, regardless of what we do, since Israel and America will most likely remain the two primary places where Jews live and dream?

These questions should trouble American Jews and be so troubling as to make us complain a little and realize the situation we are faced with.  Perhaps, for American Jews -in general – and Jewish-American writers – in particular -Israel is or will be the Final Complaint (as it was for Portnoy and for the author of Operation Shylock)?

The Schlemiel and Horror, or Zero Mostel on the Muppet Show

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Zero Mostel z”l (1915-1977), in this brilliant segment from a 1977 episode of the Muppet Show, laughs at the Horror genre (or I would argue, getting spooked by crisis theory). What better example do we have of the laugh that laughs at the (satanic) laugh (or smile)?

This is, as my father’s friend David Kaplan z’l, used to say: “Top notch!”

Zero Mostel was one of the greatest stars in the history of Yiddish theater and performance!  He moved hundreds of thousands of people to laughter and tears.  Mostel was certainly a (perhaps ‘the’?) King of Comedy.   He was a real schlemiel whose performances show us how impassioned physical comedy – though caught up in schlemiel dreams – can trump fantasies of terror and catastrophe.  The fantasies he plays with are the fantasies of fear, terror, and transgression; the fantasies that Baudelaire and Poe found so titillating.

By performing 1,001 terrors, filtered through all his “wide eyed” gestures, Mostel caricatures horror, fear, and spirit possession in a matter of minutes.

Instead of tricking us into being horrified, as Baudelaire believed the “Absolute Comic” should, Mostel tricks horror into being ridiculous.  And he does it in the best place one can to placate horror with comedy: The Muppet Show.

Horror is equivalent to formless Muppet dolls attacking Zero Mostel and driving him Mad.

Does Zero Mostel tear us from fear? Does he defeat it?  Or do Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire have the last word?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OA32DHT9AyM]

Reflecting on Comedy: Miriam Katz’s Comic-Art Project (Take 2)

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Miriam Katz is an art curator who has taken on the task of bringing comedy into the serious and overly academic artworld.  On March 19th 2011, she was the curator of a “showcase of experimental comedy” at MOMA P.S. 1.  As Martha Schwender of the The Village Voice points out in an article entitled “Have you Heard the One About the Art Scene Embracing Comedians?” Katz included comic performers such as Jon Glaser, David Hill, Jenny Slate, Reggie Watts, Maeve Higgins, and Rory Scovel in her art show.

Echoing Miriam Katz, Martha Schwender demurs on what happens when “comedians are being presented as artists?”  Will there be a collision?

What I found interesting about her article’s presentation of Katz’s project was its insistence on the link between trauma, comedy, and thoughtful reflection.

Schwender, citing Katz, notes that “comedy is much less safe than art.”  Literally and figuratively.  Apparently, there are more starving comedians than starving artists. Art has become too smug with itself and now “comedy is a model for artists who feel art has become to academic or safe.”  The world of comedy is a dangerous space and those who live in it take more risks that are typical of those who dwell in the artworld.

But here is the problem.   Comedy is unreflective and forgetful.  Citing Katz, Schwender writes: “Laugher obliterates the memory of what took place, so people don’t sit down and write a response, aside from ‘Check it out, its so awesome!”

This, Katz argues, is problematic.  Comedians are “hungry for critical feedback.”

In other words, comedians want us to think about comedy and share our thoughts with them.

At the end of this piece, Schwender, echoing Katz, gives her own reflection on comedy.  She notes that when comedians do well on stage they say that they “kill.”  This, I would add, is similar to the Borscht Belt expression of ‘knocking them dead.”  Or “blowing them away.”

What do they mean by such language?  Does the comedian have a violent and antagonistic relationship with her audience?

Schwender doesn’t give a direct answer.  Instead, she demonstrates that comedy is not all lightness and fun; death and mortality are themes in contemporary comedy: “(Andy) Kaufman talked about faking his own death…Zadie Smith..uses her own hapless father as an example of comedy triumphing over mortality: Her father “missed his own death” because he died in mid-sentence, “joking with his nurse.”

But does comedy really triumph over reality?  Is comedy redemptive?  Schwender seems to suggest as much here.  It takes us through the darkness and leads us to light.

Schwender ends the piece with a suggestion of hope; namely, a new era of art.  What Dada was to WWII, Katz’s new efforts will be to our current post-traumatic situation: “Our own art-comedy moment feels rooted in a similarly apocalyptic soil: wars, natural disasters, and nasty elections.  Four years ago, skulls were the leitmotifs in art, clustered in paintings or crushed with diamonds.  Now, laughter is taking over.”

