Honey Dicked and Honey Potted? A Reflection on Seth Rogen, James Franco, and a Few Motifs in “The Interview”

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The title and the recent review of American Sniper by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone suggest that the film, “American Sniper is “Almost Too Dumb to Criticize.” In the article, Taibbi suggests that the person who would enjoy such a film has a lot in common with the character Forrest Gump:

The message of Forrest Gump was that if you think about the hard stuff too much, you’ll either get AIDS or lose your legs. Meanwhile, the hero is the idiot who just shrugs and says “Whatever!” whenever his country asks him to do something crazy.

Forrest Gump pulled in over half a billion and won Best Picture. So what exactly should we have expected from American Sniper?

Not much. But even by the low low standards of this business, it still manages to sink to a new depth or two.

The message is clear: not only are films today based on “low low standards,” but so are the viewers. Hollywood is catering to the “American idiot” who, like Forrest Gump, isn’t interested in looking to closely at him or herself or history for fear of what might happen to him or her.

Reading this review against The Rolling Stone review for Seth Rogen’s film, The Interview, I was a bit surprised. If anything, I would think that this title and these words might be more apt for Rogen’s film.   Although the other Rolling Stone review took some shots at Rogen and suggested that he has been doing adolescent films for much too long, it also suggested that, in the latest film, he is “at a crossroads” and is moving into the sphere of more serious films. These words, to be sure, suggest that the latest film is actually worthy of our interest. But, ultimately, I’d like to point out that the words applied to American Sniper can also be applied to the Rogen film.   The Interview is “almost too stupid to dumb to criticize.” Like Taibbi I would argue that Hollywood has taken on “low low standards” in this film. However, I’m not so sure I would argue that people who watch it, like the film itself, are American idiots.

I’d like to discuss a few motifs in the film because I think it is “almost” too dumb to criticize. There are a few motifs and phrases in the film that suggest that Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, and SONY Pictures believe, or rather assume, are most representative of how American youth – in general – represent…themselves. I think some of these assumptions are dumb while others are not.

One of the recurrent phrases in the film is the notion of being “honey dicked” or “honey potted” by someone. I started looking into the term “honeydicking” first. After looking the term up on urban dictionary, I was surprised to see that two definitions (and one t-shirt ad with the terms on it) came up which were put there after The Interview went public.   Here’s the definition:

When a person is getting took. Somebody finding your ass out, figuring out what you like, telling you what you want to hear, to get what they want out of you. Honeydicking is refers to when a male does this act. Honeypotting refers to when a female does this act.

After looking up “honeypotting,” I found a similar definition but applied to women doing the act. This definition, in contrast, relates to pornography and goes back to 2010:

To good-naturedly insert one’s finger into a partner’s anus during doggystyle sex and subsequently lick it. Usually performed several times during the same sitting.

As one can see from the initial urbandictionary defintion, the term is reinterpreted in the film and made into yet another neologism which means that one is duped by a women who acts sweet but only wants you to do something for her.

The act of deceiving someone through sex is found throughout the film. The question, however, is whether this is good or bad. Both Rogen and Franco’s characters struggle with the possibility, throughout the film, that they have been “honey potted” by men (such as Kim Jong-un) or women (the CIA operative).

While Franco and Rogen’s characters are both “honey potted,” only Franco’s character is “honey dicked.”   Franco’s “honey dicking” by Kim Jong-un is the most interesting because we learn that the honey dicking has its greatest appeal on Franco he learns that he and Jong-un have similar problems: they both bond on the fact that they were hurt by their fathers who wanted them to be “men” and suppress their more “effeminate” emotions. In the process of speaking with each other, they become bros, party together, share secrets, and, as a result, Franco’s character, Skylark, decides that it would be wrong to kill Jong-un. He’s a bro, after all. He can’t be “honey dicking” him. Rogen’s character disagrees.

As a result, Skylark confronts the CIA agent and claims that she has been “honey potting” him. Rogen, meanwhile, learns that Jong-un’s secretary was not “honey potting” him. She is on their side.

Regardless, this motif, changes in the film when, toward the end, all of them realize that no one is deceiving anyone for any negative reason. This is just what bros do; however, Jung-un has an anger management problem (sound familiar, think of Adam Sandler). Skylark doesn’t. He has learned to control the anger his father may have bestowed on him and since Jong-un’s anger will result in killing millions of innocent people, Skylark decides to save the day and kill his bro.

The ambiguities in the film circle around the meaning of honey potting, honey dicking, and bros. We see all of this emblematized in the handshake. Can we trust the handshake or is it an act of deception? In the end, Rogen and Goldberg decided to have the handshake trump all other motifs. The bros, in the end, remain. However, the question we need to ask is what underlines this bro-hood and how does it evince a kind of stupidity.

At the outset of the film, Eminem is on screen confessing he is gay. The media control room goes crazy as if it’s a revelation that will trump all others in the modern era. Then we see Rob Lowe take off his wig to reveal his hidden (bald) identity. All of this is grist for the media mill and, as we see in the outset of the film, its not deemed serious. But, as we see throughout the film, nothing is really serious. Despite Skylark’s killing of his bro, Jong-un, the film suggests that if we can all be bros and if we were we would live in peace.

Moreover, it also suggests that the limit between bros and homosexuality – from being “honey potted” to being “honey dicked” (both, in the film, get positive valences) – is the limit of being modern, secular, and western. To be sure, these are the motifs behind the film and seem to spell out that, in addition to free speech, democracy, and communicating through Skype, this is the final frontier.   To be sure, the pornographic motifs and the handshaking, taken together, suggest this.

