On Louis CK’s ‘Hasidic Cum Tissues’ Routine


A facebook friend recently cued me in to a website that collected things Louis CK has said about Jews.   Included in the archived videos are a few clips: a clip where Louis CK plays on many different dialects and how speech indicates different kinds of sick lifestyles (the Jewish dialect amongst them), a video on rape where he goes so far as to say, in an aside, that Jews should be raped and follows “did I say that?”; it also includes a clip on Jewish girls (which was removed from Youtube), the “Goodbye Jews” clip that I discussed in the last blog entry on Louis CK, and a clip entitled “Hasidic Cum Tissues” (which was also removed from Youtube).

Regarding this clip, the webpage cites Louis CK as saying:

And the weird detail she told me is that [the Hasidic clients of the dominatrix] always had to take their sperm home with them in a tissue, because that was in their religion that they couldn’t leave their bodily fluids behind. So somehow God’s watching a dominatrix shit in your mouth, and he’s like “Well as long as you take your cum home, it’s fine.” 

I was really curious about this video clip as its title and the claim were so bizarre.  I wanted to hear it and take note not just of this but of other parts of the clip that would show me Louis CK’s ways of relating to Jewish things.   (Moreover, I am familiar with Jewish customs (minhagim) and laws (halacha) and I had never heard of such a thing as “cum tissues” let alone heard of Hasidim who needed to make sure all semen was put in tissues.)

From the Louis CK page, we learn that the clip was removed by Youtube.  Nonetheless, I wondered if it may have been renamed.  It was.  And it was simply filed under the Opie and Anthony Show.   As their Wiki page points out, Opie (Greg “Opie” Hughes) and Anthony (Cumia) had a show since 1995 and that went on to 2002.  They had a hiatus and went onto XM Satellite Radio in 2006.  The show, over the years, has been host to many comedians including Louis CK.  The energy in and around the show is anxious and highly charged – much like The Howard Stern Show.  The language is heavy and very vulgar. And like Stern, they often disregard political correctness and speak what is on their minds.  And sometimes that can get very risky.

This clip in particular is very vulgar and you may not want to hear or see my reading of it as the clip that I address portrays some Hasidic Jews in a very negative even anti-Semitic fashion.  I found many details that were not mentioned by the person who runs the website or anyone on the web for that matter.  I have noted them below. Read and listen at your own risk.

In this clip – show #19 -they had Louis CK as a guest.  29:27 in Louis CK begins telling a joke about a Dominatrix, Hasidim, and “cum tissues.”  His friend’s wife was a Dominatrix and she had Hasidim as clients.

After much banter about this Dominatrix and his friend, he returns (at 31:17) to the joke and brings in the Hasidim and the tissues.  He describes the relationship of the Hasidim to the Dominatrix and points out that they were rude to her before the transaction.  In an attempt to explain why they are rude, Louis CK  notes than anybody “outside” their community is deemed “an outsider.”  Furthermore,  “that’s the way the culture is….its a closed society…I’m trying to be nice about it…Fucking Jews!”(Nervous laughter.)

After saying this, Opie and Anthony come to the rescue and say that while he is right about the Hasidim being a closed society, it woukd be wrong to say that all Hasidim are the same.  Yet, they say Hasidim are “mysterious.”  Louis CK then comes in and talks about some “good” Hasidim he has met at B & H Photo in Manhattan.  He imitates one of the Hasidim who works behind the counter and notes that some can be rude, there, while others “can be nice.”

Returning to the story, and bringing to bear on us how Louis CK and the Dominatrix share a negative attitude towards “them,” he notes that “these Jews were rude to her….Going to the dominatrix to have their dicks whipped is not in the Talmud.”

Louis CK points out, without wincing, that “when she was beating them, she said they were the only clients she ever hit with spite.” Finding her spite (and her beating of the Hasidim) to be justifiable, he notes that the Hasidim had “crossed the line.”  In other words, they deserved a cruel beating.

After justifying her cruel (as opposed to “kind,” normal) whipping, Louis CK notes that she said that she “used to crucify them….and inside, when she was hitting them, she thought ‘You Fucking Jew!’”

