On Louis CK’s “Goodbye Jews!” and the “Jewish Thing” – Take 2


Early this morning I reposted a blog entry on Louis CK.  And as a part of the facebook tagline, I jokingly referred to Louis CK as an “honorary Heeb.”  In response, a friend of mine pointed out that she thought that Louis CK was not Jewish and, on the contrary, that at least one of his pieces might disclose a “bit” of anti-Semitism.  She asked me if I ever saw the “Airplane” clip, suggesting that this clip in particular has elements of the anti-Semitic and may alter my reading.

The possibility of anti-Semitism did in fact come across my mind before she gave me her opinion.  I was, in fact, writing up a new blog entry which addresses Louis CK’s joke about Schindler’s List.  When I first saw it, I wondered how he would traverse the risky topic of the Holocaust.  To my mind, Louis CK’s joke about Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List  hit at the limit of anti-Semitism. Louis CK brings it to the limit by way of imagining the auditions that Steven Spielberg would have to give for a key role in which a young German girl brazenly sends the Jews away to the concentration camps with the words “Goodbye Jews!” This is a serious role, but what would happen if the auditioning little girls had a miniscule amount of knowledge of the kind of voice that should be used.  This irony addressed to this serious topic is the focus. Spielberg gathers many different girls for the audition and it is Louis CK’s performance of the voices that sends the audience into peals of uneasy laughter.

Here he tells the joke to Conan O’Brien.

And here he gives it over to an audience at Carnegie Hall:

He imagines there are fifty little girl actresses who are trying out.  They are “going from the Hannah Montana auditions to the Schindler’s list audition.”  Each of them pronounces the phrase “Goodbye Jews” and, as one can see, Louis CK has them do versions that don’t fit the context.  Nonetheless, the power of the message could prompt people to think that the message is overshadowed by the comic performance of the words “Goodbye Jews.”

Although I find this point interesting, I would argue that this is not anti-Semtic; rather, it shows Louis CK’s tension with Jewishness.  And this is what I am looking for. The point of the contrast, in comparing the “Goodbye Jew” piece to the Louie piece in the last blog, is to show that Jewishness is something that Louis CK, at times, addresses.

For him, if comedy is not disturbing than it is not comedy.  And the fact that a film like Schindler’s List is a holy cow is quite apparent to him.  As a non-Jew he’d like to inject a tension into this so as to point out, by way of the young girls auditioning, that they had no sense of the role they were to play.  As young American women who want to be on TV or Film, they have no sense of history, the Holocaust, or how to properly relate to the topic. Their awkwardness is telling: it teaches us that they don’t have a cultural sense of what is the norm. That norm, so to speak, is lessened now.  As Louis CK notes at the beginning of the piece; its no longer a blockbust film; its on TBS (the main Boston TV channel).

Its banal.  And, when we have to relate to it with the proper gravitas, we become awkward. What happens when our children, so to speak, don’t know what’s at stake? They will, of course, be awkward.  And, regardless of that, the very fact that “Goodbye Jews!” is to be performed would make one very awkward. Who, after all, would want to say those words (with conviction) in an America that deems itself, by and large, conscious of the Holocaust?  The mere fact of saying it is disturbing.  This comes out in the awkward approaches we hear in each of Louis CK’s voices.

Now for the contrast: On the one hand, you have pieces that put Louie CK in the position of the loser-who-can-redeem himself; he is given a choice between succeeding and failing as a comic by a Jew who was once a comic but is now a movie mogul.   He is like a schlemiel but not quite.  He has an odd relationship to this tradition.

Through this Louie clip, we can address his relationship to scenarios in which he acts in relation to Jews or with Jewish topics.  How does he situate himself?

Moreover, from this clip we can query into what his relationship is to a Jewish comic tradition; one which, as the Jewish film mogul/executive suggests, starts in New York City in the Carnegie Deli.   How does Louis CK relate to this Jewish comic tradition? How does he, literally, compete with Seinfeld?  Is it a Jew vs. a non-Jew struggle?  Or is this a question of “who” takes on a comic tradition?  Need it be a Jew? Or is Louis CK far from this?  As we see in the beginning of the clip, Louis CK doesn’t know who this Jewish-comic ancestor is.   This blindness directs us to the tension and the issue: what is Louis CK’s relationship to a Jewish comic tradition?  Is there any?  Why should he care about Jews?

In contrast to a clip like this, anyone who watches Louis CK can tell you that Jewishness is certainly not something Louis CK regularly concerns himself with.  In the clip below, we don’t see any such narrative.  What we find is scatological humor.  Here’s a joke justify farts – providing reasons why farts are so amazing.