Is this the case? Is the limit between the bro and homosexuality the greatest thing that Americans can turn to when they reflect on themselves? This is what Rogen, Goldberg, and SONY suggest.   Does this motif speak to what Americans are in ways that are more truthful than, say, a film like American Sniper?   I put the two up against each other not only because Seth Rogen in his latest news-grabbing Tweet suggested we think his work against Eastwood’s film; but also because the two films present two different views of what is important to Americans and who they look at themselves.

And this suggests a few questions: Does the bro displace the patriot? Would we all rather be “honey dipped” or “honey dicked” in the positive sense than be fighting in wars? Will be saved by a person who realizes that sometimes bros aren’t bros when they want to get angry and kill everyone? What is the frontier? How do we draw the line? And what is at stake?

Given my work on the schlemiel – in this blog, in essay, in book collections, etc – I would argue that Franco and Rogen are playing characters that are derivatives of the schlemiel. Ruth Wisse argues, at the beginning of her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, that there were, in the early 20th and late 19th century, many jokes about schlemiels who go to war. In nearly all of the jokes, there is a failure to fight. But Wisse says something very interesting about this. It’s not that these characters are “anti-war” it’s that they simply don’t know how to do war.

Watching The Interview, one can see that this may apply. But, to be sure, Rogen – and not just him, but Judd Apatow – is replacing the word “schlemiel” with “bro.” The bro doesn’t know how to do war but acts “as if” he does. We see this with all the characters and even Jong-un. He acts as if he does. And when he tries, Skylark takes his chances and shoots a tank missile at him and succeeds. This is, of course, a drastic measure.   We know this because, after this scene, we see Franco and Rogen’s characters have a bro reflection about what went wrong. The conversation gives their secret away: namely, that the latter day schlemiel not only doesn’t not want to or know how to engage in war but she or he would rather be hanging out with the bros or get honey potted….or honey dicked. (Or at least travel the limit between playing with it, wanting it, and actually getting it. After all, schlemielish sexuality is not laden with pathos or fate. As this and many other schlemiel films show us, such as Neighbors, Knocked Up, etc, sex just happens.)

Perhaps, even if both of these two films are “almost too dumb to criticize,” they have points that are worthy of discussion.  This has a lot to do with how Americans may or may not want to think of who they are and what they do best. Between these two films, we see this kind of tension and can get a sense that, perhaps, the bro and the American warrior are, as the one Rolling Stone writer said of Rogen’s film, at a “crossroads.” Alternatively, we may just have two films that are, still, “almost too stupid to criticize” no matter how you look at it. The latter option would suggest that what film critics really want to see may not be shown to a large American audience as long as there is a market for bro-comedy or patriotic action films.

 

 

 

 

 

A Guest Post by Jenny Caplan: “On Nebbishes – Part II”

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In my previous post I laid out some of my general thoughts about the nebbish; where he comes from, how he behaves, and why he has had such longevity. The nebbish is a deceptively complex figure, and the persistence of the type in comedy indicates deep resonances, especially within the Jewish community, with the nebbish. In this post I will add some thoughts about gender to the mix. Thinking about the possibility of a female nebbish raises the eternal question: “just because you can, should you?” Is opening up the type to women a stride for equality, or is the more socially progressive move to refuse to portray women as self-sacrificing victims and to give them more agency?

How, then, does this relate to the question of the female nebbish? Although gender equality is certainly something we should continue to strive for, if the nebbish is a negative image do we want to be able to apply it to women? Given the historic treatment of women, can a perpetual victim, an abused, overlooked figure who follows meekly behind a more dominant person tidying up their messes actually be anything but horrifying when reimagined as a woman? We can laugh at Uncle David on the Goldbergs when he flutters around the apartment in a frilly apron, cooking and cleaning for the family, but when Fanny Brice sang in “My Man”

Oh, my man I love him so/ He’ll never know
All my life is just despair/ But I don’t care
When he takes me in his arms/ The world is bright, all right
What’s the diff’rence if I say/ I’ll go away, When I know
I’ll come back on my knees some day?
For whatever my man is/ I am his forever more!/ Oh, my man I love him

It was a pitiable, but not also risible performance of codependency and loss of self-worth in the face of the dominant other.

Combine those problems, then, with the Ugly Duckling issue. Traditionally Jewish women have had three stock types of their own, at least in American Jewish culture. Older Jewish women become the Jewish Mother, domineering, controlling, doting on her son in particular, and reducing her husband into a nebbish at best, a total non-entity at worst. Younger women had two options, both equally awful. The first is the more well-known Jewish American Princess. She is vapid and spoiled, frigid and self-centered. The second option is the Ugly Duckling. She has been the female equivalent to the nebbish for some time already. In her book Intolerance: The Parameters of Oppression Lise Noel points out that throughout literature and film Jewish men have typically “not idealized Jewish women,” depicting them through the story of “’The Jewish Ugly Duckling’ or ‘The Jewish American Princess.’” The Ugly Duckling is sometimes the JAPs younger sister (think Dirty Dancing), sometimes her best friend (think Kissing Jessica Stein), sometimes just her project (think Clueless). So if she is for women what the nebbish has been for men, is she also being reinvented?

