Writer Arie Kaplan and the great Jewish comic book tradition


Stan Lee. Will Eisner. Art Spiegelman. Chris Claremont. These men represent a Jewish tradition that, although not quite ordained from heaven, is a hallowed tradition just the same: Jews creating comic books.

Arie Kaplan memorialized them in his 2008 award-winning book, “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books,” and now he’s working to join their ranks through a variety of his pop culture projects. Writing and cartooning, Kaplan is paying homage to the tradition and the Jewish comic book characters who inspire him while engaging in his innate passion for storytelling.

A Baltimore native now living in New York City with his wife and young daughter, Kaplan exemplifies the term “multi-hyphenate”: He’s an author, playwright, comic book writer, screenwriter for video games and television, journalist, teacher and public speaker. Recently, he wrote several of the “5-Minute Avengers” stories and contributed to the “Spider-Man Storybook Collection,” both published by Disney Book Group’s Marvel Press. 

Kaplan said he always wanted to be a cartoonist, whether that meant animation, comic book illustrations or one-panel gag cartoons for magazines. The latter was his first love, but he quickly realized it wasn’t a sustainable career like it had been in the 1950s and ’60s. 

“I started concentrating more on the writing at that point because if I just try to sell magazine gag cartoons and don’t do anything else as a creative outlet, it’s just going to break my heart,” he said. “I will have felt like I was born a generation too late because I’m doing this art form that’s kind of dying out.” 

Kaplan’s career took an unexpected early turn. When working as an assistant to a film producer while studying dramatic writing at New York University, he discovered he had a knack for playwriting. One of his first efforts, “Raisin Physics,” about a neurotic cartoonist who starts seeing a little green man from Mars,  reflected an early conflation of his lifelong  love of comic books and “Star Wars,” both pillars of geek culture — as well as his affinity for Jewish-related humor.

Since then, Kaplan’s Jewish identity has become intertwined with many of his projects. In 2008, he wrote the “Chronicles of the Racer” miniseries for IDW Publishing’s “Speed Racer” franchise, drawing a parallel from the religious history of his last name — Kaplan, as derived from the Hebrew cohen or “high priest” — to the exploits of generations of racers in the “Racer” family.

That same year, Kaplan published “From Krakow to Krypton,” which traces the historical link between Jews and comic books. It won the Booklist Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth in 2009 and was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award competition for 2008. 

Throughout his initial research, Kaplan was propelled by one central question: Why was the comic book industry so disproportionately Jewish, especially in the golden age of comics during the ’30s and ’40s? He interviewed Jewish comic book legends such as Eisner (“The Spirit”), Joe Kubert (“Sgt. Rock”) and Jerry Robinson (“The Joker”), “and they confirmed a lot of things that I thought might be true,” Kaplan said, “like the fact that there was so much anti-Semitism back then, in the ’30s and ’40s, that Jews just did not have that many other options.”

Kaplan said he hasn’t experienced any of the anti-Semitism that spurred the rise of the comic book industry in the first place. Instead, he said, “it’s kind of been the opposite. I have been encouraged, whenever I wanted, to do a story with Jewish characters or Jewish themes.” To that end, he wrote a Chanukah-themed Superman story, “Man of Snow,” for the “DC Universe Holiday Special” in 2009, and a Chanukah story for “The Simpsons” in 2008 featuring Krusty the Clown, a character who Kaplan believes epitomizes the deepest dread of many Jewish comedians and comedy writers, that “they’ll turn out to be this washed-up, used-up, shticky, hacky, caricature of themselves.”

Kaplan named another famous fictional antagonist — “X-Men” villain Magneto — as one of his favorite Jewish characters. Jewish “X-Men” writer Claremont imbued Magneto with a Jewish backstory, and the 2011 film “X-Men: First Class” dramatized Magneto’s personal connection to the Holocaust for wider audiences. Understanding Magneto’s desire to kill Nazis wasn’t too difficult for Kaplan: his grandparents were Holocaust survivors. 

Just like him, Kaplan’s 6-year-old daughter, Aviya, is a “Star Wars” fan, and his two “Lego Star Wars” books are dedicated to her. In many ways, he said, the two books — “Lego Star Wars: Face Off” and “Lego Star Wars: The Official Stormtrooper Training Manual” — are the culmination of several other projects he’s worked on over the years, including the man from Mars play and several “Star Wars” parodies he supplied to Mad magazine.

Discussing the “Lego Star Wars” books, Kaplan describes himself as “someone who takes children’s literature very seriously” — that is, as valid literature. It is this genuine reverence for storytelling, for making people laugh and creating relatable characters, that drives Kaplan every day. And perhaps this, too, is a prototypically Jewish sentiment.

As Eisner told Kaplan in “From Krakow to Krypton”: “We are a people of the Book; we are storytellers essentially.”

DOCTOR STRANGE *Movie Review*


This week I review DOCTOR STRANGE.  The latest Marvel superhero movie is about the mystical rather than the physical.  When Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a neurosurgeon, loses use of his hands following a car accident, he travels to Nepal to see The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) as he learns that she may be able to help him.  The movie also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and Benjamin Bratt with the requisite cameo by Marvel creator Stan Lee.

Time plays an interesting role because usually when time is used as a major theme it has to do with not having enough of it.  I think the bigger theme here had to do with how time can be a blessing and, perhaps even more so, a curse.  The differentiation is important because lack of time is a common concept; there isn’t enough time to do work or to relax or to spend with loved ones.  We don’t tend to consider that more time isn’t necessarily better.  For instance, if you live forever then you’ll have the heartache of watching everyone you love die since the whole world cannot live forever. Immortality and limitless time and life continue to be things we long for as a whole, but sometimes without acknowledging the consequences.  It’s interesting, too, how DOCTOR STRANGE uses time as a punishment, so pay attention for that element as well.

Water and how it cleanses and represents rebirth is another theme in DOCTOR STRANGE.

For more about water, religious symbolism in DOCTOR STRANGE and product placement deals, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Archie Comics feature film in the works


Archie comics lovers, rejoice!

Warner Brothers Pictures announced last Thursday that they are partnering with Glee writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and director Jason Moore to bring Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge and the rest of the ‘Riverdale gang’  to life on the big screen.

Archie Comics, founded by Jewish editor and publisher, John L. Goldwater,  first hit the news stand in 1942. Archie Comics animated spinoffs have been produced since the 1960s, and NBC aired the TV film “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again” in 1990.

Now, Goldwater’s son, Jon Goldwater is CEO, and hopes to convey a modern “high school” narrative film based off Archie Comics, while still appealing to a teenage audience to whom comic books have become exceedingly sparse.

Aguierre-Sacasa explains, “The idea for this is to capture a very truthful, authentic coming-of-age story with these kids that includes heartache, that includes pain, that will obviously temper the fun and the hijinks,” said Aguirre-Sacasa. “It’s going to be a fun – hopefully – summer movie, but we’re not shying away from the truth and the awkwardness and the growing pains of being a teenager.”

With comics upon comics stacked in my attic, and as someone who has (not ashamed) seen the 90′s TV movie (twice), I’m greatly looking forward to this film. Nothing describes awkward, young, and lovesick better than the Betty, Veronica, and Archie love triangle.

The centrifuge


Non-observing Observer State


Superman is Jewish?: People of the comic book


Nothing is quite so purely American as the comic book, which is why it will come as a surprise to some readers to discover that philosopher Harry Brod regards Superman and Spider-Man and many other comic-book characters to be uniquely Jewish artifacts that offer crucial insights into the Jewish experience in America.

“For it turns out that the history of the Jews and comic book superheroes, that very American invention, is the history of Jews and America, particularly the history of Jewish assimilation into the mainstream of American culture,” Brod writes in “Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way” by Harry Brod (Free Press: $25).

Brod, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, affirms that his own path into the life of the mind began with a childhood passion for comic books. 

“I attribute much of my motivation to become a philosopher by profession to my early reading of science fiction and comic books,” he explains. “The world need not be as it was. There were alterative possibilities, reached not by fantasy but by rational extension of the world we knew. ‘What if…’ became a guiding question for me, and wanting to think that through became second nature.”

The Jewish origins of our superheroes, according to Brod, do not begin and end with the fact that so many of the writers and artists who created them were Jewish. Rather, he detects the influence of characters from Jewish folktales — the golem and the dybbuk — as well as “Jewish traditions of Talmudic disputation.” Nor is it a coincidence that so many Jews found a showcase for their sensibilities in the pages of comic books: “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew,” recalls Al Jaffee, a longtime cartoonist for Mad magazine. “One of the reasons we Jews drifted into the comic-book business is that most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish. So there was no discrimination there.”

