Regarding My Blog Entry on the Rogen/Franco Parody


I’m happy to see that yesterday’s blog post on the Rogen/Franco Parody of Kanye West’s “Bound Two” video has prompted some response.   What I’d like to do in this blog entry is address the questions and concerns of some readers regarding the post.

First of all, in my blog entry I acknowledged that this video was a shot-for-shot parody. That’s obvious.  What I wanted to do was to bring in the extra-added element of the fact that Rogen often plays schlemiels (I have written several blogs on this – see here for more); and, given this fact, I wondered how or if this parody could be fit within the context of his other schlemiel-roles.  Is he still playing a schlemiel?  And what kind of schlemiel?

Next, I never said James Franco was not Jewish in my blog entry.   He is.  But I didn’t discuss his Jewishness because I was focusing mainly on Seth Rogen who, as I noted in the blog entry, plays the greater schlemiel.  Indeed, I do see both of them as schlemiels, but Rogen more so than Franco because Rogen embodies passivity (like many a schlemiel).  To be sure, both are a schlemiel-team which is a lot like the husband/wife schlemiel couple that has a precedent in Yiddish Literature.  Indeed, I suggested this parallel in mentioning Mendele Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the IIIrd.    But perhaps I should be more explicit in saying that in that story, as in this video, both characters are schlemiels and both are Jewish (although, in this video, the Jewishness is obviously not central; I’ll return to this below).  Likewise, in Benjamin the IIIrd, one character, named Senderl, is more “feminine” than the other.  To be sure, he is called, in relation to the other schlemiel, Benjamin, a “housewife.”   Senderl is a feminine man-child.  We see this, clearly, at the first part of the Yiddish novel.  Speaking of Senderl, as a replacement for his wife, the narrator notes:

He also had to peel the potatoes and make the noodles, clean and stuff the firsh, carry the firewood to the stove, just like any housewife – and the folks had in fact nicknamed him die Yiddine, “Senderl the Housewife.”  And it was this Senderl the Housewife whom our Benjamin had chosen as confidant.  Why Senderl, of all people, you ask?  Because Benjamin, for some reason or other, had always felt drawn toward him….It’s quite possible, too, that Benjamin took into consideration Senderl’s lack of resistance; Senderl would be bound to agree to his plan and submit to all his wishes. (39)

This passage shows quite clearly that a schlemiel was and can be portrayed as a “woman” of sorts.  It also shows that, in relation to the other schlemiel, the more feminine schlemiel has a “lack of resistance” and is “bound to agree.”  This passivity is played on in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s book.  But, as I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, it doesn’t predominate at the end. The schlemiel is not entirely passive because the schlemiel (here Senderl) or the narrator (on the schlemiel’s behalf) has witty words to save him from total passivity.

Given this situation, I argued that Rogen’s passivity seems to overshadow that of his Yiddish ancestor.  Some people objected to this by saying that this is simply a parody and nothing more.  In addition, they noted that it is not Jewish.

In response, I’d like to point out the following:  1) we are dealing with what Daniel Itzkovitz would call “new schlemiels” and these schlemiels are more or less “empty shells” of the old schlemiel; instead of challenging the “political and philosophical” status quo – which is what the traditional schlemiel, for Wisse and Itzkovitz, did – they are the status quo; 2) how can one exclude the context of Rogen’s entire career (which is entrenched in playing the schlemiel) as if it weren’t relevant (that’s like excluding the context of a writers work when reading one of his works, and that’s inconsistent); and 3) why can’t parody draw on the schlemiel?  In fact don’t we see parodies at work throughout schlemiel fiction, film, and stand-up?  Take Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) for instance.

Now, regarding these points and rhetorical questions, I’d like to suggest that we are dealing with a “new schlemiel” which – whether Rogen intended this or not – differs from the old schlemiel in Benjamin IIIrd (and a whole tradition of effeminate schlemiels that followed).  Although this schlemiel is an “empty shell” of sorts, it does show a shift, at least in this moment, toward nearly total passivity.  On this note, I’d like to make a suggestion: I’ll grant that Rogen is not simply parodying the video, but if we were to take a closer look, we could see that he is giving a critique of sorts of Kardashian’s passivity in the video. Though she winks and gives sexy looks to Kanye, she is ultimately being ridden.  Perhaps viewers will overlook that, but that will be to the chagrin of many feminists who, for decades, have been making the portrayal of women as passive subjects an issue.

If manliness is no longer an issue in our society – and being a man-child or an effeminate male is accepted – then this video is harmless. If it’s not an issue, than Rogen’s presenting a challenge.

From what I have seen and heard, people just want to read this as a parody of a video. And no one has pointed out this possible gender challenge that has some basis in a Yiddish tradition that Rogen and Franco, most likely, have no knowledge of.  That said, I’m simply noting how their approach to comedy has deeper resonances in the Yiddish and Jewish-American tradition of the schlemiel which often trades with the effeminate male whose dreams (and this video is surreal) don’t mix with reality.

We see something similar in these videos: Kim and Kanye, on the one hand, and Franco and Rogen, on the other, are both on a journey through open spaces and their dreams (or rather, fantasies)  don’t fit with reality.  We see both traits, quite clearly, in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third but in a wholly other, Jewish context.  In America, this kind of narrative, or so it seems, has been generalized and can be had by just about anyone.