Letty Cottin Pogrebin thinks so. She sees the Ugly Duckling, which she terms the “Jewish Big Mouth,” as a feminist icon. She claims that, “the character of the clever, outspoken Jewish girl has become a film convention that empowers all women. Most important, films portraying the Ugly Duckling who rises above her appearance have assured girls with big noses and frizzy hair that they too can invent their own kind of terrific and leave Miss America in the dust.” The Ugly Duckling can get her man, but then what? If she truly has aspects of the nebbish in her personality are we back to Fanny Brice pining after her lying, cheating, unemployed, gadabout man? Just because she gets the prince, does she live happily ever after?

This is where I find the gender divide is still at its widest. The modern male nebbish exists in a state of dramatic irony, where the audience knows things the other characters do not, and we view him therefore with both pity and respect at various points. The female nebbish or the reclaimed Ugly Duckling’s success still seems fleeting, as if her gains are tinged with the specter of future failure. There is, perhaps, dramatic irony at play here as well, but instead of seeing the power behind the nebbish, the Superman underneath the Clark Kent exterior we see the future unraveling that she fails to realize in her moment of happiness. She evokes pathos instead of a strange pride. To illustrate this I am going to turn to a non-Jewish Ugly Duckling: Peggy Olson from Mad Men.

Peggy spent the entire run of Man Men in the shadow of the men of Sterling Cooper. Though she is bright, talented, determined, and vocal about her displeasure at the double standard she sees in the treatment of men and women in advertising, she is never able to rise the way she would like. It is not for nothing, I would say, that this show is a period piece. We as the audience already know how history worked out, and we know that this woman is never going to become the boss, because that wasn’t the lot of women in the industry in the early 60s. So we can applaud Peggy’s successes, while also cringing because we know somehow, some way, it is going to unravel. Even when she goes with Don Draper to start their own firm, eventually becoming his right hand woman, it isn’t ever her name on the company. And when she bounces from firm to firm, always trying to find the place where she can really be herself and let her talent shine, the audience senses that she will never truly find that place. And, of course, she doesn’t. She ends up back with Don again, never able to fully escape his gravity. Her greatest career achievement even gets overshadowed when the announcement of her winning a CLIO award is preempted to announce the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. To which the audience responds, “well of course.” That is Peggy’s lot in life, poor thing. We don’t root for her because we know it isn’t going to work out in the end. We like her, we wish it were otherwise, but we know it’s not. Funny, isn’t it, that she shares her last name with another, more traditional nebbish, Jimmy Olson. Jimmy Olson, in fact, is often what makes the Clark Kent Effect work. Precisely because we can see that Clark and Jimmy are so different, we can have pride in Clark that we can’t in Jimmy. Jimmy is the unreclaimed nebbish as Peggy is the Ugly Duckling after the ball, in the cold light of day.

So then where does that leave us with the nebbish? With work to be done, I would say, although much has been done already. Let’s return, for a moment, to Rachel Shukert’s nebbish typology. She writes of “the Hipster Nebbish (crumpled tweed jackets and phobic hand-wringing of early Woody Allen); the Slacker Nebbish (one of Judd Apatow’s sheepish heroes, with bong in one hand and an Xbox controller in the other); the Toxic Nebbish (see George Costanza, the most irately Jewish son of Tuscany ever committed to film). There’s the Nebbish Who Never Gets Laid, the Nebbish Who Screws Up Getting Laid, the Nebbish Who Is Inexplicably Laid by Gorgeous and Understanding Shiksa, also known as Wish Fulfillment Nebbish.” Because the nebbish is so unrelentingly male, and because, in Shukert’s eyes, he persists because of the ongoing and perpetual victim mentality of contemporary Jews, there is not much good to be found in his continued existence.

But as I have argued, perhaps there is something of value in his defiance of traditional anti-Semitic negativity, and his ability to evoke not only pity but also pride. If we continue to be presented with complex nebbishes, with Clark Kents that we as an audience also know are Superman, then maybe the nebbish can be a subversive and unlikely cultural hero. Maybe he is less victim, and more biding his time, or choosing his moment to shine. But as long as we continue to struggle with how to give women the same multi-faceted backstory then the nebbish can never really be a symbol for all Jews. Jewish women on screen and on the page need to be able to provoke pity and pride in equal measure as well. The Ugly Duckling may be able to become a feminist icon, a figure of empowerment to unattractive women everywhere, but that isn’t enough. Because too often we still get stories in which the Ugly Duckling’s second act results in abandonment, abuse, or tragedy. She still ends up as a victim far too often, and that is keeping her from being able to reap the benefits of being reclaimed as cultural hero.

I have argued that one of the hallmarks of the modern nebbish is that he is complex, and that is why I think increasingly he is someone with whom people can and do identify. The Hipster, The Slacker, the George Costanza, the McLovin, they all seem like people we could spend an afternoon with, and maybe even people we wouldn’t mind being, at least for a while. That, to me, is the strongest argument against seeing the nebbish as a perennial victim. No one wants to be a victim, but to a lot of us being Superman seems sort of exhausting too. Given those options, maybe being Clark Kent isn’t so bad after all.

Jenny Caplan is currently a Visiting Instructor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University. She is a PhD candidate at Syracuse University, and should be defending her dissertation “All Joking Aside: the role of religion in American Jewish Satire” any moment now. She works primarily on American religion and popular culture, especially as relates to post-War American Judaism.

