I don’t know what’s come over me, but I’ve had a strong desire over the last day or two to watch, listen, and read Henny Youngman’s one-liners. To be sure, Henny’s nickname was the “King of the One Liners.” There’s a special kind of quality to them that is drawing me to them and I’m trying to figure it out. Some of the punch lines resonate or rather hit on so many levels; and by way of indirection, they hit at some of the things people like to hide. The jokes do so in a hit and run fashion. And, for the listener, this creates a frenetic sensibility.
Phil Berger, in his book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand Up Comics, likens Youngman’s effect on comedy to the Ringling Brothers effect on America:
Henny did to the performing minute what Ringling Brothers did to the coupe. He got it full up . In random fashion the jokes came. No comedic paragraphs for Youngman. He just hit the note and waited, moving into the breach to crank the next, treating them all with a curious neutrality. (7)
Strung together over a few minutes, his one-liners have a kind of quasi-moral effect. They bring us through many things that we dissociate from being moral; but, in doing so in a public manner, these jokes make our secrets manifest. But they come across in a flash, and his “curious neutrality” – while telling them – suggests a of philosophical kind of division between ourselves and our thoughts. We watch, in listening to his humor, the duration of consciousness.
But, as one can see with any one liner, there is only a brief moment for reflection and public response. One must laugh and move on to the next dirty secret that slips through the cracks of each punch line. This rapid movement of the joke has a kind of filmic, cut-up effect; and, as I pointed out above, a comic sense of duration. Each one of Youngman’s jokes is a kind of acknowledgment of consciousness that is made-in-passing.
But there is something more at work that just comically taking note of consciousness in its duration; to be sure, Youngman puts us into a comic relationship that is structured on the schlemiel-schlimazel relation. As the poet Charles Bernstein said of Henry Youngman and his own poetry, we are schlimazels and the poet or comedian is the schlemiel.
Bernstein draws on the classic joke of the schlemiel who spills soup on schlimazel in illustrate. One falls and creates bad luck out of his one-liners, while the other, surprised, receives it. In other words, we are the one’s who get “spilled on” or, as I would argue, stained by the poet/comedian. If anything, we share the soup. But only we are stained, the schlemiel is not.
In this clip from the Dean Martin Roast Show, Youngman tells jokes that pick at men getting caught having affairs, not wanting to give to the poor, killing oneself, psychiatry, and, of course, wives. In each punch line, we are stained with the things we would rather not think about or talk about.
For someone who publishes and shares work within the Emmanuel Levinas community, the joke that hits at the poor was, for me, the most interesting of all. It takes aim at the ethical relation to the other and refuses it, comically:
A beggar comes up to an old lady’s house. Asks, “Can I have anything to eat? I’m hungry. She asks, “Would you eat yesterday’s soup?” He says, “Yes.” She says, “Come back tomorrow.”
In a sense, this joke spills the soup on us. We are stained with the realization that we enjoy this displacement of sustenance. Levinas talks about how giving bread out of one’s own mouth to the other is a figure for what he means by ethics. But here we find the opposite tendency. But we also find a fascinating alteration of time. Come back tomorrow when today’s soup will become yesterday’s soup. But, more importantly, leave now. This gesture of refusal may sound simply and angry, but, communicated this way, is existential and not simply egotistical. It’s a reaction to the stranger and, of itself, discloses how one is, in Levinas’s terms persecuted by the other. But it translates that persecution into humor. It seems to reject piety but it also discloses our being exposed to the other, albeit comically. That is the irony, for me.
Youngman, it seems, is quite aware of how he is exposing this gesture. He does this in ways poets cannot; he does it, ironically. And, in doing so, he communicates the refusal of the other as a kind of open secret. I would argue that this joke does more important work than any philosophical claim about the relation to the other since it exposes us to the refusal in an ironic way. (After all, philosophy is not supposed to have any secrets. It’s job is to directly describe the relation to the other. Nonetheless, Levinas does discuss the importance of hyperbole in communicating it.)
Today, I came across another Youngman joke that made me think of a passage in the Talmud about a person whose fee was connected to his interpretations of dreams. The Youngman joke goes along these lines:
A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.
