November 13, 1998 (Ira Pilgriim)


Each little fault of temper and each social defect

In my erring fellow-creatures I endeavor to correct.

To all their little weaknesses I open people's eyes;

And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;

I love my fellow creatures --I do all the good I can--

Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!

And I can't think why!

William S. Gilbert, 1884 (Princess Ida)

The late comedian Lenny Bruce would regularly offend some members of his audience. It was an intrinsic part of his fairly successful comedy routine.

It was no accident that he was Jewish, because this ploy, which Eric Berne called The Game of Schlemiel, is embedded in some parts of the Jewish cultural tradition. I am a virtuoso player at this game and am often tempted to use it in my column. Fortunately I gained considerable awareness in my later years and I have no wish to make enemies, so some of those offensive bits are edited out, often with my wife's help.

Why would a person go out of his way to offend perfect strangers? If Freud was correct, and everything that a person does is for some gain, what could possibly be the gain in insulting people?

There is a game among members of the African-American culture in which children are exposed at an early age to the word "nigger." It is used often enough so that a kid becomes accustomed to it. Why would a word that is violently offensive to black people be used so promiscuously? I suspect that it has positive survival value for that kid; or at least it used to have. Its effect is to de-sensitize the child to the word. In the antebellum south, a young black man who got his back up over being called "nigger" was likely to lose his life.

I believe that the reason for the cultural game of schlemiel was that it also had survival value. What possible survival value could it have?

Suppose that you were in an assemblage of strangers and you wanted to distinguish between potential friends and potential enemies --some of whom might constitute a threat to your very life. You know in advance that if you make a clever offensive remark, that it would amuse some and make others violently angry. One way to test it would be to say something outrageous. A Jew in a group of Christians might say at Christmas that "It was a lot of fuss to make over the birth of a Jew." He would instantly be able to distinguish the tolerant from the angry by the color of their faces and necks. Of course, if he overdid the ploy, or used it in the wrong company, it might cost him his life then and there. As Shakespeare said "..there's the rub." The usual effect of the ploy is that the people he didn't want to know would avoid him.

The game is not just a Jewish one. Kings used to employ a jester, or fool, who would routinely say insulting and outrageous things. He could get away with almost anything, However, he had to be very careful not to overstep his bounds with the king or it could cost him his head. It is a small step from the court jester to the nightclub comedian.

Even though the game had survival value, it probably no longer affords any protection. In short, it is a game best not played, especially by someone who needs as few enemies as possible in order to succeed. If the barbs routinely have humor in them, a person can earn a lucrative living as a gag writer. Besides, if the remark makes some people laugh, it is less likely to result in the perpetrator being injured, even though some people are insulted. Lenny Bruce's insults didn't get him killed; he died of a self-administered drug overdose.

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