“And then the weird detail she told me came when she told me that they had to put their sperm in a tissue…they had to take their sperm home with them.”  CK, an anthropologist from Mars, explains that they cannot leave any fluids lying around.  He goes on to state what he says as Jewish blindness and hypocrisy: “somehow, God’s watching a dominatrix shit in your mouth…and everything will be alright if you take your cum home.”  Following Louis CK’s  judgment, they all jokingly play out the reasons why God would want them to do this.  And Louis CK finishes the foray by saying that all be well if the Hasid can put the “cum tissue in the cigar box under his wife’s shawl.”

Opie then gets going and talks about how he heard of a “tranny” who would make the Hasidim shower because they smelled so bad.  All of the anti-Semitic stuff starts coming here and then a phone-call comes in that is directed at these Hasidim.

The caller who is apparently a cop confirms this claim. And even calls them “filthy, filthy animals.”  Then he says not all of them “…a couple of them.”

What is so disturbing about all of this is not simply the negative anti-Semitic descriptions, but the fact that the topic is simply passed by.  After the cop hangs up, they simply talk about other things.

They feel no need to reflect on what they said about the “dirty Hasidim.”  There is no need to reflect on how odd it is that Louis CK thought of their cruel (as opposed to kind) “beating” as justified.  Here we need to ask ourselves if Louis CK (and the whole crew) went too far.

And although they are laughing, are we?  What would it mean if we were to laugh along with all of them about those “dirty Jews?”  Is this routine about “Hasidic Cum Tissues” funny or just disturbing?

On Louis CK’s “Goodbye Jews!” and the “Jewish Thing” – Take 2


Early this morning I reposted a blog entry on Louis CK.  And as a part of the facebook tagline, I jokingly referred to Louis CK as an “honorary Heeb.”  In response, a friend of mine pointed out that she thought that Louis CK was not Jewish and, on the contrary, that at least one of his pieces might disclose a “bit” of anti-Semitism.  She asked me if I ever saw the “Airplane” clip, suggesting that this clip in particular has elements of the anti-Semitic and may alter my reading.

The possibility of anti-Semitism did in fact come across my mind before she gave me her opinion.  I was, in fact, writing up a new blog entry which addresses Louis CK’s joke about Schindler’s List.  When I first saw it, I wondered how he would traverse the risky topic of the Holocaust.  To my mind, Louis CK’s joke about Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List  hit at the limit of anti-Semitism. Louis CK brings it to the limit by way of imagining the auditions that Steven Spielberg would have to give for a key role in which a young German girl brazenly sends the Jews away to the concentration camps with the words “Goodbye Jews!” This is a serious role, but what would happen if the auditioning little girls had a miniscule amount of knowledge of the kind of voice that should be used.  This irony addressed to this serious topic is the focus. Spielberg gathers many different girls for the audition and it is Louis CK’s performance of the voices that sends the audience into peals of uneasy laughter.

Here he tells the joke to Conan O’Brien.

And here he gives it over to an audience at Carnegie Hall:

He imagines there are fifty little girl actresses who are trying out.  They are “going from the Hannah Montana auditions to the Schindler’s list audition.”  Each of them pronounces the phrase “Goodbye Jews” and, as one can see, Louis CK has them do versions that don’t fit the context.  Nonetheless, the power of the message could prompt people to think that the message is overshadowed by the comic performance of the words “Goodbye Jews.”

Although I find this point interesting, I would argue that this is not anti-Semtic; rather, it shows Louis CK’s tension with Jewishness.  And this is what I am looking for. The point of the contrast, in comparing the “Goodbye Jew” piece to the Louie piece in the last blog, is to show that Jewishness is something that Louis CK, at times, addresses.

For him, if comedy is not disturbing than it is not comedy.  And the fact that a film like Schindler’s List is a holy cow is quite apparent to him.  As a non-Jew he’d like to inject a tension into this so as to point out, by way of the young girls auditioning, that they had no sense of the role they were to play.  As young American women who want to be on TV or Film, they have no sense of history, the Holocaust, or how to properly relate to the topic. Their awkwardness is telling: it teaches us that they don’t have a cultural sense of what is the norm. That norm, so to speak, is lessened now.  As Louis CK notes at the beginning of the piece; its no longer a blockbust film; its on TBS (the main Boston TV channel).

Its banal.  And, when we have to relate to it with the proper gravitas, we become awkward. What happens when our children, so to speak, don’t know what’s at stake? They will, of course, be awkward.  And, regardless of that, the very fact that “Goodbye Jews!” is to be performed would make one very awkward. Who, after all, would want to say those words (with conviction) in an America that deems itself, by and large, conscious of the Holocaust?  The mere fact of saying it is disturbing.  This comes out in the awkward approaches we hear in each of Louis CK’s voices.