He reasons that “they come out of your ass.  The hang out around shit and they smell for that reason.  His gestures are mired in the physical processes.  There is nothing “Jewish” here.   To be sure, this video segment simply doesn’t pose the question.  Its caught up in the gestural.  In the “Goodbye Jews,” the gesture of enunciating these words.  This gestural focus, however, takes us away from the historical tension.

More important is how Louis CK’s use of gesture brings about – when he addresses the issue – a tension with Jewishness.  It is a clash between repeating or not repeating a Jewish comic tradition. As I noted above, is Louis CK a competitor with Jerry Seinfeld? Does he emerge from the same tradition, in Carnegie Deli, or is he doing comedy despite that relationship?

Searching for evidence of Louis CK’s tense relationship to Jewishness and to his possible anti-Semtitism, I did a Google search correlating the airplane routine, which I heard was anti-Semitic, to Louis CK and anti-Semitism and I found only two links of interest: the first link was published in The Jewish Press.  It was entitled “Louis C.K. – Not a Jew.”  It was published in May 20, 2012 and was authored by the blog Not a Jew – Jew: Choosing to be Chosen A Blog of My Journey to Judaism http://notajew-jew.com/?p=66

The blog is authored by someone who refuses to give his name and directs us, instead, to the journey of conversion: from being a non-Jew to a Jew. In the “about” section we read:

His name is not important, but his journey to become a Jew is.

But, apparently, said person who wrote the blog has written for the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, etc.  His task, ultimately, to show his readers that he realized that Louis CK isn’t Jewish and this, in some way, prompts him to want to convert to Judaism.

In this piece, he presents his argument as to why Louis CK is “not Jewish.”  He begins his argument by creating a criteria by which he distinguishes between what it means to be a Jew from what it means to be a non-Jew.  To give authority to his reading, he cites his “friend” (the notorious Rabbi, TV show host, Hollywood personality, and author of Kosher Sex – amongst other books) Shmuley Boteach:

One of the main things I’ve learned about the differences between Jews and non-Jews (namely Christians) is: non-Jews place a great deal of importance on how you feel, what you believe, your intentions, your inner motivations for being good.  By contrast, according my friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Jews “care far less about what you believe.  What you do is more important.”

If it all comes down to a tension between concern with belief and conviction – on the one hand – and action – on the other -how does Louis CK fare?

He, the author of the blog, sites a comedy routine by Louis CK where he talks about how he relishes the fact that he “thought” about being ethical and giving up his seat to a soldier on an airplane but he didn’t.  This, argues the blogger, isn’t Jewish.  A Jew wouldn’t think about whether he or she thought about doing said deed; a Jew, says Boteach, would do it. The principle of Jewishness is, as the blogger states: Action is greater than thought.  This seems to be a crude principle, but it can be understood in a more significant and sophisticated manner.

Relishing the thought that one “could” help would make Louis CK into a solipsistic, Cartesian, kind of philosopher instead of what Emmanuel Levinas. The latter thinks ethics is “first philosophy,” not thought or being.  Levinas puts the other, ethics, before all philosophy and reflection.   Levinas’s essay, entitled the “Temptation of Temptation,” makes it clear that Louis CK is caught up in the “temptation of temptation.”  For if temptation is about relishing the fact that one is “capable” of thought (that one “can”) than the temptation of temptation is to think about what one is capable of doing and not doing anything. As Aristotle might say, this is philosophy:  thought thinking thought.   That, Levinas would argue, is not holy.  It is not Jewish.  For Levinas, being-for-the other (in action, not thought) is Jewish.

The blogger notes something like this when he notes that there may be a “Little Jew” in Louis CK because he gives a lot of his money to charity:

But perhaps there’s a little Jew inside of Louis C.K., after all.  Because, when his video generated over a million dollars in downloads in just its first 12 days online, he issued a statement “to set an example of what you can do if you all of a sudden have a million dollars that people just gave to you directly because you told jokes.”

He gave $250k to the people who produced the video and built the web site to sell it.  Another $250k went to his staff for “a big fat bonus.”  $280k went to five different charities (including Kiva, which I discovered because of him – thank you Louis C.K.!).  In total, he gave away 78% of his million dollars, which is 7.8 times more Jewish of him than a Jew who tithes 10%.

While this is very interesting, while it gives me a criteria for what’s Jewish and what’s not Jewish, it doesn’t equate Louis CK’s comedy with the anti-Semitic.

