I’ve never cried when a celebrity suddenly dies. It has always seemed like something that just happens. Certainly, it’s a sad day when an actor or musician, athlete or politician has “cashed in their chips” early. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve been shocked and saddened when I’ve learned of the lethal overdose of a promising young athlete or when the news breaks that a famous actor has lost his battle with cancer. But Robin Williams wasn’t just any comedian. He wasn’t your typical actor or entertainer. Robin Williams was the textbook definition of “comedic genius.”
Robin Williams grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan only a few miles from my childhood home and, while not Jewish by birth, he was widely known as an honorary Jew—both for his brand of humor (always peppered with a Yiddish expression and Jewish inflection) and for his unwavering commitment to Jewish causes. I’ve cried several times in the past couple of days since hearing of his untimely death. He was a brilliant at entertaining us.
Like most of my generation, I was first introduced to the silliness of Robin Williams as a young child tuning in to every episode of Mork and Mindy. It was my mimicking of Robin’s goofy antics in kindergarten that led the teacher to tell my parents I was a “class clown.” And then I found my father’s audio cassettes of his standup routines, “Robin Williams: A Night at the Met” and “Reality… What a Concept.” I listened to those tapes dozens of times and brought them with me to summer camp to entertain my friends. The counselors told my parents I should be a standup comedian. Not long after that my dad took me to see Good Morning Vietnam in the theater and then I bought the video tape as soon as it came out, memorizing long segments of the movie and then performing them in front of my class at my Jewish day school. The teacher told my parents that I should tone down my R-rated humor.
As news of Robin Williams’ suicide by hanging (asphyxiation) has now been confirmed and his publicist has explained that he had been struggling with severe depression, we must now find ways to take this tragedy and bring about some positive from it. Many have noted the irony that behind the comedic mask of Robin Williams was a very dark human being who was suffering from depression. Robin Williams had it all—fame and fans, riches and rewards. He had a loving family and countless friends who cared deeply about him. Looking at his life I’m reminded of the Biblical character Jacob who also had it all, but suffered from depression.
I’m excited about the new Muppet Movie, and who wouldn’t be given great lines like the following from the trailer:
Kermit, the straight man, pleads, “The Muppets have always been about artistic integrity, not cheap tricks.”
Fozzie walks in and says, “Check it out, fart shoes!!” The adorable, Borscht Belt Bear has whoopee cushions strapped to his loafers.
It’s a sight gag with perfect timing folks, and Judaism has been celebrating that particular shtick for a long, long time. Consider the Talmudic template for the above Muppet scene:
Pelemo, a rabbi who, if I were casting Muppets, would be played by Gonzo the Weirdo, sets up the bit, “On which head does a two-headed man put on his tefillin?”
Rabbi Yehuda, plays the straight man (Kermit the Frog) who has had it up to his eyeballs with Pelemo’s outlandish remarks, “Either geli (get out of here) or be subject to a formal ban!”
Then, the best set-up term in the Talmud, addehakhi, “At that very moment,” a man walks in and says, “an infant with two heads has been born to me. How many shekalim am I obliged to give for the pidyon haben?” (B. Talmud, Menahot 37a).
How about this one? A poor beggar asks Rava for food. The great rabbi, knowing the law regarding sustaining a poor person, asks the beggar what he is accustomed to eating.
“Fattened chicken and aged wine,” the beggar says.
The rabbi protests that the beggar ought to have less extravagant taste, that such luxury is a strain on the community.
Addehahki, “just then,” Rava’s sister, whom he hasn’t seen in 13 years shows up, carrying, wait for it… “Fattened chicken and aged wine!” (Wocka Wocka!).
[For the academic types, take a look at Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud, by Louis Jacobs. He has a whole chapter on "the device of addehakhi."]
Was the Tigeris and Euphrates, the location for the early Babylonian Academies that produced the Talmud, the precursor to the Catskills where borscht belt humor was perfected?
One of the kings of that vaudevillian, take-my-wife-please, Henny-Youngman-styled humor, Milton Berle (Milton Berlinger) actually was a guest for one of my favorite Muppet Show episodes. He goes at it with Statler & Waldorf, the heckling old-timers in the balcony:
Waldorf say to Uncle Milty during his opening bit, “You know what, I just figured out your style. You work like Gregory Peck.”
Berle responds, “Gregory Peck is not a comedian.”
“Well…,” Statler lets the punchline just hang there.
“Now just a minute, please,” the agitated Milt says, “I have been a successful comedian half my life.”
And to that my Muppet heroes say, “How come we got this half?”
Statler and Waldorf are my heroes because they represent that “old Jews telling jokes” humor that I hope to embody someday. These are punchlines that you see coming from a mile away and you laugh anyway. (Just about every joke on the oldjewstellingjokes.com website is a classic, but the commercials are annoying. The book version made a very special gift).
Is there a unique Jewish humor? Remember the Seinfeld episode where the dentist is suspected of converting to Judaism for the jokes? A great deal has been written about the topic (take for example, Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Humor). Every movie has it’s challenges, but the one I’ll be looking out for with the Muppets was laid down by Saul Bellow, who said, “Oppressed people tend to be witty.”
The truth is that Jewish anti-Semitism in America is at a historic low. Is Mel Brooks ( Melvin Kaminsky) correct, that our humor is our form of revenge – think, Spring Time for Hitler (The Producers) ? Is Woody Allen (Allen Stewart Konigsberg) right, that “Comedy is just tragedy plus time?” If they’re right, does that mean our kids’ kids won’t think we’re funny? I say that there must be more than misery that instills a sense of comedy.
Keep the jokes coming. Feel free to share a classic “Jewish” joke…