Now for the contrast: On the one hand, you have pieces that put Louie CK in the position of the loser-who-can-redeem himself; he is given a choice between succeeding and failing as a comic by a Jew who was once a comic but is now a movie mogul.   He is like a schlemiel but not quite.  He has an odd relationship to this tradition.

Through this Louie clip, we can address his relationship to scenarios in which he acts in relation to Jews or with Jewish topics.  How does he situate himself?

Moreover, from this clip we can query into what his relationship is to a Jewish comic tradition; one which, as the Jewish film mogul/executive suggests, starts in New York City in the Carnegie Deli.   How does Louis CK relate to this Jewish comic tradition? How does he, literally, compete with Seinfeld?  Is it a Jew vs. a non-Jew struggle?  Or is this a question of “who” takes on a comic tradition?  Need it be a Jew? Or is Louis CK far from this?  As we see in the beginning of the clip, Louis CK doesn’t know who this Jewish-comic ancestor is.   This blindness directs us to the tension and the issue: what is Louis CK’s relationship to a Jewish comic tradition?  Is there any?  Why should he care about Jews?

In contrast to a clip like this, anyone who watches Louis CK can tell you that Jewishness is certainly not something Louis CK regularly concerns himself with.  In the clip below, we don’t see any such narrative.  What we find is scatological humor.  Here’s a joke justify farts – providing reasons why farts are so amazing.

He reasons that “they come out of your ass.  The hang out around shit and they smell for that reason.  His gestures are mired in the physical processes.  There is nothing “Jewish” here.   To be sure, this video segment simply doesn’t pose the question.  Its caught up in the gestural.  In the “Goodbye Jews,” the gesture of enunciating these words.  This gestural focus, however, takes us away from the historical tension.

More important is how Louis CK’s use of gesture brings about – when he addresses the issue – a tension with Jewishness.  It is a clash between repeating or not repeating a Jewish comic tradition. As I noted above, is Louis CK a competitor with Jerry Seinfeld? Does he emerge from the same tradition, in Carnegie Deli, or is he doing comedy despite that relationship?

Searching for evidence of Louis CK’s tense relationship to Jewishness and to his possible anti-Semtitism, I did a Google search correlating the airplane routine, which I heard was anti-Semitic, to Louis CK and anti-Semitism and I found only two links of interest: the first link was published in The Jewish Press.  It was entitled “Louis C.K. – Not a Jew.”  It was published in May 20, 2012 and was authored by the blog Not a Jew – Jew: Choosing to be Chosen A Blog of My Journey to Judaism http://notajew-jew.com/?p=66

The blog is authored by someone who refuses to give his name and directs us, instead, to the journey of conversion: from being a non-Jew to a Jew. In the “about” section we read:

His name is not important, but his journey to become a Jew is.

But, apparently, said person who wrote the blog has written for the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, etc.  His task, ultimately, to show his readers that he realized that Louis CK isn’t Jewish and this, in some way, prompts him to want to convert to Judaism.

In this piece, he presents his argument as to why Louis CK is “not Jewish.”  He begins his argument by creating a criteria by which he distinguishes between what it means to be a Jew from what it means to be a non-Jew.  To give authority to his reading, he cites his “friend” (the notorious Rabbi, TV show host, Hollywood personality, and author of Kosher Sex – amongst other books) Shmuley Boteach:

One of the main things I’ve learned about the differences between Jews and non-Jews (namely Christians) is: non-Jews place a great deal of importance on how you feel, what you believe, your intentions, your inner motivations for being good.  By contrast, according my friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Jews “care far less about what you believe.  What you do is more important.”

If it all comes down to a tension between concern with belief and conviction – on the one hand – and action – on the other -how does Louis CK fare?

He, the author of the blog, sites a comedy routine by Louis CK where he talks about how he relishes the fact that he “thought” about being ethical and giving up his seat to a soldier on an airplane but he didn’t.  This, argues the blogger, isn’t Jewish.  A Jew wouldn’t think about whether he or she thought about doing said deed; a Jew, says Boteach, would do it. The principle of Jewishness is, as the blogger states: Action is greater than thought.  This seems to be a crude principle, but it can be understood in a more significant and sophisticated manner.

