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Richard Walter’s Deadpan and the Subversive Power of Jewish Humor

Bernard Schweizer
March 8, 2024


“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
— Mark Twain

One year ago, the longtime director of UCLA’s screenwriting program, Richard Walter, submitted his novel Deadpan for consideration to Heresy Press. Soon after I started reading, I came across these statements:

“Hitler Was Right.”
“Deport Jewish Scum.”

There were more phrases along those lines. Did I express outrage and write a harsh rejection letter? On the contrary, I issued a contract!

I had four solid reasons for accepting Deadpan: First, the awful statements come from bigoted characters inside the story, thus exposing their loathsome nature. Second, Deadpan is a superior work of fiction, written in an impeccable style. Third, the novel is a (Menippean) satire, and so it exists in the space of irony and parody. And fourth, the author is Jewish, and thus the book is an elaborate exercise of Jewish humor.

Deadpan uses humor in exactly the way Jewish humor has always functioned, in a sardonic, ironic, caustic, self-deprecatory, dark, and confessional manner. Analyzing the Yiddish roots of this type of humor, Don Nilsen writes “Yiddish humor cuts. It is more a humor of harshness than of merriment.” (97). Nilsen continues: “Lenny Bruce’s humor is hostile. He divides the world into Jews and Gentiles and then attacks both groups.” (98).

Deadpan continues this tradition of deploying humor as a critical weapon, though its humor isn’t exactly hostile, and it’s critical sting is aimed at more than two groups. Walter is an equal “opportunity offender,” poking fun at the follies and antics of Christians, Muslims, Jews, white supremacists, antisemites, car dealers, reporters, judges, scientists, consumers, gamblers, and so on.

Here are some examples of the type of satirical swipes evidenced in Deadpan, centered on Dwight Bridges, the novel’s protagonist:

Example 1, anti-evangelical satire:

“At church, Pastor Pete disdained evolution and preached instead a principle he called Intelligent Design. Bridges could believe the Design part all right. It did not strike him, however, as the least bit Intelligent. Why would an all-knowing, all-powerful ruler of the universe require the spurting and squirting, the sweaty, stinky, clammy, gooey accouterments attendant to so existential a phenomenon as procreation?”

Example 2, anti-racist satire:

“The Mexicans, the Indians… they stayed home and wallowed in their squalor. In the rare instance that they laundered anything, they did so by hand in the kitchen sink. Or in the toilet, more likely, Bridges groused in silence.”

Example 3, anti-antisemitic satire:

“I needed somebody to blame, somebody I could see. I needed a target, a punching bag, someone to clobber, someone to pummel. Isn’t that what Jews are for? Aren’t they good at that? Isn’t it their tradition, their heritage? They tell you so themselves. Heck, they all but boast of it. They’re the world’s leading blame-takers, everybody knows that…. If nobody’s persecuting them, doing them dirt, haunting, stalking, and taunting them, they’re disappointed.”

Example 1 takes a satirical swipe at Creationism and may be considered blasphemous. Example 2 takes aim at prejudice itself, mentioning the stereotype in order to ridicule those who hold it. Example 3 is a finely calibrated exercise of Jewish humor that thrives on ambiguity, being at the same time a rank over-generalization and yet an idea holding a kernel of truth while displaying the feature of self-deprecatory humor.

In today’s culture of heightened sensitivity around identity, micro-aggression, and taboo topics, it is harder than ever to gain acceptance for such ironic, cutting, and borderline hostile humor. Any of this can come across as “offensive” or be misunderstood as “hate speech.” Thus, most literary editors, agents, and publishers nowadays will keep their hands off such fare, fearing social media outrage and threats of cancellations from people who are unable to process irony, who don’t recognize parody, and are unwilling to apply the use/mention distinction.

But of course, Jewish humor lives precisely in that very gap, in the space between use and mention, between strengthening the negative stereotype through mockery while playfully undermining it through self-deprecation and parody. As Lawrence J. Epstein wrote in his seminal work on Jewish humor (2001): “Some Jewish comedians adopted comic types with the very characteristics of anti-Semitic stereotypes and ended up challenging and overcoming the stereotypes with humor.”

The risk of misinterpretation is a risk that any satire must take, and Deadpan is no exception. In this regard, Walter’s comedy follows in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, Sasha Baron Cohen, Sarah Silverman, etc. all of whom employ stereotypes in order to subvert them. Jewish humor is so irresistibly funny, influential, and fertile because it flirts with that ambiguity, embracing cognitive dissonance, and playing with uncertainty. It is a complex, multi-layered, unstable, and dialectical kind of humor, but apparently, we live in a time when this type of humor can no longer be assumed to go over well.

Publishers know this, and as a result, they have embraced a sort of dull literalism, shying away from moral ambiguity, fearing double-entendre and irony, and avoiding ridicule. I’ve heard this again and again from comedic writers who turned to Heresy Press as their last resort: Irony, satire, parody, farce, mockery, teasing… all of these exaggerating, generalizing, ambiguous, incongruous, and caustic types of discourse are now suspected of being vehicles for harmful, bigoted, offensive, racist, and other bad attitudes.

Admittedly, sometimes jokes really are meant to denigrate, mock, and otherwise demean members of certain groups (who may or may not be lower on the pecking order than the joker); but accusations of comedic “harm” may also result from a crass misreading of the joke’s intent, especially when joke’s aim to achieve the very opposite of victimization, namely, to expose the bigot and to ridicule the racist or the misogynist (or any other -ist).

As centuries of increasingly tolerant Western attitudes toward humor have demonstrated, legislating humor is ultimately a futile undertaking. The very nature of humor consists in its trickster-like unpredictability, its mercurial transformational quality.

Any prescriptive policy that selectively attempts to outlaw a certain kind of humor—whether it is called negative humor, mockery, or “punching-down” humor—is bound to fail because separating the benign from the more caustic forms of humor is well-nigh impossible, not to mention purely subjective, context-dependent, and arbitrary. To close the arc to Deadpan, this scintillating satire richly rewards robust readers who can tolerate ambiguity and are interested in provocative ideas, subversive humor, and impish humor.

Wrong Speak is a free-expression platform that allows varying viewpoints. All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.