Schlemiel characters are always caught up in the dialectic of failure and success. The schlemiel, to be sure, must have some kind of aspiration which falls flat. In Shalom Aleichem’s stories, Menachem Mendel is the paradigmatic schlemiel entrepreneur. He does a lot of things that are based on his dreams. In one of his final narrative appearances, he comes to America – the Golden Medina (country) – looking to change his fortune. After all, that’s the place where – for a European of the 19th and early 20th century – even a schlemiel can become successful.
Menachem Mendel is always coming up with new and very inventive ways to make money, but few of them bear fruit. The schlemiel, to be sure, is full of ideas but, like an absent- minded philosopher, but his feet aren’t on the ground; while creative, its hard for his or her ideas to become successful. He’s a luftmensch (a man who lives on “air”). Steve Martin’s schlemiel character, in The Jerk (1979), gets lucky, however. By accident he invents something that makes him an overnight sensation. How he deals with that accidental success is one of the main motifs of the film.
All of this came to mind today when I came across a Forward article today about the Seinfeld Reunion episode in which George Costanza experiences the success of having made an invention – the iToilet (an app that can help one to find a toilet anywhere in the world) – which makes millions. Since its such an idea for an App, one can call this a schlemiel success! However, we learn that he invested the money he made in the iToilet with Bernie Madoff. Like Steve Martin’s character, Costanza ends up with the short end of the success. The hidden rule is that schlemiels aren’t made for success or, rather, long-term success. As Harold Ramis (the maker of Stripes (1981), Caddyshack (1980), Ghostbusters (1984)etc) might say, slobs can’t be snobs, or as Steve Martin might say, poor schlemiels (or temporarily successful ones) can’t be rich jerks.
The irony, here, is that while the schlemiel has a zany idea that takes off, he fails in choosing the right person to invest the money in or the right people to hang around with. But does that make George a schlemiel or a schlimazel. Who knew that Madoff would “make off” with anyone’s money?
In our era, its safe to say that schlemiels, post-Seinfeld, will be making Apps.
Another film which has a schlemiel app developer is Appiness (2019), written by and staring Eli Betalion of Yid Life Crisis. Like many great schlemiel films (or stories), it does a great job of showing the dreams of aspiring young people today who dream of success by creating the ultimate App. It’s the easiest way to make a lot of money, after all, and become an overnight success. But without the right idea and combination of circumstances it can’t just flop. Like we saw, quite often, in The Silicon Valley TV Series (2014-19).
This film deserves a larger screening and is much more funny and true to the schlemiel character than anything you’d find on Silicon Valley. In what some call the “App Age,” where Apps inform most of our lives, we need more schlemiel App films and tv shows to see how our dreams of success have become submerged in tech. Only a schlemiel can show us the humanity of failure in a space that is oversaturated with digital dreamers.