In this joke, the interpretation of the man’s condition is altered when the doctor finds out that he “couldn’t pay his bill.” Upon hearing this, he changes his interpretation of his life: “So he gave him another six months.” The lack of money to pay changed the interpretation of how long he would live. Now that he owes, he all of a sudden has more time.
This reminded me of the Talmud Passage on Bar Hedya and his interpretations of dreams. It comes from tractate Berachot 56a:
Bar Hedya was an interpreter of dreams. To one who paid him he used to give a favourable interpretation and to one who did not pay him he gave an unfavourable interpretation. Abaye and Raba each had a dream. Abaye gave him a zuz, and Rab did not give him anything, They said to him: In our dream we had to read the verse, Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes,4 etc. To Raba he said: Your business will be a failure, and you will be so grieved that you will have no appetite to eat. To Abaye he said: Your business will prosper, and you will not be able to eat from sheer joy. They then said to him: We had to read in our dream the verse, Thou shalt beget sons and daughters but they shall not be thine,5 etc. To Raba he interpreted it in its [literal] unfavourable sense. To Abaye he said: You have numerous sons and daughters, and your daughters will be married and go away, and it will seem to you as if they have gone into captivity. [They said to him:] We were made to read the verse: Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people.6 To Abaye he said: You have numerous sons and daughters; you will want your daughters to marry your relatives, and your wife will want them to marry her relatives, and she will force you to marry them to her relatives, which will be like giving them to another people. To Raba he said: Your wife will die, and her sons and daughters will come under the sway of another wife. (For Raba said in the name of R. Jeremiah b. Abba, reporting Rab: What is the meaning of the verse: ‘Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given to another people’? This refers to a step-mother.) [They further said]: We were made to read in our dream the verse, Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, etc.7 To Abaye he said: Your business will prosper, and you will eat and drink, and recite this verse out of the joy of your heart. To Raba he said: Your business will fail, you will slaughter [cattle] and not eat or drink and you will read Scripture to allay your anxiety. [They said to him]: We were made to read the verse, Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, [and shalt gather little in, for the locusts will consume it].8 To Abaye he interpreted from the first half of the verse; to Raba from the second half. [They said to him:] We were made to read the verse, Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy borders, [but thou shalt not anoint thyself, etc.]9 To Abaye he interpreted from the first half of the verse; to Raba from the second half. [They said to him:] We were made to read the verse: And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon thee, etc.10 To Abaye he said: Your name will become famous as head of the college, and you will be generally feared. To Raba he said: The King’s treasury11 will be broken into, and you will be arrested as a thief, and everyone will draw an inference from you.12 The next day the King’s treasury was broken into and they came and arrested Raba: They said to him: We saw a lettuce on the mouth of a jar. To Abaye he said: Your business will be doubled like a lettuce. To Raba he said: Your business will be bitter like a lettuce. They said to him: We saw some meat on the mouth of a jar. To Abaye he said: Your wine will be sweet, and everyone will come to buy meat and wine from you. To Raba, he said: Your wine will turn sour, and everyone will come to buy meat to eat with it.13 They said: We saw a cask hanging on a palm tree. To Abaye he said: Your business will spring up like a palm tree. To Raba he said: Your goods will be sweet like dates.14 They said to him: We saw a pomegranate sprouting on the mouth of a jar. To Abaye he said: Your goods will be high-priced like a pomegranate. To Raba he said: Your goods will be stale like a [dry] pomegranate. They said to him: We saw a cask fall into a pit. To Abaye he said: Your goods will be in demand according to the saying: The pu’ah15 has fallen into a well and cannot be found.16 To Raba he said: Your goods will be spoilt and they will be thrown into a pit. They said to him: We saw a young ass standing by our pillow and braying. To Abaye he said: You will become a king,17 and an Amora18 will stand by you. To Raba he said: The words ‘The first-born of an ass’19 have been erased from your tefillin. Raba said to him: I have looked at them and they are there. He replied to him: Certainly the waw of the word hamor [ass] has been erased from your tefillin.20
Subsequently Raba went to him by himself and said to him: I dreamt that the outer door fell. He said to him: Your wife will die. He said to him: I dreamt that my front and back teeth fell out. He said to him: Your sons and your daughters will die. He said: I saw two pigeons flying. He replied: You will divorce two wives.21 He said to him: I saw two turnip-tops.22 He replied: You will receive two blows with a cudgel. On that day Raba went and sat all day in the Beth ha-Midrash. He found two blind men quarrelling with one another. Raba went to separate them and they gave him two blows. They wanted to give him another blow but he said, Enough! I saw in my dream only two.
