Andy Kaufman and the Inversion of the Comic Target


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)


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 Kaufman and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part II)


The reflection on and implementation of comic targeting has a long history which stretches back to the origins of Greek philosophy.   The reflection on the target is of utmost importance for thinkers who wish to establish this or that kind of hierarchy or agonistics between appearance and reality, the mind and the body, being and becoming, and other topics germane to Western philosophy.

For Socrates, the role of irony was to create a sense that things are not always as they seem: he looked to separate appearance from reality, being from becoming, and truth from untruth in his ironies.  We see a good example of this in the Symposium where Alicabades, fully intoxicated, bursts into the Symposium and accuses Socrates of being a seducer.  In his drunkenness, Alciabades publicly accuses Socrates of lying about his quest for truth.  For Alciabades, Socrates acted ‘as if’ he thought physical was inferior to the love of wisdom.  It was a front that he used to seduce young men.  The irony is that Socrates “seems” to be into the former and is seducing young boys, but in actuality he is brining them closer to the truth.  His irony is that of a philosophical trickster. In the end, Alciabades claims that Socrates wears that mask of Silenius, the cohort of Dionysus.  He seems to be a seducer but, ultimately, he’s not.  He is committed to truth and being. And the target of his ironies is always what seems to be true: becoming.

In his book On Masochism, Gilles Deleuze argues that Socrates destroys this or that target in the name of this or that principle.  Irony has a philosophical use: it makes one distinguish and judge the difference between appearance and reality.  In contrast to irony, Deleuze, citing Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs, posits humor; for Deleuze humor doesn’t aim at destroying a target and establishing a principle so much as elaborating what he calls a contract which reduces absolutes to finite terms and relations.   In Delueze’s model, there isn’t a hierarchy so much as a lateral tension between beings which is not ironic so much as humorous.

In The Poetics (5:14) and The Rhetoric, Aristotle saw humor as introducing the “incongruous.”  The joke surprises the listener by offering something he or she did not expect in this or that series.  This laughter or surprise is another way of saying that what is laughed at is not beautiful or harmonious.  Humor is a distortion of proper mimesis and is, for this reason, a target.  Aristotle notes this in the poetics, Chapter 4:

Comedy, as I said, a mimesis of people worse than are found in the world – ‘worse’ in the particular sense of ‘uglier’, as the ridiculous is a species of ugliness; for what we find funny is a blunder that does no serious damage or an ugliness that does not imply pain, the funny face, for instance, being one that is ugly and distorted…

For Thomas Hobbes, the author of the classic on political philosophy, Leviathan, humor was wedded to power.  As Sander Gilman points out in an essay on post-Holocaust humor, for Hobbes humor was either aimed at people who had less or more than oneself.  And when one laughs, Hobbes tells us that one feels “superiority” and “sudden glory.”  It is this feeling that one strives for as it makes one feel “as if” one is a god and beyond it all.  One sees the other stumble and laughs by virtue of their not falling.  This feeling cannot be attained without the destruction or decline of this or that target.  One, so to speak, becomes free from the target once one wounds it.    Hobbes states it plainly in his opus, Leviathan:

Men experience the passion of a sudden glory by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves (33)

For Immanuel Kant, comedy is also surprising.  And like Aristotle, he thinks it has a critical function. But for Kant laughter also has an ameliorative function.   Its target, like that of Aristotle, is that which causes tension and perplexity.

Simon Critchley, in his book, On Humor, notes that in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Kant sees humor as offering “comic relief” to this or that tension.  Here’s Kant’s joke which, as Critchley notes, has racist overtones:

An Englishman at an Indian’s table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement. – Well, what’s so amazing in that? asked the Englishman. – Oh, but I’m not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in. – This makes us laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure. This is not because, say, we think we are smarter than this ignorant man, nor are we laughing at anything else here that it is our liking and that we noticed through our understanding. It is rather that we had a tense expectation that suddenly vanished…

In this joke, the comic relief corresponds not simply to the structural tension presented by the joke but ethnic relations and tensions.   Regardless, what we find is that perplexity is the target and it is perplexity which creates the tension.  The surprise (that is the punch line) here is much like the surprise discussed by Hobbes: it grants one a sense of superiority which, ultimately, is based on realizing that what we thought was perplexing or worthy of serious concern really isn’t.

