A Brief Note: Louis CK is Not a Schlemiel


I just want to make a note on my last few posts about Louis CK.  I took a detour from my readings of Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse on the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem to look into Louis CK’s relation to what I called the “Jewish Thing.”   Although he is cast in the Louie episode as a humiliated failure and in something of a schlemiel-type-of-role, the truth is that much of his humor is very aggressive. And, as my last blog entry pointed out, at times it traverses the fine line between Jewish jokes and anti-Semitic jokes.

In the final analysis, I don’t see him as playing the schlemiel.  In the Louie clip I wrote on, Louis CK is lined up – by a Carnegie-Deli-Comic-Now-Film Mogul – with Seinfeld as a competitor. But he doesn’t ultimately fit the bill.    And what we learn is that while, in that clip, he may play a down on his luck underdog type, he is not of the deeper schlemiel tradition.

What we need to think about is whether and how rude-comedians who make fun of the other are or are not a part of the schlemiel tradition.  Donald Weber and Albert Goodman, for instance, think they are. Borsht Belt comedy, for instance, is rude.   But how rude is rude? And what is a rude schlemiel?   Is that a contradiction?

I have explored this –to some extent – in my reading of Phillip Roth’s character Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint.  He is a very rude character, but, at the same time, he shows us a new kind of schlemiel who is in a battle with the Sabra.  Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi has written some fine chapters on this topic in Booking Passage (namely, her chapter “Grapes of Roth”).

In truth, the schlemiel tradition shows us how the majority of Sholem Aleichem’s, I.L. Petetz, or Mendel Mocher Sforim’s schlemiels are down to earth; they are not rude and do not pick fun at the other.  The next generation of schlemiels, who also intrigued people like Irving Howe, that come out of Saul Bellow and I.B. Singer (like Moses Herzog of Bellow’s novel Herzog or Gimpel of his story “Gimpel the Fool”) are not rude either.   Paul Celan’s Klein and Gross may be repetitive, but they are not rude.  Charlie Chaplin, Hannah Arendt’s favorite schlemiel, was also not rude or vulgar. And Woody Allen’s classic schlemiel Alvy Singer is far from being mean-spirited in his humor.

But what about Lenny Bruce – a comic that Weber includes in his musings? What about Groucho Marx? Sarah Silverman? Larry David?  How do they all fit? Do they fit?

(See here for another approach I have made to aggressiveness and the schlemiel – by way of Walter Benjamin.)

But there is more to the story of the schlemiel.  His job is not “toilet talk” or to be as vulgar as possible.  As Ruth Wisse claims, this character is closely bound to Jewishness and to the tension between skepticism and hope.  It speaks from a Jewish angle.  For Howe and Bellow, the schlemiel traverses laughter and tears and causes troubled laughter.  But that troubled laughter pertains, as Howe well-knew, to the crises within the Jewish tradition and Jewish history.

The laughter we hear in the “Hasidic Cum Tissues,” however, is not troubled so much as troubling.  It is not evoked by a schlemiel so much as someone who is outside the Jewish tradition looking in and looking with great anger and negativity.  Louis CK may, strangely enough, find himself closer to Mel Gibson hence his drunken tweet about Jews that I mentioned in an earlier blog entry.  Hence, his drunk rant with a difference…

I’d like to look more into this matter.  And I suggest that these last few blog posts on Louis CK be seen in contrast to my posts on schlemiels, schlemiel theorists, and schlemiel theory.

Thanks for reading! And stay tuned to schlemiel-in-theory.

(And a special thanks goes out to Mark Kirschbaum for his comments and criticisms on this and on my Louis CK posts!)







6 thoughts on “A Brief Note: Louis CK is Not a Schlemiel

  1. I wonder. Have you taken account of “Sleepover” (season 5, episode 6 of Louie)? It’s a fine tribute to the schlemiel tradition.

    • Aha! The novel has many unexpected layers….regarding Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and comedy in 60s America that need to be carefully unpacked. I am almost done with the novel and will likely write on it first…before “the sleepover.”

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