But this criteria doesn’t seem to work.  Aren’t Jewish comedians always playing around with thoughts and possible scenarios?  Doesn’t that happen throughout the Talmud?  However, the Rabbis always think in terms of how this or that scenario relates to Jewish law while Louis CK thinks of scenarios in terms of things we find embarrassing or odd.   These scenarios seem to be replayed in much Borscht Belt comedy, too.  Were they also “tempted by temptation?”  Or should we read Louis CK’s reflections differently – in terms of the social relations he works through?  Is it a Jewish way to go against the grain and test the limits of this or that discourse (here, the discourse of Holocaust representation or in terms of the relationship of Jewish comedy in the past to Hollywood today)?

Besides this should we call Louis CK Jewish or Non-Jewish in terms of only one example and a citation from Shumley Boteach?

I think we need to look more deeply into the matter. And I’d like to say that I leave this blog post with the voices of Louis CK’s little girls as they say “Goodbye Jews.”   They are out of touch with Jewish history but its really not their fault now is it?  America right now seems to be forgetting more and more and Louis CK, in that piece, brings us face to face with that reality. At the same time, he’s marking off the fact that he is not Jewish in saying “Goodbye Jews.”

But his departure is not so much anti-Semitic as marking off a difference between himself and Jews.  He also doesn’t know who he is inheriting the comic tradition from.  It may not matter to him, as we see in the Louie clip, above.

The only other link I found on Google relating Louis CK to anti-Semitism, had nothing in fact to do with anti-Semitism.  Rather, it was an article from Heeb Magazine which simply notes some Tweets Louis CK did while he was, apparently, drunk.  I’ll note one of his Tweets and leave it at that:


Even though Louis CK shouts out, in the voices of many bright eyed girls, “Goodbye Jews,” this drunken Tweet says: “Don’t worry, Louis CK likes Jews!”

4 thoughts on “On Louis CK’s “Goodbye Jews!” and the “Jewish Thing” – Take 2

  1. Actually, the “German” girl in Schindler’s List is POLISH, not German. A beautiful mistake that demonstrates exactly how Poles and Poland have been conflated with Germans and Nazism by many in the Jewish and American world, as in Obama’s mis-speak “polish death camps.” There are some critics who consider Schindler’s List one in a long line of Hollywood/American films with Polonophobic tropes in them. Personally i think Schindler’s List is also mediocre art, but that is besides the point. See http://www.amazon.com/Hollywoods-Poland-1939-1945-M-B-B-Biskupski/dp/0813125596/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1384658354&sr=1-1&keywords=Biskupski by Prof Biskupski, who is also published in Mieczysław B. Biskupski; Antony Polonsky (January 2007). Polish-Jewish relations in North America. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization or Prof Connelly of UC Berkely, “Why the Poles Collaborated So Little—And Why That Is No Reason for Nationalist Hubris,” Slavic Review 64:4 (2005) Of course there is lots more out there. Its Orthodox Rabbis themselves who fret that the Shoah has taken the place of the Torah at the center of American Jewish life.

    As Menachem’s post, above, demonstrates, we (us jews) have an extraordinary, and justifiable, sensitivity to Judeophobia/anti-semitism, measuring it in thimbles and counting it up in spoons and degrees. I understand that. One wants to know. And we feel that in this golden age we have to try to expose it wherever and whenever we can, in the vain hope this we will be able to eradicate it. At the same time though I would like to see a little tiny bit of that sense of justice and righteousness expended by JOTR (Jews on the Right) towards ethnic phobias and demonization/deligitimiztion on their own part. I also think we should examine the manner in which we, especially Frum jews use the term Goyim with a clear cut derogatory tone.

    Why even my liberal/moderate brother, a U prof with a book published of essays on the Shoah, told me that the Nazis placed the camps in Poland (of course some were in Austria and Germany, too, not to mention Drancy in France, created by, ooops, not the Germans but the French and run by French concentration camp guards under the SS and Gestapo..note, there were no Polish SS or Concentration Camp guards, unlike the English, French, Flemish, Dutch, Norwegian, Bosnian, Ukranian, and Baltic countries all of whom had either SS or KZ lager guards) because the Poles would not care. Leave it off that the first 175,000 inmates of Auschwitz were Gentile Poles…

  2. For him, if comedy is not disturbing than it is not comedy.. or…as the non-schlemeil says in crimes and misdemenors: “if it bends, its funny, if it breaks, its not funny.

    • I know of his father. I’m more interested in how he regards himself and presents himself to the world, however. When I first wrote this blog entry, I looked around the internet and didn’t find any references to his fathers Jewishness. That said, I was, at the time, looking into these jokes and Jewishness in general.

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