Relishing the thought that one “could” help would make Louis CK into a solipsistic, Cartesian, kind of philosopher instead of what Emmanuel Levinas. The latter thinks ethics is “first philosophy,” not thought or being.  Levinas puts the other, ethics, before all philosophy and reflection.   Levinas’s essay, entitled the “Temptation of Temptation,” makes it clear that Louis CK is caught up in the “temptation of temptation.”  For if temptation is about relishing the fact that one is “capable” of thought (that one “can”) than the temptation of temptation is to think about what one is capable of doing and not doing anything. As Aristotle might say, this is philosophy:  thought thinking thought.   That, Levinas would argue, is not holy.  It is not Jewish.  For Levinas, being-for-the other (in action, not thought) is Jewish.

The blogger notes something like this when he notes that there may be a “Little Jew” in Louis CK because he gives a lot of his money to charity:

But perhaps there’s a little Jew inside of Louis C.K., after all.  Because, when his video generated over a million dollars in downloads in just its first 12 days online, he issued a statement “to set an example of what you can do if you all of a sudden have a million dollars that people just gave to you directly because you told jokes.”

He gave $250k to the people who produced the video and built the web site to sell it.  Another $250k went to his staff for “a big fat bonus.”  $280k went to five different charities (including Kiva, which I discovered because of him – thank you Louis C.K.!).  In total, he gave away 78% of his million dollars, which is 7.8 times more Jewish of him than a Jew who tithes 10%.

While this is very interesting, while it gives me a criteria for what’s Jewish and what’s not Jewish, it doesn’t equate Louis CK’s comedy with the anti-Semitic.

But this criteria doesn’t seem to work.  Aren’t Jewish comedians always playing around with thoughts and possible scenarios?  Doesn’t that happen throughout the Talmud?  However, the Rabbis always think in terms of how this or that scenario relates to Jewish law while Louis CK thinks of scenarios in terms of things we find embarrassing or odd.   These scenarios seem to be replayed in much Borscht Belt comedy, too.  Were they also “tempted by temptation?”  Or should we read Louis CK’s reflections differently – in terms of the social relations he works through?  Is it a Jewish way to go against the grain and test the limits of this or that discourse (here, the discourse of Holocaust representation or in terms of the relationship of Jewish comedy in the past to Hollywood today)?

Besides this should we call Louis CK Jewish or Non-Jewish in terms of only one example and a citation from Shumley Boteach?

I think we need to look more deeply into the matter. And I’d like to say that I leave this blog post with the voices of Louis CK’s little girls as they say “Goodbye Jews.”   They are out of touch with Jewish history but its really not their fault now is it?  America right now seems to be forgetting more and more and Louis CK, in that piece, brings us face to face with that reality. At the same time, he’s marking off the fact that he is not Jewish in saying “Goodbye Jews.”

But his departure is not so much anti-Semitic as marking off a difference between himself and Jews.  He also doesn’t know who he is inheriting the comic tradition from.  It may not matter to him, as we see in the Louie clip, above.

The only other link I found on Google relating Louis CK to anti-Semitism, had nothing in fact to do with anti-Semitism.  Rather, it was an article from Heeb Magazine which simply notes some Tweets Louis CK did while he was, apparently, drunk.  I’ll note one of his Tweets and leave it at that:


Even though Louis CK shouts out, in the voices of many bright eyed girls, “Goodbye Jews,” this drunken Tweet says: “Don’t worry, Louis CK likes Jews!”

Jew or Not Jew: Louis CK’s Humor and The Jewish Thing – Take 1


After I first saw him perform, I immediately wondered if Louis CK (Louis Szekely) was Jewish.   At first glance, his gestures, jokes, and comedy routine seemed, for me, to be Jewish.   But I was uncertain.  The ambiguity over his identity prompted me to think about what I was interested in: was I interested in whether or not he was a Jew or whether or not his gestures were Jewish?   I also wanted to know what he thought of such a question about his comic routines and their ethnic identifications.  I couldn’t put my finger on what made his comic routine (or he himself) seem “Jewish.”  This inquiring mind…wanted to know.

A simple Google search brought me to the site “Jew or Not Jew.”  (This site, by the way, has nothing to do with the app that was deemed anti-Semitic.)  On this web page, I discovered that Louis CK wasn’t Jewish.  He was raised a Catholic. And, according to the blurb on the page, Louis CK said the following to the LA Weekly which, this site believes, indicates a happenstance kind of relationship to Jewishness:

L.A. WEEKLY: Why are so many funny comics from Boston?