A Note on Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: Silent Film, Comic Gestures, and Fate

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In Jean-Claude Carriere’s book, The Secret Language of Film he points out how films were “born silent” and continue to “love silence.” But he makes a major distinction. He argues that, in its beginnings, silent film “wildly gesticulated.” But “over the past sixty years” since its inception, we have something different; namely, the “present inscrutability of faces.” Carriere argues that, today, the face and the gesture are much more sophisticated and meaningful than they ever were:

Nowadays, simply from the demeanor or expression of particular actors, we pick up a clear message, depending on our mood of the moment, on the day, on the theater we happen to be in, or in the spectators around us…But we also glean nothing specific, noting identifiable, nothing definable. A new bend in the road can be suddenly revealed by a glance or a shrug, a bend of which we can say nothing, for it is something we have no words for, and yet we sense that it contains something meaningful. (31)

This reading of gesture in film suggests that the gesture, by way of film, is enigmatic and mysterious. A single gesture can change everything in a film and, at the same time, one may have “no words for” it. The problem with this kind of reading is that it leans toward a reading of gesture that has no interest in the comedic. To be sure, all of the examples that Carriere brings to illustrate this – drawn from Bergman, Bunuel, and Kurosowa (amongst others) – are not comedic. The silence that surrounds the gestures of these characters is profound.

In contrast to this kind of reading, I would like to suggest that comedic gesture, the kind we find in silent films by Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton is not simply “wildly gesticulated.” To be sure, in my last blog entry on Siegfried Kracauer’s reading of American comic films in Germany, I pointed out how Kracauer believed that comic gesture, which we find in films by Lloyd and Keaton, presented a major challenge to the German habits of viewing and their ideology. As I noted, the gestures in these films emulated freedom and chance:

Whether or not they indulged in slapstick, they invariably exposed their hero to all kinds of pitfalls and dangers, so that he depended upon one lucky accident after another to escape.   When he crossed the railroad, a train would approach, threatening to crush him, and only in the last very moment would his life be spared as the train switched over to a track hitherto invisible. The hero – a sweet, rather helpless individual who would never harm anyone – pulled through in a world governed by chance.

In contrast, in Germany the reigning ideology was more interested in fate (even its humor was oriented toward fate):

That such comedy founded on chance and a naïve desire for happiness should prove inaccessible to the Germans arises form their traditional ideology, which tends to discredit the notion of luck in favor of that of fate.

This suggests that Lloyd and Keaton, in contrast to “the Germans,” are not “wildly gesticulating” in their films.

As one can see in these clips, the unexpected happens. Fate can be reversed in the turn of a hat. This brings us closer to the belief that, in the midst of chance happenings, the little man may get lucky and things can change for the better if he maintains his faith in the triumph of the goodness and happiness.

The silence that surrounds Lloyd’s gestures is not enigmatic in the same way it is in Bergman or Kuriosawa because the gestures we see in their films focus more on fate than on comedy. The enigmas we see deal more with death, failure, and misperception rather than with the possibility of hope. Perhaps these kinds of films – and the gestures they evoke, in all their complexity – speak more to Carriere because, ultimately, he is more interested in the meaning of gesture than its ethical impact on the viewer who relates his or her body to a situation that may lead to success or failure, happiness or sorrow. It is in these simple gestures that Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer saw revolutionary potential since they opened up a sphere of freedom rather than of fate and myth.   The fixation on gesture-as-mystery, however, risks falling in to this trap.

In his essay “Fate and Character,” Walter Benjamin associates character with freedom and fate with myth: “where there is character there will, with certainty, not be fate, and in the area of character there will, with certainty, not be fate.” Moreover, character is “placed in the ethical, fate in a religious context.” Benjamin sees character in relation to comedy and argues that “there is no relation of fate to innocence.” Rather, we find that in comedy. Innocence, writes Benjamin, relates to “good fortune” and “happiness.” And what makes the deeds of the “comic character” interesting is that they are simple. In comedy, “complication becomes simplicity, fate freedom.” This all comes through character which is all about…gesture.

Fortunately, the gestures of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or Charlie Chaplin teach us that comedic movements can take us into a different relationship with the world, our tenuous place in it, and the possibility of happiness.   And they do this by being framed in silence.

In this 1921 film, “The Goat,” Keaton can’t apply for a job because he’s waiting behind manikins; but when he figures this out it’s too late. He can’t apply. He finds a horseshow, a sign of good luck; but before he gets to it, somebody else finds it and gets the good luck. He desperately looks for it, finds it, but when he throws it backwards, it is hits a cop. Now he’s on the run.

This goes on and on. But so does his search for good luck and a lucky break. He is what Hannah Arendt, in her reading of Charlie Chaplin in the “Jew as Pariah,” called “the suspect.”   In the midst of all this, he saves a woman from an altercation with a man who accidentally trips on a dog leash. However, as we see later in the film, he imagines that he is wanted for killing the man (he left him in the street because he was being chased by the police).   He runs into a man who falls into paint and comes out of a room near him; he mistakes him for a ghost. But then he sees that a photo was accidentally taken of him which, ultimately, was supposed to be of a real criminal.

He is a (scape)goat; he is innocent. But this is not tragic or fatal as it is in many a passion play. Keaton is not like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. His innocence is not laughed at and slowly destroyed as it is in that novel. It is not, as Benjamin said of fate or as Carrierre would say of film, complicated. Rather, each of Keaton’s comic gestures evince a simple, free, and vital relationship with accidents. Informing each of his comic and erratic gestures is a search for a situation that will, finally, be good. But, contrary to Carriere, they are not “wild gesticulations.” Each gesticulation is intimately related to the possibility of good luck and a better world. There is nothing enigmatic or mysterious about these gestures…framed in silence. In these films, we see how a simple gesture…in the right situation…can change everything. There’s nothing complex or enigmatic about that.

