Andy Kaufman and the Inversion of the Comic Target

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Andy Kaufman is a better candidate for a Levinasian inversion of the comic target, which I mentioned at the outset of this blog series.   He is a “stand-up” (as opposed to Portnoy, Philip Roth’s “sit-down”) comedian.  In a Levinasian sense, this means that he stands-up and faces us.  And we see, in his response to our laughter, how we are targeting him.  This comes out in our ambiguous relation to the character.  I have two videos that illustrate this.

The first video comes from a stand-up routine in LA.

Four minutes into his routine (actually 4:30), Kaufman is accosted by someone in the audience who targets him as a washed-up comedian.  He tells him that Kaufman’s routines don’t “work” anymore.  Kaufman has no new material.  The audience member makes Kaufman sweat and we can clearly see that he is the target.  In these moments, we don’t know whether we should feel sorry for him or not.  Has he failed to keep us excited?  How do we judge him?  Is our judgment too painful to even deal with?

Another example, which is more to the point, comes from an appearance he made on the David Letterman show (June 24, 1980).

In this clip, Andy is clearly out-of-his-wits.  And this deficiency turns the tables on us.   We don’t know whether or not he is really suffering.  This comes out, first, when he tells the audience to stop laughing.  But it comes out most clearly when Kaufman goes out to the audience for alms.  In this moment, he confuses the target and exposes the audience to its targeting.  He has them realize that they may be complicit in such targeting by disarming it.  He differs from Portnoy, who I discussed in yesterday’s blog entry; Kaufman is a schlemiel of a different variety.  His failure takes on another shade, altogether.

Emmanuel Levinas’s philosphy can be applied to both Roth and Kaufmann.  In Roth, the multiplicity of targets and the total disregard for responsibility make Portnoy into a caricature and a target of humor.  He makes us forget about his vulnerability and exposure by targeting his mother, sexuality, and Naomi (a Sabra who dubs him a schlemiel, in the most derogatory sense).   And in looking at him as pathetic (as Naomi does), we are complicit in this effacement.  The problem with this is, as I noted in the last blog entry, it requires an interpretation.   Moreover, for this reason, it’s easier for us to turn to traditional philosophical interpretations of comedy which are based on targeting.

On the other hand, with Kaufman we can see that we are complicit, quite simply, by seeing Kaufman’s responses to the audience and to his pleas for help.  In both, our judgment is suspended and the target is inverted.  We feel obligated to help, but we don’t know if or how we should.  Kaufman’s schlemiel – as opposed to Roth’s – acts to suspend the target rather than, as we saw in Portnoy, to mark it.

The Problem with Levinas’s Reading of Comedy

Levinas’s concept of inversion works; however, his understanding of art and bewitchment, which we see in his essay “Reality and its Shadow,” need revision.  The “meanwhile” – comedy without interpretation – implies that comedy, in itself, is mythology.  However, I would argue that there is a distinct difference between the “sit down” and the “stand-up” comedian; the former can, perhaps, be “bewitched,” but the stand up comic cannot.

Levinas argues that comedy, like tragedy, can “bewitch” a reader or viewer.  The reason for this is because comedy (like tragedy or any story) is, for Levinas, about endless repetition. In Henri Bergson’s sense, comedy doesn’t become; it is static.  Levinas goes farther than Bergson to associate the static aspect of repetition with “mythology” and being “bewitched.”  The time of myth is the time of what he calls the “interval” or the “meanwhile.”  For Levinas, it’s time is the time of myth.  The only way out of this is through interpretation.

As I have suggested, this may be applied to Roth but not to Kaufmann.  In the latter, one leaves mythology by virtue of relation not interpretation.  Our relationship to “stand up” (rather than “sit down”) comedy is ethical.   And in this comic relationship with Kaufmann, we are exposed to our targeting.  He is released from the meanwhile and given over to becoming by virtue of our confused response to his confused response.  We bear witness to the fact that we are complicit in targeting and that we may NOT be able to help the other.  In Roth, on the other hand, we see Portnoy caught up in his own targeting.  And his effort to efface that targeting by enjoying his “impotence” may wound the target but, ultimately, they set the character into an endless repetition of failure.  Nothing changes for Portnoy except for his words.

