Author Archives: Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz

About Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.

The Ones that Missed the Cut

Earlier this week,
Saul Austerlitz
wrote about his
recent author tour
and five not-as-terrible-as-you-think movies. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

One of the trickiest aspects of writing my book was figuring out how to structure it. After tinkering with a variety of approaches, I settled on 30 chapters, each dedicated to a single filmmaker or performer whose body of work I considered to be significant to the history of American film comedy. These 30 selections were joined by about 100 additional short entries on comic figures significant enough to deserve a mention, if not quite meritorious enough to earn a chapter of their own. 130 directors and actors seems like a lot, and I got to include most of the people I wanted, but as I expected from the outset, readers and reviewers have often been most interested in discussing the exclusions. (That is, after all, a significant part of the pleasure of assembling a list, and what is a book about film other than a bulked-up list of movie suggestions?) I’ve enjoyed the discussions, kept them in mind, and pondered who else might deserve inclusion. (Second edition, anyone?)

Here, then, are a handful of performers and directors who just missed the cut.

Steve Carell

The time between completion of a book and publication makes for strange gaps, including the exclusion of Steve Carell. With the one-two-three

punch of Dinner for Schmucks, Date Night, and animated hit Despicable Me, 2010 was the year that confirmed Carell as one of the most successful comedians of the moment. I excluded him first time around because I felt that, even taking into account the brilliant 40-Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine, Carell had too short a film resume to warrant inclusion (his vaunted television run as The Office’s Michael Scott notwithstanding). 2010’s parade of hits has meant that Carell must be acknowledged as a consistently funny performer. Carell can be a wizardly comedian, but the roles he has taken on have not always adequately reflected his mastery of a certain brand of goofy lassitude.

Five Not-As-Terrible-As-You-Think Comedy Movies

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Authors Blog.

In writing my book
Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy
, I spent a lot of time concentrating on the greatest films in the history of American comedy: your City Lights, your Shop Around the Corners, your Annie Halls. But often, the most pleasurable films I watched over the course of researching my book were the ones that were surprisingly decent. The mediocre films that turned out to be pretty funny; the supposedly terrible movies that I found myself, to my surprise, enjoying.

In their honor, I’d like to single out five pleasant surprises from among the ranks of American comedies. These might not be movies you’d want at the top of your Netflix queue, but you might find yourself pleasantly surprised if you happened to come across them, anyway.

5. Teacher’s Pet
Instead of being partnered with second-tier stars like Gordon MacRae, or Reagan, by the late 1950s Doris Day was starring opposite Clark Gable in 1958’s
Teacher’s Pet
. Directed by George Seaton, Teacher’s Pet establishes the template for the Rock Hudson films to come. Day is a professor of journalism attempting to recruit crusty newspaperman Gable to guest-lecture to her class, not knowing he is already enrolled as a student. Gable is a bit elderly for the role—you can see his hands shake when he thrusts a newspaper at Day—but the two work up a nice comic routine, with Day idealistic and sunny, and her foil cantankerous and vinegary, loving women without respecting them: “You mean to tell me that now they’ve got dames teaching unsuspecting suckers?”

Gable is most believable at his most crabbed; when he melts for Doris, the moment is hardly in keeping with the role, or with Gable himself, who never met a dame he didn’t want to push around. Day, meanwhile, struggles to maintain the appropriate distance from her student, but physical contact, like the kiss Gable snatches in her office, leaves her a little woozy, and gasping for breath. We know Doris has sex on the brain because she spurns the advances of Nobel Prize-winning scientist and author Gig Young (this film’s Tony Randall equivalent), preferring something in a more dashing cut.

Messing Around on Tour

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Jewish Authors Blog.

Being on tour for a book is simultaneously an exhilarating and a terrifying experience. Exhilarating because, after toiling so lengthily in the mines of authorial solitude, it is a pleasure of no small import to emerge to the surface, book in hand, and talk about it with friends, family, and total strangers. Terrifying because, as all authors who have ever done a book tour can attest to, the midnight panic that occasionally bubbles up, convinced you’ll give a reading and no one—literally not a single person—will show up.

Thankfully, that did not happen to me during my tour for my new book Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I occasionally broke out into a cold sweat at the prospect of.

