Larry David, the Schlemiel, and Holocaust Humor

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Larry David’s opening monologue for SNL – which included a joke about picking up girls in Concentration Camps – was contested by many on Twitter and elsewhere.  The harshest criticism came from Thane Rosenbaum in his piece for the Los Angeles Journal entitled “Larry David Goes One Cringe Too Far.”   Reading some of these articles I wondered about what kinds of distinctions were being made with respect to the schlemiel character.  To be sure, when it comes to the schlemiel, it’s hard to classify Larry David and his humor.   His skits on Bernie Sanders were in the classic schlemiel mold, but other things he has done point to something else.

(If you are in Canada clicking this video, go here.)

Ruth Wisse, in her last book on comedy, No Joke, argues that Larry David’s schlemiel is different form anything we have ever seen in the Jewish tradition:

He is now the Jew with influence, thoughtlessly rich.  The transformation of this character from harmless to hurtful demonstrates the adjustment of Jewish humor to altered conditions of power and prosperity.  Puncturing political correctness in liberal democracies is hardly as dangerous as defying Hitlerism and Stalinism in Europe, which may be why American Jewish comic heroes and no longer (like Charlie Chaplin, many Sholem Aleichem, or I.B. Singer schlemiel characters) necessarily winsome or charming.  The man who drives the slickest car on the road can’t claim the naiveté of an eastern European Jew in his wagon, and the owner of the biggest house on the block can’t garner the affection reserved for Molly Goldberg yoo-hooing out of her cramped apartment window (238-39).

In an article entitled “Larry David’s SNL Jokes Moved Jews Haters to Laughter and Holocaust Survivors to Tears,” Varda Spiegel draws on Ruth Wisse’s kind of language and argues that Larry David is different from the traditional schlemiel and fails to hit the mark:

Perhaps, Larry, you were going for a classically Jewish, Chaplinesque, and self-deprecating laugh through tears. If so, I appreciate the shout-out to Woody Allen and Hershele Ostopolyer. But I expected better of you, Larry, and better of SNL, than moving tweeters to tweet, anti-Semites to laugh, and Holocaust survivors to cry.

Spiegel argues – like Ruth Wisse, Irving Howe, and Saul Bellow – that what makes the schlemiel such a great character is that it prompts laughter through tears.    What we get here, instead, is laughter for the anti-Semites and tears for the survivors.   This suggests that what David is doing is actually anti-thetical to the traditional schlemiel.

Thane Rosenbaum, in his essay for the Jewish Journal, substitutes the word “nebbish” for schlemiel when characterizing Larry David (perhaps in an effort to save the schlemiel from being contaminated by David’s Holocaust humor):

Appalling, but perhaps not surprising.  David has been flirting with the Holocaust for many years.  And he keeps coming back, not taking no for an answer, a nebbish with a libido for bad taste.  Except the Holocaust is not a love interest.  It is an unsightly atrocity, incapable of attraction of any kind, and on any human scale.

This is the same man who conceived a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry was making out with a girl during a screening of Schindler’s List.  And another in which a disagreeable fast-food proprietor was renamed “The Soup Nazi.”  An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm riffed on the Reality TV show, The Survivor, in which a winning contestant squared off at a dinner party with an actual survivor of a death camp, comparing their relative suffering.  In still yet another, a man with numbers tattooed on his forearm turns out not to be a Holocaust survivor, but rather just someone who temporarily inks his lotto ticket number each week so as not to forget.

So much for Never Again.

Rosenbaum’s wording is interesting because David Biale, in his book Eros and the Jews, characterizes Woody Allen’s schlemiels as “sexual schlemiels” and says that they have a “small ego and a big libido.”

Rosenbaum finds words to describe what David had done with not only his own schlemiel character, but with George Constanza:

Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption.  George Costanza, David’s doppelganger, was an enduring fool of humiliation, placed in recurring, squirming situations.  David took the Borsht Belt and twisted it into a straightjacket of Jewish self-loathing.  

The new schlemiel is one who is “disgraced beyond redemption,” or an “enduring fool of humiliation.”   In other words, he is different from the traditional schlemiel which is a redemptive character.    While it is true that Larry David – in his very SNL dialogue – sees himself as the master of self-deprecation, there are many questions left about this comedy act in particular and how it relates to the schlemiel in general.

Larry David touched on the worst aspects of the sexual schlemiel – which can be read, as they were by Mark Oppenheimer – as a pervert. We see this in Roth’s Alexander Portnoy character and in many of Roth’s later novels.   Unfortunately, this stereotype did get new life in the skit.  He tried to deflate it but there was no “laughter through tears.”    Perhaps we can better understand this through the fact that, few Yiddish writers wanted to cast a sexual schlemiel character.  This is certainly an American creation.  But what is the best way to address this without failing to hit the mark and effacing the schlemiel character?

And if Ruth Wisse thought that I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool was the most fitting character for post-Holocaust literature (also see Nathan Englander’s “The Tummlers”), this suggests that the sexual schlemiel  is not the best character to use when approaching the Holocaust.   Their take on the character in relation to the Holocaust, makes us pause and think about the meaning of humanity.  This joke didn’t do that.   It did something else.  Perhaps it did separate laughter and tears.

Since we are witnessing so much judgment these days, I’m going to with-hold my judgment with this word perhaps.  I’ll let you decide.  All I can say is that Larry David is more like a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik – altogether, at the same time.  And that’s simultaneously funny, sad, and offensive.

 

 

 

 

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