On the Schlemiel & Sacha Baron Cohen’s Upcoming HBO Animated Special, “Chelm: The Smartest Place on Earth”

Sacha Baron Cohen has, to be sure, played the schlemiel character in nearly every one of his productions. From Ali G to Borat, we see that Cohen prefers to cast and create comical characters with a schlemiel sensibility. To be sure, Cohen has in many ways taken on the legacy of Charlie Chaplin (who Hannah Arendt saw as a quintessential schlemiel who changed American and Western Culture). She saw the schlemiel as a charming “lord of dreams,” who challenged culture by siding with nature (over culture and nationalism) or with the immigrant (Chaplin) against the world. The schlemiel is the “odd one out,” the charming pariah, a “man of the people.” She saw the greatest challenge to Chaplin’s schlemiel, which she thinks he lost, in his film, The Great Dictator (1940).

In the film, Chaplin plays a barber (schlemiel simpleton, everyman) and a dictator (who happen to look alike). The Barber gets to play the dictator in a key moment, making him look like a schlemiel and contrasting him to the schlemiel barber (the everyman, the simpleton, the real schlemiel) who, looking like Hynkel, was given an opportunity to “trade places” and defeat him thorough humor. But, argues Arendt, in her “Jew as Pariah” essay, that Chaplin fails to end Hitler’s career through mockery and is replaced with a character who goes from a schlemiel (Clark Kent) to a Hero (Superman). She was wrong.

The schlemiel lives on in Jewish American and American comedy. From “Gimpel the Fool” and Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor (1963)to Spaceballs (1987) and Forest Gump (1994) and Seinfeld, the schlemiel has become an American icon. Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bruce Jay Friedman, Larry David, and many others wrote schlemiel comedies for film and TV that received Academy Awards and Emmys. Hollywood writers and comic actors like Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and a host of others have made the schlemiel central to their comedy.

What makes Sacha Baron Cohen so unique is that he – fully aware of this comic tradition – wanted to make a schlemiel character that addressed things that he didn’t want to hide in his comic character, like anti-Semitism, Jewishness, and serious misconceptions about reality made from limited knowledge and experience – from Ali G, to Borat (2006) and The Dictator (2012). He uses the character to – as Ruth Wisse says about the schlemiel – to “challenge the philosophical and political status quo.”

To be sure, Cohen turns back to where Chaplin left off in The Great Dictator and created a film that brought it into a contemporary context, taken Iranian dictators to task through humor. Cohen wants to make the schlemiel relevant in ways that Apatow, Rogen, and others have failed to do.

With his upcoming animated special for HBO on Chelm – a village of schlemiel characters that writers like IB Singer and cultural critics and writers like Irving Howe and Saul Bellow made popular in the post-WWII-Era by creating kids books dedicated to these stories, illustrating them – Sasha Baron Cohen has returned to schlemiel roots. The Chelm stories are, according to schlemiel scholars, Ruth Wisse and Sanford Pinsker, folkloric sources for the schlemiel character (although this lineage may go back farther). Jewish people from Generation X as well as Baby Boomers, are familiar with the Chelm stories, growing up with them. Cohen is refreshing these comical stories for this generation. Children will now be able to access this.

According to JTA, “Cohen will develop the animated special “Chelm: The Smartest Place on Earth” for HBO Max alongside Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, known for “King of the Hill,” and Michael Koman, a former writer on “Nathan For You” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Cohen will also narrate the special.

The HBO Max press release indicates that the show will be geared towards younger audiences, marking a departure from most of Cohen’s adult-oriented humor. 

“This unique project will breathe new, hysterical life into the nonsensical Chelmic wisdom that originated from this imaginary city of folks who aren’t quite the sharpest tools in the shed,” Amy Friedman, head of kids and family programming at HBO parent company Warner Bros., said in the release.

The magic of the schlemiel is that it has the potential of bringing people together – through laughter – rather than breaking us apart. The schlemiel character – whether we see him in Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, or Cohen – is endearing because, at his or her base, is a deep kind of simplicity, humility, and humanity that touches our hearts. We need to laugh at ourselves, and the schlemiel reminds us that our high and mighty ideas and passions are, ultimately, ridiculous.

There is something very spiritual about all this, as IB Singer, Malamud, Bellow, and many others knew. Cohen knows it as as well. That’s why he wants to bring these stories to children. They embody the spirit of the schlemiel (as we see in Sholom Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantors Son).

This will set a new benchmark for the schlemiel character and bring it to a new audience and future, bringing a sense ofJewishness and its contributions to our world via wit and comedy!

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