Then, too, he teases out the Jewish values, aspirations and anxieties that are sometimes deeply encoded in comic book characters. Superman, for example, can be seen as “an alien immigrant from another planet.” The Incredible Hulk, a latter-day golem conjured by Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), turns into a “man-monster” when he gets angry: “Is it too much to speculate that in the Lieber household it was perhaps impressed upon young Stanley that nice Jewish boys don’t get angry,” muses Brod, “that they’re supposed to be, dare we say it, ‘mild mannered,’ like our old friend Clark Kent?” Spider-Man “is a post-Holocaust American Jew,” writes Brod, “and the guilt that plagues and motivates him is a specific post-Holocaust American Jewish guilt.”

Brod, an intellectual whose gifts include a lively sense of humor, is perfectly willing to invoke a Jewish joke to make the point. “It is hard to resist — too hard for me, in fact — quoting Zeddy Lawrence here: ‘It may not be true in all cases, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If the word ‘man’ appears at the end of someone’s name you can draw one of two conclusions: a) they’re Jewish, as in Goldman, Feldman, or Lipman; or b) they’re a superhero, as in Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man.’ ” As Brod himself puts it: “Before Joe Shuster drew Superman, the only artist drawing Jews flying through the air was Marc Chagall.” 

So, too, does Brod detect “a mocking Yiddishist sensibility” that runs from Mad magazine to Marvel comics and finally into the pages of Playboy, whose “Little Annie Fanny” was drawn by Mad magazine stalwarts Will Elder (born Eisenberg) and Harvey Kurtzman. But he seeks to show us “how American Jews created the modern comic book,” an achievement that has less to do with Jewish jokes than with a Yiddishe Kopp — that is, a characteristically Jewish way of seeing the world.

For example, he insists that Superman and Spider-Man share a common Jewish ancestry, but the differences between these two superheroes reveals a change in Jewish self-image in America: “The difference between Superman’s and Spider-Man’s Jewishness is analogous to the ways Jews, as they became more assimilated into American culture, struggled less with identity issues of being strangers in a strange land,” he offers. “They felt themselves to be more native to America, and so became freer to act and create in ways that are identifiably Jewish, not coded or indirect.”

Brod opens his book with some special pleading on behalf of the comic book as an authentic and worthy expression of culture and creativity. By the end of his book, however, it is clear that he has made his case. Brod devotes a chapter to Art Spiegelman, who boldly rendered a story of the Holocaust as a comic book populated with cats and mice and thereby “demonstrated what the medium was capable of and that there was an audience for it.” But we are able to appreciate Spiegelman’s courageous work all the more because we have seen the work of Jewish artists and writers who came before him.

“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a champion of the oppressed! It’s a messianic liberator!” Brod sums up in his enchanting and enlightening book. “Yes, it’s the Jewish imagination in flight!”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

An X-Man takes aim at Nazi war criminals


From the demented geneticist known as Mr. Sinister to the evil giant Juggernaut, the X-Men have battled some pretty wild foes over the years. But in an upcoming five-issue mini-series called “The First X-Men,” one member of the Marvel superhero team will take on some villains seen more in the real world than in the world of comic books: Nazi war criminals.

“The First X-Men,” which will debut in August, marks the return of one of the most famous and beloved artists in the heroes’ 60-year history, Neal Adams.

During his tenure as artist on Marvel’s X-Men comic book in 1969-1970, Adams’s ultra-realistic artistic style and innovative composition stunned the comic book world. Those issues are still widely regarded by comic fans and professionals alike as the high point in the history of the X-Men.

The Holocaust unexpectedly appeared in the biography of the X-Men’s arch-nemesis, Magneto, in a five-issue Marvel miniseries in 2008, called “Magneto: Testament.” The writers showed how Magneto discovered his powers as a result of his experiences as a child prisoner in Auschwitz.

Also included in that “Testament” miniseries was Adams’s graphic depiction of the real-life plight of Mrs. Dina Babbitt and her family, in their battle for the return of portraits that she painted while a prisoner in Auschwitz, and which is being held by the Auschwitz Museum in Poland. 

Mrs. Babbitt was forced to create the paintings by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” under pain of death and to spare her mother’s life. “The return of this artwork is an ongoing campaign for all involved, and worthy of a major media campaign,” Adams tells JNS.org. “The history of the abuse of the state over the individual dies slowly, and is always out there, to again rear its ugly head.”

The Magneto-Nazis theme was also included in the most recent X-Men movie, “X-Men: First Class” (2011). Now it returns to the comic books in the upcoming Adams miniseries.

The new series, coauthored with Christos Gage, will be a prequel, focusing on the activities of an earlier set of X-Men, led by one very special member of the current X-Men, who team up to undertake an unusual mission. Also reluctantly on the team is the young Magneto, who at that time had not yet emerged as a villain, and was instead devoting himself to hunting down Nazi war criminals.

“The Nazi war criminal angle is not the focus of the story, but it figures into the plot in some interesting ways,” says Adams, careful not to give away too much before the release of the comics.

Adams has more than a passing interest in the Holocaust. Raised on a U.S. military base in postwar Germany, Adams learned about the Nazi genocide close up and at an early age. “In school, they showed us some pretty harrowing stuff—newsreel footage of what the Allied troops found when they liberated the camps, severely emaciated prisoners, huge piles of dead bodies,” he recalls. “It was very hard for a 9-year-old to take. I came home from school and wouldn’t speak to anyone for a full week.”

Coincidentally, Adams’s own mother-in-law, Ruth Susser, was also a Holocaust-era artist who used her artwork to save lives. Ruth fled Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940 and eventually made her way to the relative safety of Tangiers, Morocco. While waiting for permission to immigrate to the United States, she helped the Polish Embassy in Tangiers design counterfeit documents to help other Jews escape Poland.

Adams is the artist on a series of animated shorts about Americans who spoke out against the Holocaust, created with Disney Educational Productions and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The first five episodes of the series are available online at TheySpokeOut.com. The next five will include an installment about U.S. policy concerning war criminals, both during the Holocaust and in response to the recent Darfur genocide.

The issue of Nazi war criminals has surfaced in comic books on occasion over the years. Adams points to a 1955 comic strip called “Master Race,” drawn by Bernie Krigstein and published by EC Comics, which featured a confrontation between a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi war criminal. “Both the story and artwork were groundbreaking, and ‘Master Race’ remains one of the most influential comic strips of all time,” Adams says.

He hopes that the upcoming “First X-Men” series will help keep the issue of war criminals in the public eye. “Sadly, the problem of war criminals evading justice is a major problem in today’s world,” Adams notes. He says he was heartened by the outpouring of public interest in the recent YouTube video “Kony 2012,” which documents atrocities committed by Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan terrorists known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The video has been viewed more than 91 million times since its release in March.

At the same time, Adams is disappointed by the apparent lack of interest in capturing Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for sponsoring the Darfur genocide, yet remains a free man.

“If we had a genocide survivor with powers like Magneto, bringing Kony and Bashir to justice wouldn’t be a problem,” Adams remarks. “But this is the real world, which means we need real people to care, and to pressure their governments to take action to capture these mass murderers. Perhaps ‘The First X-Men’ will help get more people to start thinking about that.”


Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”

‘Shalakhmones: The Purim Platters’


Translated from Yiddish and with an afterword by Curt Leviant, the author or translator of 25 books, including seven critically acclaimed novels, the most recent of which is the comic “A Novel of Klass.”

Wearing a silk kerchief and a plain apron — a combination of holiday and weekday attire — Mama stood by the table, practically at her wit’s end. It was no trifle, you know, receiving almost 100 shalakhmones, the traditional Purim platter of sweets, and sending out a like number. Mama had to be careful not to omit anyone or make any mistakes, God forbid; she also had to remember what sort of platter to send to whom. For instance, if someone favored you with a fruit-cut, two jam-filled pastries, a poppy-seed square, two tarts, a honey bun and two sugar cookies, it was customary to send in return two fruit-cuts, one jam-filled pastry, two poppy-seed squares, one tart, two honey buns, and three sugar cookies.

One had to have the brains of a prime minister not to create the sort of first-class muddle that once took place, alas, in our shtetl. What happened was that a woman named Rivke-Beyle mistakenly shipped back to one of the rich matrons the very same platter of Purim goodies that the rich matron had sent her. You should have seen the scandal this caused. The squabble that broke out between the husbands blossomed into a full-blown feud — smacks, denunciations and unending strife.

Besides worrying about what to send to whom, you also had to tip the youngsters who delivered the shalakhmones. And you had to know whether to give them one kopeck, or two or three.

The door opened up, and in came my rebbi’s daughter, a freckled girl with bright red hair. She went about from house to house collecting the Purim sweet platters for her father, the teacher. She carried a saucer covered with a cloth napkin which already contained one honey bun, dotted with a solitary raisin, and next to it — a silver coin. Mama lifted the napkin and placed another coin alongside the first. She also slipped something into the girl’s hand. The redhead blushed furiously and rattled off the traditional blessing:

“May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you, your husband, and your children.”

