American Schlemiels: On Gomer Pyle and Forrest Gump

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After learning that Jim Nabors died yesterday, a flood of impressions I held within me – from many years watching re-runs of The Andy Griffith Show – washed over me. Like many Americans, I used to come home and watch reruns of shows that had comic figures – ranging from Leave it to Beaver, Little Rascals and The Three Stooges to Gilligan’s Island and…The Andy Griffith Show (11Alive – the New York station that came to me in my small Upstate New York town – filled my after-school-afternoons with these re-runs). With all of these shows – save for Gilligan’s Island – I felt as if I were living in a different post-WWII America. I loved the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges more than any show. To be sure, I felt something very similar to my own life. After all, it had a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik in every show and that, to be sure, comes not only out of Jewish humor but also out of Jewish life. My family had this trio of bad luck and comic antics, as did the families of many of my Jewish friends. However, it was shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show that made me think more about the meaning of American humor. What, I wondered, is the difference between the schlemiel character and the American variety of the fool? Are there any similarities? Was the innocence or the comic antics of the American fool different?

Daniel Itzkovitz – in an essay entitled “They All Are Jews” – argued that with films like Forrest Gump (1994), the schlemiel character was Americanized. It became a part of the American mainstream and, at that point, the schlemiel became the American everyman. It was no longer unique to Woody Allen or Philip Roth, etc. However, last night, after watching several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, it struck me that, long before Forrest Gump, Jim Nabors was already Americanizing the schlemiel through his Gomer Pyle character.

I looked through several videos, but this one – entitled “Gomer the House Guest” – really struck me as a good case for the Americanization of the schlemiel character. What I love about this episode is the fact that it’s comical plot is based on the hypothetical question: What happens when a homeless schlemiel becomes a house guest? The answer to this question is obvious for anyone familiar with the character: the house will become a mess and everything will be thrown off kilter. And that is exactly what happens. But what makes it comical is the fact that the schlemiel character – he played by Gomer Pyle – can’t see how what he is doing is wrong. He has good intentions. But he is worldless and doesn’t understand how “normal” people live.

Gomer – in one scene after another – is too loud, stays up too late, and has no sense of what Andy Griffith feels. What is interesting about this version of the schlemiel is that, Nabors plays a man-child who is given a lesson. Andy lets him know that although he has good intentions, Gomer’s actions are disturbing the host. But this doesn’t stop it from happening. It goes on. Griffith and the viewer find his innocence and stupidity charming because Gomer – at his core- is happy with his lot – much like Rabbi Nachman of Breslau’s simpleton (who Ruth Wisse and David Roskies call a schlemiel character). Gomer – also like Rabbi Nachman’s schlemiel character – is always happy and seldom down.

But what differentiates the schlemiel from Gomer’s character may be this. Ruth Wisse argues that the eponymous simpleton in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” knows that people are taking advantage of him but he gives them a second chance to prove their humanity. They never do. But the point is not so much for Gimpel as for us. The fact that he knows he is being duped is not the central point; it is the fact that society doesn’t become any better. In the Andy Griffith Show, Gomer doesn’t seem to ever know that he is being duped or that he is a dupe. Even so, Andy Griffith, unlike any of I.B. Singer’s characters in his story, does the opposite. He opens his home and his life to Gomer. And in doing so, we see American society as friendly and kind to the innocent.

Singer’s goal was to show – in the wake of the Holocaust – the cruelty of humanity. And he did this through the schlemiel character, Gimpel. The Andy Griffith show conceives of a different kind of schlemiel character. The community embraces him. He is one of the family despite the fact that he can’t function in society. In fact, his innocence gives him a kind of freedom that he lacks because the Griffith character is – after all – the sheriff in town. He needs to maintain law and order. Griffith needs to be the adult. But he is the kind of adult who doesn’t scold the man-child. He gives him a chance and makes a space for absent-mindedness and what a film critic like A.O. Scott would call something uniquely American: “perpetual adolescence” and the “end of adulthood.”

Today’s schlemiel characters – ranging from Seth Rogen to Lil Dicky – are caught up in this perpetual adolescence, it seems. But at its root is a kind of faith and love for the Gomer Pyle/Forrest Gump kind of character which may have its origins in American folklore or Mark Twain. In this character, there is a rejection of English formality and adulthood. It’s not just that stupidity is a challenge; it is also an affirmation of something distinctly American. However, that affirmation – in this show at least – would be null if it weren’t for the relationship between Gomer Pyle and Andy Griffith. The relationship is oddly reminiscent of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote since one character is more in the world than the other. But what is most important is their relationship. In America the message is that the Americanized schlemiel has a seat at the family table; despite how much he upsets the house he stays. And in this there is something similar to the original schlemiel character who – despite his absent-mindedness – will always be a part of the (Jewish) family.

Rest in Peace – Jim Nabors. Your character, Gomer Pyle, prompted me to think about what comedy and national identity. It demonstrated that in America the schlemiel character – or a variant of it, rather – though homeless, as Gomer in this episode, has a home.

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