In 2009, New York Magazine published a special issue on Larry David with a cover that featured Woody Allen and Larry David, entitled “Last of the Schlemiels: Notes on the end of Jewish Humor (may it rest in peace), and the beginning of something Nu.”
The irony of this article and the cover title is that Larry David and Woody Allen are not – by any means – the last of the schlemiels. As one can see from this blog, it has been extensively documented as to how the schlemiel is not only alive and well but also extremely popular.
While Allen and David are baby boomers who have followed the lead of others who are also baby boomers – like Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, and other Jewish-American elders like I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, etc, and many actors) – and have made the Schlemiel a staple in American culture, a following generation of Gen Xers like Judd Apatow, Jeff Schafer, Adam Sandler, Jason Alexander, and Ben Stiller took the torch, and following them there are many millennials who have taken the schlemiel to the current generation – from actors like Gretta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Amy Shumer, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill to writers like Simon Rich, Evan Goldberg, Jesse Eisenberg (who also, of course, plays schlemiel roles but has lately taken to writing).
Now that he has his own TV show on hulu called, Dave and has several videos that have millions of views, I want to add Lil Dicky – David Burd – to this list.
Lil Dicky has expanded the schlemiel genre to include the Schlemiel-as-Rapper. Through his hard comical work, which plays primarily on his small penis (a stereotype about Jews that he is marketed effectively), obsessive masturbation, pot smoking, desire for success as a rapper, and awkwardness, he has been able to carve out a large space for the schlemiel that touches not just Jews but also large African American audiences.
His video with Chris Brown, for instance, currently has over 600 million views. In this video, he is given the first minute and a half to promote the schlemiel. The plot is to stop being a schlemiel – ultimately, a want-to-be-rapper without a real sex life – and become…Chris Brown (his schlemiel anti-thesis):
We see a similar theme of sexual failure in his video featuring Brendon Urie were he fails to get hitched with the woman he loves and is humiliated (but bites the bullet). This video has over 58 million views.
This theme echoes the sexual failure we find in his “Ex-boyfriend” video.
Lil Dicky also makes a video called “Save Dat Money” with Fetty Wrap and Rich Homie Quan which has over 144 million views. It plays on his attempt to make an “epic rap video” without spending any money. On the one hand, this plays on an anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews saving money but it also speaks to the “simple guy” who just wants to be a famous rapper but whose body (and schlemiel persona) doesn’t fit the part.
His schlemiel character – like most Schlemiels, even Larry David – has a comical charm that appeals to many in this generation. He is deemed so popular that he now has his own TV show on Hulu.
As a result, he now has an even bigger platform to put the schlemiel out there. In contrast to Larry David’s schlemiel, however, this schlemiel is much portrayed as much more of a failure. David (Lil Dicky) – here, as in his rap videos, is appealing to a different demographic and is playing on, as he had elsewhere, on the size of his penis and his fantasies of success.
Of all the schlemiel characters in the 20th century, the one who focused most on his sexual drive (and drew lots of criticism for this from critics like Irving Howe) was Philip Roth’s Portnoy. He talks obsessively about masturbation and sex. Following him, Bruce Jay Friedman and Woody Allen have created some sexual schlemiels as have Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller.
As the scholar David Biale notes, the sexual Schlemiel has a legacy.
But with Lil Dicky the schlemiel aspect comes out less in sex than in the desire to be a rapper. The comedy is to be found in his body and his awkwardness. It brings out the gap between Jews and African Americans in the rap industry. But it also puts Jews back in the position of comic, diasporic powerlessness. In Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, this contrast of power and powerlessness is made out of the contrast between an American Jews and an Israeli: Portnoy and an Israeli Sabra woman, Naomi
In that novel, there is a resentment about being powerless. But the big difference here is that there isn’t resentment between Lil Dicky and these rappers (as their is with Portnoy and Naomi). He really wants to be them, as we see in the videos above and in the TV show that will be the ongoing theme. It’s his odd desire and awkwardness that makes people laugh.
Comedy – not rap – is his real power. It’s his charm. Although he lacks the power, he somehow gets in. Its the joy of this success that also makes people happy. It manifest s the desire of many millennials to become rappers or poplar in that culture. But he always, as we can see, remains on the margin. That’s what makes the schlemiel comedy of today so popular.
Comical difference, desire, and failure are something that this generation gets very well and Dave (“Lil Dicky”) Burd is becoming, for many Millenials, what Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer or Roth’s Portnoy was to baby boomers, or Adam Sandler, Larry David, Ben Stiller’s schlemiels were to Gen Xers. However, he has a few competitors for that spot, like Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, and Amy Shumer.
But it seems that Seth Rogen’s dream come true with Nikki Minaj is something that Lil Dickey has in spades.
Perhaps the future of the Schlemiel is to be found in this space. Be that as it may, the Schlemiel lives on in different parts of American culture, albeit in ways that are less intellectually stimulating and meaningful – or culturally specific – than we find with Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and I.B. Singer. The survival of the more intellectually interesting schlemiels is there, but it isn’t mainstream in the same way.
Perhaps, the Schlemiel’s of the future will be on Netflix and hulu, on shows like Community or…Dave.