Comic relief happens when the target is eliminated; strangely enough, this happens when one learns that the target (the perplexity) is not a target (or perplexing).   It only “appeared” to be so.  Comedy, like perplexity, may make one fell uneasy, but in the end it is supplanted by knowledge.  To be sure, this process of experiencing wonder/perplexity (and unease) and the displacement of it is rooted in Aristotle’s approach to wonder and philosophy in The Metaphysics.   Indeed, Aristotle saw happiness in terms of relieving the tension one feels in the face of wonder (that is, not knowing).  In the wake of perplexity, knowledge is relief; just as in the joke, as Kant understands it, the knowledge that the perplexity was a ruse also grants relief.

One can be assured, that there is no tension.  It was just a joke. And in learning this, one feels superior rather than subordinate to this or that perplexity.

Even for the Romantics, comedy has a target. Irony looks to play with and destroy things.  It is violent.  Wit is, as Novalis says, a Menstruum Universale,  a chemical substance.  It targets thinks and breaks them down.  And what we laugh at, like children, is the fragmentary remains (or the process of this breakdown).  Wit demonstrates one’s ability to break things down and, in the process, one elevates oneself (one’s tactical, practical sensibility) over these things.  Instead of the reign of reason, as with Kant, we have the reign of play and tact.  Regardless, there is a kind of superiority – either of play, humanism, or reason – at work which is based on overcoming this or that target.

As I have pointed out in various blog entries, Kierkegaard saw irony as a challenge to the world and all our mental machinations. Irony can make one into a god of sorts.  As Kierkegaard points out in his book Either/Or, humor seems to come out of nowhere to rescue one from despair.  In a section of the book entitled “Rotations,” Kierkegaard sees humor in relation to what he calls rotation.  In the aesthetic (as opposed to the religious or the ethical) one moves from one thing to another – from melancholy to comedy. Although humor “saves,” it does so by taking the world as its target.  It rotates from being brought down by the world to lifting oneself above it, like a god.  But, ultimately, Kierkegaard sees humor as subservient to faith.  Irony divests oneself of the mind, world, etc.  But it is fear and trembling which, for him, supercedes humor.  Regardless, the theme is, still, about targeting and elevation.

Like Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson, in his “Essay on Laughter,” also has a distinct target.  He argues that laughter takes the mechanical gesture as its target.  For Bergson, it targets the mechanical because laughter is connected to becoming, change, and life – to what he calls élan vital – while the mechanical is connected to stasis.  Laughter is a part of what he calls “creative evolution.”  To illustrate this, Bergson talks about different toys that children find funny: like the Jack-in-the-Box, a toy that mechanically repeats the same “surprising” mechanical gesture.  The same goes for mimes or clowns who repetitively repeat this or that action.  We laugh at it because we want to identify with and yet exclude this behavior from society as society. For Bergson, humor is based on “creative evolution” and becoming not repetition.     We laugh because we want to grow and that requires that we target that which keeps us from being free and becoming.

The surprise we feel is, for Bergson, connected to the fact that what we see is repetitive.  It is ultimately transcended by the desire for change which is surprised by that which can change but does not.  It finds these things that repeat over and over again surprising as they go against becoming which Bergson finds germane to humanity.  Here, the surprise is not wonder so much as an articulation of the superiority of élan vital which cannot tolerate the mechanical, which is below life.

In the next blog entry I will discuss Paul deMan’s targeting as the culmination of all of these targeting theories and, from there, I will relate this to Emmanuel Levinas, Phillip Roth, and Andy Kaufman who either extend or challenge this reflection on targeting.  The point of all this reflection on targeting is to show how deeply entrenched this tradition is and to think about whether or not Levinas, Roth, and Kaufman present an alternate route.

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


“Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you’re dressed for it.” (Woody Allen)

Comedy is inseparable from targeting.  Take a look at any joke and you will notice that it most likely has a target.  And, sometimes, the comedian or author may make him or herself into a target.  Whether one targets oneself or a target other than oneself, the target spurs those who laugh (in the audience) to feel or bear witness to some kind of superiority.  To be sure, the philosophy of comedy translates targeting into theory.  From Immanuel Kant and Thomas Hobbes to Henri Bergson and Charles Baudelaire we see the same gesture which posits a subject who (or which) is superior to the person or idea which is the target of this or that joke.