Final Suggestions

In Levinas’s reading of Don Quixote, which can be found in his Sorbonne lectures of 1976, he notes that although Quixote was “bewitched” by images and imaginings, he was awoken from his slumber in images by virtue of the “hunger of the other man.”  This hunger reminds Quixote that he was bewitched.  With Stand Up comedy, I would suggest that we come to learn that we are the one’s who are bewitched with the power of consciousness and targeting.   And this is the case because, with Kaufman’s “stand-up,” we see the suffering of the comedian; we literally see his hunger communicated by way of comedy.

To be sure, Andy Kafuman uses comedy to expose us to how bewitched we are by violence.  Strangely enough, all of the theories of comedy we evaluated at the outset confirm our fascination as these theories are all based on targeting and the superiority of reason, consciousness, madness, etc.  These theories are challenged by the one I am proposing and by virtue of a comedy like Kaufman’s which turns the tables.

Schlemiels are well-known for missing their targets.  And, in the scenario I have just drawn up, it is fair to say that when Kaufmann misses the comic target, so do we.  And this comic failure can have ethical effect if and only if the comedian exposes us to his vulnerability and its relationship to violence.  Comedy of this nature, as opposed to comedy that is obsessed with targeting, can loosen the grip of reason, culture, and masculinity over all of us.  In other words, it can release us from the superiority espoused by comic theories from Socrates to Paul deMan.  Comedy, by inverting the target, can expose us to the hunger of the other man.  And this possibility, I would argue, resides in the very character that makes Portnoy into a target: the schlemiel.

Yes, indeed, the schlemiel is here to stay. But we still need to ask whether the schlemiel is a “sit-down” comedian or “stand-up” comedian.   Comedy of the latter variety can be ethical, while comedy of the former variety may not be.  However, as we can see in many comedians today, some “stand-up” comedians are really “sit-down” comedians.  And, strangely enough, these kinds of schlemiels never miss their target (even if it is themselves).

 

Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufmann and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part IV)

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Sanford Pinsker, in his book Schlemiel as Metaphor, points out that Phillip Roth – in one of his autobiographical accounts – thinks of himself in the tradition of Franz Kafka, who he calls a “sit down comic.”  The book that placed him squarely in that tradition was Portnoy’s Complaint.  But what is a “sit down” as opposed to a “stand up” comedian?  What’s the difference?

As Pinsker correctly notes, this book is Roth’s debut as a sexual schlemiel.  (The term “sexual schlemiel” comes from David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews.)  As far as being a man, Potrnoy, the main character, is a half-man.  His only power is to be found in his vulgarity and wit.  But, ultimately, his sexual obsessions and antics are all associated with impotence.  And, strangely enough, he admits to this form of failure.  He can’t “stand up.”

But Portnoy is a different kind of schlemiel and his “sit down” comedy is of a different variety.  Unlike traditional schlemiels, Roth is obsessed with targeting his listeners, his mother, and women who reject him.  And unlike Woody Allen, Roth’s sexual schlemiel is not charming.  He is pathetic.  And this makes him into a target of sorts.  Nonetheless, he targeting of others overcompensates for this and he, so to speak, hits them when they are not looking.  He doesn’t “stand up” to them, but when he does, toward the end of the novel, he is shamed.

Portnoy’s Complaint is structured as a discussion with a psychologist.   Portnoy is telling his story – from youth to the present – to the psychologist.   And this suggests that he wants to “work through” his past.   What we find from the story is that he has many comic targets – his mother, sexuality, his father, and women – which he fires at so as to feel superior.  However, he is a schlemiel insofar as this targeting does nothing to change his situation.   And the more he does it, the more he himself becomes a target of the reader.