Following the teacher’s daughter came a chubby lad with a swollen cheek bound with a blue kerchief and eyes of unequal size. In his hand he held a little brass tray on which lay a fruit-cut. This small cake was impressed with the shape of a tiny fish filled with honeyed dough crumbs. Next to it lay several silver coins and a few paper rubles. The chubby lad went right up to Mama and in one breath rattled off his greeting as though it had been memorized by rote:

“Happy holiday the rabbi sent you this shalakhmones may you enjoy Purim a year from now you ’n your husband ’n your children.”

The chubby lad palmed his tip and took off without a farewell because by mistake he had dashed it off upon entering.

More people kept coming by. They brought various treats from the rabbinic judge, the cantor, the ritual slaughterers, the Torah scribe, the Talmud Torah teacher, the man who blew the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the butcher who specialized in removing thigh veins, the reader of the Purim megillah, the Scroll of Esther, and the water carrier and the bathhouse attendant (the latter two also fancied themselves religious functionaries). After them came Velvel the shamesh himself, hoarse and ailing — he was asthmatic, poor man. He stood awhile at the door and, hand to his chest, coughed his heart out.

“Well, what’s the good word?” Mama asked him, exhausted by now from the day’s work.

“A shalakhmones has been sent to you,” said Velvel, displaying a honey cake he had in his hand. “May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you and …”

“Who is it from?” asked Mama and stuck her hand beneath her apron, looking for a coin.

“Well, actually, it’s from me. May you enjoy Purim, you …” and he began coughing. “Pardon me … for coming myself … got no one to send … had a daughter but, alas, God preserve you … you remember Freydl, may she rest in peace …”

Velvel the shamesh coughed for an entire minute, and Mama quickly dug into her pocket and removed a few coins, which she put into his hand. She also offered him some cake and a couple of fruit-cuts. Velvel stuffed the cake and the fruit-cuts into his breast pocket, thanked her and said:

“May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you and your husband …” and once again began coughing.

I looked at Mama and noticed a tear standing in each of her beautiful eyes.

Velvel and his Purim treat cast a momentary gloom over the holiday mood. But it did not last long. Immediately after Velvel’s departure, other people arrived with more Purim sweet platters, and Mama kept on doling out the coins, here one, there two or three. Everyone received a piece of cake, a fruit-cut or a honey bun. For a poor man, too, should feel the joy of the holiday.

“May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you and your ….”

“The same to you and many more to you and yours.”


Afterword:

Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), the great Yiddish humorist, always wrote stories pertaining to the holidays. The comedy and pathos of Purim in a shtetl are reflected in this touching little story. His narrative accurately reflects the tradition of sending platters or sweets to friends and relatives that is still practiced today. An entire socio-political dynamic surrounded the sending of shalakhmones. A woman always had to somehow balance the return platter so it should reflect the initial offering. Too little would be insulting; too much would be self-aggrandizing. And one must never ever send back the same plate to the person who sent it.

The shalakhmones were delivered by children who earned tips of a few kopecks for their service. In addition to cakes and pastries, coins were also sent to those people who needed extra income, like the narrator’s teacher. The daughter of the teacher, or rebbi, is actually collecting and not giving shalakhmones. She goes from house to house and gathers a few coins to supplement the meager income of the rebbi, who taught little boys in his house.

The chubby boy is bringing sweets from the shtetl’s rabbi — and that’s why in addition to coins there are also paper ruble notes on the plate, for the people’s generosity was enhanced for the shtetl’s leading religious figure. He, too, earned a meager salary.

And Velvel, the shamesh, or sexton, who took take care of the synagogue, and went from door to door early weekday mornings to wake the men up for services, also needs to supplement his small salary. Note that he apologizes for delivering the shalakhmones himself. Usually, this was done by children; it was not dignified for an adult to go from house to house delivering the Purim sweet platters. But, as we learn, Velvel had lost his only child, a daughter, and so perforce he himself has to go from household to household to offer his Purim sweets and collect something for himself.

Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America, dies at 98


Joe Simon, the co-creator of Captain America and a leading figure during the golden age of comic books, has died at 98.

Simon’s family announced his death Thursday on Facebook, and told The Associated Press that Simon had died Wednesday night in New York following a brief illness.

Born Hymie Simon in Rochester, N.Y., in 1913, Simon grew up above his father’s tailor shop. After stints as an editorial cartoonist, he moved to New York City at 23 and eventually was hired as an editor of the now-defunct Fox Comics.

At Fox, Simon met illustrator Jack Kirby, and the two formed what would become one of the greatest creative partnerships in comics. For 25 years they advanced the emerging art form, created many of its greatest pop works and cast an influential shadow on peers and those that followed.

When Simon was hired by the nascent Timely Comics as editor in chief, he brought Kirby with him as director. At Timely, Simon and Kirby created the beloved Captain America, whose iconic first issue in March 1941 featured the star-spangled hero punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw on the cover nearly a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The image, aside from causing the issue to sell an unprecedented million copies, was deliberately political for the two Jewish artists.

“The opponents to the war were all quite well organized,” Simon told a biographer. “We wanted to have our say, too.”

The partnership was stalled temporarily as both served during World War II—Kirby overseas and Simon with the Coast Guard—but the duo reunited in the late 1940s to create romance, horror and satirical comics. Simon later described that work as a high point, as they pair were able to negotiate rights to half of their creative properties.

Timely’s successor Marvel Comics temporarily killed Captain America in a 2007 story line, leading Simon to say that “This is a time we need Captain America more than ever.”

Mideast Peace Construction Zone


Springtime


Bob Saget: Clean-cut and filthy (G-rated version)


Bob Saget was pondering his status as comedy’s reigning filth monger at a Santa Monica cafe recently.

“You play a guy who’s clean-cut and never curses for eight years, like I did on ‘Full House,’ and people think that’s who you are,” said Saget, who will be roasted on Comedy Central Aug. 17. “And then you talk really dirty in your act, and people think that’s who you are.”

The 52-year-old pauses, and a sheepish look crosses his still-boyish face. “Ah, I’m still doing it,” he admits. “I talked to Don Rickles last week, and he said, ‘So I watched your HBO special; I really liked it, but you left out two f-words.’ My response was, ‘I know. If I had only put in 200 less.'”

It’s a surprisingly repentant statement from a comic whose stand-up has quashed his wholesome TV image as “Full House” dad Danny Tanner and as the grinning host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in the late 1980s and 1990s.

During the 13 years since “Full House” wrapped its last episode (only to continue in endless syndication), neither Saget nor the Olsen twins, who shared the role of his youngest TV daughter, have lived up to the expectations of some.

While Mary-Kate and Ashley have become billionaire moguls and the targets of vociferous tabloid reportage, Saget has mocked his own sugary image with joke songs, such as “Danny Tanner Is Not Gay.”



This is the G-rated version of this story. For the uncensored version, click here.


Saget’s stand-up, in his words, has always been “perverted,” but that did not become widely known until he was asked to appear in the 2005 documentary, “The Aristocrats,” in which he out-raunched 100 other comedians. Since then, Saget has sold out stadiums and college theaters with an act so over-the-top nasty that it is outrageous even in a comedy zeitgeist already pushed to Sarah Silverman extremes.

His stream-of-consciousness riffs about incest, date rape, snuff films, bestiality and every possible bodily fluid are “a word salad of language so blisteringly blue that a potential diagnosis, as Saget freely admits on HBO, of Tourette’s syndrome cannot be ruled out,” the Washington Post said.

The promos for his Comedy Central roast feature Saget admonishing a donkey for trying to sniff his privates.

Even when he’s riffing about his synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, an animal somehow enters the picture.

“We have a great synagogue the rabbi will marry a man to a goat,” he said. “It’s Reconstructionist they’ll do gay marriage if you need it, they’ll do interfaith and interfaith’s nothing after a goat.”

Saget also has the reputation, among those who know him, to be as kind as he can be crude. A few days after the taping of his Comedy Central roast, he publicly protested the vulgar Olsen jokes proffered by roast master John Stamos (another “Full House” co-star) and dais participants, such as Gilbert Gottfried.

“Anybody who talks about my TV kids that upsets me,” Saget said in a statement. “I am very protective. I love them very, very much.”

Saget was more measured about the roast several days later: “Some of the comedy for sure crossed the line,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s a roast, and they went for it. I also believe in freedom of speech, and the comedians meant no harm.”

Saget said he gets to look at the final edit and that “Comedy Central has been incredibly collaborative. The director-producer, Joel Gallen, is very talented … and also has helped to talk me off of ledges over many aspects of this roast.

“I think it’s a very funny show, but it’s not for everyone,” he added, delicately.