The question for me, however, is the same with regards to this schlemiel and that question is: when it comes to the schlemiel, when does passivity become total abjection?  When, in other words, does the schlemiel lose its “freedom” and “dignity?”  Does Rogen mock that freedom or is he just doing parody?  Are his sexy looks sufficient to give the character some agency?

The Schlemiel Does Kardashian and Gets Done by Franco: On Seth Rogen and James Franco’s “Bound 2” Video


Is Seth Rogen giving the schlemiel a bad name or…another name?  To be sure, I’ve written several blog-entries on Rogen-as-Schlemiel.  Before I saw Rogen and Franco’s parody of Kanye West’s Latest video, I was already on Rogen’s trail.  And, to my understanding, he, along with Judd Apatow and others, were looking to revise the schlemiel character.  Their formula – the same formula used by Woody Allen since Hollywood Ending (2002) and Anything Else (2003) – was to cast the main character as a schlemiel (a half-man) in the beginning of the film, but by the end of the film he would become a man.   This contrasts to Woody Allen’s older formula – which we see in Zelig or Annie Hall, amongst other films – which is to cast a main character who starts and ends the film as a schlemiel.  This formula is actually older than film; to be sure, we find it in Yiddish folklore and throughout Yiddish and Jewish-American fiction.  However, some authors, like Phillip Roth, have decided to leave this character behind in their later novels.  Despite this, the schlemiel lives on in fiction, film, and television.  Even the famous talk-show star, Howard Stern often reminds his audience (which numbers in the millions) that regardless of how successful he is, he is still “half-a-man” (that is, still a schlemiel).

Rogen, it seems, is confused about whether he should cast himself as a half-man becoming a full man – as we see in Knocked Up (2007), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) or The Green Hornet (2011) – as a half-man becoming a little more of a man – as in Guilt Trip (2012), or as a man who has his share of bad luck – as in Take this Waltz (2011).  Now, with this video, we can add another position: casting himself as a woman (namely, Kim Kardashian).

By casting himself as a woman or gay (both?), Rogen, it seems, is taking the schlemiel into new territory.  And he is disseminating a new image of this character on a wide basis.  After all, the video has seen over 2 million views over the last 24 hours and will likely get more hits over the next day or two.

But is this new ground?

It’s not.  To be sure, the schlemiel has often been cast as an effeminate character.  This goes back to Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Yiddish novel Benjamin the III.  In that novel, written in the mid-19th century, the main character plays a Don Quixote kind of character who models himself on the tales of Benjamin of Tudela who is best known for his travelogue. This book – apparently written in the 12th century – was based on his ten years of travel around the world.   He describes the world to his Spanish compatriots.  But in Sforim’s book, the schlemiels think they will go on a similar journey when, in fact, they don’t even leave the “Pale of Settlement” – an area where Jews were, for over a century, confined.  In the novel Benjamin refers to his make travel partner as his wife and at times trials him like a wife. And his partner goes along with it, too.

Following this novel, we see more and more effeminate portrayals of the schlemiel.  To be sure, this character is often cast as half-a-man and is more sensitive and vulnerable than others.  And although Milton Berl cross-dressed, he always retained his male aspects by way of his speech.   As Ruth Wisse points out, regardless of how vulnerable they are – or even if they cross-dress – schlemiels often win an “ironic victory” over the world and history which excludes them; but they don’t do this by being entirely passive.  They do this by way of speech.   As many a schlemiel joke or story will show you, the schlemiel is a master of words and loves to play with them.   In this, at the very least, there is something redemptive.  A Jews dignity, though trampled on in this or that story, is retained through such verbal humor. And this comic act, so to speak, indirectly speaks truth to power.

What Seth Rogen has done here, however, is to make himself totally passive.  To be sure, he, like Kim Kardashian in the video, doesn’t really say anything.  Kanye or James Franco speak; Kim and Seth are submissive.   And they are both being ridden by a man.  They are both in a Missionary kind of position –even though, for all intents and purposes, it’s on a surreal motorcycle.

In addition to this, I’d say that Rogen is not the first “heavy” schlemiel.  There are many others before him – although many people often associate the schlemiels body with wiry people like Woody Allen, Jack Benny, or Ben Stiller (to name just a few).    Regardless, in comparison to Kim Kardashian’s “perfect” body, we see Rogen’s hairy and heavy body as its anti-thesis. And when Rogen makes sexy faces, we can’t help but snicker.

But the joke is really on Rogen and the schlemiel.  It is not on Kanye and Kim.  And it isn’t even on James Franco.  If anything, the schlemiel may cross-dress or play the half-man in many novels, films, or stand-up routines.  But what a schlemiel won’t do is lose speech, which is the schlemiel’s greatest ally since it keeps total passivity at bay.

For this reason, I had a hard time watching this only as parody (which it obviously is) since, in many ways, it seemed to be effacing the schlemiel I have grown to love and even respect.  So, while Kanye and Kim may have found it funny, I don’t.  Because the joke is ultimately on the schlemiel, not them.