Top Seven Schlemiels of 2015
- Larry David has for several years been the most celebrated and recognized schlemiel in visual culture. New York Magazine sees him as the next in the schlemiel-line after Woody Allen. This year he entered himself into the fray with his caricature of Democratic Presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders. David’s imitation on SNL reminds us that what makes the schlemiel unique – for many Americans – is a kind of Jewishness that emerges out of New York City (and the Borsht Belt) that has its roots in the immigrant experience.
- Ever since Knocked Up, Seth Rogen has become one of many new comedians who have taken up the torch of the schlemiel. His film Neighbors was an important moment in this trajectory. But his performance in The Interview this year was also memorable. Like his other films – and in many a Judd Apatow film – we see a moral moment toward the end of the film that seems to redeem all of his absent-mindedness.
- Ben Stiller’s performance in While We’re Young was also memorable and shows us how – as Noah Baumbach does in several of his films – a schlemiel ages and becomes more cognizant of how he or she has been duped. But this time, the schlemiel is duped by a millennial. Gretta Gerwig, in her film Mistress America (another Noah Baumbach film), also plays a schlemiel and ties for third. Her blindspots are endearing but they are ultimately unsettling. Once again, we see Baumbach’s attempt to render a sad, aging kind of schlemiel. This, of course, is the counter to the schlemiels we see played in many Apatow’s films but also to many schlemiels we see on this or that comedic TV series.
- Speaking of schlemiels on TV, schlemiel number four goes to Amy Poehler for her performance in Parks and Recreation. What Poehler gives us is a schlemiel who is defined by awkwardness. This schlemiel is a lot different from Baumbach’s in the sense that although she may be shamed by this or that situation her shame lacks any tragic element. She is, in truth, rather endearing and is extremely popular these days. We see this kind of awkward charm with nearly all characters on Parks and Recreation. They are, in some way or other, modeled on the recent emergence of the “awkward schlemiel.”
- Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson gets the five spot. In contrast to the more cunning and mischievous Ilana Glazer, she plays a schlemiel character who is often defined by her absent mindedness, belatedness, and lack of awareness when it comes to daily life in New York City. She is endearing in many ways. But she also reminds us that there is a growing culture in America of schlemiels who can buy coffee, live in apartments, and fill empty days with any number of distractions. Unlike the classical schlemiel that we see in Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, or Mendel Mocher Sforim, there is a lack of abject poverty and an overabundance of silly humor. This silliness somehow makes the viewer feel that he or she is not alone in feeling that he or she is going nowhere economically or socially. Like many who watch Broad City, Abbi doesn’t really have any anxiety about it. She has other things to worry about.
- Eli Batalion Of Yid Life Crisis – a Youtube series, which also, just this year, was released as a film – gets the six-spot. Of all the schlemiels, he and Jamie Elman – who plays the chochem (intelligent character who is skeptical about nearly everything) and the nudnik (a person who tends to aggravate situations) – by way of their conversational humor, give us something closer to the traditional schlemiel. Most importantly, they give us the original tone and language of the schlemiel since they speak in Yiddish. (And we – who, by and large, have no knowledge of Yiddish whatsoever – get the English subtitles.) Although Yiddish is almost a dead language (in the sense that the majority of Jews do not know it, speak it, or live through it), they give it life by way of their humor. His schlemiel character can help us to better understand and appreciate contemporary schlemiels in literature, film, TV, and stand-up comedy.
- Last, but certainly not least, is the stand-up comedian David Heti. His schlemiel humor is powerful since it tests the limits of contemporary humor by saying things that may be deemed offensive. This is sorely needed today since – with the omnipresence of politics on and off campus, Facebook, Twitter, etc – we are tending, more and more, to take ourselves too seriously. His comedy album, It Was Ok (2015) is very entertaining and insightful. It shows us how comedy – Jewish and not so Jewish – can also lead us back to the unhappy source of all humor. At the end of many of his jokes, there is often an awkward silence in the room. But this is because his jokes touch on this source of humor and, in many ways, bring us not just back to his own particular history and existence, but also to our own. He is, like many a schlemiel, the odd one out. But his oddity reminds us of something we all know today: that sometimes things don’t always go as we expect them, and in a world where failure is the norm sudden victories are (or is it, “were?” after all, so many of his jokes are in the past tense)…“ok.” Sometimes sadness has its comical moments. And, as Walter Benjamin well knew (and as Slavoj Zizek, in his wake knows), melancholy can be the source of insight and reflection. And it is for this reason that I think sometimes the last schlemiel of all – like many a schlemiel – may actually be the most important. You decide.
Happy New Year from Schlemiel Theory! Larry David for President!