But what does this mean?  Is Miriam Katz awakening us to a messianic-kind of Dadaist comic-epoch which has found its birth in 2011, in Manhattan?   And how do we “reflect” on this post-traumatic comic moment?  Do we find redemption in it? Does comedy, dark comedy of the Andy Kaufmann variety, offer redemption or catharsis?

In search of an answer, I went to hear from Katz herself.  I found an interview with Katz in BOMBLOG.  The interview took place recently and focuses on her new podcast project.  Since her exhibition, Katz created a website with monthly podcasts of comedians reflecting on their work: http://www.breakdownshow.com/about/

The website is called Breakdowns.  The name is apropos as it hints at an emotional breakdown and a reflective breakdown of the (comic) breakdown.  But, and here is the question, is reflection on comedic-slash-traumatic comedy redemptive?  Must all comedy, worth anything, be thought of in this way?

In her interview with Sam Korman in BOMBLOG, we get a better picture of her understanding of the relationship of comedy-slash-trauma and reflection.

http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/7063

Blogging on February 15th, Korman leads the way to the question of comedy and redemption when he associates Katz’s art project (and his own interview) with going into the depths of darkness by way of the comedian but, in the end, finding “our way back…redeemed.”  He suggests that his interview and her comic-art project are a mythic type of journey into and out of darkness.

When first asked why “comedy is so important,” Katz gives an answer that speaks to trauma and reflection.  She notes that comedy gives people relief, is critical and fun, and allows for “difficult truths to emerge.”

Her challenge to the artworld is to be critical “in a joyous way” instead of being too serious and academic.  And comedy makes this joyous type of criticism possible (which sounds much like what Friedrich Nietzsche called “Gay Science”).

But, toward the middle and end of the interview, Katz shifts and gives us a picture of comedy that is not redemptive.  First of all, she notes the position of the comedian to the audience is not a mutual catharsis.   Rather, “structurally we (the audience) are arbitrary.  The comic just wants the sounds coming from our bodies.”  All she wants is the audience to have a “bit more agency or influence.”  The little freedom she wants for “us” inheres in our “critical” response to comedy.  The act itself, however, harbors no agency.  Its just bodies responding in space to humor.

Korman is not satisfied with this kind of answer, so, later in the interview, he tries to bring in another philosophical angle.   He demurs that when one laughs at oneself, one becomes a listener.  This relation would be redemptive.

In response, Katz notes that this would be equivalent to standing outside of oneself and looking at oneself from a birds-eye-view: “That’s so weird and cool: making yourself laugh.  It forces you to ask, who’s that?”

For Katz, this seems to be a moment of ambivalence and self-alienation; not a moment of self-recognition.  It is traumatic.

What’s of more interest to her, it seems, is the relationship between the audience and the comedian: not what it means, but what happens.

(As Walter Benjamin once wrote in his Kafka essay, “attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  This attention, I would add, is to what happens-as-it-happens.)

Katz ends the interview with a paradoxical reflection.  When you laugh there is relief (and I would add that this is cathartic and redemptive); however, she contradicts this when she says: “there’s also no escape.  It forces you to admit things about your limitations and about what you really want.”

The fact that we cannot “escape” ourselves and that we are forced to admit things about ourselves and our desires is a shameful moment.  On the contrary, there is no relief.

Comedy, in other words, forces us to be uncomfortable.  It exposes us to our mortality and our desires (whether frustrated, failed, sick, or what have you).

But this isn’t the comedy we see on The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, or Saturday Night Live; no, it’s the disturbing kind of comedy we find in comedians like Andy Kaufmann and Lenny Bruce.  The comedy she is talking about is the variety that makes us chuckle while feeling uneasy in our skins.

And this is what we see in this Andy Kaufmann video, which I posted in yesterday’s blog:

Bringing a critical understanding of comedy can help us to understand what comedy does to us, but it can’t redeem us.  Nonetheless, it can spur us to act.  The schlemiel faces us, in a Levinasian sense (which I mentioned in the previous blog entry) with the “demand of the hour.”  Our choice to act, to decide, follows in the wake of our comic exposure to ourselves, the other, and to the hour (our situation).

This, I would argue, is the agency that Miriam Katz is trying to find for her comic audience.  Our freedom follows the comic breakdown.

Freedom and critical reflection are in the wake of the schlemiel’s oblique prophesy.