Saget’s Kehillat Israel shows are far cleaner. He joined the congregation with his ex-wife, Sherri, in 1990, and their three daughters (now ages 15 to 21) had their bat mitzvahs there.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, is a fan: “Bob has appeared at almost every major event we’ve hosted in the last 15 years,” he said. “He once admitted to me that temple shows are the hardest to do, because he has to censor himself.

“Bob is particularly funny because he has this dual, schizophrenic reputation from the G-rated family shows to the X-rated stand-up show,” the rabbi added. “I appreciate his humor, because I know where it comes from: a sweet and loving way of communicating with people.

“Some comedy is cutting, but Bob’s humor is always designed for us to see the funny side of ourselves in difficult situations. He’ll be in the hospital visiting someone and making a joke about people’s catheters. It’s uncomfortable but funny, too.”

In person, Saget is warm and approachable, wears jeans and sneakers and speaks in the same stream-of-consciousness style he uses in his act. Over the course of two hours, he veers from a critical dissection of his neuroses (“I’m ADD for sure,” he said during the interview. “I’ve been Uri Gellering this spoon for half an hour.”); to his 2007 HBO special, “Bob Saget: That Ain’t Right”; to his recent shift to “actor mode,” with a Broadway turn in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and a new CW sitcom, “Surviving Suburbia,” in which he plays a disgruntled family man.

Then there are off-color jokes about his Ministry of Tourism trip to Israel years ago: He apparently got in trouble with his mother after showing a picture of her on a camel to Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” and remarking that she’d never had anything that sizable between her legs.

Saget is alternately rueful about his profane stand-up (he tries to use the words “poo” and “pee” instead of their expletive counterparts, which in itself is hilarious) and describes himself as “self-loathing,” despite his confidence onstage

“I don’t have many things in my act you can look at and go, ‘Oh, someone else is doing that,'” he said. “How many people are claiming that they do my stuff?” he laughed. “It’s a style no one wants.”

But when the Chino-area earthquake interrupts the conversation, Saget sits through it with an almost eerie calm.

“Catastrophes calm me down,” he said. “The Jew has to be on game; you can’t mess up. But God forbid you said no salt in your food, and the waiter gives it to you. It’s like, ‘I distinctly said no croutons in my salad.’ The Jew wants his order correct.”

Saget traces his resilience and his particular brand of comedy to his late father, Ben, who had a “gallows sense of humor” shaped by painful events. The elder Saget had to go to work as a youth to support five younger siblings after their father died of cancer. Ben Saget survived all four of his brothers, some of whom died young.

By the time Bob Saget was in his 30s, both of his own siblings his sisters had died, one of a brain aneurism after a fall, the other after a three-year struggle with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease. Ben Saget’s humor helped keep the family sane through those deaths: “If we were at a shiva and dad heard a loud sound, he would mention the departed’s name, like, ‘Here she comes.'” the comic recalled.

“My dad also loved livestock jokes, because he was in the meat business,” Saget said of the origins of his own penchant for such humor. “His delivery was wry, deadpan, with a Cheshire cat grin. He always looked as if he were up to something perverted in his mind.”

When Bob Saget was young, humor also proved to be his own survival mechanism. The family relocated several times as Ben Saget set up businesses in various cities.

Bob Saget was born in Philadelphia but also lived in Virgina and in Encino, where he attended Birmingham High for two years. He said he was “the least funny person in the world” from the time of his bar mitzvah until he was in his late teens.

“I was miserable because we moved a lot, and I just was nerdy and overweight and didn’t have any friends,” he said.

In high school, he made friends by casting them in his own Super-8 films, with titles such as “Hitler on the Roof” and “Beach Blanket Blintzes,” which starred “a big blintz who turned people into sour cream. It wasn’t a film, it was garbage,” he said.

“But the first time I ever did stand-up was when I introduced that movie to an audience in the neighborhood. Then when I was 17, I started going to comedy clubs in New York, to Catch a Rising Star and The Improv, where I’d stand in line for 10 hours to sign the open-mic sheet.”

He attended Temple University and then moved to Los Angeles to attend USC but gave that up after Mitzi Shore offered him a gig at the Comedy Store, where he eventually served as emcee.

Saget hung out with Sam Kinnison and partied.

“It was like ‘Boogie Nights,’ except we didn’t go into the Valley,” he said.

A number of comedians recognized Saget’s talent: Rodney Dangerfield told him, “I like your head, you got a Jew head, you can’t stop thinking”; and Garry Shandling got him on “The Tonight Show,” where he returned numerous times, always on the couch, not for stand-up.

It was Saget’s role in the Richard Pryor film, “Critical Condition” that drew the attention of television producers: The result: In 1987, he was cast as Danny Tanner in “Full House” “the most non-Jewish character in the world,” he said. “They tried to get me to say grace once, but I couldn’t. I was laughing too hard; so they had to give it to John [Stamos].”

Saget and Stamos proved raunchy on the set. There was a donkey in one episode they called Pepper Mill (use your imagination), and Saget could not resist lewdly playing with the life-sized stand-in doll while the Olsens were at school.

Some critics trashed his character, which still makes Saget bristle.

“The show was on for eight years, so I think they appreciated me just fine,” he said.

A number of people have told Saget that they hated him until they saw his dirtier side in “The Aristocrats,” the documentary that transformed his image in the popular culture. In the film, 100 comics were asked to perform their own version of an old vaudeville joke about a family auditioning for an agent with an incestuous act.

But the humor is not really about the grotesquerie. “To me, the joke is about the sweaty desperation of show business,” Saget said. “What’s funny is that a family, a family I can’t say that word enough would do that, not to get a job but to get an agent to represent them. You can’t lower the bar on humanity much further. That’s a turd on a turd on a turd.”

Saget said he can talk about unspeakable acts, but the idea of real abuse revolts him.

“I don’t like to see violence. It’s like a form of pornography,” he said. “I take things so heavy, like politics and where the world is at, and where we are with kids. I mean, it’s just absurd; 99 percent of what we’re doing it’s all a sin.

“I just find it so upsetting that I go to another place; I become a 12-year-old,” he continued. “I talk about poo and pee because it makes me laugh and because anything we can’t control can be amusing. So when things come out of our bodies are air driven or liquid or solid it’s funny. I was going to say that I’m holding a mirror up to people, but you don’t really want to look at yourself while you’re doing it.”

When Saget isn’t being serious and sometimes when he is he punctuates a horrific statement with a low, devilish-sounding laugh: “heh heh heh.”

“If you turn the sound off my HBO special it just looks like that nice guy from TV,” he said, with his laugh. “It’s demonic, it’s what Satan does though I don’t believe in Satan. He lures people in with his kind ways and his smiling face, and then he says terrible things and bursts people into flames.”

But unlike Satan, he said, “I don’t do anything harmful to anyone. I’m here to save the world by telling them that the real problems aren’t language or perversions, it’s acting on those things.”

For information about the roast or how to purchase Saget’s HBO DVD, you can visit Comedy Central and BobSaget.com

ALTTEXT
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Comedy Central

Comic book strip draws on historical New York


Ben Katchor speaks slowly, hal-ting-ly, pausing frequently, as if he’s thinking of images to go with his words as he speaks.

He probably is, as the comic book artist (not graphic novelist) has been pairing images with words for most of his life. While the characters of his fanciful weekly strips — now collected into books — have often been strange, introspective, nostalgic and maudlin figures, his central character has often been the city of New York.

That’s why on June 29 at this year’s Nextbook Festival taking place at UCLA, Katchor will be featured on the panel, “Larger Than Life: Romancing the Lower East Side,” along with filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver in conversation with pop culture scholar Eddy Portnoy. Nextbook’s Festival of Ideas focuses this year on “Jewish Geography: Place, Design Memory, Imagination” and includes readings and panel discussions put on by the Jewish cultural organization that produces an online magazine and literary events and publishes a book series.

“As Jews abandoned New York’s Lower East Side for sunnier climes or better school districts, the old neighborhood only loomed larger, if not in their daily lives then in their imaginations. Where does the history of the Lower East Side end and the mythology begin? How have filmmakers and writers shaped the legacy of the neighborhood, and how have these works of art influenced Jewish identity?” the program reads.

The Lower East Side first captured Katchor’s imagination at a young age. Although he grew up in Brooklyn, he often went to the Jewish immigrant neighborhood with his parents. “My mother had her bank account that she opened as a young woman at Bowery Savings Bank, and for some reason kept it there — and we’d go shopping on the Lower East Side, and that would be the first stop. I remember going to this great temple of banking at the Bowery and then being dragged off shopping,” said Katchor, 57, on the phone from Paris, where he is visiting for the summer. (He lives in New York.)

