Jew or Not Jew: Louis CK’s Humor and The Jewish Thing – Take 1

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After I first saw him perform, I immediately wondered if Louis CK (Louis Szekely) was Jewish.   At first glance, his gestures, jokes, and comedy routine seemed, for me, to be Jewish.   But I was uncertain.  The ambiguity over his identity prompted me to think about what I was interested in: was I interested in whether or not he was a Jew or whether or not his gestures were Jewish?   I also wanted to know what he thought of such a question about his comic routines and their ethnic identifications.  I couldn’t put my finger on what made his comic routine (or he himself) seem “Jewish.”  This inquiring mind…wanted to know.

A simple Google search brought me to the site “Jew or Not Jew.”  (This site, by the way, has nothing to do with the app that was deemed anti-Semitic.)  On this web page, I discovered that Louis CK wasn’t Jewish.  He was raised a Catholic. And, according to the blurb on the page, Louis CK said the following to the LA Weekly which, this site believes, indicates a happenstance kind of relationship to Jewishness:

L.A. WEEKLY: Why are so many funny comics from Boston?

LOUIS C.K.: Because Boston is a miserable place filled with drunks, losers and Jewish girls with big tits.

From this and from his lineage, the site concludes that he is not a Jew.  Fine.  But I was not satisfied by this superficial assessment.  I wanted more. I wanted to see how he dealt with the Jewish thing.

But before I look into that, let’s take a look at the man himself.  Louis CK is a provocative stand-up comic whose self-deprecating, aggressive, awkward, and vulgar brand of comedy has gained critical acclaim over the years.  Many of his best skits draw on his personal life and observations as a divorced and aging father.  The character he plays on stage is constantly attempting to come to terms with all of the odd situations and minute details of being a father, being single, and searching for success.  In all of these departments, no matter what he does, something always seems to go wrong.

Despite what we often see in his comic routines, he has, apparently, been very successful.  He has credit for writing comedy and doing many comedy performances and has written for the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and The Chris Rock Show. And between 2008 and 2010 he recorded two full-length comedy specials: Chewed Up (2008) and Hilarious (2009). In 2011 he released Live at the Beacon Theater.

In addition to these comedy specials Louis CK has starred in two different sitcoms where he was the center of the show: Lucky Louie (2006) and Louie (2010).

And recently, in 2013, he did a special for HBO entitled Oh My God.

From time to time, Louis CK is involved in comic situations or tells jokes that involve Jews.  In this segment from Louie on FX, Louis CK is face-to-face with a stereotyped Jewish media executive from Hollywood.  But before he goes in to meet the media executive, he and his agent, an awkward looking teenager in a tight suit with large glasses, are left to wait in a waiting room not knowing who they are there to see or what is about to happen to them.  When called, they naively go into the office.  The scene is reminiscent of a Kafka novel.  And, as a result of their utter lack of knowledge and the lack of communicating between them and the secretary, it seems as if they are on the way to some kind of disaster.  However, as in a Kafka novel, he is not greeted by a non-descript messenger of the institution.  Rather, he is greeted by a New York Jew who speaks with a distinctly New York (“Jewish”) accent.  In this scene, Louis, who is usually very aggressive and uptight, cowers.  When asked by the executive, “Do you know who I am?” Louis CK acts as if he knows.

The executive begins by complementing Louis CK for his performance on the David Letterman Show.  This butters him up.  It also enter Louis CK into a cat and mouse game.  The executive tells Louis CK that he has a secret to tell him.  But before he tells Louis CK his secret, he says that he “started off in Carnegie Deli” (as a comedian).

To be sure, we still don’t know “who” he is, but we now know one thing he has done and may fuzzily infer his identity.  This comment is oddly placed and, at the same time, it suggests that the man talking to him went through the Jewish comedy circuit (and, for some reason, this is something the executive thinks Louis CK should identify with as a root of the modern day stand-up comedy that he does).  However, Louis CK mistakenly thinks that this factoid is the secret.  The executive laughs at the mistake and indicates that the secret is not Jewish comedy or the origin of stand-up comedy.  The secret has nothing to do with Jewish comic identity.