Some writers are also good talkers, but many writers — myself included — would prefer to gather their thoughts in front of a computer, with unlimited time to gather my ideas and refine them before releasing them to the world at large. Speaking in public offers no such assurances. Like an actor, you must deliver on the spot. Acting is actually a fairly good comparison to giving a reading; there were times where I felt like an actor of whom a performance was required, and like an actor, there were times when I felt like I was playing a role, playing “the author.” But I ended up surprising myself at times with my capacity to perform. Shakespeare, here I come!

The thing about a book tour is that each stop is completely different from the previous one, even if the talk you give is the same every time. Some of my readings, like those in my hometown, Los Angeles, and New York, where I live, were filled with friends and family, while others were composed entirely of people I didn’t know. (Weirdly, I felt more confident in front of the strangers.)

Jews in Animated TV

Since the advent of The Simpsons in 1989, the animated prime-time genre, which primarily targets adults instead of children, has been one of the most creative zones in contemporary television. 

Shows such as The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy have delivered some of the most consistent laughs on TV, creatively skewering American life and culture from an infinite range of perspectives. Centered around a single family or a set of friends, these three series have steadily spiraled outward to encompass a miniature universe of walk-on characters, among which a number of Jews are present. 
krusty and his dad
Each show has also, on occasion, poked fun at Judaism and American Jewish life. The tone, for the most part, has been strikingly gentle–almost tender, preferring to use Judaism for nostalgic or satiric material rather than out-and-out savaging it. While other animated series have milked Jewish material–the children’s show Rugrats, which featured Jewish characters and released Passover and Hanukkah specials, foremost among them–it is these three series that have had the most significant impact on American culture.

With so many writers of television comedy being Jewish, it should be no surprise that these animated series all eventually took a crack at crafting Jewish-themed episodes. The freedom granted by animation allows for an inordinately wide-ranging approach to comedy, far more so than for its live-action counterparts. Judaism was hardly the focus of these series; it was only one in a nearly infinite array of subjects deemed worthy of being run through the animated wringer.

Springfield Jews

As the granddaddy of them all, The Simpsons was the first of these three shows to foray into Jewish material. The show’s imaginary Springfield was stocked, as the show progressed, with a seemingly infinite array of supporting characters: sailors, stick-up men, doctors, convenience-store clerks, and a dazzling assortment of oddballs and kooks.  Among the most memorable and endearing, was the cynical children’s-show host Krusty the Clown, who was revealed in the show’s third season to be Jewish. His real name: Herschel Krustofski. 

Jews in Television: 2000s

The 1990s were the decade of Jews, and Jewish culture, blazing their way into the television mainstream. There were numerous contributors to this occurrence, but only one need be specifically singled out: the groundbreaking NBC series Seinfeld, in which stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld reinvented the sitcom as a dazzling exploration of nothingness. Seinfeld was a show about four Jews in which only one–Seinfeld himself–was explicitly identified as Jewish. Judaism, and specifically Jewish humor, had been refined until it had melted into the American pot.

In many ways, the 2000s were the long tail to Seinfeld’s revolution, with television series of the early 21st century underscoring, and occasionally critiquing, the mainstreaming of Jewish culture onscreen. Television had become about the particular, not the universal, and Judaism was one of its primary markers of the idiosyncratic array of American mores. 

Curb Your Enthusiasm

larry david

Photo courtesy of David Shankbone.

The obvious starting point for a discussion of Jews on television in the early 21st century is the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, created by and starring Seinfeld co-creator Larry David.  David is the absurdist extension of the lovably zany Seinfeldians. He is crude, self-absorbed, and convinced of the soundness of his inevitably flawed logic. David (identified as Jewish, unlike Seinfeld’s George) hires a prostitute so he can drive in the carpool lane, schemes to purchase a friend’s cherished shirt, and steals a little girl’s favorite doll. In short, David is an exaggerated stereotype of Jewish scheming and talmudic hair-splitting, like the Seinfeld characters gone feral.

Sarah Silverman

Other Jewish TV protagonists took David’s lead, their offensiveness tempered by the humorous charm of their salvos.  The Sarah Silverman Program was like a younger, sprightlier version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, more dedicated to the potty humor so beloved of its Comedy Central audience. 