LOUIS C.K.: Because Boston is a miserable place filled with drunks, losers and Jewish girls with big tits.

From this and from his lineage, the site concludes that he is not a Jew.  Fine.  But I was not satisfied by this superficial assessment.  I wanted more. I wanted to see how he dealt with the Jewish thing.

But before I look into that, let’s take a look at the man himself.  Louis CK is a provocative stand-up comic whose self-deprecating, aggressive, awkward, and vulgar brand of comedy has gained critical acclaim over the years.  Many of his best skits draw on his personal life and observations as a divorced and aging father.  The character he plays on stage is constantly attempting to come to terms with all of the odd situations and minute details of being a father, being single, and searching for success.  In all of these departments, no matter what he does, something always seems to go wrong.

Despite what we often see in his comic routines, he has, apparently, been very successful.  He has credit for writing comedy and doing many comedy performances and has written for the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and The Chris Rock Show. And between 2008 and 2010 he recorded two full-length comedy specials: Chewed Up (2008) and Hilarious (2009). In 2011 he released Live at the Beacon Theater.

In addition to these comedy specials Louis CK has starred in two different sitcoms where he was the center of the show: Lucky Louie (2006) and Louie (2010).

And recently, in 2013, he did a special for HBO entitled Oh My God.

From time to time, Louis CK is involved in comic situations or tells jokes that involve Jews.  In this segment from Louie on FX, Louis CK is face-to-face with a stereotyped Jewish media executive from Hollywood.  But before he goes in to meet the media executive, he and his agent, an awkward looking teenager in a tight suit with large glasses, are left to wait in a waiting room not knowing who they are there to see or what is about to happen to them.  When called, they naively go into the office.  The scene is reminiscent of a Kafka novel.  And, as a result of their utter lack of knowledge and the lack of communicating between them and the secretary, it seems as if they are on the way to some kind of disaster.  However, as in a Kafka novel, he is not greeted by a non-descript messenger of the institution.  Rather, he is greeted by a New York Jew who speaks with a distinctly New York (“Jewish”) accent.  In this scene, Louis, who is usually very aggressive and uptight, cowers.  When asked by the executive, “Do you know who I am?” Louis CK acts as if he knows.

The executive begins by complementing Louis CK for his performance on the David Letterman Show.  This butters him up.  It also enter Louis CK into a cat and mouse game.  The executive tells Louis CK that he has a secret to tell him.  But before he tells Louis CK his secret, he says that he “started off in Carnegie Deli” (as a comedian).

To be sure, we still don’t know “who” he is, but we now know one thing he has done and may fuzzily infer his identity.  This comment is oddly placed and, at the same time, it suggests that the man talking to him went through the Jewish comedy circuit (and, for some reason, this is something the executive thinks Louis CK should identify with as a root of the modern day stand-up comedy that he does).  However, Louis CK mistakenly thinks that this factoid is the secret.  The executive laughs at the mistake and indicates that the secret is not Jewish comedy or the origin of stand-up comedy.  The secret has nothing to do with Jewish comic identity.

Before Louis CK can hear the secret, he has to, in a Kafkan sense, sign papers that he has no time to read.  After he does, the Jewish media mogul reveals the “secret” to Louis CK which isn’t a statement so mush as a question: Do you want to replace David Letterman?  Louis CK humbly declines and suggests a Jewish comedian for the job: Jerry Seinfeld.  Strangely enough, the executive confirms that Louis CK was right: Seinfeld was also asked to be the new host.

But this doesn’t mean that he is on par with Seinfeld; the mogul basically tells Louis CK that the two are incomparable.  Louis CK learns that he is an “option” while Seinfeld is a “slam dunk.”  In this scenario, Louis CK is the ridiculed schlemiel.  He’s not the first in line, although he dreams of being there.

In response to this offer, Louis CK suggests that the media executive may not want him because, if he knew who he was and how old he was, he would reject him.

In response to this, the media mogul describes Louis CK as a guy who comes from a working class family in Boston and notes, with a big jab, that Louis CK isn’t doing so well and that his career is in a slump.   And after noting that Louis CK is at the point in his career where he is afraid that he might do something embarrassing, he asks, “Am I right?”

