“Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $26
“Seinfeld” aired its finale a little over 18 years ago, but the show hasn’t exactly gone away. Every day, reruns continue to air on stations all over the world, and last year, Hulu coughed up a reported $160 million for the right to stream all 180 episodes digitally. There may be a few television watchers out there who couldn’t pick Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer out of a lineup, but not many. And an enormous number of people, if prompted, can still summarize a dozen episodes’ intricate plots or spool out a series of the show’s catchphrases: “yada yada yada,” “close talker,” “master of his domain.”
What’s left to say about a show that was so celebrated during its nine-year run, and remains so familiar almost two decades later? Quite a bit, it turns out, as evidenced by Jennifer Keishen Armstrong’s “Seinfeldia,” a quirky, readable chronicle of the so-called “show about nothing” created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. (more…)
There was an unanswered question at the heart of the first season of Transparent, the TV-show-not-for-TVs, produced by an Internet retail behemoth, that earned so much love last year. It was a question apparent from the show’s title sequence, but no one, despite a vast ocean of thinkpieces and increasingly rapturous reviews, seemed to ask it directly. And yet it’s the question that Jill Soloway, the show’s creator and director, has devoted the show’s second season to answering.
Want to know what it is? Watch the title sequence again with me—or, better yet, watch it with Slate’s Stephen Vider. As he points out, the clips you’ll see are “culled mostly from video clips of bar and bat mitzvah videos from the 1960s to the ’90s,” but there are also a few shots from Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968), a “rarely seen and ground-breaking documentary of the 1967 New York Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant” and “one of the earliest screen portrayals of the lives of ‘female impersonators.’” Vider expertly explains how important that documentary footage is, rooting the show’s representation of a transgender woman’s journey in the history of transgender activism and its capture on film.
But there’s another question one could ask: Why all the bar and bat mitzvahs to begin with? Why should this groundbreaking, frankly activist show about a transgender woman’s journey be so deeply Jewish? (more…)
Here’s the moment that tells you everything you need to know about Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the feverishly anticipated, eight-episode comedy series debuting on Netflix on July 31. It’s when two of the counselors at Camp Firewood, in Maine, challenge each other to a “shofar dick sword fight.” (more…)
A surprising number of people have a professional interest in something they call “kosher comedy.” Now, there’s something compelling about the idea of a God-fearing stand-up, even more so than a pious painter, novelist, filmmaker, or musician. Notwithstanding the plot of Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, you can always paint mountains or abstractions and not encounter any serious second-commandment objections. You can narrate, on the page or on screen, the gender-segregated lives of good people and still pass religious muster. You can sing or even rap about your faith in Hashem, and it doesn’t sound absurd—or, at least, not inevitably so. But comedy is fundamentally irreverent, isn’t it? How can one square that with religion?
The answer, for the most effective of contemporary Orthodox comedians, is that you simply don’t. (more…)
In the first chapter of her 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter—a book as unrelentingly winsome as its author—comedian Sarah Silverman recalls how as a 4-year-old she broke up a room by telling her grandmother, who had offered her some brownies, to “Shove ’em up your ass.” Remembering this incident, Silverman writes, makes her “nostalgic for the days when naked obscenity was enough for a laugh, and didn’t need any kind of crafted punch line to accompany it.” (more…)
Is there any lower form of comedy than song parody? Dirty limericks and knock-knock jokes may be worthless, but at least they have the decency to be brief. A parody song almost always lasts a chorus or two longer than necessary, and that’s just the beginning of the trouble.
Which makes the best work of Allan Sherman all the more astonishing. Fiddling with the lyrics of recognizable songs—transforming “Frère Jacques” into “Sarah Jackman” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” into “The Ballad of Harry Lewis”—the heavyset, bespectacled comic turned himself into a star, sold millions of albums, won a Grammy, and headlined concerts from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. (JFK was a fan.) He also managed to say something about the place of Jews in 1960s America. (more…)
In the first 15 minutes of his third album, Mostly Live, released last year, comedian Brent Weinbach briefly speaks in the accents of the following people: a teenage Latino video blogger; a reggae hype-man; a Frenchman singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio; “a Vietnamese jazz vocalist who works as a waiter during the day”; Karen, “a young woman … wearing a beige blouse and a brown knit skirt”; and James, “a professional black male living in San Francisco.”
Weinbach does these voices sure-footedly, if always not pitch-perfectly, but he isn’t exactly an impressionist. Neither is he the kind of voice-character performer, like Nick Kroll, for whom the stand-up stage seems like a place to try out bits while waiting for a sketch show to begin filming. What Weinbach is, exactly, can be a little difficult to describe in prose. It helps, maybe, to say that in 2007 he won the Andy Kaufman Award. Or just to say that he’s one of the most formally inventive stand-up comedians currently practicing. (more…)
If old Jews telling jokes is a timeless phenomenon, it’s also one that, at the moment, offers very little insight into either the current state of comedy or the place of Jews within that field. This wasn’t always the case, of course: Jokes told by Jews in the 1940s, in Europe and America, were anything but trivial, and the puns swapped by assimilated fin de siècle Viennese wags assisted Freud in developing his theory of wit.
But I hereby submit that if you want to understand what today’s comedy reveals about Jews, the people to consult aren’t the ones retailing in-jokes to heymishe audiences, but rather our masterful goyishe comedians and the jokes they tell about us. (more…)
Moshe Kasher introduces one bit on his 2009 debut comedy CD, Everyone You Know Is Going to Die, And Then You Are, by saying the words, “I went to college.” Which, given that Kasher is a 32-year-old American Jew, would seem a little like his saying that he breathes oxygen. (more…)
Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land
Edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle
Abrams ComicArts, 240 pages, $29.95
People don’t admire paintings they haven’t seen, or dance to music they haven’t heard, but they do all sorts of crazy things with languages they don’t speak. This is what Rutgers University scholar Jeffrey Shandler described in his 2005 book, “Adventures in Yiddishland” (University of California Press), as “postvernacular culture”: Just because people don’t know a language doesn’t mean they won’t hold intense beliefs about it, long for it or revile it, and, in ways both brilliant and bizarre, put it to use.
“Yiddishkeit,” an anthology co-edited by comics great Harvey Pekar, who passed away last year, and leftist scholar and non-Jewish Yiddish-speaker Paul Buhle, does not attempt to teach its reader a selection of Yiddish words, unlike Michael Wex’s and Leo Rosten’s best-sellers. And it is not a history or an analysis of Yiddish culture, nor a collection of Yiddish literature translated into English. It’s weirder, more puzzling and more difficult to describe: We might call it a postvernacular tour de force. (more…)