Before Louis CK can hear the secret, he has to, in a Kafkan sense, sign papers that he has no time to read.  After he does, the Jewish media mogul reveals the “secret” to Louis CK which isn’t a statement so mush as a question: Do you want to replace David Letterman?  Louis CK humbly declines and suggests a Jewish comedian for the job: Jerry Seinfeld.  Strangely enough, the executive confirms that Louis CK was right: Seinfeld was also asked to be the new host.

But this doesn’t mean that he is on par with Seinfeld; the mogul basically tells Louis CK that the two are incomparable.  Louis CK learns that he is an “option” while Seinfeld is a “slam dunk.”  In this scenario, Louis CK is the ridiculed schlemiel.  He’s not the first in line, although he dreams of being there.

In response to this offer, Louis CK suggests that the media executive may not want him because, if he knew who he was and how old he was, he would reject him.

In response to this, the media mogul describes Louis CK as a guy who comes from a working class family in Boston and notes, with a big jab, that Louis CK isn’t doing so well and that his career is in a slump.   And after noting that Louis CK is at the point in his career where he is afraid that he might do something embarrassing, he asks, “Am I right?”

The camera pans to Louis CK who lightly sighs and turns his head slightly away.  Then the music starts as the media executive suggests a way Louis CK can redeem his career and his sad life.  But then, after giving hope, the media executive takes it away and notes how Louis CK, as he gets older, will become more and more of a failure.  With poetic egress, the media executive calls him a “circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit.”   In other words, he makes Louis CK “conscious” that he is a schlemiel of the worst (negative) variety and will remain so if he doesn’t grasp hold of his proposal.   In contrast to classical schlemiels in Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer, Louis CK is not so absent-minded that he will miss the meaning of the media executive’s description.  In their stories, they don’t know they are schlemiels and they don’t care; in this clip, it’s the opposite.

In this version of the schlemiel, the schlemiel has the possibility of success or failure.

“It’s in your power to change that…and sill your chances are very slim.  David Letterman is retiring…do you want his job?”

The episode ends with this question.

In truth, this question draws the fine line between being a schlemiel and not being one. This is the line the American schlemiel must cross if he/she is to be a “man.”  There is an either/or at work here which underlies one aspect of American identity: One can either remain a failure or change.  For instance, this Jewish media executive changed from being a comedian in New York to being a mogul in Hollywood.  Can Louis CK do it?  Can he be like Seinfeld, a successful Jewish comic?  Or is it too late?

This segment makes for a fascinating commentary on how Jews have “made it.”  And now, instead of a Jew, it is a non-Jewish comedian who is in the position of the failure and it is a Jewish media executive and Jerry Seinfeld who are in the opposite position.

After writing on Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s dialogue over Sholem Aleichem’s humor, it hit me that the Jewishness of this piece is close to what Irving Howe saw as the “undercurrent of darkness” in Sholem Aleichem’s humor.   It is an analogue to the overlapping of laughter and tears which Howe draws from a comment by Saul Bellow about Jewishness.  To be sure, there is nothing kitschy or sentimental about Louis CK’s humiliation.  His aging and failure are tangible.  We can, like the media executive, imagine him going on as a failure (even though we all know that the real Louis CK is a great success).    And this possibility is supposed to trouble us since, as we can see from the clip, it is troubling for Louis CK.  He wants to be a success but can’t help thinking of himself (or knowing himself to be) as a failure.

We all want him to make it just like we all want characters in Sholem Aleichem’s stories to make it in America but, as we all know, the characters in Aleichem’s books don’t often gain such success.  As Ruth Wisse points out in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, their success is in their words.  When it comes to success in the world, they often fail.  Language is often their saving grace.  Reading Aleichem, we know that his characters may be funny but in the end they may all remain schlemiels.  And nothing will change (save for their place).