The camera pans to Louis CK who lightly sighs and turns his head slightly away.  Then the music starts as the media executive suggests a way Louis CK can redeem his career and his sad life.  But then, after giving hope, the media executive takes it away and notes how Louis CK, as he gets older, will become more and more of a failure.  With poetic egress, the media executive calls him a “circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit.”   In other words, he makes Louis CK “conscious” that he is a schlemiel of the worst (negative) variety and will remain so if he doesn’t grasp hold of his proposal.   In contrast to classical schlemiels in Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer, Louis CK is not so absent-minded that he will miss the meaning of the media executive’s description.  In their stories, they don’t know they are schlemiels and they don’t care; in this clip, it’s the opposite.

In this version of the schlemiel, the schlemiel has the possibility of success or failure.

“It’s in your power to change that…and sill your chances are very slim.  David Letterman is retiring…do you want his job?”

The episode ends with this question.

In truth, this question draws the fine line between being a schlemiel and not being one. This is the line the American schlemiel must cross if he/she is to be a “man.”  There is an either/or at work here which underlies one aspect of American identity: One can either remain a failure or change.  For instance, this Jewish media executive changed from being a comedian in New York to being a mogul in Hollywood.  Can Louis CK do it?  Can he be like Seinfeld, a successful Jewish comic?  Or is it too late?

This segment makes for a fascinating commentary on how Jews have “made it.”  And now, instead of a Jew, it is a non-Jewish comedian who is in the position of the failure and it is a Jewish media executive and Jerry Seinfeld who are in the opposite position.

After writing on Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s dialogue over Sholem Aleichem’s humor, it hit me that the Jewishness of this piece is close to what Irving Howe saw as the “undercurrent of darkness” in Sholem Aleichem’s humor.   It is an analogue to the overlapping of laughter and tears which Howe draws from a comment by Saul Bellow about Jewishness.  To be sure, there is nothing kitschy or sentimental about Louis CK’s humiliation.  His aging and failure are tangible.  We can, like the media executive, imagine him going on as a failure (even though we all know that the real Louis CK is a great success).    And this possibility is supposed to trouble us since, as we can see from the clip, it is troubling for Louis CK.  He wants to be a success but can’t help thinking of himself (or knowing himself to be) as a failure.

We all want him to make it just like we all want characters in Sholem Aleichem’s stories to make it in America but, as we all know, the characters in Aleichem’s books don’t often gain such success.  As Ruth Wisse points out in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, their success is in their words.  When it comes to success in the world, they often fail.  Language is often their saving grace.  Reading Aleichem, we know that his characters may be funny but in the end they may all remain schlemiels.  And nothing will change (save for their place).

But is that such a bad thing?  It is if success is your only criterion and where being a schlemiel is equated with being an aging and decaying loser who doesn’t have a real job.  What we see with Louis CK is that, although he is not a Jew, he still can play a Jew in the sense that he plays the everyman.  His very existence is that of a schlemiel.  He is an aging failure who likely has “no future.”  Louis CK is, as the media executive says, “a circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit.”  In other words, like a schlemiel, he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and the places he does occasion are dying away.

Louis CK, if he is to be considered at all, is an “option.”  From the executive’s perspective, Louis CK can save the studio money (Seinfeld is too expensive).  But in reality the secret is that Louis CK makes the studio money because the Jewish comic gestures that started in the Carnegie Deli (which the Media Mogul notes indirectly) have now become part and parcel of all Hollywood comedy.  The irony of it all is, as the clip shows in the end, the pilot must be done in New York City (home of the Carnegie Deli) and not in Hollywood.  In other words, Louis CK goes back to the place where it all started and he is given this mission by a Jew, but, and this is the point, he is not Jewish.

After watching this clip, I had a better understanding of how one could understand Louis CK’s ambiguous Jewishness and what it implies.  I also understood that although we would like to see him become like Seinfeld, we would, ultimately, rather see Louis CK fail as he desperately tries to succeed.  And in such failure we discover something that looks and feels Jewish but really isn’t.  We also discover a comedy that is far crueler than anything we would find in Sholem Aleichem.  Things have changed.