He also went there with his father to visit hardware supply stores. “I think it was intact as a Jewish business area longer than it was a residential area.” The city and its characters fascinated him — and so did his research. “People wrote about it. This place was established by a succession of immigrant groups — now it’s mainly Asian, but before that it was Jewish and Italian, and before that it was German,” he said. “There are a lot of remnants of these groups. It’s a rich place, but I think most of my feeling about it is as a historian, not first hand.”

But it’s not really history, either; the New York in his strips never really existed. “The Jew of New York” collection (which first appeared in the Forward in 1992, then later published as a book in 1998) depicts the Lower East Side of the 1830s, following the failed vision of an actual person, Mordecai Noah, a New York politician and amateur playwright who once tried to summon the lost tribes of Israel to an island near Buffalo in the hope of establishing a Jewish state. The plan failed, but the story inspired Katchor’s weekly strips of characters of New York, including a disgraced kosher slaughterer, a latter-day kabbalist and a man with plans to carbonate Lake Erie.

“On a tepid August afternoon in the year, Messrs Pepsin & Shadrach, the current managers of The New World Theater, meet with their artistic employees to finalize the coming season’s repertory,” begins the absurdist series on an eight-panel page with intricately detailed and finely shaded drawings.

Katchor came to The Forward via another well-known graphic artist, Art Spiegelman, whose work ran in the Forward. “I asked Spiegelman if he had anyone to replace him, and he suggested Ben,” said Jonathan Rosen, who was then the cultural editor of the Forward and is now editorial director of Nextbook and general editor of Schocken/Nextbook, where Katchor is working on “The Dairy Restaurant,” a graphic book for the Jewish Encounter series.

Katchor’s work, Rosen said, “is simultaneously small and large in the same way. It is worked out in intense, specific detail,” he said. Katchor’s characters, Rosen said, “were almost Becket characters, but there was a larger cosmic meaning inside everything he did and does.”

Before “The Jew of New York,” Katchor created Julius Knipl, who lived in “a fictitious city, a light industrial neighborhood, not an immigrant neighborhood,” Katchor said of “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” which first appeared in 1988 in The New York Press, a free independent weekly and later in The Forward.

“It was the kind of strip that a mainstream syndicate would never carry — and that’s where I found my audience,” Katchor said. It was an audience who could appreciate oddities, such as a tabloid newspaper that captured people’s dreams, a building where someone siphoned off bathroom soap, “a siren query brigade,” which monitors all nocturnal misfortunes. “It was an alternative audience — they weren’t comic strip readers,” he said.

Katchor knows from comic strip readers. “I grew up reading comics,” he said. “All that crap that was on the newsstands. I can’t say I ever liked the stories, but I liked the drawings. Those were my first introductions to representational art.” He studied painting and writing in college, but his mind kept coming back to his childhood interest of combining words and images.

“I wanted to talk to an adult audience” in the tradition of Jules Feiffer and Edward Gorey. And Katchor’s Julius Knipl (named after the Yiddish word for hidden treasure) does just that, in often obtuse and circuitous language.

“Ben teaches you a language,” Rosen said. “It’s a visual language, and it’s a way of listening. Once you’re inside of it, it makes perfect sense.”

“Mr. Knipl donates 25 cents toward the upkeep of a rural asylum established by ‘the drowned men’s association,” reads a panel in the first strip. “Why save a man from drowning only to let him die of homesickness?”

Ha lachma anya


I. E. D.


Bush’s environmental legacy


One way, or the other


My sister Sarah


I live in Israel, seven hours ahead of New York. Last week, when my sister Sarah Silverman performed in Manhattan at Carnegie Hall, I opened my eyes every hour or two, and counted backwards. The last time I woke it was 2 a.m. Hmmm… 7 p.m. in New York. She must be doing a sound check. Or maybe getting dressed. I could picture her outfit, because before I went to bed we spoke on the phone, and she e-mailed me a picture. Did I think it was too casual?

My husband and I live with our five children on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Desert — where biblical prophets spoke out against the sins and hypocrisies of the time. As I lay in my little house under the expansive black sky dotted with bright stars, Sarah prepared to stand under bright lights in front of thousands of people at Carnegie Hall. As I slept in the desert, my baby sister was on a stage. Such distance. Such contrast. Yet our connection to one another runs deep. For me, these are moments of God. Two seemingly opposing realities — separation and intimacy — co-existing, each fully.

There are many times each week that I think about what my three sisters are doing. I count backwards and imagine where they are at the moment. I’m on kitchen duty — pulling clean plates off the dishwasher belt after dinner in the dining hall, stacking them as quickly as I can. Counting backwards 10 hours to Los Angeles. Maybe all three are having breakfast at Kings Road Cafe? Maybe Laura, an actress, and Sarah are on the set. Maybe Jodyne, a writer and producer, is at Starbucks, writing on her Mac laptop. I’m watching my preschoolers learning Israeli dances, my heart filled to bursting. Count back 10 hours … 11 p.m. Maybe they’re going to sleep. Maybe out with friends.

When our daily lives somehow intersect — phone, e-mail, Skype — I am happy. Lately, I’ve heard my sisters’ names spoken in my workplace here, on Ketura. Sarah and Laura are hosting a fundraiser for The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies — which is on our kibbutz — and where my office is located. The institute brings together Palestinian, Jordanian, Israeli, North American and other students for a

What, me worrisome?


Help! Fire!


Books: Shmegegis of old, shmegegis of gold


“Old Jewish Comedians,” illustrated by Drew Friedman, edited by Monte Beauchamp. (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95) www.fantagraphics.com .

“Weep before God. Laugh before people.”
— Jewish Folk-Saying.

Who doesn’t love old Jewish comedians? Those mamzers of mirth and halutzim of humor who paved the road from the Catskills to Vegas as first-generation entertainers. Now comes “Old Jewish Comedians,” a book to honor these slapsticklers and ticklemen of the 20th century. Thirty-two pages of funny faces (all guys), the book is “An Illustrated Gallery of Jewish American Comedians, Comics, Comic Actors, Clowns, and Tummlers Depicted in the Sunset of Their Years.” Artist Drew Friedman’s portraits cover the greats and the greatly forgotten, from George Burns and Buddy Hackett, to Benny Rubin and Joe Smith.

Friedman, whom I first enjoyed for his funny illustrations in SPY Magazine, and whose work currently is seen in MAD, the New York Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, said that none of the comedians posed for him.

“I have a fairly extensive photo file which was very helpful,” he said.

He’s collected pictures of comedians since he was a child. (Bruce Jay Friedman, the author’s father, appears in “Old Jewish Comedians” in a photo from 1940 in the Catskills with comedian Jackie Miles.)

“Rich reality” is how Leonard Maltin describes Friedman’s style in his foreword. Included in the book are the real names for these “show-business survivors” as Maltin calls them: Shecky Green/Sheldon Greenfield, Freddie Roman/Fred Martin Kirschenbaum, Rodney Dangerfield/Jacob Cohen, Henny/Henry Youngman, et al.

Unfortunately, the only writing in “Old Jewish Comedians” is Maltin’s foreword.

“I didn’t want it to be ‘history’ book,” Friedman explained. “There are already those out there. I wanted their styles to be illustrated in their faces and the context of the drawing. Maltin’s intro puts everything into historical context.”

So where to go if you want to learn more about these Jewish jesters? The ones who didn’t make it because comedy was less marketable back then, 50 years before HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and clubs expanded stand-up venues are described in detail by Betsy Borns in her 1987 treatise, “Comic Lives.” Most never even flashed the free- wheeling coffeehouse style that Gerald Nachman recounts in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 60s.” (Shelley/Sheldon Leonard Berman being the exception, appearing in that 2003 book and this one.)

To really evaluate the book, I went to 92-year-old Irving Brecher. After all, Brecher is old, Jewish and he has not only done stand-up, he wrote for some of Friedman’s alter kackers, like Milton Berlinger (Berle, on the cover), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns, inside cover), and the Marx Brothers (Julius, Adolph and Leonard, middle two pages of book.)

Book open, over split pea soup and half a pastrami on rye at Label’s Table on Pico Boulevard, I quizzed Brecher about “OJC” who never found the fame of a Moses — Harry Horwitz/Moe Howard or Jerome Levitch/Jerry Lewis, a Jack Chakrin/Jack Carter or Archibald Donald Rickles/ Don Rickles, et al.

— Irv, here’s Harry Joachim.

“That’s Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers. Harry was the only one who was talented. Al and Jimmy were nothing.”

— Menasha Skulnik?

“That’s his real name. Great Yiddish comedian. The Yiddish theater was a remarkable place. I wish you’d seen it.”

— Joseph Seltzer?

“Joe Smith of Smith & Dale, the famous vaudeville team. They made a movie called “The Heart of New York,” which is a museum piece. For collectors.”

