OPINION: Wodehouse and Hardy, Maisel and Rivers. There’s always room for both

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OPINION: Wodehouse and Hardy, Maisel and Rivers. There’s always room for both

The community's diverse reaction to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is crucial to understanding the nature of the Jewish people, writes Darren Richman

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

P.G. Wodehouse is the greatest writer of comic prose in the history of literature and, therefore, to those of us of a certain disposition, the greatest writer full stop. His work, like that of The Ramones, is essentially the same thing recycled and reworked in a variety of different ways but when that thing is so good, who could possibly complain?

Wodehouse’s books don’t concern the reality of life or the vicissitudes of fate but, in his own words, are instead “a sort of musical comedy without music ignoring real life altogether.” Thomas Hardy is clearly great but his novels are rarely a laugh a minute.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Another golden age of television came to an end last week with the conclusions of Succession, Barry and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The latter took Wodehouse’s “musical comedy without music” conceit a step further and even had the occasional scene blocked like a lavish MGM routine from Hollywood’s glory days.

As might be expected of any piece of art with Jewish themes, the community was split from the outset and one can’t help but think of an old joke Midge Maisel never tells on stage, the one about the Jew shipwrecked on a desert island. Years later, when he’s finally rescued, the captain of the ship notices he’s built two synagogues. Curious, he asks why and the response is crucial to understanding the nature of our people, “One synagogue I pray in and the other I wouldn’t be seen dead in.”

Two Jews, three opinions they say and for some the fact that Jewish culture is presented as little more than part of the scenery is an issue, not to mention the fact that Rachel Brosnahan and several other members of the cast are gentiles. For this viewer, though, two wrongs don’t make a Reich.

Darren Richman.

The show centres on Jewish characters and the events begin to take place just 13 years after the end of the Second World War. The setting is New York City, the home of one of the largest Jewish communities outside Israel (is there a collective noun? I propose an argument of Jews) in the aftermath of some of the most horrifying events of the last century. This is a recognisably Jewish show about recognisably Jewish characters yet it takes place in a world disassociated from reality where even the spectre of the Holocaust is hardly visible.

The show’s creator has stated that she was raised “as Jewish. Sort of.”  Or, as I’ve often considered myself, Jewish. It is worth noting that Sherman-Palladino’s Jewishness comes from her father’s side and Judaism traditionally traces Jewish descent through the maternal line. Nothing could be more Jewish than wondering whether you belong and the writer spent her childhood with an uneasy relationship with her identity until an epiphany upon discovering the wonder of The 2000 Year Old Man, a comedy album by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner:

“It wasn’t just the words. It was the way he (Brooks) said everything. And then it dawned on me. That was Jewish. That’s how it’s supposed to sound. And feel. It’s fast and furious and human and exhausted and hilarious.”

Another Jewish great, Joan Rivers, was the biggest inspiration for the eponymous heroine. Rivers was often criticised for joking about the Holocaust because she chose never to sugarcoat the truth

The character, one of the funniest ever recorded, involves Brooks, in a thick Yiddish accent, reflecting on his 2000 years on earth. The Jewishness of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, therefore, can be seen as an impersonation of an impersonation. In 2013, years before Maisel went into production, the showrunner wrote:

“If my mother would not convert, if I could not have a bat mitzvah, if I could never truly learn the rituals, the words, the point of leaving a chair open at Passover, at least I had them. I had Mel. I had Carl. I had found my inner Jew.”

Another Jewish great, Joan Rivers, was the biggest inspiration for the eponymous heroine. Rivers was often criticised for joking about the Holocaust because she chose never to sugarcoat the truth. The controversial comic believed it was her duty to joke about what happened since her husband lost his entire family during the war years, explaining, “This is the way I remind people about the Holocaust. I do it through humour.”

The material about the 13 Jews Midge’s father-in-law saved from Germany doesn’t remind us of the Holocaust in any real sense and that makes it much easier to laugh at. Compare this to Rivers’ infamous gag about supermodel Heidi Klum, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”

Wodehouse and Hardy, Mel and Carl, Maisel and Rivers, reform and orthodox. There is always room for both.

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