Simplicity of character is something Yiddish writers of the schlemiel, which emerged out of Eastern Europe, knew very well. If read against what we see in these early silent films, we can better understand how the schlemiels we find in the novels or short stories of Yiddish writers like Sholom Aleichem or I.B. Singer find a safe haven in America. Since they live in a world of chance, narrowly avert disaster, and, still remain innocent and happy, Motl and Gimpel have a lot in common with Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin. Walter Benjamin was right on this account: where there is freedom (America) there can be no fate. And where there is freedom, there must be comedy. And contrary to Carriere, the gestures of these characters are not “wild” and lacking enigmatic depth; they are the best challenge we have to fate and mythology.

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And what “The Goat” film teaches us is that the image of Buster Keaton behind bars, the image of his fate, is the false one. Fate is narrowly averted by the simple genius of comedy and comic gesture.

A Guest Post by Jenny Caplan: “On Nebbishes – Part I”

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A nebbish, a schlemiel, and a schnorrer walk into a bar. The schnorrer makes a bee line for the free pretzels while the schlemiel makes his way through the crowd to an empty table, obliviously knocking over chairs and stepping on people’s jackets as he does so. The nebbish, on the other hand, follows along behind the schlemiel, picking the chairs back up and apologizing as he tries to keep up with his friend. The Yiddish stock types all exist in the same world, so they all relate to each other in different ways. But in some ways the nebbish is the most difficult to pin down because he (and I am using masculine pronouns for now, but the image of the nebbish as male is something I will be discussing this afternoon) is only defined in relation to others. If you’re familiar with the musical Chicago, he is Mr. Cellophane: you can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I’m there.

In his now seminal The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten called the nebbish, “an innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless unfortunate. A Sad Sack. A loser.” Elsewhere, as I alluded to above, Rosten described the relationship between the nebbish and the schlemiel as one where the nebbish has to constantly pick up what the schlemiel knocks over. Unlike the schlemiel/schlimazel relationship where the schlemiel spills his soup on the schlimazel, the nebbish is subservient in the relationship; overlooked, taken for granted, part of the furniture. I do not intend, here this afternoon, to revolutionize or rehabilitate the reputation of the nebbish. But what I would like to propose and discuss are a couple of points: why does the nebbish have the characteristics he does? Who is the contemporary nebbish, and what is his role in society? And, finally, why must the nebbish always be “he?” Can women not be nebbishes?

Let me begin, then, by offering some classic examples of nebbishes so that we may examine a bit more closely what makes a nebbish. Early Woody Allen and Seinfeld’s George Costanza come up frequently in conversations about easily identifiable nebbishes. Woody Allen’s character in Crimes and Misdemeanors may be his most nebbishy; not only does he not end up with the girl at the end, but he loses her his much-loathed brother in law. His brother in law is slick and witty and successful and attractive, while Allen’s character toils away over a documentary no one will ever watch and bemoans his constantly being overlooked. George’s function on Seinfeld, especially in the first few seasons is similar. Jerry is the star, the good-looking one. Elaine is the woman. Kramer is insane. But what is George? Who is George? Eventually, I suppose, he is the angry one, but he is also just the “other one.” The one who is there because he needs to be.

If we look at bit more carefully at some of the adjectives Rosten used to define the nebbish he is “innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless.” Traditionally this has played out with his being somewhere between entirely asexual and interested in women (because in addition to being male, he is almost invariably straight) but unable to hang on to one. What is interesting in the case of the nebbish though, is thinking about where and how the stereotype arose. So much of what goes into the Yiddish stock characters, as my colleagues here may mention in greater detail, is the overall stereotyping of European Jewish masculinity. So many of these types involve the Jewish man being shifty, untrustworthy, lascivious, or otherwise outside society’s boundaries. According to etymologist Evan Morris one of the things that separates the schlemiel from the nebbish is that the schlemiel, as a misfit, can be liked or disliked. He can be someone the audience boos. Wile E. Coyote, for example. The nebbish on the other hand must be pitied. He obviously cannot be the hero, but neither can he be the villain. He can only be the one you feel sorry for.

Why, then, does he persist? Do we need pitiable characters in our movies, television, and literature? Pity isn’t generally the goal of anti-Semitic propaganda. It would be pretty poor propaganda anyway if all it did was make the audience feel sorry for the poor Jews. So the longevity and proliferation of the nebbish as a type is probably not as driven by external social expectations and forces as, say, the gonif (who we’re not discussing today, but I kind of wish we were). It seems, therefore, that the impetus to keep the nebbish alive must be coming from within; there must be something inside the Jewish community that responds to that character, or needs him to exist. He is a strange figure to keep alive, however, as to be overlooked and also maintained or upheld would seem to be a contradiction.

Rachel Shukert wrote an article for Tablet magazine in which see sees the Holocaust as the driving force behind the prolonged existence of the nebbish in American Jewish culture, and she sees this as a primarily negative thing. She argued that, “World War II was a transformational event [for Jewish American men], a chance to unimpeachably cement their American identities by fighting for their country. Their children and grandchildren, however—the future Nebbish Generations—would view the war overwhelmingly through the lens of the Holocaust and its primacy in Jewish education, which in its single-minded focus on Auschwitz as the definitive image of the Jewish wartime experience has virtually drowned any narrative of Jewish heroism in the vast sea of Jewish helplessness.” So as far as Shukert is concerned, American Jewish education has created generations of Jews who, in viewing themselves and their people as consummate victims, have gravitated towards the nebbish as the character that most aptly embodies that victimhood. And even better, because he is so innocuous, we feel sorry for him instead of blaming him for his own impotence!

