I have written several blog posts on the comedian Louis CK that look into his Jewish jokes, his relationship to things Jewish, and his attitude toward Jewishness. In response to my first query into his Jewishness (July 11, 2013), I recently (just this morning) received a comment by an anti-Semitic troll:
Who cares what Jews think in the first place? They make up less then a percent of the American population. Louis C.K. Does not need them to like him to win over the people.
It’s not the first comment I have received from angry people who don’t like me discussing Louis CK’s Jewish jokes or his Jewishness. I don’t regret or rescind anything I have written. Each of my queries into things that are Jewish is based on legitimate concerns and questions. The only thing I will change about what I have said is to acknowledge that his father is Jewish and is Orthodox. Nonetheless, the disturbing nature of some of his Jewish jokes remains.
What interests me most is not whether he is a “self-hating” Jew or if he – in dissociation from Jewishness – has become sick of Jews. He is too intelligent for that kind of garbage. As a comedian he takes a lot of risks and many of them pay off.
However, some of these jokes appeal to an audience that is anti-Semitic. And when I see people dropping comments about how my reading of these jokes –as a Jewish cultural and literary critic – is invalid because Jews make up a small fraction of the population, then it becomes apparent that these jokes do create and have created an anti-Semitic problem.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no problems with Jews telling jokes about Jews that are biting. See, for instance, what I have written on Shalom Auslander, Philip Roth., or Bruce Jay Friedman. Jewish comedy pokes fun at Jews and Jewishness in order to make Jewishness more self-critical and flexible. Jews need to laugh at themselves. And this kind of laughter is an antidote to the tragic seriousness that comes with suffering anti-Semitism for centuries. As Ruth Wisse and others have argued, Jewish humor helps Jews to survive the travails of history.
Lawrence Epstein notes in his book, The Haunted Smile, how American Jews used comedy in order to not just address these travails but to also find a place in America. Through laughter, a whole generation of Jews carved a space in American culture and were able to gain acceptance. The idea was to, as Epstein says, “avert anger.”
The problem with some of Louis CK’s Jewish jokes is that while they play with the place of Jewishness and the American understanding of Jewishness that playfulness sometimes triggers people – like the anti-Semitic troll I mentioned above- to think of Jews in a perverted manner (which only affirms stereotypes that they already have). When Jewish humor allows for this kind of thing to happen (which is another way of saying that a form of anti-Semitism might be warranted – those damn Jews are sick, etc) then as a Jewish American literary and cultural critic, it is my responsibility to speak up.
The fact of the matter is that this troll – like so many others – can’t accept the power of critique. It speaks to anyone who has a mind and a conscience. In America, whether this troll likes it or not, more and more people are interested in minority cultures. America is made up of minority cultures. And each minority culture can and should speak about how it depicts itself and is depicted by others. The worse thing that can happen to a minority is that the majority culture won’t listen to its views and forsakes them. Fortunately, that’s not happening. And if an anti-Semitic troll doesn’t like that, that’s too bad. His comical hero – who to his mind is trashing the Jews and giving his anti-Semitism a basis – is fallible. Sometimes his jokes are problematic.
And if anyone is the master of acknowledging and openly presenting the ridiculousness of being human, that is Louis CK. He speaks his mind and doesn’t hide his misery, anxiety, and finitude. He would be the first person to call himself an asshole – and he does so on a regular basis. The problem is that this troll and many like him can’t do the same. They lack the honesty and courage to do so. And that’s a damn shame. Insisting on one’s power is the anti-thesis of comedy.
My favorite kind of Jewish comedy is the kind that deflates and makes things small that are thought to be larger than life. And to take a sacred cow as a target. It’s humbling while being at the same time offensive and even sad. Self-deprecation is something Louis CK does very well. But sometimes he targets people and ideas while leaving self-deprecation behind and when that target is Jewish, I’m there to gauge the damage. It is my right and responsibly to do so!