In relation to his mother, Portnoy says many angry things.   One exemplary moment comes up when he recalls “Ronald Nimkin’s suicide note” which Nimkin’s mother found “pinned” to his “nice stiffly laundered sports shirt.”  It is the “last note from Ronald to his momma.”  The note is about how Mrs. Blumenthal called and won’t be able to play “Mah-Jong.”  Commenting on this, Portnoy notes, in the most sarcastic way, that Ronald was a “nice Jewish boy” to the very end.  He goes on to mock Ronald’s mother and all Jewish mothers:

Say thank you, darling.  Say you’re welcome, darling. Say you’re sorry, Alex.  Say you’re sorry! Apologize! Yeah, for what?  What have I done now?  Hey, I’m hiding under my bed, my back to the wall, refusing to say sorry, refusing, too, to come out and take the consequences.  Refusing!…Oh..why did Ronald Nimkin give up his ghost…? BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANYMORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHER’S ARE TOO MUCH TO BEAR! (120-21)

Sexual propriety is also targeted since he talks at length about masturbation.  In fact, there is a whole section of the book entitled “Whacking off.”  Let me cite a little:

Then came adolescence – half of my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splay, up against the medicine-chest mirror….

I’ll stop there as the account becomes much more detailed and vulgar.

The biggest target of all is a Sabra named Naomi. He meets her in Israel.  She sexually defeats him and, in the process calls him a schlemiel.  Their dialogue is worth quoting at length since it touches directly on humor and targeting. Naomi’s great insight is that Portnoy doesn’t simply use humor to target others but to target himself:

The way you disapprove of your life! Why do you do that?  It is of no value for a man to disapprove of his life the way that you do.  You seem to take some pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own humor.  I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life.  Everything you say is somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’.  All day long the same thing.  In some way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating.  Self-deprecating?

In response, Portnoy says that the Sabra should appreciate what he is doing since playing the schlemiel is, historically, a staple of Jewish humor: “Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “self-deprecation is, after all, a classic form of Jewish humor.” In response, she notes that this is not Jewish humor but “ghetto humor.” As an Israeli, she is saying that she has gone beyond that kind of humor.  In response to her identification of his humor as ghetto humor, Portnoy says he resembles her remark and mockingly identifies with the “Diaspora Jew” who is “frightened, defensive, self-deprecating, unmanned and corrupted by life in the gentile world”(265).

After hearing her discourse, he sarcastically says: “Wonderful.  Now let’s fuck.”  Disturbed by this reply, Naomi stands up to him and calls him several names: disgusting, a self-hating Jew, a coward, and last but not least, “schlemiel.”  He also calls her names.  But, after she calls him a schlemiel, she leaves him while he carries on.  But at a certain point he tries to prove to her that he’s not a schlemiel but a “man”: “Only I leaped from behind, and with a flying tackle brought this red-headed…dish down with me onto the floor.  I’ll show her who’s a schlemiel”(268).  What ensues is a struggle that turns comic.  When it comes to the moment of sex, he is impotent:

How has it come to this?  “Im-po-tent in Is-real, dad a daah,” to the tune of “Lullaby in Birdland.”  Another joke? She asked.  And another.  And another.  Why disclaim my life.” 

The final pleas of this “sit down” comic are pathetic.  In laughing at him, we aim at a clear target.  To be sure, he takes on the target and says, comically, that he is going home.

We target Portnoy “as” a sexual schlemiel but he doesn’t care.  He sings the song “impotent in Israel” and calls the Sabra names so at to target her and to say that he has won a “verbal victory.”  This victory, however, is ironic.  We see him as a target of his own humor.  Portnoy is blind to the fact that his ironic (and word-crafted) victory conceals his “real” impotence.  This knowledge or insight exposes us to his blindness and to our being better or superior to him.  He’s a schlemiel while we are not.  However, this superiority is at the expense of his verbal victory.  We knowingly exclude him by valuing masculine “normality” over comic abnormality.  And in this we are complicit with Naomi.   We target him and see that he targets himself as a schlemiel (of the negative variety).   However, we are still blinded by this gesture as we are not exposed to our complicity or to our targeting.

The problem with a novel, as Levinas points out in his essay “Reality and its Shadow,” is that it requires an interpretation. Without interpretation, the character, he claims, will be stuck in endless repetition or what he calls “mythology.” The time of the character is what he calls “the meanwhile” or “the interval.”  Instead of changing the character in the novel – here, the schlemiel – will not change (as time requires a movement or a form of becoming from one kind of being to another).  This is consonant with Bergson, but with Levinas laughter alone is not sufficient to pull a story or a character out of the interval or mythology.   Moreover, we, the readers, will also bewitched if we simply laugh at Portnoy.  By laughing at the schlemiel, Levinas would say that we, too, are caught in the interval.