Even dialogical forms of comedy work on a similar premise of targeting and overturning – inter-subjectively and dialogically – this or that idea or object by way of inversion.  We see this, for instance, in Mikhail Bahktin’s theory of the carnivalesque in which low culture dialogically subverts high or dominant culture by way of comic parody.  And even when a theorist like Paul deMan argues, in his essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” that the “irony of ironies” short-circuits both inter-subjectivity and subjectivity, the fact remains that both inter-subjectivity and subjectivity are, for deMan, the true targets of comedy.  For him and, as he claims, for Charles Baudelaire, “essential laughter” makes one “mad.”   It makes one experience a kind of subjective vertigo which occurs in the wake of nihilation wherein no meaning remains (whether that meaning was shared and inter-subjective, a concept, or the elevation of reason over its target).  Comic (or is it tragic) madness takes meaning and the self as its ultimate targets.  And in its wake, nothing save anxiety, despair, and dizziness remain.

Instead of seeing comedy as destroying one target or another, I would like to suggest a reading of comedy that is based on being, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas might say, traumatized and inspired by the (other) comedian.  In the reading I would like to suggest, the comedian effaces the target and turns the act of targeting back on the audience.  (He doesn’t target them so much as expose them to targeting as such.)  To explore this notion I would like to address two particular kinds of comedy: Phillip Roth’s “sit-down” comedy (articulated through Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint) and the “stand-up” comedy of Andy Kaufman.  In the comedy they put forth, the audience and the reader may become uneasy and uncertain of themselves and their subject. They may not be sure if the comic subject needs their help and if they have anything to do with his or her humiliation.  The audience or reader, in short, is comically called into an ethical relation with an otherness that exposes them to relations of force.  And this gives them an acute sense of responsibility since they are caught up in this web of relations.  Their humor, to be sure, has high stakes.  

However, as I look to show, Roth and Kaufman fundamentally differ in the sense that in Roth the targeting doesn’t go far enough and may fall into what Levinas calls the “meanwhile” while in Kaufman the target is inverted.

Since the position of the comedian is one that includes ridicule and rejection, the audience’s responsibility is faced with the question of what it means to be implicated in an act of (comic) violence and what one can do about it.  But can one really do anything save bear witness?

The audience is exposed to the targeting that aims at the comedian.  Ultimately, there is a “madness” that comes with this brand of comedy but it is not, as deMan held, private and deeply subjective; it is shared publicly and, in a Levinasian sense, asymmetrically between the comedian and the audience.  And this madness, which is comic, marks one’s ability to respond. The madness of comedy is not, as deMan would hold, a private madness which is devoid of any relation anything remotely ethical; on the contrary, the madness of comedy is a “madness of responsibility.”

I would suggest – by way of Roth and Kaufman – that this general kind of comic responsibility is particular to the schlemiel – the Jewish fool.   Both Roth and Kaufman are, without a doubt, drawing on this character albeit in different ways.  The schlemiel, for some Jewish writers, is a comic target that must be ridiculed and left behind; for still others, it should not be left behind since it has an ethical effect, it inverts the comic target and awakens the asymmetrical relation between the comedian and audience.

On the one hand, we see the target a challenged form in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy and, on the other, we see it vindicated by Andy Kaufman.  Because both are targeted and because they deflect this targeting on the reader or audience, their comedy gives special attention to the target.  And this creates a kind of madness.  Comic responsibility is mad because it includes laughter, ridicule, and exposure to the other.  It marks the inversion of the target and opens up a new way of understanding comedy, philosophically.

Before we can understand the inversion of the comic target (in a Levinasian sense), we first need to understand how the comic target has been theorized.  To this end, I will make a brief survey of the philosophical theories of comedy from Socrates and Aristotle to Henri Bergson and Paul deMan.  Each of them understood the target of comedy in terms of one superiority or another: “élan vital,” Culture, Reason, consciousness, congruity, beauty, madness, etc.  To be sure, upon close reading, we can see that, in the philosophy of comedy, there is a common thread which spans the classical-Greek philosophers, the European Enlightenment, and European modernist.  And that thread is held together by the fact that all of them understand comedy in terms of this or that target.

In my next blog entry, I will address these positions.