Martin, Rachel R., Editor. Alison Bechdel: Conversations. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press. 2018. xxxvii+122 pages. ISBN 978-1-4968-1927-7. Soft cover. $25.00.
Review by Kalman Goldstein.
With two best-selling memoirs, a Broadway play, and a MacArthur Fellowship, since 2006 Alison Bechdel, in Martin’s words has “evolved from an obscure queer culture icon to the mainstream’s favorite lesbian cartoonist.” But from 1983 to 2008, Bechdel created Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF, her own abbreviation), an ensemble “dramedy” appearing in lesbian magazines and papers; Firebrand Press collected them in 11 books. (Houghton Mifflin published the memoirs, and as well an anthology of DTWOF.) The editor of Conversations, at Northern Virginia Community College, includes 12 interviews, from small presses or NPR, tracing her career and the strip’s development, as well as Bechdel’s more popular work. Though repetitive at points, they explain how Bechdel has opposed denigrating portrayals of women and gays in popular culture, and as an activist, has advocated the struggle for civil rights, by using measured humor.
Bechdel distinguishes her work on DTWOF from that of other lesbian cartoonists by its humor, arguing that “there were some lesbian cartoonists who weren’t funny or couldn’t draw.” (Readers familiar with the genre may supply the unnamed.) She was inspired by children’s cartoonist Richard Scarry, and MAD magazine, to fill panels with humorous detail; locating much of the action in “Madwimmin” Bookstore provided puns or parodies of book titles, enabling humorous commentary on current feminist thought and politics. Similarly, as in a sitcom, she used teasing interplay among her characters, refracted aspects of her own personality, to explore her own sometimes ambivalent reactions to “movement” oratory, tactics, and periodic rallies. Over the years, she added black and brown women, children, and even straight men, to the collective, which broadened the conversation as well as plot lines, and whimsically or wryly addressed every tangential “green” or dietary crusade that complicated gay unity. Bechdel herself sacrificed “purity” for exposure, marketing DTWOF calendars, t-shirts, and mugs to help pay the bills.
When she discontinued DTWOF, she cited several factors: the disappearance of most lesbian newspapers, her growing boredom with laboring on the cartoons, a younger generation of feminists to whom she no longer fully related, and the hope that lesbianism was now more acceptable to the mainstream culture, making continuing the strip unnecessary. In addition, “coming out” in her tragicomic memoirs attracted a far larger audience than DTWOF ever had.
Recent events point to a retrograde situation. So the cartoons have reappeared, in a series of “one-offs” now titled “Piece de Resistance”, available only on her blog and in a local Burlington, Vermont paper Seven Days. Her characters bemoan the times, obtuse or malignant politicians, and once again plan rallies and letter-writing campaigns. Bechdel still maintains wry commentary on her own involvements; in a reproduced Thanksgiving Day cartoon, the characters become so distracted by the renewed struggle that they burn the turkey!
Dauber, Jeremy. Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. New York: W. W. Norton. 2017. 382 pages. ISBN 97803932247879. Hardcover. $28.95. ISBN 9780393356298. Paperback. $16.95.
Review by Kalman Goldstein.
For Columbia University’s Atran Professor of Yiddish, Jewish humor “tends to resist any single explanation.” In this book, Dauber avoids the usual academic or psychological theories of humor (superiority, tension release, incongruity, etc.) to propose seven of his own: responses to persecution, satires of immoral behavior, wordplay and wit, irony, folksiness, self-consciousness, and vulgarity. Each category is examined from biblical times to today, with examples and sketches of leading writers or performers whose humor fits in. As one might expect, some comedians’ work spans more than one category: “repeaters” include Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Sarah Silverman, Fanny Brice, Woody Allen (three analyses), and the prizewinner, The Book of Esther, considered representative of all seven types. As each is considered historically, there is a formulaic feeling to the study, and citing “repeaters” may artificially fragment their humor. Especially when combing the Bible for examples, Dauber may seem to be straining. And readers not versed in Talmud may not fully appreciate the running badinage between certain rabbis.
On the other hand, the book is enriched by Dauber’s immersion in medieval and early modern Jewish humor, and how emotive it could be. There is an apocryphal account of a debate won by “simple Yankel” against an anti-Semitic bishop; and the rediscovery of Toledat Yeshu, a medieval parodic history of Jesus which survived Inquisition bonfires. The book includes much ironic humor, especially in relation to the tug between tradition and assimilation following European Jewish emancipation in the nineteenth century. Throughout there are illustrative jokes and humorous literary passages.
Dauber includes figures that other studies and anthologies may have neglected. For example, he offers routines from women comics like Pearl Williams who “worked blue” (raunchy or obscene). He also pays respect to dialect humorists and scatologists of an older generation no longer considered “politically correct”, like Leo Rosten, Milt Gross, and Mickey Katz. He surveys the history of Jewish slapstick, featuring The Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Jerry Lewis, but also Soupy Sales. His coverage is up-to-date; there is even a section on current Twitter comics, including Israelis. He is inclusive, but not encyclopedic; the reader may recall writers and performers not mentioned (Joey Adams, the Ritz Brothers). He is inclusive but not indiscriminate; Dauber devotes more attention to Joan Rivers than to Amy Schumer, more to Nichols and May than to Shelley Berman, more to Sid Caesar than to Milton Berle.
Dauber himself is slyly comedic, noting that “the appeal of Jewish humor is that there’s always someone around to get the joke.” And, he is sometimes most effective when broadly examining the circumstances of, and sensibilities surrounding Jewish humor, rather than isolating them as “types.”