Humorous Contemporary Jewish-American Authors: An Overview of the Criticism

By Nilsen, Don L. F. | MELUS, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Humorous Contemporary Jewish-American Authors: An Overview of the Criticism


Nilsen, Don L. F., MELUS


It is necessary for me to start with a disclaimer. This essay is meant only to suggest some of the things that have already been done with humor in contemporary Jewish-American literature and perhaps to suggest possible new areas of research. In no way does it intend to offer new insights or to be comprehensive. I am merely trying to demonstrate the range and the diversity of scholarship in this area. This article is not meant to be read from beginning to end, but is rather meant to be read selectively, with the reader choosing those authors and those critics most relevant to current research concerns and interests.

WOODY ALLEN (ALLEN STEWART KONIGSBURG) (born 1935)

In "The Collapse of Humor in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories," Paul Lewis compares the blend of humor and pain and nausea and horror and grief in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories with that in William Shakespeare's King Lear. Critics have attacked Stardust Memories on two fronts. They say that the film is indulgent and narcissistic. And they feel that the mingling of jokes with images of suffering is in bad taste. The title of Stardust Memories is an allusion to the scriptural message that humans start as dust and return to dust, but it is also an allusion to our present state, since we are all "stardust," with memories that glisten and then evaporate. Lewis suggests that Allen's laughter is not obscene, and that jokes about genocide and murder and war are not in poor taste, for such humor is merely reflecting our mangled world. Allen's humor is not inappropriate; it is only dark, very dark, as in his house party that is attended by rape-and heart-attack victims. Allen's character is able to bring hope into this situation by observing that if he had been born in Poland, he'd be a lampshade by now. But he wasn't, and he isn't.

In "Woody Allen: The Neurotic jew as American Clown," Gerald Mast considers Woody Allen to be a transitional humorist. Before Allen started writing, ethnic humor was mostly based on negative stereotypical traits. The Irish were constantly brawling; the Germans were drinking beer and eating Limberger cheese; the Blacks were fainting every time they saw a white sheet move; and the Jews were counting their shekels. The stereotypical humor was written to appeal to a largely immigrant, working class audience. Before Allen, no Jewish writer or performer wanted to appear as too jewish. Annie Hall (1977) was a parody contrasting the lifestyles of Jews and gentiles. It contrasted the preoccupations and conversations of jews and gentiles, and it also contrasted the cramped, dark, noisy interiors of New York City with the expansive, light, pastoral exteriors of rural America. Mast feels that Annie Hall is Allen's "most sincere, most personal, and most richly comic statement about both his life and his art." Allen associates sunlight, nature, tasteful shades, fancy furniture and clothing, and objets d'art with goyim, but he also considers goyim to be cold, unpredictable, frivolous, faddish, flippant and suicidal. Mast describes the quiet at the Halls's table to be "gracious but deadly." He describes the noise at the Singer table as "tacky but vital." Life with the Halls would be lovely and lifeless; life with the Singers would be a noisy ride on a rollercoaster. It would be loud and bumpy, but it would move -- up and then down and then up again.

In "Woody Allen [Allen Stewart Konigsberg]," Joanna Rapf lists the twenty-two films, the six plays and the three books that Woody Allen has written as well as the eight books and at least fourteen articles that have been written about Woody Allen's various writings. Allen's first play, Don't Drink the Water (1966), is about a New Jersey caterer and his wife and daughter who are touring in a country behind the Iron Curtain and who are taken to be spies because they snap a photo of something which later turns out to be a top secret Communist military installation. The family is forced to take refuge in the American Embassy. …

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