Certainly, Shukert has a point that American Jewish education has been reduced to “The Holocaust and Israel” in a lot of circles, which does place a potentially disproportionate focus on Jew-as-victim. So the evidence would suggest that that has a role in the resurgence of the nebbish character in the post-war years, through Woody Allen and Nathan Zuckerman and even George Costanza as, potentially, a last gasp of that generation’s feelings about their own identity. But that does not explain why the nebbish has been not only retained, but now morphed and changed in the last 10-15 years. If it was simply about Jew-as-victim, why have those future Nebbish Generations, as Shukert calls them, not only kept that narrative alive but also validated it, exalted it, and even gloried in it in some cases? Why does the modern nebbish exist, and what makes him, or her, different?

With all things stereotype, “reclaiming” is generally the easiest answer as to why a particular stock type persists, especially when it seems to do so with the blessing or even active efforts of the group being stereotyped. I disagree with Shukert (and others, I am not trying to make a straw man out of here; her essay is just the one that most clearly articulates some of these issues), however, that it is necessarily the ongoing victim mentality perpetuated by generations of Holocaust-focused Jewish education that has allowed the nebbish to survive and even thrive. I look at the nebbish-as-alter-ego effect as being another reason why we have seen this pitiable figure live on; I call it The Clark Kent Effect. Clark Kent is a classic nebbish; he is mild-mannered, overlooked, and taken advantage of. He pines after Lois Lane while she only has eyes for Superman. Superman is everyone’s favorite, but who pays the bills? Whose grind at the Daily Planet keeps Superman in tights and pomade? Because of characters like Clark Kent there is something still pitiable, but also noble about the nebbish, and there is a sense that perhaps the nebbish has a secret. Perhaps she or he is simply biding their time.

Actor Bob Balaban may be one of the best examples of someone who portrays this contemporary version of the nebbish that I am proposing. With a career stretching back to the 1960s he is one of those actors who, if you don’t recognize his name you would recognize him if you saw him (which in and of itself is a hallmark of the nebbish, no?). Though he always seems to be showing up, both in movies and on TV, in recent years he has become popular as part of Christopher Guest’s cadre of performers in his “mockumentaries” such as Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show. It is in these films that I think Balaban expresses his nebbishood best, and of all the films in this oeuvre A Mighty Wind could be his masterpiece. He plays the woefully uncharismatic son of recently deceased folk music impresario Irving Steinbloom. To honor his father Balaban arranges a grand reunion of the best folk acts from his father’s heyday. Throughout the film he shows he knows nothing about show business, is generally underfoot and asking the wrong questions, is dreadful at addressing either the artists or the audience, and in general is an annoyance to the performers who they’d prefer just went away and let them do their thing.

What is important here, though, is that while he is a nuisance to those in the film, the audience has a different experience of him. We get to see flashbacks to his childhood and to understand some of how he became what he is. We realize that, inept though he may be, he is arranging this concert out of a sincere desire to honor his father’s legacy. And finally (and perhaps most importantly), despite himself, he is a success. The lead-up to the concert is crisis after crisis after crisis he is ill-equipped to handle. But the end result is what everyone hoped and more (after all, we even got the actual Kiss At the End of the Rainbow!) and so we, the audience, get to celebrate the fact that Steinbloom pulled it off, against all odds. He is a nebbish par excellence, but in the end he is also a success. This “winner nebbish” is what I see as the modern take on the Clark Kent nebbish. The nebbish has his own alter ego, in a sense, because the audience knows and sees things that those around him don’t see, which is why we not only continue to pity the nebbish, but also now cheer for him.

Jenny Caplan is currently a Visiting Instructor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University. She is a PhD candidate at Syracuse University, and should be defending her dissertation “All Joking Aside: the role of religion in American Jewish Satire” any moment now. She works primarily on American religion and popular culture, especially as relates to post-War American Judaism. 

They Liked Comedy, But They Didn’t Get It: Siegfried Kracauer on American Comedy in Weimar Germany

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German film theorists and thinkers had widely divergent reactions to comedy and film. Theodor Adorno had a problem with all comic films since he saw laughter as sadistic and reactionary. To be sure, he saw it as a negation of thinking. Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” had a much more positive view of film than his friend. He saw the medium as progressive and revolutionary. In part twelve of the essay, Benjamin points out that while the public may have a “backward” reaction to an artist like Picasso, they have a “progressive” reaction to the comedy films of Charlie Chaplin:

The technical reproducibility of the artwork changes the relation of the masses to art. The extremely backward attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into a highly progressive reaction to a Chaplin film.

The “progressive reaction” is “characterized by an immediate, intimate fusion of pleasure – pleasure of seeing and experiencing – with an attitude of expert appraisal.” This differs from the criticism of a Picasso painting because the “progressive reaction” has a “social index” while the Picasso painting has a “reduced social impact.” The less something has a social impact the more “widely criticism and enjoyment of it diverge in public.” But “with regard to cinema, the critical and uncritical attitudes of the public coincide.” And it happens with great immediacy.   Since film involves the “imminent concentrations of reactions into a mass,” it takes on a “progressive” affect.