— Abraham Kalish?

“Al Kelly. Al did double talk. That was his style. He spoke gibberish in vaudeville sketches and all the people would try to be polite.

— While he mocked them?

“No, not mocking them. The audience would laugh. But people in the real world he dealt with would be taken in.”

— Sounds like what Borat does!

“Haven’t seen it. But most comedians couldn’t do it like Al Kelly could. He was unique.”

— Here’s a fellow named Ben Rubin…

“Benny Rubin used to work for me! When he was up in vaudeville. I’d give him a part in “The Life of Riley” radio show. In Hollywood, when they wanted a Jew with a long nose, they’d hire him. The lousy Hollywood producers. He’d make $150. I’d never use a character with a Jewish accent. Like Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] did with ‘Mr. Schlepperman.'”

— He used a thick Jewish accent?

“I hated it, that very stereotypical annoying character.

— Who played him?

“Artie Auerbach. Listen, do they have Jan Murray in this book?”

— No.

“I’m surprised.”

Friedman said not to worry; Jan Murray/Murray Janofsky will appear in the sequel, “More Old Jewish Comedians,” due in 2008.

Brecher said he hopes the sequel has a bit, or routine, a catchphrase, something from each comedian to go with the pictures.

Traveling with my father


When I found out my dad was dying of cancer, I spent a lot of time in New York with him and my mom, rather than in Los Angeles, where I was living at the time.

 
One
of the good things about being a road comic is you can live anywhere and book yourself out of wherever you are. Road comics have no office. So New York became my base.

 
My dad loved my act. He thought I was the funniest person in the world. I guess you are the funniest person in the world if someone thinks you are. My dad and mom came to see me at least a hundred times before he died in 1988. He would come and see me wherever I was doing a show. And he always got dressed up for the show.

 
I would say, “Dad, you don’t have to wear a sport coat. I’m at the Comic Strip, not the Copa.” And he’d say, “I don’t care. If I’m going out on a Saturday night with your mother, I’m not going to look like a slob.”

 
I remember him asking me to do certain bits about my mother. He loved it when I talked about how they’d been married so long, she’d sucked the brain out of his head.

 
“She loves when you talk about her,” he said. “Do me a favor. Do that thing about her cleaning the house.”

 
My dad really loved my mom. He was just so proud of her. And with me an only child, we were his life.

 
I remember when my dad had just gotten out of a hospice, and they sent him back home to die. The night he came home, I had a show to do. I said, “Dad, maybe I should stay home instead.” He wouldn’t hear of it. “You go and be funny.” I did.

 
About three days later, I had this gig about two hours away in upstate New York. That afternoon, we were all sitting at the dining room table when my dad said in the weakest of voices, “Can I come with you tonight? I’d really like to see your show.”

 
I knew what he was saying. He was saying: “I really want to see you one more time before I die.”

 
I asked my mom what she thought.

 
“If you think you can handle him, then fine,” she said.

 
My dad was very weak, but he could go a short distance if you helped him. I said “Yeah, I can do it.”

 
That night as we were leaving, my mom said, “You boys have a nice time tonight. I’ve got things to do here at home. Call me when you get there.”

 
So off we headed to my gig. It was a cold winter night, and a light snow fell for most of the drive. We didn’t talk much on the way up. As I remember, my dad slept most of the way, anyway. I kept looking at him as he slept in the car. I cried most of the way up, but that was OK; I was with my dad.

 
When we got to the hotel parking lot, we noticed that it was empty, except for three or four cars. “Hey Marko” my dad said, “Can I drive around the lot?”
My dad loved to drive. He was the one who’d taught me to drive, just a few years earlier, in the empty parking lots of New York on Sunday mornings. He’d done every single bit of the driving for the 39 years he was married to my mother.

 
She never drove once.

 
Now he was asking me to let him drive. “Sure dad,” I said.

 
So I got him around to the driver’s seat, and for two minutes he drove very slowly around the lot. “That’s great,” he said.

 
I helped him park, and we checked into the hotel and went to our room. It was still early, so I helped him off with his pants, and he took a nap. I called my mother, told her we were safe, and she started crying. “Take good care of him. I love him,” she said.

 
I said, “I love him, too, and I also love you.”

 
At about 8 p.m., we went over to the club, which was attached to the hotel.
Before we went in, my dad said, “Thank you for taking me.”

 
I said, “You’re welcome. Thank you for being a great father.”

 
Then he asked me to do the routine about my mother that he always liked. I did them all for him.

 
A few weeks later, he died. About a year later, my mother came to see me work.

 
On the way to the club, she asked me to do the routines about my father. I kissed her on the head and said sure. I also did the ones about her, because I knew he would have wanted to hear them.

 

Mark Schiff is a standup comedian who has been on all the major talk shows and has recently been touring with Jerry Seinfeld. “I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America’s Top Comics” is his first book.

Thrown For A Loop


“Avi we’re doing some looping for a movie called, ‘The Mount of Olives.’ It was filmed in Israel and we’re looking for Hebrew and Arabic speakers.”
Being an actor and comic in Los Angeles, you run into some interesting gigs. When my friend, Joey, himself a Christian Arab from Lebanon, called me about this one, I couldn’t resist.

Looping is plugging in background sound for movies after they are shot so they sound more realistic. I had done some looping sessions before, but they were all in English. While this movie was also in English, there were plenty of scenes with Hebrew and Arabic in them. My Hebrew is far from perfect, but I can still pull off the Israeli accent so I was pretty sure I could do the job.

I got to the soundstage early in the morning, and the first person I met was a really nice guy named Sayid from Egypt. He was an accomplished actor, and I even recognized him from the movie, “The Insider,” with Al Pacino.

As everyone else arrived for the looping and we filled out paperwork, we began schmoozing a little. (I’m guessing the Arabs would use a different word to describe it.) There were people from Egypt, Sudan, a really sweet girl from Iraq, a Druze from Lebanon whose family lived in Haifa, and four other Israelis beside me. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews with all different levels of religious observance. I myself had to leave a little early because the session was on Friday, as I observe Shabbat.

The first few scenes were harmless enough — we covered small background conversations, mostly in Hebrew. I immediately noticed that while we were all very friendly with one another, when it came to where we all sat, all the Israelis were on one side, and the Arabs on another. I didn’t read too much into it and figured it was just out of convenience as most scenes were in either one language or another.

“OK guys, I need all five Hebrew speakers. This is right after a bus bombing, and I need as much sound as possible. You’ll notice paramedics, victims, etc.”
All five of us approached the microphone. We watched the scene with no sound and it was pretty gory. There was blood everywhere. We each decided who we would cover on the screen and got started. When the cue came, we all immediately started screaming our parts. You heard shouts in Hebrew of “My leg, my leg!” “I’m bleeding help me!” “Where’s my father!” “Out of the way, move, move!”

The one Hebrew-speaking woman was doing a great job crying in agony. When the sound cue was over we all stopped, and Joey chimed in, “I don’t know what you guys were saying but … man. Really intense guys.”

I looked over toward the Arab speakers, and I noticed them all staring back and forth at each other. The Iraqi girl named Yasmin Hannaney, who couldn’t have been nicer, finally just looked at us all and said, “Wow guys.”

I could tell they were affected by it, but oddly enough we sort of weren’t. It just seemed like we were almost too used to seeing it.

Shortly after there was a scene at a gravesite where Kaddish was being said. Two women displayed prominently in the shot were answering “amen,” and they needed to be dubbed. The only two female voices we had were Yasmin and the other Israeli woman. Yasmin smiled as she asked us, “How do I say it, aymen or amen?” As we told her the right way she just smiled and thanked us.

The next few scenes shifted to shots of Palestinians at various rallies, and Joey asked if he could get as many guys up as possible: “OK guys, we need a lot of volume to cover the chanting. Sayid, why don’t you lead.”

I suddenly found myself, along with all the other Israeli men, chanting “Allah Akbar,” and various other chants about God’s glory in Arabic. I couldn’t help but grin as I was doing it. Here I was, an Israeli-born Jew raised in a hugely Zionistic family, chanting at a Palestinian rally. I’d even spent the last three years leading a group of comics to Israel to perform to help support the state. I was at least hoping I would get a good joke out of all of this.

I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had to do some scenes where the chants were “Death to Israel” or something similar. Luckily it never came up. The time just seemed to fly by. Before I knew it I had to leave, and Joey told me it was fine. He completely understood, as opposed to most Jews I deal with in Hollywood who seem to always give me problems over my observance.

I felt badly that I had to sneak out so quickly, not having said goodbye to everyone, but I’ve kept in contact with some of the people from the session. Yasmin and I have e-mailed back and forth, and she’s started an organization dealing with making films in the Middle East.

