This piece is a response to a previous Kveller post from Jordana Horn entitled, “Lena Dunham Equated Jews to Dogs & That’s Not OK.”
Last week, I (Hairy Dad Jew) read Lena Dunham (Hipster Woman Jew)’s “Shouts & Murmurs” essay, “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” on a crosstown bus after having had pieces of me sliced off by my dermatologist (Smooth Doctor Jew). Sitting over the rear wheel hump, I laughed out loud at Dunham’s sharp zingers and ineluctable comparisons between man-child and beast. Laughing harder, I repeated a few choice items to the young woman (Surprised Passenger Jew) sharing the hump, as she strained to apply her morning makeup.
“That’s great,” she blurted, dropping her lipstick on her coat. “I mean, really funny.”
I liked “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend?” so much, I blasted it to my Facebook friends under the heading, “Finally, something funny in ‘Shouts & Murmurs.’” Maybe there was still hope for this frequently lame, labored column. Astonishingly, my post was quickly redirected to Jordana Horn (Kveller Jew)’s essay and a statement from the Anti-Defamation League accusing Dunham of unfunniness, offensiveness, and, most seriously, anti-Semitism.
I read both Dunham’s and Horn’s essays several times, and I’ve got to say, Dunham deserves better. Though I’m not a lawyer (a disappointment to my parents), ladies and gentlemen of the Jewry, permit me to rebut Horn’s charges with a phlegmy “Feh!”:
1. Dunham’s essay is funny because it’s offensive.
“Dog or Jewish Boyfriend?”’s comic conceit draws from the long tradition of both laughing with and mocking stereotypes by overplaying them, stretching their buffoonery like Silly-Puttied cartoons. I introduce as Exhibit A, Mel Brooks (Short Funny Jew)’s “Blazing Saddles” in which this device reached its apotheosis. Near the film’s conclusion, after the oppressed African American and Chinese railroad workers have saved the Lily-white hides of the God-fearing Christian folk of Rock Ridge and want to be allowed to homestead there, the townspeople’s leader expresses the gratitude of his fellow pioneers: “All right. We’ll give some land to the Niggers and the Chinks, but we don’t want the Irish!” In its over-the-top offensiveness, the line magnifies the stupidity of bigotry. And in doing so it’s damn funny. Dunham’s essay does the same.
2. She’s in the club.
Missing from Horn’s argument is a crucial bit of biographical information, Exhibit B: Dunham is Jewish. That’s right; her mother is Jewish, at 13 she had her own style of Bat Mitzvah, and as an adult has hosted Purim parties. Those Hebrew credentials would have been more than enough for the Nazis to round her up, and that’s Jew enough for me. As a club member, she’s entitled to certain rights and privileges, such as skewering her own without being accused of a hate crime.
Mel Brooks had Richard Pryor (Not a Jew, but just as funny) in the “Blazing Saddles” writers’ room, and that opened the door for jokes that the Borscht Belt tummler couldn’t have gotten away with himself. Chris Rock and Kevin Hart craft their versions brilliantly today; the humor of their stereotyping becomes exaggerated ethnic identification by virtue of the tellers’ club membership. They get a pass. My friend the comedian Brad Zimmerman (Bald Funny Jew) hasn’t been called anti-Semitic for his one-man show, “My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy.”
Not to allow the same of Dunham feels sexist to me. If Joan Rivers (Surgically Lifted Jew) were alive, she’d say, “Go to hell!” And, “I consider it a good day when I don’t step on my boobs.”
3. The sharpest humor is subversive.
Dunham took on a subject that both she and much of her readership know well–the coddled Jewish American Prince–and subverted the tropes from cliché to fresh laughs with the clever context of her set-up. (Considering gender, again; for decades Jewish American Princesses were cut by the comics’ knife. Dunham has simply grabbed the scalpel and swapped patients.)
I bring to your attention Exhibit C, the music video “Uptown Passover” performed by the a cappella group Six13 (Hip Hop Jews) and the song’s comic refrain about the seder service, “Don’t be slavin’ just nosh.” If you think Dunham’s Jew-directed blow-up is anti-Semitic, then you’d have to press the same label on this very funny song–that by trivializing the suffering of our ancestors, Six13 have crossed the parted sea between reverence and blasphemy and mocked Jewish traditions for the enjoyment of those schnorrers who are just in the religion for the food. But by taking away the satirical lens from Jews, you’re removing something essential from our DNA, without which we would be as funny as Presbyterians. And there’s nothing funny about Presbyterians. In the words of Shylock (Venetian Moneylender Jew), “If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”
4. Dogs are funny.
Dunham chose as the object of her anthropomorphic comparison the comedians’ favorite four-legged foil. You’d have to negate the entirety of comic history to be bothered by her appropriation of a dog. Underdog, Astro, Scooby-Doo, Triumph, the Comic Insult Dog–they all had Jewish writers. If Dunham intended only to disturb, rather than propping up man’s best friend, she would have cast a gorilla, as John Kander (Melodic Composer Jew) and Fred Ebb (Probing Lyricist Jew) did for “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” in “Cabaret,” which you will please mark as Exhibit D. I mean, have you ever seen a picture of gorillas playing poker? Dogs are the headliners in the animal kingdom, as in “Top Dog.”
In fact, if I’m going to criticize Lean Dunham for anything in “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend?” it’s for missing the opportunity for a canine circumcision joke. As Garry Shandling (Tortured Funny Jew) has said, “Every routine should include at least one dog penis joke.” So, No. 36 on her “Shouts & Murmurs” list could have gone like this: After a late night out, when I’m trying to fall asleep and he rubs his penis up against me in bed, I wish the mohel would have taken off more.
Now, that would be anti-Semitic.