I would deepen this argument to include another element: targeting.  What happens in Roth’s novel is that we are not exposed to our targeting and that is what maintains another kind of mythology; namely, the mythology of superiority and selfhood which makes the contrast between the half-man, schlemiel in the novel and the reader who is not a schlemiel.   In this structure, which is the classical structure of comedy and comic theory, we have no sense complicit.  We know we are “in on the joke,” but we aren’t exposed to this targeting.

I would argue that complicity is harder to read with “sit down” comedy that it is in “stand up” comedy because we can’t see the face of the other in a novel.  (Although I would argue there are comic novels that do in fact expose us to targeting.  Portnoy’s Complaint, however, is not one of them.  It serves, in this blog entry, to make an important point of  contrast.)  For this reason, it’s easier for us to target and judge Portnoy as an impotent failure.  It’s easier for us to subscribe to traditional theories of humor when targeting and judging this sit down comic.

In the next blog entry, I will introduce the case of Andy Kaufman which provides us with the case of a “stand up” comic who exposes us to our targeting and our complicity.  He provides us with an opportunity to bring a Levinasian reading to bear on comedy.  In Roth’s comedy, we find that a Levinasian reading isn’t as prescient as a classical reading of comedy which targets the comic character – here, the schlemiel – as inferior.

Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufmann and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part III)

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The last two targeting theories I’d like to look at, before I address Emmauel Levinas, Philip Roth, and Andy Kaufman come from Charles Baudelaire and Paul deMan who, apparently, follows in Baudelaire’s comic footsteps.   (I have written several blogs on Baudelaire and deMan’s reading of comedy.  What I look to do here is to summarize their views and to distinguish their approaches to a Levinas-ian one.)

Like many of the other theorists we have seen so far, the 19th century French Symbolist poet Charles Baudeliare, in his “The Essence of Laughter,” associated what he called “essential laughter” with Satanic superiority and human fallen-ness.  The target of this laughter is innocence and the result of this laughter is a kind of double consciousness of oneself in terms of otherness.  The consciousness of the Satanic – double consciousness – is sufficient to overcome and use the Satanic for social progress because, for Baudelaire, it marks a superiority over nature (one’s one and the world’s). However, in laughing at the fallen, one also feels a loss.  Both are incorporated into one’s consciousness and, taken together, they are for Baudeliare part and parcel of being modern.  The best examples Baudelaire gives come from the world of mime and the comic/horrific world of ETA Hoffman.

The element of blindness and naivite, which is found in the subject of any comic routine, act, joke, or passage, is the key to understanding the Satanic.  With respect to the mime, Baudelaire sees the movements of the mime as bringing out a blindness and a disregard for the civil (but this disregard is blind). We laugh at this disregard for the world and, at the same time, its falleness.  We identify with the excessive and odd gesturing of the mime, yet, at the same time, by laughing at the mime’s gestures we are indicating that we are superior.  And this marks our identification and dis-identification, our double consciousness that one is and one is not caught up in a kind of gestural fallen-ness.

But the fact that Baudeliare turns to the example of fallen-ness that comes to us by way of the German writer ETA Hoffman (as the final example) indicates that something is missing in the mime example.  What’s missing is a greater appreciation of how innocence and its loss play the main role in essential laughter.  The story that interests Baudelaire involves the laughter at a little girl’s shock at learning that the soldiers she has idealized are, ultimately, animal-like.  It is her father, a “magician,” who brings her to this profane revelation.  Her shock at fallen-ness and our laughter at it illustrate, for Baudelaire, our Satanic sensibility.  He calls it a kind of madness, a vertigo at this or that loss.  However, as Baudelaire argues, this madness is followed by a moral awareness of how laughter can be used for progress.  We go into the world with a, so to speak, tainted understanding of our “superiority.”  It is far from perfect and works by way of shocking the innocent.  Nonetheless, without such superiority over nature man would have no meaning.

Further to this last point, Baudelaire’s prose piece, “A Heroic Death,” shows us that laughter is far from progressive and positive; it also creates a wedge between the real artist and the artist of consumption.  The cynical conclusion of this piece is that the consumer, so to speak, has the last laugh while we, the readers, lose our innocence as we are exposed to the cruel truth that power is greater than “real” art (in this case the art of a comic mime).