What many people might overlook is the fact that Benjamin chose comedic film and Charlie Chaplin as the counter examples to Picasso: Chaplin, a comedic American film character, is put in contrast to a serious European artist and his paintings.   They not only work in different mediums; they also speak to entirely different cultures and ideologies.  Siegfried Kracauer, whose work had a lot in common with Benjamin’s, suggests that the German reception of American comedic film, in particular, is mixed because the German public was unfamiliar with the “naïve desire for happiness,” a life of chance, and the “interrelationship between intellectual habits and bodily movements” that we see in early American comedic film performances.

Kracauer found that Germans of the early 20th century may have liked American comedy, but they didn’t get it and they couldn’t reproduce it. And if they don’t get it, how, one wonders could comedy film, like Chaplin’s, have a “progressive affect” in a country like Germany?

We find insights into these questions in Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film.   Kracauer begins by noting how American westerns and comedies became popular in Germany.

Besides Westerns, short comedies featuring Max Linden, Fatty and Tontolini were the vogue of those years (before and after World War I). All the strata of German moviegoers participated in the gay laughter they aroused. The Germans liked that sort of visual fun. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that they themselves were incapable of producing a popular film comedian. As early as 1921, a German writer stated plainly that the Germans were short of comical film ideas – a domain which, he admitted, the French and after them the Americans had learned to explore with mastery. (21)

Kracauer thinks that this had to do with the world and the comic sensibility of the main characters of these films, which “the Germans,” he felt, simply couldn’t comprehend. These characters were innocent, sweet, and helpless; they were “pulled through in a world governed by chance.”

Whether or not they indulged in slapstick, they invariably exposed their hero to all kinds of pitfalls and dangers, so that he depended upon one lucky accident after another to escape.   When he crossed the railroad, a train would approach, threatening to crush him, and only in the last very moment would his life be spared as the train switched over to a track hitherto invisible. The hero – a sweet, rather helpless individual who would never harm anyone – pulled through in a world governed by chance. (21)

Unlike any other medium, Kracauer tells us that “film is able to point to the contingencies of life.”  He also notes that these films “sided with the little pigs against the big bad wolf by making luck the natural ally of its heroes.” Comedy, in other words, suggested that chance could help the “little man.” The idea that, out of nowhere, one could be saved from danger was “comforting to the poor.” The poor, notes Kracauer, had no power and had to rely on chance for any hope of survival. But the “naïve desire for happiness” that these plots suggest was something the Germans could simply not understand:

That such comedy founded on chance and a naïve desire for happiness should prove inaccessible to the Germans arises form their traditional ideology, which tends to discredit the notion of luck in favor of that of fate. (21)

Moreover, the Germans have “developed a native humor” that “holds wit and irony in contempt and has no place for happy-go-lucky figures.” In other words, the Germans have no patience for humor because of their obsession with fate as opposed to chance. This obsession with fate and myth comes out in their humor which tries “to reconcile mankind to its tragic plight”(21). The purpose of their native laughter, at bottom, is to see how “fateful” life really is. And “such dispositions were of course incompatible with the underlying performances of a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.”   But what makes their comic performances most alien to German audiences is the “close interrelationship between intellectual habits and bodily movements.”

Taken together, Kracauer believed that American comedy may have been entertaining for Germans but it simply couldn’t be replicated in Germany because it went so contrary to what he called German ideology, with its emphasis on fate rather than chance, and its failure to understand the possibility that there could be a relationship between “bodily movements” and “intellectual habits.” This is something that was articulated in American film and American culture.

But it is ultimately the relationship of comedy to chance and a life of contingency that not only Kracauer but Walter Benjamin also saw as the greatest threat to myth and fate (see his “Fate and Character” essay).   But in contrast to Benjamin, this is what, for Kracauer, seems to make American comic film progressive and the German inability to reproduce it “backward.” Perhaps Benjamin is right about his conjecture that Chaplin films had a progressive affect on Germans who were entertained by it; but, in truth, Kracauer is insightful in his claim that such comedy couldn’t be replicated in Germany because it was foreign to them and their ideology which, both Benjamin and Kracauer would agree, was drawn toward fate and myth.

Chaplin, according to Arendt and Benjamin, was a schlemiel. And although schlemiels may have been popular in Germany and all over Europe for that matter, Kracauer teaches us that a schlemiel, at that time, could only be made in America. And this had to do with the fact that schlemiels and comedic characters played by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd live in a world of chance where the only thing that can save you is good luck and a naïve belief in the promise of happiness. And this, as Kracauer and Benjamin would concede, is connected, in some way, to the relationship of “intellectual habits to bodily movements” that the film camera amplified and exaggerated for comic affect.

Stop Laughing: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno on Laughter, False Happiness, and the Culture Industry

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When one thinks about philosophers, one doesn’t think about humor. Thinkers are usually represented as morose, austere,introspective, and serious. We also see the same thing in Western theology and religion.   To be sure, folly is thought to be the opposite of wisdom and the laughter of folly is thought to be irreligious. Nonetheless, in the modern period, thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche Henri Bergson found something urgent and modern in laughter. Nietzsche embraces laughter and uses sarcasm throughout his work to invert concepts and treasured practices; Bergson suggests that humor is intrinsically connected to “élan vital” and what he calls “creative evolution.” Laughter, for Bergson, allows society to become better and to live better. But Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their famous chapter in The Dialectics of Enlightenment, “The Culture Industry,” see laughter (at films or cartoons, specifically) in a very negative light. If anything, for them, thinking seems to begin when one stops laughing.