Finally Raba went and gave him a fee. He said to him: I saw a wall fall down. He replied: You will acquire wealth without end. He said: I dreamt that Abaye’s villa fell in and the dust of it covered me. He replied to him: Abaye will die and [the presidency of] his College will be offered to you. He said to him: I saw my own villa fall in, and everyone came and took a brick. He said to him: Your teachings will be disseminated throughout the world. He said to him: I dreamt that my head was split open and my brains fell out. He replied: The stuffing will fall out of your pillow. He said to him: In my dream I was made to read the Hallel of Egypt.23 He replied: Miracles will happen to you.
Bar Hedya was once travelling with Raba in a boat. He said to himself: Why should I accompany a man to whom a miracle will happen?24 As he was disembarking, he let fall a book. Raba found it, and saw written in it: All dreams follow the mouth. He exclaimed: Wretch! It all depended on you and you gave me all this pain! I forgive you everything except [what you said about] the daughter of R. Hisda.25 May it be God’s will that this fellow be delivered up to the Government, and that they have no mercy on him! Bar Hedya said to himself: What am I to do? We have been taught that a curse uttered by a sage, even when undeserved, comes to pass; how much more this of Raba, which was deserved! He said: I will rise up and go into exile. For a Master has said: Exile makes atonement for iniquity. He rose and fled to the Romans. He went and sat at the door of the keeper of the King’s wardrobe. The keeper of the wardrobe had a dream, and said to him: I dreamt that a needle pierced my finger. He said to him: Give me a zuz! He refused to give him one, and he would not say a word to him. He again said to him: I dreamt that a worm26 fell between two of my fingers. He said to him: Give me a zuz. He refused to give him one, and he would not say a word to him. I dreamt that a worm filled the whole of my hand. He said to him: Worms have been spoiling all the silk garments. This became known in the palace, and they brought the keeper of the wardrobe in order to put him to death. He said to them: Why execute me? Bring the man who knew and would not tell. So they brought Bar Hedya, and they said to him: Because of your zuz, the king’s silken garments have been ruined.
The point of the story is that “all dreams follow the mouth.” The meaning of dreams is in the hands of the interpreter. Bar Hedya was caught at his own game. He always could have given a good interpretation, but he decided to create bad interpretations if he didn’t receive any money.
The irony of Youngman’s joke – if read in terms of this Talmud passage on Bar Hedya – is that the life of the patient was extended another six months because he couldn’t pay. This implies that his life would be interpreted as shorter if he had really paid, but because he didn’t pay…he had another six months to pay. Regardless of this irony, however, what is most interesting is that money is always involved in the interpretation. The Talmud teaches, however, that it shouldn’t be.
Bar Hedya should always have given good interpretations regardless of whether or not he received money. Perhaps the lesson is that, today, positive interpretations – which can perhaps transform a bad dream into a good one – will always involve money.
Bar Hedya was punished by a Roman official for this. His arms and legs were attached to two palm trees that were drawn back. When they released him, his body was immediately split in half.
In this world, however, perhaps Charles Bernstein is right: the comedian is the schlemiel we are the shlimazels because, like the patient, the meaning of our life – literally -changes on the drop of a dime. Moreover, this structure is undergirded by Youngman’s “curious neutrality” while telling one-liners. The effect of this is to give us a sense of duration by way of comedy – through it we can watch it move and, at the same time, we can bear witness to our structural relation to the schlemiel. This effect, I would argue, is passed down from Youngman to many other comedians. But there is a trick to it all. If the comedian can’t keep a “curious neutrality,” we may fail to witness the schlemiel structure. The same goes for the schlemiel in Yiddish literature.
Both the king of the one liners and the great Yiddish writers of the schlemiel teach us that the Talmud is right about dream interpretation: the dream goes after the mouth. But how could one talk about Jewish comedy without talking about money. After all, as in any schlemiel joke, someone must always pay.
…..and the show goes on….