In “A Heroic Death,” it is the Prince, a being in the position of the power, who embodies the Satanic-comic life.   He is the ultimate consumer.   After he learns that the comic mime (jester) has plotted to kill him with other nobles, he puts him into a test where the Mime has to make the performance of a lifetime.  When he, as Baudelaire notes, becomes one with the symbol and effaces the line between himself and what he is performing, he gives the audience something of a revelation.  They are all enraptured and “intoxicated” with what they see.

However, the Prince is troubled because he loses all of the attention of the people.  The comic mime wins their attention and, in effect, robs the Prince of his power.  In response, he laughs at the true artist who steals his power and this, in effect, leads to the mime’s pathetic (not heroic death).  To be sure, it is the artist and the correlation of acting and symbolism that are the target of modern Satanic laughter.  And we can have no doubt that Baudelaire identified with the comic mime who, in the end, although bearing the truth by way of comedy, is the target of power.  The “real artist” loses, while the artist-as-consumer wins.  The death of the mime is something of a premonition of reality TV since the Prince sees the mime’s acting under duress as a form of entertainment.  As the narrator of “A Heroic Death” tells us the prince turns to entertainment to eliminate his worst enemy: Boredom.  The murder of the artist – by way of Satanic laughter – is in the name of amusement.  It has entertainment value.  This disturbing conclusion shows that, for Baudelaire, the target of humor in the modern world is the artist.  Even s/he cannot escape the daemonic.  S/he becomes its target.

Paul DeMan’s challenge to us, today, is to argue that irony and comedy turn the target back on oneself.  Reading Baudealire, deMan sees humor as leading to madness.   But the madness he looks at is not simply the madness that the girl in the ETA Hoffman story experiences or the madness we witness at the failure of the mime’s art in “A Heroic Death.”  According to deMan, we don’t discover the Satanic in what Baudelaire called “essential laughter” so much as the nothingness of oneself.   Comedy shares nothing inter-subjective with the other.  It has no meaning save the destruction of meaning.  That is what DeMan calls the “irony of ironies.”  Meaning, the self, and the inter-subjective are, for deMan, the targets of irony.

For deMan, what we find in the wake of the Prince’s Satanic laughter, so to speak, is the abyss.  The best things humanity has to emulate – innocence, hope, and art – are the targets.   And the elimination of these targets leaves one alone, abandoned, speechless, and cynical.

I would like to suggest that Levinas’s interest in the relation to the other can be understood as a challenge to deMan and to the tradition of comic judgment and targeting.   As Levinas notes in several of his texts, the notion of the isolated consciousness and “essance” – which deMan and the other comic theorists we have discussed, return us to by way of laughter – are challenged by way of the other.  In relation to the other, I am vulnerable, exposed.  I cannot separate my consciousness from the other.  Using hyperbole, Levinas argues that we must use an “amphiblology” when speaking of our relation to the other because we are assymetically related to the other.  Our words cannot approximate our relation to the other; they fall short of what he, elsewhere, calls infinity.   Our signification in relation to the other is Saying.  And, as I would argue, it is comical.  In relation to the other, we are comical but we are not alone.  The comedy is in the relation and not in the act of targeting.

We risk ourselves when we relate to the other who can accept or reject our love or care.  We are, as Levinas says, “traumatized” and “inspired” by the other.   Although Levinas sees this as a very serious affair, the fact of the matter is that comedy can expose us to vulnerability. More importantly, it can expose the audience to its violence against the other.  Through comedy, we can bear witness to being traumatized and inspired by the other.  But, as I’d like to show in the next few blog entries, this witnessing can invert the targeting that is, as we have seen above, part and parcel of nearly every theory of comedy from Aristotle to deMan.

We can see the oscillation of the comic target in relation to what Phillip Roth would call the tradition of “sit down” comedy and to Andy Kaufmann’s “stand-up” comedy.   In the next blog entries, I’d like to contrast the two so as to show how the schlemiel, as a comic character, can be read in terms of traditional theories of comedy which lay emphasis on targets and superiority and to a Levinasian way of reading comedy – one which looks to show how the comic target is inverted by the other.