But is that such a bad thing?  It is if success is your only criterion and where being a schlemiel is equated with being an aging and decaying loser who doesn’t have a real job.  What we see with Louis CK is that, although he is not a Jew, he still can play a Jew in the sense that he plays the everyman.  His very existence is that of a schlemiel.  He is an aging failure who likely has “no future.”  Louis CK is, as the media executive says, “a circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit.”  In other words, like a schlemiel, he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and the places he does occasion are dying away.

Louis CK, if he is to be considered at all, is an “option.”  From the executive’s perspective, Louis CK can save the studio money (Seinfeld is too expensive).  But in reality the secret is that Louis CK makes the studio money because the Jewish comic gestures that started in the Carnegie Deli (which the Media Mogul notes indirectly) have now become part and parcel of all Hollywood comedy.  The irony of it all is, as the clip shows in the end, the pilot must be done in New York City (home of the Carnegie Deli) and not in Hollywood.  In other words, Louis CK goes back to the place where it all started and he is given this mission by a Jew, but, and this is the point, he is not Jewish.

After watching this clip, I had a better understanding of how one could understand Louis CK’s ambiguous Jewishness and what it implies.  I also understood that although we would like to see him become like Seinfeld, we would, ultimately, rather see Louis CK fail as he desperately tries to succeed.  And in such failure we discover something that looks and feels Jewish but really isn’t.  We also discover a comedy that is far crueler than anything we would find in Sholem Aleichem.  Things have changed.

In America today, failure, it seems, has become a commonplace.  As Walter Benjamin tells us, beauty, for Kafka (and himself), is the beauty of failure.  And failure has, in America, lost its ethnicity and perhaps even its beauty when it found Louis CK.  Echoing Irving Howe’s reading of Sholem Aleichem, I would say that my laughter at Louis CK is deeply “troubled.”  And this “troubled laughter” has nothing to do with comedy in the face of the threat to Jewish existence posed by Jewish history so much as comedy in the face of the threat posed by one’s age, choices, and bad economic situation.  And this threat is common to many Americans.  It doesn’t come out of a tradition, as does the schlemiel, so much as out of a condition. Perhaps the take away from Jewish humor – which seems to be echoed in this episode – is that only a comedy that honestly depicts and performs failure can survive it.

2 thoughts on “Jew or Not Jew: Louis CK’s Humor and The Jewish Thing – Take 1

  1. Matthew, a really interesting reading of LCK. I was waiting for someone to start unpacking this phenomenon. A few questions, though, from the non-expert: 1. Why start such wondering from an essentialist identitarian question? Who cares if LCK is Jewish or not? Why not, instead, ask what kind of aspects of his humor are Jewish–as you do later? Focus on the latter would enable you to read him in the tradition of Jewish humor (which he admits in openly and explicitly in interviews), and as a far relation to Sholem Aleichem if you like. His childhood religion is completely meaningless in that respect. 2. I think you should take this reading one step further and ask the questions Americans find hard to pinpoint. What LCK is asked to do is to join the institution of money-making, egomania, and cynical media. He [i.e., his character] rejects it almost instinctively and in that respect proves exactly his relation to the tradition of Jewish humor, which is usually socially conscious, anti-institutional, and, well “Schleimel-ian,” in the best sense of the word. 🙂

    • Thanks, Nitzan! I like your suggestions. Interest in what he does should trump what he is identified “as.” That’s the right idea and thank your suggestions for helping me constructing the right strategy to approach his work. Yes, he is being a Pariah of sorts and is going against the grain of society. As Hannah Arendt would note, this is what the “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel does. I look forward to bringing Arendt’s “Jew as Pariah” into this discussion. And I think your suggestions travels along those lines. And yes, Louis CK is hitting on sore points and tensions over what can and cannot be said (and in what way) in relation to the Holocaust. Thanks for the helpful and encouraging comment, Nitzan!

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