I was honored when she asked me if I wanted to be involved and immediately accepted. I invited her and some of the other guys to some of my upcoming shows.

It seems ironic that if you want to make a movie about Arabs and Jews fighting with each other, the only way you can make it work is if you have them getting along.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday
22

Polka gets dotty at the Getty this evening with the last installment of the center’s Summer Sessions series. “21st Century Roots” offers “roots music for the new millennium,” in the form of three groups: Brave Combo, a polka ensemble that mixes music from Mexico, Germany and Japan; Golem, an edgy klezmer rock band; and moira smiley & VOCO, a band that mixes the dance songs of Eastern Europe with Appalachian tunes. International folk dance lessons are also offered.

5:45 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. (dance lessons). 6:30 p.m. (first music set). Free. Getty Center South Courtyard, Courtyard Stage and Garden Terrace, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.

Sunday
23

Can’t get enough of the man in tights? Head to the Museum of Television and Radio to see Superman as he appeared — in his many forms — on the small screen. For one final week the museum presents a selection of TV shows, including the 1950s “Adventures of Superman”; the steamier 1990s Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher affair, “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”; today’s Superman for the teen and tween set, “Smallville”; the animated 1970s classic “Superfriends” and the newer “Justice League”; as well as the unaired 1961 pilot of “The Adventures of Superboy.”

Through July 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). $5-$10 donations suggested. 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 786-1025.

Monday
24

Beat the summer heat with a refreshingly star-free film festival. Dances With Films enters its ninth year with a host of talent-filled films, sans celebs. Why no familiar faces? Festival co-founder Leslee Scallon explains, “The other festivals are busy programming mostly celebrity oriented films. It’s not that we’re dissing celebrities, we’re just giving films a chance to be seen that are getting squeezed out of the circuit.” Offer your support July 21-27.
$10 (per ticket), $125 (festival pass). Laemmle Fairfax Theatre, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2929.

Tuesday
25

Young Artists International alights on Los Angeles for its ninth annual International Laureates Festival. The week of classical music concerts features iPalpiti, their orchestral ensemble of 26 musical masters ages 19-30, representing 26 countries. Tonight, a smaller affair at the Ford Theatre features Bassiona Amorosa, a virtuosi sextet of double-bassists from Munich.
July 23-30. Prices and locations vary. (310) 205-0511.


Wednesday
26

Love a Gershwin tune? Karen Benjamin and Alan Chapman explore George’s music in tonight’s installment of the Parlor Performances @ Steinway Hall Presents… “Songwriters and Their Songs” series. Hear some of his best-loved pieces, as well as the stories behind them.
8 p.m. $25. Steinway Hall, 12121 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 471-3979.

Thursday 27

Judi Lee Brandwein can’t get no satisfaction, but discusses it this one last night, for your amusement. “Fornicationally Challenged” is the 40-something divorc’e’s one-woman mature-audiences-only comic show. It returns tonight only for a local send-off before its opening at the New York International Fringe Festival.
8 p.m. $20. Santa Monica Playhouse Main Stage, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.

Friday
28

Ponder the art of Bonita Helmer in George Billis Gallery’s exhibition of her latest works. The moody, thought-provoking abstract acrylics focus on the interplays of fundamental elements, forcing the viewer to reconsider basic notions such as space and time.
Through Sept. 2. 2716 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 838-3685.

A Super ‘Schmooze’ Move


The unforgettable superheroes of comic strips became the stuff of endless Hollywood big-budget sequels. But more often than not, they began in the fevered imaginations of struggling young Jewish guys, whose wildest dreams could be hemmed in only by four panels and black ink.

“In June 1938, Superman appeared,” Michael Chabon writes in his 2000 novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay.” “He had been mailed to the offices of National Periodical Publications from Cleveland, by a couple of Jewish boys who had imbued him with the power of a hundred men, of a distant world, and of the full measure of their bespectacled adolescent hopefulness and desperation.”

It’s not an insurmountable leap from those days to these, from the pioneers like “Superman’s” Joe Shuster and Jerome Siegel to masters like Art Spiegelman, to the talented Jewish comic strip artists of today.

In that spirit, we premiere this week, “Schmooze or Lose,” our first, weekly serialized comic strip. Read more about the creators, writer Jake Novak and illustrator Michael Ciccotello at www.jewishjournal.com, and follow the further adventures of their very L.A. Jewish characters in this space each week.

 

Fundraiser to Benefit Storm Victims


This Sunday, September 18th!

LALA & MOE’S

Jewish Experience & The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Present:

LA Jewish Katrina Benefit

All Proceeds To Benefit Jewish Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund

Featuring:

The Moshav Band

Comic Relief by:

Edgar Fox
Avi Leiberman
Plus Special Guests

Silent Auction, Special Prize Drawing, Kosher Food, And More!

Sunday September 18th 2005
3:00 – 7:00 PM
Westside Jewish Community Center
5870 W Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles Ca, 90036

$25 Adults
$15 Students & Families
Space is Limited

For More information Contact:

Danwitz@LMJE.org

Community Sponsors Include:

Anti-Defamation League
Aish Ha-Torah
Ashreinu
Congregation Beth Jacob
Congregation B’nei David Judea
Congregation Mogen David
Isralight
Jewish big brothers
Jflicks
Los Angeles Hillel Council
The Chai Center
The Westwood Kehilla
Young Israel of Century City
And Many More

 

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, June 4

Today, galerie yoramgil launches “introductions,” a three-month endeavor to present six new artists to the public. View the diverse works of painters Zeev Ben-Dor, Yuri Katz, Nona Orbach, Paul Abbott and Mary Leipziger, and the bronze sculptures of Immi Storrs in mini solo shows throughout the large gallery.

Through Sept. .5. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). 462 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-2641.

Sunday, June 5

Storyteller and actress Vicki Juditz is used to infusing heart and humor into difficult subjects like infertility and anti-Semitism. Today she performs her highly praised monologue, “Teshuva, Return,” for Child Survivors of the Holocaust in a private Beverlywood residence.

2 p.m. $25. For more information, call (310) 836-0779.

Monday, June 6

It’s a hodgepodge of celebrities and wannabes at tonight’s annual Vista Del Mar and Family Services’ Sports Sweepstakes Dinner. Comedian Paul Rodriguez and Olympian Mitch Gaylord co-emcee the event that includes an appearance by the Playboy Bunnies but not Hef himself. Tommy Lasorda will be honored, cocktails will be drunk and thousands of dollars will be raised for troubled and at-risk youth. Drop a cool 1K to do your part.

5:30 p.m. $1,000. Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-1223, ext. 225.

Tuesday, June 7

Israeli group Mashina has had a long and, sometimes, rocky past. But the band is now back together, touring to promote their 12th album. For the first time in a long time, they’re back in Los Angeles for one night only. Catch them tonight at the Avalon while you can.

8 p.m. (310) 273-2824.

Thursday, June 9

Laughing for charity sounds like a pretty good deal. Tonight, StandWithUs and Pups for Peace co-sponsor “LaughWithUs,” a comedy night featuring funnymen Wayne Federman (“Legally Blonde,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Lenny Schmidt (“Joe Dirt”) and plenty of others. Proceeds will help send comedians to Israel for comic relief and also benefit Israeli charities.

7:30 p.m. $75 (includes 2 drinks). Improv Theater, 8162 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-6140.

Jason Alexander becomes the latest star to try his hand at children’s book writing with his new release “Dad, Are You the Tooth Fairy?” (Which would perhaps be better titled, “Dad, Since When Are You a Writer?”) Still, we’ll grant you Alexander’s a pretty funny guy, and you can size up his literary talents for yourself tonight. He reads from his book and signs it at Barnes and Noble at the Grove.

7:30 p.m. 189 Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-2070

Friday, June 10

Author Maggie Anton does the book tour circuit in Los Angeles this week, promoting her new work of historical fiction, “Rashi’s Daughters.” The book explores the stories of Jewish scholar Rashi’s daughters, who, unlike his sons, were largely ignored. She appears at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on June 8, and as scholar-in-residence at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills this weekend.

Jewish Community Library: (323) 761-8644. Shomrei Torah: (818) 346-0811.

The Gold and the Beautful


 

“They hated me, didn’t they, because they barely laughed,” Elon Gold said fretfully after his audition on the new Fox sitcom “Stacked,” starring Pamela Anderson.

“That’s exactly the neurosis your character needs,” Executive Producer Steve Levitan told the 34 year old comic-actor (“You’re the One,” “The In-Laws”).

The anxiety factor is why Gold was hired as a last-minute replacement for Tom Everett Scott, who was deemed too laid back to portray Gavin, the tense bookstore owner employing party girl Skyler (Anderson).

