Jewish comedy and the marginal man

August 14, 2010

There is a whole lot of literature pointing out that so much of Jewish comedy arises from Jewish pain and the feeling of being an outsider.  Back in 1975, Mel Brooks was famously quoted (in a Newsweek article of February 17, 1975, pp. 55-58, by Paul Zimmerman) saying:

Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved, lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one …. You want to know where my comedy comes from? It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you’re sixteen. It comes from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.

In his review of the book It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks by James Robert Parish, Joshua Zeitz points out that Brooks is the classic “marginal man”, a concept first introduced by the late Chicago sociologist Robert Ezra Park in 1928 and elaborated on in 1937, specifically that he is:

a cultural hybrid, a man living and sharing intimately in the cultural life and traditions of two distinct peoples; never quite willing to break, even if he were permitted to do so, with his past and his traditions, and not quite accepted, because of racial prejudice, in the new society in which he now sought to find a place.  A classic example: the Jew almost anywhere – the individual with the wider horizon, the keener intelligence, the more detached and rational viewpoint.” In other words, a man wise because he’s in his surroundings but not of them.

There is a long list of “marginal men” in comedy, and here’s proof that Ben Stiller is amongst them:  Tom Shone has just published an interview with Stiller (Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2010) coinciding with the release of the film Greenberg in which Stiller (for the first time I can recall) acknowledges his outsider status:

Stiller dislikes analysing his comedy – “I talk to my shrink about many things but never that,” he says – but admits you don’t have to dig far to unearth the roots of all that awkwardness in his adolescence.  The son of showbusiness parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he attended the progressive Calhoun School in New York where pupils called teachers by their first names and devised their own curriculum.  Even so, “I had moments of real awkwardness and feeling totally outside the loop in terms of being accepted.  I wasn’t a great student and I definitely wasn’t a sports jock.  I was into theatre but I wasn’t a theatre nerd – I was somewhere in the middle, having crushes on girls and not feeling worthy, trying to figure out who I was.  I was kind of a chameleon in high school, sort of a fly on the wall, a little bit.”

And speaking of Stiller, I can’t resist putting in the link to the early trailer for the film Little Fockers (the third in the series), due for release in the USA on December 22, 2010.