Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Jews

So I've been thinking a lot about the Jews recently, and what it means to be Jewish. This is prompted primarily because I've been listening to this podcast by this Jewish American standup comedian Marc Maron, in which he basically every week interviews a different. often Jewish comic, and they discuss the art of standup and comedy and their neuroses which prompted them to become standups in the first place. There are two common characteristics between Maron and his subjects which are curious to me a) That every comic is in therapy b) That I find the interviews really useful, edifying and relate able as an artist and gentile. That the drive to become an artist is similar to the drive to become a comic comes from some compensatory mechanism for some essential defect or personal neuroses which developed from their upbringing.

 The second point about this is something you mentioned about this blog, that it is success through failure, which is an idea I've never really come across, but since you mentioned it I've come to recognize it as a definable strategy common amongst many Jewish artists and creative types. Marc Maron started the podcast after he divorced from his wife in his mid-40's, was broke with no immediate career prospects after devoting 20 years of his life to comedy, it was an act of reaching out and desperation in that it was the only thing he had available to him at the time-why not just interview his comedian friends in his garage and put it out onto the internet and from that over the last few years has become wildly successful and managed to put his career back on track. Success through failure.
There's this poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who Dj's as Kenny G on WFMU and is the guy who started ubuweb who was recently invited to Michelle Obama's poetry night in the Whitehouse who I am presuming is Jewish and whose seminal work is 'Fidget' which documents precisely every sensation in his body for a 13 hour period of time doing nothing in his office, it's like a literary equivalent of Cage's silence. According to wiki his work is concerned with 'Uncreativity as Creative Practice'. Success through failure.

Is this a Jewish thing? I made a mental list of all the great Jewish artists and intellectuals and I feel like there's a pattern from Kafka to Larry David. And if so, is this a strategy you should be pursuing at the moment?

And on the topic, what the fuck is this film meant to be? It's like the worst movie ever but all the characters have been replaced by Hasidic Jews and everything automatically becomes comical.


And did you see the trailer for Spielbergs Tintin movie? Obviously no one told him about the uncanny valley.


  1. I would offer a few speculative thoughts:

    a) The first major distinction between artists and comics is that comics are much more egotistical, self-centered, infelxible and serious. I think this differences are so large as to say comics and artists have little in common.

    b) That every comic is in therapy. I supect this is a particularly American trait. Therapy culture is massive in the states and comics, being entirely egotistical and loving to talk about themselves, naturally gravitate towards therapy.

    c) The comic tendancy towards self-depracation has always been a pre-esiting comic strategy, and the extent to which it has became dominant in US comedy and/or Jewish culture has in my opinion been a case of particular sub-groups adopting a pre-existing comedic form.

    d) For the Jews, the neurotic archetype can almost wholly be traced to Woody Allen. To the extent it is regarded as "jewish humour" it is in fact largely a uniquely american thing that has been retrospecively adopted by Jewish identities (interpellated i would argue), especially as an immigrant coping strategy post-WW2. All the slef-relating aspect of jewish humour i would say is magnified beyond recognition post ww2, and when jews lived in europe prior to this they had so much less contact with non jews that the self-deprecation was not from the gaze of the Other as we have now.

    The Jewish comic tradition prior to this is in fact very different as can be seen in charlie chaplin and marx bros (which is very linguistic). If you want to hear really traditional jewish humour for a yardstick, if this is what i think it is, this is pretty good And I would also add that yiddish jokes are by far the funniest and it is nearly entirely because of the reifying nature of the language in which every adjective and verb is reified to become a noun , an eternal quality of the person or thing. I would also note how english jewish comedy doesnt have this neurotic aspect at all.

    For me the most jewish part of Woody Allen's comedy is the yiddish intonation of his voice, and his yiddish linguistic timing (which sounds neurotic) - but traditionally these jokes were not neurotic at all - this therapy/neurotic strain could only have started post-freud, and hence largely in post-ww2 america when jews were completely terrified of gentiles and just wanted to avoid persecution in america by making fun of themselves preemptively.

    e) "That the drive to become an artist is similar to the drive to become a comic comes from some compensatory mechanism for some essential defect or personal neuroses which developed from their upbringing."

    I think it is a universal rule that anything anyone does is such a compensatory mechanism, whether it be banking, law, dancing, or eating particular foods. I think the only reason artists seem to be so "affected by their upbringing" is simply because it is so hard to bbe an artist in our socio-economic system that you have to be a little bit pathological to undertake such a difficult strategy. However, you see with rich kids who are totally well adjusted , and sometimes good artists, that being neurotic is not a neccessary condition for art. I mean, art is a broad church and can accomodate neurotics better than most things, but it is only a particularlar type. Believe me there are just as many pathologically successful lawyers as artists.

  2. f) Whether there is a connection between Jews and failure is much more interesting. In Kafka and Larry David you have impending doom that can never be avoided, or loosely as it has been put "your guilt is certain, we are just here to work out what crime".

    I would say this connection is stronger, but i don't think it is a strictly neurotic, self-loathing. It is probably linked to ideas of jewish guilt (coexistant with jewish tight knit culture, incredibly strong social links, personified by jewish mothers inflicting guilt.) AS it has been said of Kafka, part of his genius was to imbue the impersonal beuracracy of the modern with jewishness.

    SO I would start out by saying that jewish notions of failure are in some way tied to having a very strong sense of community (hence pressure, shame, guilt), and of everyone knowing each other's business. In this way for a jew to be successful in a non-traditional way it is not uncommon to have to avow thier failure to live up to a particular expectation, to symbolically enact the death of the communities expectations of them. Perhaps this isn't a uniquely Jewish thing, but certainly it is a community networked tighter than most where you have a sense of social expectations.

  3. the other strong sense of jewish failure comes from the strong legalism of jewish religious law. In christianity you can absolve your sins and the important thing is to believe, to be good in your heart, to have faith. Jewish legalism has a much much smaller emphasis on faith and inner belief and a lot more on performative action - hence the notion that you are always breaking some law or acting not quite in accordance with the letter of the law.

  4. I'd agree with you, the comic archetype discussed by Maron et all is like the Modernist artistic archetype prior to the re-evaluation in the sixties by Warhol, Minimalism and Conceptualism and it's probably a less valid model now. As we are discussing, artists especially in places like Europe and to a certain extent the States mimic and have taken on the persona and social roles of businessmen, activist, philosopher or community organizers, rather than being ego driven geniuses locked up in their studios. So what about my central question, success through failure? Notwithstanding whether or not it is idiosyncratically Jewish, do you think it is a viable strategy to pursue? How could you transmute you current predicament/self-avowed paralysis into the very substance of your art?

  5. Who are some other good pre-Woody Allen Jewish comics I should listen to? Guys who would play the Catskills Mountains, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle? Not Mort Saul or Lenny Bruce, they're too 60's.

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  7. You know Jackie Gleason isn't even Jewish! But I know this type of humour, its just warner brothers cartoons.