The schlemiel is often called a man-child. The best way to articulate what this means is by taking a look at comedians who play men-children. I originally planned to blog on this topic. And I thought of three routines. I first thought of the Three Stooges’ children routine.
I was especially interested in the later stooge, Joe Besser, who replaced Shemp from 1955-1958. His childish routines are highly gestural, sometimes flamboyant.
Here he plays a child:
He also played “stinky” in Abbot and Costello:
I also thought of Gilda Radner. She played many children in her own routines and on Saturday Night Live. And, as in this routine, she slips from being the good, innocent child to the child who likes to speak dirty.
I am intrigued with all of the children she plays and I wanted to write on them today, but something else caught my eye which conflicted with her image as a child: a new routine that cast her as married…to Gene Wilder, a man she was married to in real life. The movie that I’m talking about was directed by Gene Wilder and starred both he and Gilda (and Dom DeLuise as a cross-dressed man-child schlemiel): its called Haunted Honeymoon. It was filmed in 1986, two years after they were first married.
But it wasn’t the movie that first struck me as interesting so much as an interview I came across. In the interview, we see a sobriety and an everydayness with not only Radner but Gene Wilder as well.
In the interview we see that Wilder wants to clearly separate himself from the comedian as does Radner. They even go so far as to say that they may not laugh at their own jokes. Wilder, in fact, is very realistic and frank about how serious he actually is.
Radner stresses how normal they are in real life and that their fans should know this. In other words, they are not schlemiels but they play them. But there is more to the story then simply a separation between the world of the schlemiel and everydayness; there is an oscillation between horror and comedy which is of great interest to Wilder (and apparently Radner).
The interviewer’s first question to Wilder (who grants the interview from a bed) and Wilder’s response foreshadow this. When asked what Wilder can tell the audience about the film that “won’t give too much away.” To this, he says “nothing.” But then he says: “Except for one thing.” Namely, that he loved “these kinds of films,” by which he means “comedy chillers,” when he was a “little boy.” He explains that they were called “comedy chillers” because they “scared you but you also laughed.”
As we saw with Irving Howe’s reading of Jewish humor (and Jewish identity), which was drawn from a remark made by the Jewish-American novelist Saul Bellow, there is a movement in Jewish humor between “laughter and tears.”
Gene brings the tears in the interview, too. By talking about how exhausting it is to “direct” oneself, he puts forth a negative sense that the film isn’t any “fun” to make. And he drives the mood to sadness when he says this may be his last film ever: “I don’t mean anything prophetic or sad but this may be my last movie as a director or an actor, actually.”
Gilda Radner follows suit. She says that she and Gene don’t like being funny all the time. Genes response to the last interviewer’s question says it all:
The Interviewer: “What besides your own work makes you laugh?”
Wilder: “You assume my own work makes me laugh..that’s quite a big assumption…sir.”
For Wilder, who plays a schlemiel in nearly all of his movies, his humor may not make him laugh. It may make him somber, sad. His comedy is somewhere between laughter and tears. He may evoke the laughter of others, but he may not find his own antics to be funny of all. So when Radner or Wilder play that man-child, they may not find it so funny. But we do.
What does that tell us?
Perhaps it tells us that our “honeymoon” with the adorable yet deviant man-child may be “haunted” by something we may not want to recognize. Perhaps we wish I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool was a schlemiel in fiction and in reality. That way, we would always bear witness to a schlemiels blind trust of others, and to society’s mockery of this trust. We can imagine a perpetual schlemiel like Sasha Baron Cohen who lives reality as his character. And perhaps this perpetual schlemiel is what Wilder and Radner, at this point of their careers, wanted to haunt.
(I hope to return to the theme of man-children over the next week. There is so much to reflect on….)