Much of Silverman’s act–on the show as well as in her stand-up–was predicated on the disjunction between her Jewish-girl-next-door looks and the panoply of jokes about (among other things) the Holocaust and date rape. Silverman’s intent was to shock, but in a complicated bit of rhetorical jujitsu, her comedy saluted her viewers for being in on the joke. Anyone who was offended was, by definition, a humorless prig.

The Three Stooges

Finding endless amusement in the brutal simplicity of no-frills slapstick, the Three Stooges are, depending on who you ask, the premier practitioners of physical comedy of their era, or the epitome of brain-dead foolishness. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, there can be little doubt that their consistency is nothing less than astonishing.  The Three Stooges–Moe (Moses Horowitz), Larry (Larry Feinberg), and Curly (Jerome Horowitz), occasionally joined by Shemp (Samuel Horowitz)–were a film and television sensation for more than three decades in the mid-20th century.

The First Stooges

The Horowitz brothers, Moe, Curly, and Shemp, were born to a moderately prosperous Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn. Their mother Jennie was a successful real-estate agent, although she could barely speak English, and their father Solomon was a fabric cutter. Samuel was born in 1895, Moses in 1897, and Jerome, the youngest, was born in 1903. By the time Moe was in his early twenties, he was a regular on stage, appearing with the Marguerite Bryant Players, a theatre troupe in Pennsylvania. Shemp, meanwhile, had steady work in vaudeville.
The Three Stooges
Moe and Shemp shot a number of short sports-themed comedies with Hall of Fame baseball player Honus Wagner in 1919 before encountering old friend Larry Fine (nee Feinberg), who had been scratching out a living in show business as well. Moe, Shemp, and Larry were hired by comedian Ted Healy in the early 1920s, to play his sidekicks. Healy was the comedian, the main act, and Moe, Shemp, and Larry were his stooges–audience plants plucked from the crowd to play along with Healy’s carefully planned routines. Healy offered them each only $100 or $150 a week, though he was raking in nearly $2,000 a week.

Shemp left the Three Stooges, as they came to be called, in the early 1930s, and Moe, the unquestioned lead Stooge, brought in his younger brother Curly as the new third member. 

In the Movies

After a triumphant performance in front of a crowd of studio executives, the Stooges signed with MGM in 1933 to produce short films with Healy. The self-consciously classy studio did not fit well with the defiantly lowbrow Three Stooges. After Healy ditched his sidekicks in 1934, believing them to be holding him back from greater successes, the Stooges signed with Columbia, then considered the crassest of the major film studios. There they would rocket to success.

Hip Hop Hoodios

In the New York neighborhood where I live, Friday afternoons are marked by the near-simultaneous call of the muezzin from the local mosque, and an alarm that marks the imminent approach of Shabbat. Kosher grocery stores sit adjacent to Mexican restaurants, and signs are as likely to be posted in Yiddish or Spanish as in English. There are Jewish proprietors who speak fluent Spanish, and Bangladeshi convenient stores that stock a wide array of kosher products.

New York is like that, sometimes. Proximity causes margins to bleed, creating mash-ups and hybrids that would be impossible anywhere else.

Hip Hop HoodiosThe Hip Hop Hoodios, led by Josue Noriega (aka Josh Norek) and Abraham Velez, have found their home amidst the linguistic and musical chaos of the big city.  Employing klezmer, salsa, cumbia, guitar rock, and a rotating cast of well-known Jewish and Hispanic musicians, the Hoodios are polyglot musical omnivores, their plate filled to overflowing with fresh sounds. The Colombian Norek and Puerto Rican Velez, who were both also born and raised Jewish, have been recording together since 2001, when both Norek and Velez were involved in the Latin-music industry (Norek as a publicist, Velez as a writer).

They have attracted a crossover audience not necessarily limited to Jews in on their jokes. As they recently told an NPR interviewer, their fan base varies with each city; crowds as Los Angeles shows have been mostly Chicano, while New York audiences are comprised primarily of Jewish hipsters. Critics, though, have been united in their enthusiastic response to the Hoodios’ first full-length album, “Agua Pa’La Gente” (2004), and the band’s two EP’s. Their new album “Carne Masada” (2009) cobbles together their greatest hits, along with some new tracks, and is–of course–a product of New York City.

