Jewish Comedy and Theft

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Many postmodern writers incorporate the texts of other writers within their own texts, and oftentimes they don’t cite them.  This practice has been called pla(y)giarism by Lance Olsen, Kathy Acker, and others.    These writers take great honor in the fact that they “steal” and retool texts.  One of my favorite theft-texts is Kathy Acker’s Don QuixoteIf anyone were to read this text, one would see that she is not telling the same story as Cervantes.  In fact, the novel she writes plays more or less on the structure of Cervantes’ novel (namely the relationship between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote).  But in her novel, the characters accompany each other in transgressive sexual exploits.  The exploits bring Acker’s Don Quixote to the edge of madness as they go outside of the sexual “norm” into uncharted territory.  That said, Acker, in this novel and in many others, pla(y)giarises and oftentimes has characters who, as in many a Jean Genet novel, steal, murder, and rape.

Although I have given thought to novelists or fictional characters who “steal,” in a fictional or authorial sense, I never gave much thought to authors who were actually thieves and how such thievery could aid their work as novelists.  I recently came across this idea in Lawrence Epstein’s book, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America.   But Epstein uses theft vis-à-vis Jewish comedians, not writers.    He provides evidence that many Jewish comedians were thieves (or had aspects of thievery) and suggests that this had influenced their comedy in some way.  What makes his suggestion interesting is what it brings out about the American dream from an immigrant’s perspective.

Epstein notes that in the Lower East Side, Jews saw an abundance of goods and foods in the streets: a reality that had not experienced in Eastern Europe:

Deprived for so long of the certainty that there would be food for the next meal, Jews embraced the abundance of food in the Golden Land.  Mothers, especially, urged their children to eat.  Food was a living symbol of the Jewish drive for survival.  The aroma of a Shabbes meal sustained many with its rich assurances and its heady promises of even greater success. (13)

But in the midst of all this abundance, there was a lot of poverty.   And although there was such poverty, Jews knew that, in the last resort, they could always find food or a loan.  Espstein calls this “family in a broader sense.”   Nonetheless, Epstein tells us that many Jews would still steal.  And many of them became comedians:

Many of the young immigrants were young thieves.  George Burns always claimed that he took his name from the Burns Brothers coal yard.  He and his brother would steal the coal, and the neighbors would shout: “There go the Burns brothers.”…. He also claimed that he had gone to the Automat with a sister’s hairpin, stood by the stew, and after someone bought the stew, Burns slipped in the hairpin, preventing the door from closing. (16)

And the list goes on:

Phil Silvers stole gum from pushcarts and sold stolen pipe.   Fanny Brice stole gum from her mother’s store and then began shoplifting until she was caught.  Eddie Cantor stole from pushcarts.  At thirteen, he stole a purse.  Burt Lahr stole form local stores and resold the goods at an open market on Saturday mornings. (16)

Epstein notes that “Groucho Marx didn’t exactly steal,” but his mother knew that Marx took the change when he got bread for her.  She let this happen, says Epstein, because “she thought it showed initiative.”  He notes that although they stopped stealing at an early age, it “had an effect.”  According to Epstein “the antiauthoritarian nature of such thievery helped to make them feel apart not only from the rules of society but also from their own Jewish culture and sometimes, even, their Jewish families”(16).

Besides setting them apart from society, Epstein claims that we can find “a sort of assertion” and “transgression” in these acts, which “would in subtle ways influence the Jewish comic voice.”   Following this, Epstein also notes how – when they were children – many Jewish comedians would also skip school.

Epstein is basically claiming that the audacity of Jewish comedians is drawn – in some way – from their “deviant” past.  This is an interesting thesis, but as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Epstein also suggests that the audacity to question also has a “theological” basis since Jews are taught to question (from the Torah and the Talmud).    In addition to this, Epstein also suggests that the Yiddish language has many rude and audacious expressions.

Regardless of the reasons Epstein brings to explain the audacity of Jewish comedy, I find the fact that he saw thievery as a major factor worthy of more thought.  But I do so not simply in the genetic sense (that comedians are audacious because they were once thieves).  I think it is thought-worthy because the relationship of theft to comedy can be read in a number of different ways.

I’ll cite just one.  One interesting way of looking into theft is in terms of smuggling things that are illegal and then brandishing these things.  In Jewish comedy, we often find that a joke is a way of smuggling in views and perspectives.  The very structure of the joke is based on this.  The first part often says something authoritative, while the second part of the joke smuggles something that defuses the authoritative nature of the first part of the joke.  In a sense, it steals the authority away from the first part of the joke and brandishes this theft in plain view.

What’s left in the wake of this is, more or less, an empty shell: something is stolen.  We see this, for instance, in this joke by Woody Allen: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.”

What this joke does is more or less secularize the theological by juxtaposing it with the historical.  In a way, this is a theft.  And although Allen wasn’t a thief when he was a child, at the very least he was exposed to a theft effected by history and radical change.

In relation to this note, Epstein is correct in noting that Jewish humor was not the main staple of religious Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement.  Rather, it was the product of  a theft, so to speak, the theft of the religious life that was affected by the wave of secularism, violence, and massive migration to America.  By way of all these factors, the Jews lost something.  Yet, at the same time, they also gained something: humor.  To be sure, humor helps to deal with this loss and it also presents something in its wake.  And, more importantly, as Allen shows and as Epstein suggests, humor is best when it “steals the rug” from underneath things that have too much authority.   (However, Ruth Wisse rightly associates this kind of humor with the tension between hope and skepticism as it suspends the authority without completely negating it.  However, in her view, sarcasm – extreme irony – makes a total theft and destroys its “target.”)   In the wake of such a theft we may realize that “the emperor has no clothes.”

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