In America today, failure, it seems, has become a commonplace.  As Walter Benjamin tells us, beauty, for Kafka (and himself), is the beauty of failure.  And failure has, in America, lost its ethnicity and perhaps even its beauty when it found Louis CK.  Echoing Irving Howe’s reading of Sholem Aleichem, I would say that my laughter at Louis CK is deeply “troubled.”  And this “troubled laughter” has nothing to do with comedy in the face of the threat to Jewish existence posed by Jewish history so much as comedy in the face of the threat posed by one’s age, choices, and bad economic situation.  And this threat is common to many Americans.  It doesn’t come out of a tradition, as does the schlemiel, so much as out of a condition. Perhaps the take away from Jewish humor – which seems to be echoed in this episode – is that only a comedy that honestly depicts and performs failure can survive it.

What do Louis CK, Andy Kaufmann, Emmanuel Levinas, and The Miriam Katz Project have in Common?

Today, I was incredibly delighted to see a post by the Jewish arts and culture website Tablet on my facebook page with the following tagline and question:

Art historian Miriam Katz thinks of comedians as spiritual guides, and she wants to bring stand-up into the serious world of galleries and museums:


What do you think — can comedy be intellectualized?

As I scanned the tagline, the question, the image, and the post, I was overwhelmed.  I was really excited to see that something I am deeply concerned with in my blog is being echoed “out there” in the virtual sphere and “in reality.”

The “schlemiel as prophet,” as a “spiritual guide,” seems to be catching on.

But it’s confusing. What does this mean?  I could see that the question after the tagline and the responses to it in the facebook thread bore confusion over this question.

What the thread opined on was whether or not a comic could be a spiritual guide. As one can imagine, some thought this idea to be absurd while others did not.  The general response, however, was that this is a question that has yet to be thought through in a thoroughgoing manner.

The image, propped between the tagline and question, also evokes questions as to what the comedian can communicate to us.  To be honest, I found the Louis CK image to be more telling than the question.

What astonishes me about the Louis CK image and the caption is that, taken together, they suggest that the face is linked to comic-spiritual guidance.  This suggestion or allusion hits at something deep: it hits at the relationship of prophesy to comedy and the face.

For me, this is profound because Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher I esteem above nearly all the philosophers of the 20th century, argued that the face is prophetic.  And this prophesy pertains to suffering.    The face, for Levinas, traumatizes and inspires “me” to be-for-the-other.  It takes me outside of myself before I can even think about whether or not I want to help the other.

For Levinas, one is always-already and yet-to-be for the other.  The face tells me, in a prophetic manner, “Thou shalt not Kill.”  Levinas calls my relationship to the other the one-for-the-other.  Which means, I am for the other before I am for myself.  And this is magnified by the other’s suffering which “I” struggle with only because I am always-already affected by it.

Perhaps this struggle bespeaks the bittersweet comedy of being-for-the-other?

The subtitle of the piece bespeaks this in an oblique way: “choose the face that best describes your pain.”

The irony of this image is that none of them describe my pain; rather, they strike me with the pain of the other.  They concern me and I cannot simply choose one over the other.  They all beckon me to ethical concern.   My choice is, so to speak, too late.

After looking at this image and thinking these things, I thought immediately of Andy Kaufmann.

To my surprise, I clicked on the Tablet link associated with the image and found this article by Jessica Weisberg on the art curator Miriam Katz entitled “Andy Kaufmann Isn’t Funny.”  At this point, you can only imagine, I was besides myself.  Astonished.


I decided, nearly two years ago, that I would write the final chapter of my book (a work in progress) on him.  To my mind, he is one of the best illustrations of the schlemiel-as-prophet.

There is a demand in his comedy; namely, the demand of the other.  His pain on stage, while funny to many, solicits the viewer.  As Levinas might say, it traumatizes and inspires her to think about her laughter and about what to do in response to the schlemiel.  (In my book and in a later blog, I will return to this scene on the David Letterman show.):

Notice how the audience doesn’t know whether he is joking or really suffering.  This ambiguity is the basis of the prophetic-comic demand that he makes to the audience.   He does this, quite simply, through his face and his gestures.

I am overjoyed to see that I am not the only one who has been struck by the prophetic demand of Kaufmann’s comedy.  And I applaud Miriam Katz for the work she has done on Andy Kaufmann.

Here’s is a brief overview of the scene she is a part of in NYC. This article comes from The Village Voice.


In my next blog entry, I hope to further address this article and the merits of her artistic project, which, like mine, is to show the world “out there” that there’s more to the schlemiel than entertainment value.