If the single, “Times Square (1989),” with its shout-outs to former New York City mayor David Dinkins and former New York Mets center fielder Mookie Wilson, and its racket of wailing police sirens, weren’t hint enough, the sheer sonic cacophony of “Carne Masada” would tell the whole story. The Hoodios’ New York allegiances run deep. The Ferdinand-and-Isabella-bashing Inquisition jam “1492” builds to the shout “Forget Espana, want New Amsterdam.”

Jon Stewart

There is a voice that Jon Stewart trots out on certain occasions. High-pitched, wheedling, and nebbishy, it immediately summons to mind legions of nerdy young men wearing glasses. It is less an original impression and more an homage to every contemporary Jewish comedian’s hero, rival, and guiding star, Woody Allen, the comic genius who shucked his last name while retaining his famously conflicted stance toward Judaism.

Like Allen (born Allen Konigsberg) Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz transformed himself into the more gentile sounding Jon Stewart without actually becoming any less Jewish in affect or sentiment.
jewish humor quiz
Any comedian with a Jewish last name (or the remnants of one), and a literate, bookish shtick, will inevitably face the Woody comparisons. Jon Stewart’s Woody voice is a small, telling indication of his willingness to not only attack those comparisons head-on, but make it a part of his own persona. The same could be said of Stewart’s relationship to Judaism as a whole.

In many ways, Jon Stewart is only nominally a Jewish comedian. His enormously popular Comedy Central series, The Daily Show, is a comedic take on current events and public affairs–a sort of alternative front page for an audience who prefers Stewart to the New York Times.

Stewart rocketed to fame during the lowest years of the Bush administration, when liberal wrath at the excesses and incompetency of Republican leadership propelled The Daily Show’s brand of snarky outrage into cultural ubiquity.

The Road to The Daily Show

Born in 1962 to a middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey (his father was a physicist, and his mother a teacher), Stewart has served longer in the trenches of comedy than many Daily Show enthusiasts might be aware. Debuting as a standup comedian shortly after graduating from William & Mary in 1984, Stewart scuffled through various low-profile gigs before becoming a featured presence on MTV in the early 1990s. Graduating from writing sketches to hosting his own show, Stewart took the reins of his pleasingly lackadaisical talk show–named, conveniently enough, The Jon Stewart Show–in 1993, with B-list celebrity guests like John Stamos sharing time with the comedian’s off-kilter musings.
jon stewart

The Marx Brothers


Barbara Streisand’s <i>Yentl</i>

A peddler pulls a cart full of books into the ramshackle main square of an Eastern European shtetl. “Storybooks for women,” goes his mantra-like call for customers, “sacred books for men.” The careful divide–scholarship for men, frivolity for their wives and daughters–is never to be breached. The time and place is “Eastern Europe, 1904”–no specifics, please! And Yentl, the lone daughter of the scholarly Reb Mendel, is chafing at the limits of her constricted mental universe.

Imprisoned behind the bars of the synagogue’s balcony, forbidden to enter the men’s study hall, Yentl is a bird whose wings have been clipped before she has even had the chance to take flight.

A Unique Blend of Musical, Comedy, & Drama

Based on Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s classic short story, the Barbra Streisand-directed, much-loved, and much-lampooned 1983 film has only now received its much-belated DVD release, in 2009. Alternating madly between screwball comedy, full-throated MGM-brand musical, and drama, Yentl never entirely settles on a genre, or a tone. It seems content to leave things that way.
Barbra Steisand in Yentl
The irrepressible Yentl (Streisand) dreams of devoting herself to the study of the Talmud, but finds herself barred by her sex. “They’re talking about life, the mysteries of the universe,” she complains, “and I’m learning how to tell herring from a carp!”

So Yentl learns Torah by following along with her father’s lessons to the town’s boys,–where she mutters (and occasionally shouts) the answers to the questions proffered–and in late-night study sessions with her father, conducted with the windows closed and the shades drawn. When her father sleeps, Yentl takes out his tallit and wraps herself in it, the light from the lamp behind her revealing an unmistakably feminine silhouette under the ritual garment.

Hiding Her True Identity

After her father’s unexpected death, Yentl flees to another town, cloaked in the soft black cap, glasses, and tzitzit (fringes) that mark the unmarried religious scholar, in order to be granted the masculine privilege of learning Torah, and escape the feminine burden of crushingly boring domestic work.

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