Even Sapir, Jerusalem
Monday, July 12th, 2004 https://adamkhan.net/rambles/dont-panic
“village explainer” was excellent to have on hand if you happened to be “a village but if you were not, not.” So Gertrude Stein, deaconess of modernity, dismissed Ezra Pound in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and so James D. Bloom launches one strand of his academic romp through Jewish American comedy, Gravity Fails: The Comic Jewish Shaping of Modern America (Praeger, 2003; 192 pages, with index and notes).
Just as Socrates undermined the sophists, funny Jews “prophetically recognize the totalitarian threat that ambitious explainers pose.” Hence Gilda Radner’s air-headed news anchorwoman Emily Latella addresses the day’s burning issue, such as “violins in the streets”, with an arcane and convoluted social explanation until her colleague points out the lexical error. She quickly recovers her idiot composure, signing off with her signature sing-song “Never mind!”—the target, of course, being Walter Cronkite’s highly unlikely “And that’s the way it is.”
And hence the Seinfeld episode in which two characters get spat on at a ballgame and seek to identify the culprit by reconstructing the incident in slow motion, parodying the Zapruder film revered by JFK assassination conspiracy cultists.
The demand for explanation has come to function as a superstition, Bloom suggests, with the word “because” now sufficing where reasoning may have once been required. It’s a version of Orwell’s warning about the tendency of political language to hide the truth. Funny Jews typically resist this tendency with insolent humility, the author writes, which is one reason that Hitler hoped to leave “the resounding laughter of Jewry choking in their throats” and promised that “their laughter will subside everywhere.”
But ironically Bloom—Professor of English and Director of American Studies and the Self-Directed Inquiry Program at Muhlenberg College—himself suffers from a case of over-explainingitis.
We start out on a veritable rollercoaster ride, with teasing glimpses of The Producers and Richard Feynman, Mad magazine and Carnal Knowledge, all of it to be bookended by Kafka and Seinfeld. But we grind to halt with the introduction of one Bob Dylan, who is, the thesis goes, an excruciatingly funny burlesque vaudevillian, displacing Philip Roth—previously introduced as “the greatest sit-down standup comic”—as number one funny Jew.
Bob Dylan is also The Great Gatsby, as explained to us in full-flight academese. Consider “Gatsby as the center of Dylan’s reworking of Fitzgerald’s legacy” or “Dylan’s strategically Gatsbyesque evasiveness”. Perhaps “Dylan’s Gatsbyesque appeal”? His “embodiment of the Gatsby myth”, his “Fitzgeraldlike ‘genius’”? We are told that in “a false farewell reminiscent of Gatsby, Dylan’s would-be village folksinger in ‘Talkin’ New York’ welcomes the ‘western skies.’” Yes there is a joke here, in that the west referred to turns out to be merely West Orange, NJ, but the stuff about Gatsby, even if insightful, bears at best indirectly on the book’s subject, which is, lest we’ve forgotten already, humor.
So, while being treated to the author’s slow-motion analysis of various Bob Dylan album covers, I developed my own conspiracy theory: that Bloom could not publish his ideas on Bob Dylan in the context of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and hit upon the ingenious notion of weaving his pet into the Jewish-humor-in-America book.
Seriously undermined, then, is what should have been a delightful book throughout, naturally punctuated by artful retellings of exemplary funny moments from various media and eras.
Rather than the Dylan/Gatsby lecture, we could have looked further afield to more precisely delineate just what Jewish American comedy is. The English have also been an influence on modern American sensibilities, and much of what Bloom describes as characteristically Jewish humor, such as verbal acuity and the undermining of pieties, surely also applies to Monty Python and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, both of which played to packed houses in Peoria. And we must never forget that PBS aired Are You Being Served as a public service.
Conversely, a look at Jewish humor in other countries could have highlighted the American element in Jewish American comedy, and how America influenced the funny Jews who came to dominate its scene. Israel is the obvious choice, but the Jewish state doesn’t even figure in this book’s index, though to be fair, neither does Groucho’s Fredonia.
Ariel Sharon does however get a mention in the text as “Israel’s chauvinist prime minister and sponsor of a notorious 1982 massacre,” and Israel does figure in the argument, if only obliquely: Jewish humor not only derides stupid sophistry, Bloom argues, but also the more general “prevailing idealistic Platonic trajectory”, chief among which is the myth of the homeland. “The tribe of funny Jews finally distinguishes itself by its scruples,” the book concludes. “These simple but demanding scruples produce a tribe that needs to stay lost in order to thrive…” Hmm. A Jew, it seems, can be either funny or Zionist but not both.
The Bible is less easily dismissed than Israel, though it too is under-represented. Bloom suggests that humor was introduced into Judaism with the Talmud, “out of a recognition of something lacking in the Hebrew bible: an appreciation that scripture needs to have ‘something a bit joking about it’”. Regarding Abraham’s naming of Isaac (“He Laughs”), Bloom muses that “at least Genesis shows the scripture authors valuing if not practicing Jewish funniness.” In his superciliousness towards the source material Bloom reveals a tin ear to Genesis’ supremely deadpan timber.
Indeed, the treatment of deadpan is also all too brief. “The aliveness or deadness of Pan became a bone of contention among funny Jews,” we read early on:
“The denial of Pan’s death by comic revolutionary Abbie Hoffman in his autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture, demonstrates this preoccupation. Here Hoffman revels in fancying himself ‘as a reincarnation of Pan, the seducer.’ Source of the English noun and verb ‘panic,’ this ancient Greek god has been represented traditionally as having a goat’s torso and legs, human hands, and a face marked by a sardonic smile. … Medieval scholarship and Italian quattrocentro sculpture turned Pan Jewish.”
And that’s about it on Pan. How fun it would have been to read less about Bob Dylan’s “Carraway-like distance from his own odyssey” and more on the Jewish relationship with Pan, and whether it has any bearing on other Jewish comedic figures, like the schlemiel.
It would have been interesting too to follow the evolution of the schlemiel, this particularly Jewish variation of the archetypal fool, perhaps exploring any ties with his coarser Israeli parallel, the freier. All we get though is an all-too-brief run-in with Seinfeld’s George Castanza.
The book does however sport an entire marvelous strand I haven’t even mentioned: sex. Both Allen Ginsberg and James Baker III are quoted as sharing the same sentiment albeit for different reasons, and funny Jews are shown to have led the movement to make female lust respectable. Here we’re back on the joyride, from the reflections of Philip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath—“Not to run water through, not to spread seed, but included in the package like the toy at the bottom of the cracker-jack box, a gift to each and every little girl from God himself…”—to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying to Meg Ryan’s ecstatic performance at Katz’s Deli in Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally. At the next table a matronly woman instructs the waiter: “I’ll have what she’s having…”—an altogether wiser, more American approach to funny Jews than Hitler’s.