I have a friend who takes Saint Patrick’s Day very seriously. His extended family gathers on the weekend nearest March 17 to trade sarcasms and drink alcohol. They boil meat on the Massachusetts shoreline, and balance small talk with cruel reminders of past grievances until whiskey favors one end of the scales. Still, the older members of the clan can cover up scandal, debating sports while training the next generation in table games using root beer instead of the hopped variety for everyone under age. But what is under age? It’s up to them. Pretty standard for Jews.
Not really. They’re Irish. Of course they’re Irish. I’m Irish too, but not that Irish. None of us are Jewish, but the contradiction in ethnic stereotypes makes it funny, and necessary to present my title here instead of above: The Jewish Comic and the Irish Muse. Anything sooner would’ve altered the chemistry of the anecdote, and like a good bartender, a storyteller must know the order of ingredients to deliver their greatest effect, and repeat when necessary. Make it a double.
The Jewish Comic and the Irish Muse. It’s not every year that Israel’s commemorated liberation from Egypt falls within the same month as Ireland’s commemorated liberation from snakes. To celebrate the coincidence I begin with On Your Marx, Get Set, Go! (2004), a documentary on A Day at the Races. The Marx Brothers’ second film for Metro Goldwyn Mayer came out in 1937 to set up Groucho’s horse doctor, Hugo Z. Hackenbush, as the new head of human medicine at Standish Sanitarium, conveniently located near a horse track. Maureen O’Sullivan played Judy, the owner of the financially shaky sanitarium. From later archival footage Ms. O’Sullivan explained her working relationship with the fast-talking mustachioed Marx:
Now Groucho every morning, we worked a lot at Santa Anita, and I had a dressing room…a portable dressing room, he would come over and he would try his jokes out on me…at like 7 in the morning. He’d try to be funny. I said, “Groucho,” finally I said, “Groucho, look, I really don’t like funny men,” I said, “so let’s not be funny anymore. Let’s just be friends if we can.” And we became great friends. I was devoted to him and he was to me, I think. I really think so. I could’ve been in love with him. Now that sounds very strange, but maybe, maybe comedy and romance are close. I don’t know. I’ve tried to analyze that. You know, like tears and laughter? Tears and laughter are close. Maybe comedy and romance are close? I don’t know. But he was a very idealistic, a very intelligent man. Very kind. Very nice. And no more jokes, I mean, unless they were very funny. If he couldn’t help it, that’s all right.
So Groucho couldn’t pull the girls with the same confidence as his brother, Leonard. There’s reason why they called him Chico. I wouldn’t have thought twice about Maureen’s latter-day reminiscing, if I didn’t know the name of her daughter. Mia Farrow was born eight years after A Day at the Races, the third of seven children to Maureen and her husband (as of 1936), director John Farrow. Mia’s been linked/married/partnered to several famous men, but none loved the Marx Brothers more than Woody Allen.
Let the record show:
- Annie Hall (1975)
- Manhattan (1979)
- Stardust Memories (1980)
- Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
- Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
All of these Woody Allen movies quickly reference or significantly allude to the Marx Brothers. Hell, the last one is the title of a song in Horse Feathers, and these are just the movies I can come up with googling. True, Mia Farrow is in none of these movies (the closest we get to her is Tisa Farrow in Manhattan) but my premise remains sound. “Which is what?” you ask. Let’s hear it from Woody:
We all want to belong, but the question is to what and where. Woody would’ve been quite comfortable on the outskirts, provided Groucho sat with him. And consciously or unconsciously Woody succeeded where Groucho failed, securing the daughter of the Irish actress that Groucho could not woo with humor.
Everyone knows the Greek Muses, personified inspiration of the arts and sciences. Just ask Albert Brooks. But aside from personifications, there are broader influences—inspirations—on cultures that share similar histories before they reach America. Like siblings it’s a question of nature and nurture. Ireland may have less written history than Israel, but both groups have long memories affected by disaffection. Even if Ireland is not one of the Ten Lost Tribes, we don’t need to linguistically speculate or dissect text. Both groups spent centuries defined by their religions and persecuted for them. Impoverished and insular, their political and economic confinement created vernacular expressions of reasonable costs. Music and story-telling are cheap, and generations invested in these arts imbue their progeny with a need for an audience.
English conquest was not enough to send the Irish, en masse, to look for a new audience. That credit belongs to a blight on the principal crop grown after that conquest, two-hundred years later. By 1854 two-million Irish had left their homeland, many of them headings towards the industrialized opportunities of American cities. Thirty years later, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II of Russia in 1881 by extremists, the government exacted a series of violent pogroms on the shtetls of Eastern/Central Europe known as the Pale of Settlement, before the Jews found themselves dispossessed of it. Homeless, many of them immigrated to the New World like the Irish before them, and found an established kindred spirit.
In 1989 Arthur Hertzberg wrote in The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter that:
Entertainment was on a higher level of legitimacy, but, like crime and sports, it, too, offered the possibility of success in one’s own lifetime. To be sure, there had been a tradition of entertainment in Eastern Europe. Klezmer musicians had performed, especially at weddings, and there was usually a Badchen, a composer of impromptu verses, who both praised and mocked the assemblage. These are, perhaps, the cultural ancestors of America’s Jewish music-makers and stand-up comedians. The immediate models for the young Jews who tried to sing and dance their ways to fortune were the Irish entertainers, who dominated the vaudeville stages at the turn of the century. The great wave of Jewish immigration came when the main forms of entertainment were theater and vaudeville. Live entertainment was a mass industry, which the older Protestant America had left to the Irish. Jews moved very rapidly into vaudeville. The new Jewish entertainers even brought with them a new audience, their contemporaries from the Jewish ghetto. “Pat and Mike,” who made jokes about the rubes and the camaraderie between Jews and Irish, became a favorite team on the circuit. At the turn of the century, “Jewish” figures were widely expected to be part of every program on the vaudeville stage (p. 196).
In the best use of a melting pot, the two groups created an alloy of entertainment that turned ethnic lead into multicultural gold. The contradiction in ethnic stereotypes became a series of microcosmic stage experiments, like Levi and Cohen, the Irish Comedians, in 1903.
Or perhaps with better success, Burns and Allen, which teamed Nathan Birnbaum, the son of a Jewish immigrant, with Irish clog dancer Grace Allen, to form one of the more important comedy teams of the mid-twentieth century. George Burns once said that “For forty years my act consisted of one joke, and then she died.” In the course of those years that joke went from vaudeville, to radio, then television. The technological developments spurring the commercial industry of Hollywood throughout the twentieth century separates the earlier Irish from the later Jews, and reestablishes their singular identities for us today.
Adoption. Adaptation. Succession. In the thirty years between the waves of immigrant Irish and Jews, American ingenuity created the typewriter, the telephone, the phonograph, and the motion picture. Soon after their arrival, Jews would witness with the rest of America the introduction of photographic film and the first motion picture camera. The Irish were established in vaudeville, which allowed the Jews a right-time right-place embrace of visual and sound recording media in their own urban renaissance, like your children born in the digital age compared to you born before it. The divergence was profound. Hollywood became mostly a Jewish enterprise since the dawn of the studio system, and the Irish remain associated with localized story-telling like the stand-up that inherited vaudeville. At least we got corned beef out of the deal.