In comedy there are no sacred cows. And when it comes to mythology, comedy doesn’t hesitate to smash this or that myth. Jewish comedy is well known for its iconoclasm. And perhaps this has a root in Judaism’s resistance to mythology and idolatry as well as its prohibition of images. It may also have to do with Judaism’s interest in textual interpretation which shows that this or that story poses questions or is linked to another narrative (something we often see in Midrash). Both Franz Kafka and Woody Allen are, without a doubt, Jewish iconoclasts. They parody myth by way of their own revisions, but they differ in terms of the insights that they offer to the reader. While Kafka gives the reader deeper insights into faith, self-doubt, existence, and consciousness with his parodic revisions of myth, Allen gives his readers or viewers a sense of how a New Yorker has better things to do than get caught up in this or that ridiculous myth. In these comedic revisions, Woody Allen is out to sell a way of life not prompt deep reflection.
In a piece entitled, “Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts,” Allen takes aim at several different kinds of mythological creatures, fantastic places, and myth itself. Like any joke, he starts with a serious reflection, but ends with an ironic punch line:
A wise man in India bet a magician that he could not fool him, whereupon the magician tapped the wise man on the head and changed him into a dove. The dove flew out the window to Madagascar and had his luggage forwarded.
…The magician said that in order to learn the trick one must journey to the four corners of the earth, but that one should go in the off-season, as three corners are usually booked. (178, The Insanity Defense)
In another mythological rewrite, Allen takes aim at an imaginary place called “Quelm,” (which sounds like, Chelm, a place populated by schlemiels). It is “so distant from Earth that a man traveling the speed of light would take a million years to get there, although they are planning a new express route that will cut two hours off the trip”(178).
In each punch line, Allen looks to ground the listener in the here and now of the New York Jewish attitude toward the hardships of life and getting by:
In addition to these obstacles on Quelm, there is no oxygen to support life as we know it, and what creatures do exist find it hard to ear a living without holding down two jobs. (179)
While Allen’s iconoclasm is funny and grounds us in the here and now, it can be construed in a negative manner since it doesn’t take myth as a basis of reflection. It rejects it wholeheartedly. The problem with iconoclasm is that when it is not done with a proper sense of humility, it could possibly come across (to some) as self-serving or even dishonest. Citing Aristotle, Leo Strauss argues that “irony is a kind of dissimulation, or untruthfulness. Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice”(51).
But, as I note elsewhere, Strauss doesn’t think that Aristotle is right:
Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth. If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice. Properly used, it is not a vice at all. (51)
Strauss’s qualification of Aristotle is telling. It suggests that irony is a neutral term and that it has a “proper” use. Citing Aristotle against Aristotle, Strauss argues that “irony is…the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority”(51). In other words, humility and irony do not contradict each other; in fact, they aid each other.
Reflecting on this, one can argue that even though Woody Allen isn’t using irony like Kafka (in order to tap into this or that depth while effacing a myth), he is also making a “proper” use of irony since the punch line dissimulates the superiority of myth. His punch lines convey the humility of the New York everyman who is just trying to survive. The “speaker” in these pieces is the “ironic man” and his “noble dissimulation” conveys his only virtue which is to be a New Yorker. But let’s not fool ourselves: each punch line is a sales pitch for a way of life which lives in the wake of myth and perhaps even philosophy. After all, both are interested in origins. (As Aristotle also notes in “The Metaphysics,” philosophy and myth start with wonder.)
I’ll leave the reader with a Woody Allen joke that takes both myth and philosophy as its target. Allen’s joke suggests that, in the world of the New Yorker, the philosopher (as much as the myth-lover) doesn’t exist:
Legend has it…that many billions of years ago the environment was not quite so horrible – or ate least no worse than Pittsburgh – and that human life existed. These humans – resembling men in every way except for a large head of lettuce where the nose normally is – were to a man philosophers. As philosophers they relied heavily on logic and felt that if life existed, somebody must have caused it, and they went looking for a dark-haired man with a tattoo who was wearing a Navy pea jacket.
When nothing materialized, they abandoned philosophy and went into the mail-order business, but post rates went up and they perished. (179)