Using a phrase coined by Walter Benjamin, they tells us that the “mechanical reproduction” of beauty by film and photography “leaves no room for what was once essential to beauty.”   And this “triumph over beauty” is “celebrated by humor”(140). Every joke, though it may not have beauty as its target, is sadistic and dark. Every joke is a “deprivation” that “calls forth” “Schadenfreud.”

They go on to tell us that, really, there is no reason why anyone in the western world should laugh: “there is laughter” because “there is nothing to laugh at.”     In fact, laughter only happens when “some fear passes.” For them, laughter will always be in the wake of what is most. It is an “escape” or “liberation” from “either physical danger or from the grip of logic.”   Laughter, in other words, also indicates an inability to face the world and to think in a serious manner. It is a vacation from the world and its problems.

But, most importantly, Horkheimer and Adorno make the claim that humor is “the echo of power as something inescapable” and it destroys what Adorno, elsewhere, calls the “promise of happiness.” If one laughs, one is basically accepting the fact that nothing can change and is at its core, for them, cynical:

Fun is a medicinal bath. The pleasure industry never fails to prescribe it. It makes laughter the instrument of the fraud practiced on happiness.

A person who laughs is not truly happy. For them, “moments of happiness are without laughter.”   To illustrate, they argue that the poetry of the greatest (in their view) poets of the modern, Charles Baudelaire and Friedrich Holderlin, there is no humor (141).   They understood true happiness, modern culture (“false society”) does not. Moreover, although Henri Bergson’s essay on laughter affirmed laughter in a way that many thinkers thought plausible, Horkheimer and Adorno think its argument has got it all wrong. Instead of elevating humanity, humor opens the gate for barbarism. The laughing audience is, on the contrary, a “parody of humanity.”

In the false society laughter is a disease which has attacked happiness and is drawing it into its worthless totality.   To laugh at something is always to deride it, and the life which, according to Bergson, in laughter breaks through the barrier, is actually an invading barbaric life, self-assertion prepared to parade its liberation from any scruple when the social occasion arises. Such a laughing audience is a parody of humanity. (141)

And the “harmony” that Bergson extols between audience members who laugh is not the harmony of humanity is a “caricature of solidarity.” Perhaps drawing on Baudelaire’s notion of “satanic laughter,” Horkheimer and Adorno argue that what is most “fiendish” about “this false laughter” is that it is “conciliatory” when it is, in fact, based on “everyone else’s expense.” The only kind of delight, says Horkheimer and Adorno, is “austere.”

In other words, if one is to be truly happy, he or she must stop laughing.

If this is the case, Horkheimer and Adorno’s reading of early cartoons suggests that when the critical reader/viewer watches them s/he doesn’t laugh because s/he finds an idea in them; namely, the idea that even though a cartoon character can be “electrified” it gets a “second life” and gives the viewer hope that “justice was done” and will be done. These cartoons, in particular, give the audience what Adorno calls the “promise of happiness.” Today, however (the late 1930s and early 1940s when they wrote the book), they don’t.

Cartoons were once exponents of fantasy as opposed to rationalism. They ensured that justice was done to the creatures and objects they electrified, by giving the maimed specimens a second life.   All they do today is confirm the victory of technological reason over truth. (138)

In Donald Duck and many other cartoons there is only one lesson that all of the violence against characters expresses: “the breaking down of individual resistance,” which is the “condition of life in this society.” By seeing this and laughing at this the audience learns, according to them, how to “take their own punishment.” And this is nothing to laugh at.

Built into their reading of the “culture industry” and their “critique” of laughter is the imperative to stop laughing. Horkheimer and Adorno find nothing funny about cartoons and will only affirm cartoons (and perhaps comedy) that promise a better world than the one we live in now. They, as Adorno says elsewhere by way of Samuel Beckett, are more interested in the laugh that laughs at the laugh. Horkheimer and Adorno scoff at laughter and believe that, in doing so, they are on the path to true happiness.   And this suggests that, in this world of media and endless humor, they were always unhappy and found nothing to laugh at. One wonders what Horkheimer and Adorno would say about facebook or social networking which is constantly sharing humor.

One wonders if they would like the schlemiel and if, at the very least, they would smile. For Adonro and Horkheimer it all depends on whether or not the schlemiel’s humor advances the “promise of happiness” and hopes for a world much different from this one.   Regardless, Yiddish audiences and thousands of readers did like to laugh but, unlike Horkheimer and Adorno, they saw no contradiction between laughter and the promise of a new world.   For Sholem Aleichem, the commandment is not to stop laughing but to laugh more (but in such a way that hope could break through all the darkness of the world).   The medium of such laughter is the schlemiel.

Today is the Web Premier of “Shlemiel” – a Documentary by Filmmaker Chad Derrick on Menachem Feuer

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Dear friends,

I hope all of you are off to a great New Year.

We’re happy to announce that Shlemiel, our humble 25 minute doc, is now available for free viewing online.

After three years of grassroots and festival screenings – and a much longer process of filming, fundraising and editing – we’re thrilled to send it out (at last) into cyberspace.

Shlemiel charts a chapter in the spiritual journey of Menachem Feuer – Chassidic front-man for a Toronto rock band – who is driven by musical ambition and challenged by a crisis of faith.

For those of you who have inquired for years about seeing Shlemiel - have seen it already – or have never heard about it – we invite you to watch and share. It’s been quite a ride and an honour for us to share our work with you.

Of course, your feedback is welcome.

Go see Shlemiel

on VimeoYoutube or through our website.

Also, feel free to visit or like us on Facebook

or follow us on Twitter @shlemiel.

All the best,

Chad and Menachem