Swans Commentary » swans.com September 12, 2005  



Lawrence Epstein's The Haunted Smile


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Epstein, Lawrence J.: The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, Public Affairs, New York, 2001, ISBN 1-891-62071-1, 356 pages, $19.00 (hardcover)


(Swans - September 12, 2005)   It has been said that if you were a Christian, a Buddhist, a Freudian, or a Marxist, you would be able to interpret world history from your own ideological standpoint and make a pat explanation for all the phenomena in the world. Depending on your dogma, you would come up with a perfectly consistent interpretation of events that would confirm your particular weltanschauung. However, it has also been pointed out that no matter how tidy those explanations might appear to be, they would, because of the narrowness of their focus, be utterly specious.

That idea kept whizzing around my brain while reading Lawrence J. Epstein's The Haunted Smile, which views the development of Jewish comedians from Vaudeville to the present through a prism shaped entirely in the form of a Star of David.

There is no question that Jews have a clear lineage in the history of American comedy nor that their racial backgrounds were factors in their development as performers, but Epstein is obsessed with the correlation between comedy and Judaism to a point where hyperbole yields to sophism and sophism to lunacy.

Here he is, for instance, on The Marx Brothers:

In partially revealing his adulthood, Harpo was a perfect representation of America's Jews who were just beginning to feel comfortable in revealing their true selves to Americans.... In their portrayal of economic outsiders, they (the Marxes) reflected the common feelings, especially of immigrant Jews but also of all immigrants, that they were not being allowed into the wider society.

Which makes a kind of rough sense only until one realizes that all of Vaudeville was bolstered by racial stereotypes. There were Irish comedians like Pat Rooney, black-faced comics like Frank Tinney and Moran and Mack, and Jewish comedians like Weber & Fields who ironically parodied the diction of Dutch-German refugees. Did the Marx Brothers speak to the "immigrant experience" any more directly than these other ethnic entertainers? Were the Jews more unassimilated than the Poles, the Italians, the Germans or the Blacks? It was not so much that such performers were "outsiders," but that the American melting pot of the early 20th century bubbled over with ethnicities of every stripe. It was a nation of outsiders.

"The Borsht Belt," we are told by Epstein, "was almost a substitute for a shtetl, a village or small town in which Jews lived in eastern Europe. In the Catskill resorts, Jews were the majority, and there was no external pressure to conform to American values. They had a homeland in America for a week." But a "shtetl" was an impoverished, self-enclosed world, rigidly separated from the larger community that surrounded it. Wealthy middle-class Jews who spent a week in the Catskills drove there in classy automobiles forsaking their high-rise apartments in cities where they pulled down comfortable salaries as lawyers, accountants, manufacturers and entrepreneurs. They went to bask in assimilated entertainment not Yiddish folksongs or Hebraic rituals. They went as integrated Americans who, though conscious of their ethnic roots, were, if anything, more conscious of their American culture than their Jewish heritage.

Epstein, like a man addicted to racially-drenched psycho-babble, finds a profound Jewish attribute in almost every comedian he examines. The Three Stooges were not in a long line of knockabout comics with roots in Commedia dell'Arte but comedians dispensing veiled political critiques and making "anti-Nazi films." "Unfortunately," writes Epstein "the Three Stooges audiences were not in politically, socially or economically important positions, and a reputation for what some critics considered sadistic physical comedy prevented the Stooges' message from being heard. On the other hand, perhaps because critics or influential audiences did not take them seriously, they were free to do what other stars were not."

How does one take The Three Stooges "seriously"? How does one consider their slaps, punches, eye-gouges and pratfalls in terms of political commentary? Those films, made during the Second World War, bore the same insolent anti-Hitlerian attitude one finds in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be or any one of a number of Hollywood films satirizing the Third Reich. Moe, Curly and Larry were perpetuating the ancient tradition of Commedia Zanni; they weren't trying to make Schindler's List.

On almost every page, there are intellectually strained interpretations of Judaism and show business shtick. Lenny Bruce, we are told, "played out in public the anguish of many American Jews, some of whom did not recognize their confusion and many of whom were unable or unwilling to express it openly." This will be news to the large mass of Jewish and gentile fans who followed Bruce avidly and saw him essentially as the deflator of sexual hypocrisy and the enemy of cloaking, repressive American speech.

"Woody Allen's recurring focus on themes of adultery," Epstein informs us, "not only reflected his own sexual tensions or an evolving sexual ethic in American life, but at its roots reflected his sense that Jews had abandoned what he saw as a genuine Jewish consciousness for an American life that radically and negatively transformed that consciousness. Jewish audiences could see in such adultery their own unfaithfulness to Jewish tradition."

This is flagrant, fulsome, and sophistic hogwash! Anyone who came out of a Woody Allen film preoccupied with his infidelity to "Jewish traditions" would have had to have gone in with a pathological Jewish hang-up to begin with.

All that said, I have also to declare that Mr. Epstein has certainly done his homework and his book is filled with fascinating tidbits in almost every chapter -- viz. that Eddie Anderson (Rochester), Jack Benny's stooge, "had permanent laryngitis as a result of yelling as a youngster selling newspaper to support his family": that Sid Caesar once got so infuriated with Mel Brooks that he dangled the young writer from a window "half inside the room and half outside" until he was rescued by his fellow writers. Comic bits from all the comedians under consideration are generously sprinkled throughout each chapter, leavening what might otherwise be a somewhat too solid chunk of unsliced pumpernickel, and the author is thorough and fair in all his assessments -- although rarely critical or profound.

The irritation I feel with Mr. Epstein's book is that it is never enough for a comedian to be good and Jewish; he has to be good because he is Jewish. This appropriation of special virtues to comedians because of their ethnicity is as repellant as it would be if blacks were praised for having "rhythm" or Italians for talking with their hands.


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Epstein, Lawrence J.: The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, Public Affairs, New York, 2001, ISBN 1-891-62071-1, 356 pages, $19.00 (hardcover)

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Published September 12, 2005