In the promising pilot — which one critic called “‘Frasier’ with boobs” — Gold proved a hilarious comic foil for the vacuous yet surprisingly insightful Anderson. The ex “Baywatch” beauty whose, er, body of work has rendered her America’s iconic blonde bombshell, is the latest celebrity to essentially play herself on TV, albeit not on a reality show.

Gold, in part, is playing himself, too. The character “needs to be an uptight, neurotic intellectual, and I think that Elon can portray that,” Levitan told the New York Daily News.

The comic agrees that his “head is filled with all kinds of crazy problems”; the latest is Levitan’s idea about creating a Marilyn Monroe-Arthur Miller style affair between Gavin and Skyler.

“I’m almost hoping they don’t make my character Jewish, in case romance sparks and I get in trouble from all my relatives for marrying a shiksa,” said Gold, an observant Jew.

The relatives no doubt approve his take on landing the show to “a Purim miracle,” however. On that holiday, Levitan called him in for a meeting and the next night he was surprised in his synagogue parking lot by a Fox executive, with Gold’s contract in hand.

The comic said he was excited to land the sitcom because it’s “a throwback to shows like ‘Cheers’ and ‘Taxi'” and also because of ex-Playboy model Anderson, whom he had ogled on “Baywatch.”

“It doesn’t matter what she wears, she’s provocative,” he said of meeting her on the “Stacked” set. But he’s madly in love with his wife, Sacha, who does not feel threatened by Anderson.

“Her theory is, the more beautiful the actress, the less chance I’d ever have,” Gold said.

“Stacked” airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.

 

How Funny Is Passover?


Passover is not primarily known for being a funny holiday, but don’t tell that to Terry and Patty LaBan. The creators of “Edge City,” who have brought contemporary Jewish American suburban life to the funny pages since 2000, are giving the Ardin family the ultimate seder storyline — four panels at a time.

From April 11-30, the Ardins will confront a situation loosely based on something that happened one Passover to Terry and Patty LaBan, cartoonist and plot/character developer, respectively, when Patty’s mother decided to take a break on hosting a seder.

When responsibility for Passover shifts in the comic strip from Abby’s mother to Abby herself, she frantically copes with the numerous preparation tasks — such as paying her kids, Colin and Carly, $5 each to rid the house of chametz. Meanwhile, husband Len — a technophile — madly researches the Internet for how to lead a seder.

While Jewish comic characters have been around for decades, Terry LaBan said there’s a reason why there aren’t enough in today’s papers for a minyan.

“Syndicates have always wanted strips with characters that the maximum number of people will identify with, so there hasn’t been a lot of incentive to do a strip with characters who are Jewish,” he said. “We didn’t intend at the beginning they’d be explicitly Jewish, but having them celebrate Christmas just because it was the standard thing to do just didn’t seem right…. When we decided that our characters would be Jewish, we realized we had an opportunity to show how Judaism can be a normal — and positive — part of people’s lives.”

And if the feedback from their Jewish readers is any indication, the Ardin family might just start a two-dimensional trend.

“Many people have spoken or written, thanking us for portraying characters … in a way where their Jewishness isn’t always the main point, but just another aspect of their lives,” LaBan said.

To see what happens to the Ardins, visit www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/edgecity/about.htm.

Q & A With Lewis Black


 

Lewis Black is back. The New York Jewish comic with a razor-sharp tongue and even sharper social and political observations returns to the Southland Feb. 5 at the Wiltern LG after selling out The Grove of Anaheim last year. Black, a commentator on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and author of the upcoming book, “Nothing Sacred,” said he can’t wait to get on the road and vent to an audience. His trademark rasp rising with anger, he shared his thoughts on L.A. traffic, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, gay marriage and other subjects.

The Jewish Journal: You’re coming to L.A. Are you excited about that?

Lewis Black: No, I’m never excited about coming to L.A. I like L.A., but I don’t know how you people can live there. Mudslides all the time. Houses on stilts. You live on a fault line. Good move. What I really like is when I come in and they say that we’re going to go down to Irvine. ‘Cuz, you know, when you’re going to travel two and a half hours to get there — five hours round-trip from L.A. — you should be somewhere else. Maybe in a different state. To sit in that traffic, you’ve got to wonder what people are thinking. What, do they like the illusion of walking? That’s what I like to do, sit in my car and feel like I’m walking. On the other hand, maybe they can listen to tapes and learn five, six or 10 foreign languages a year.

JJ: What in your opinion of Gov. Schwarzenegger?

LB: You’ve elected a guy who shouldn’t have been elected anything by any standard at any time in the history of the country. And he’s your governor. What’s his qualification for leadership other than “Terminator 3?” What? When he was elected, that’s when I decided democracy doesn’t work. The good news is anybody can be elected. The bad news is anybody can be elected. You guys proved it. And they should take away your statehood if you vote for him again. After he wins, he said, “The last thing we should be doing is borrowing,” and then he borrows. You need to elect him to borrow money? On top of that, he got a bad deal. I’ve given up on you.

JJ: How did you feel the morning after President Bush won reelection?

LB: The same way I would have felt if the other idiot had won. There’s no pain for me. It was painful for me when the nominations came in. As soon as they nominated these two guys I knew we were in trouble. You had a guy who went to war running against a guy who voted for war. You had no choice. Kerry ran with a “special child”: John Edwards, a man who smiled so much that part of his brain had to have been scooped out. And Cheney was a psychotic homeless person, who, during the [vice presidential] debates, was like talking to his microwave oven. Really, it was disgusting from beginning to end.

JJ: Ohio has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent years but still went for President Bush. What, if anything, is wrong with Ohio?

LB: If Bush had lost Ohio, he would have lost the goddamn election. Don’t think I didn’t punish them. I’m not going back. I was in four cities in Ohio after the election and asked them how they could do this, and they couldn’t give me an explanation. Right now, I’m done with them for awhile.

JJ: Any thoughts of moving to Canada or Mexico?

LB: No, they’re not as funny. And this is my country.

JJ: Is the United States winning the war in Iraq?

LB: If you think we’re winning the war in Iraq, then you have to be in a coma. I’m just watching TV and I know we’re not winning. You don’t win when we’re losing that many people. I know we can’t be winning because I have more people in the military coming to my shows. If young soldiers are paying attention to me, then something’s not happening that should be happening. Something’s wrong.

JJ: If you were president of the U.S., what would your Iraq policy be?

LB: My Iraq policy would be to say to the rest of the world: “We made a big mistake and could you help us? I don’t know how this happened, but we’re sorry.”

The bottom line is that I don’t want to lose any more kids. You know what this war is like? It’s like watching Vietnam speeded up. I’ll make a prediction. The [Iraqi] election will be like the Tet Offensive. There will be total chaos and violence. And why would we try to sell democracy to anyone when we don’t even like it ourselves? When almost half your country doesn’t go to the voting booth, what are you selling? What are you saying? You’re saying, “Well, you’re going to love democracy because you don’t have to do it.”

JJ: A higher percentage of Jews are voting Republican. Do you think Jewish Republicans are visionaries or blind?

LB: If you’re a Jewish Republican, the level of stupidity is beyond belief. It’s like being a gay Republican or a black Republican. You’re f–ing kidding me. Do you need your money protected that badly? Look, the rightwing Christians voted for [Bush]. Shouldn’t they [Jewish Bush supporters] have taken a moment and paid attention to that? Oh, [Republican Jews] say those Christians are big on Israel. F— you!. Yeah, the Christians love Israel. They do. That’s because that’s where they’re going to send us. One of the great joys of being Jewish is to understand and appreciate the concept of uniqueness. Well, Republicans don’t. Democrats vaguely do. Uniqueness scares the Republicans.

JJ: Let’s talk about Jewish Democrats. Are they progressive or regressive?

LB: If you’re Republican, you’re depressive. And if you’re a Democrat, you’re a regressive. The only way you’d become a progressive is if you spent the energy trying to start a third party. I’m a socialist. Hello, that’s where all the Jews started, most of the Jews. That might be progressive.

JJ: What’s wrong with the Democrats?

LB: I don’t know. I never was really into the parties. With Democrats and Republicans you basically have people who didn’t have the energy to join a bowling league. And neither of these teams is any good.

JJ: What are your thoughts on gay marriage?

LB: Who cares. On the list of the things we have to worry about as a people gay marriage is on page six, after “are we eating too much garlic?” If you’re actually worried about gay marriage, then you need a hobby. After Sept. 11, if gay marriage is even on your radar, you’re an idiot.

JJ: What do you think about the possible privatization of social security?

LB: Nobody knows what it means. Nobody knows, not even him. I know what it means. You should set up shop as a financial adviser, because that’s where the money’s going to be. You can screw anyone you want. Social security is supposed to be a safety net, and now they’re taking that away.

Lewis Black appears Saturday, Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. at The Wiltern LG, on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. $29.75-$37.75. For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com or call (213) 480-3232.