The Arty Semite

Randy Cohen on Mel Gibson, 'The Gift That Keeps on Giving'

By Joshua Furst

  • Print
  • Share Share
Randy Cohen

Randy Cohen didn’t set out to lampoon Mel Gibson. But the concept behind his one man play “The Punishing Blow,” which opens August 13 starring Seth Duerr, might lead one to believe that he did. It’s the story of a bile-filled college professor, prone to incendiary Jew-baiting remarks who, arrested for drunk driving, is forced to take anger management classes and give a lecture on a figure from a list of The 100 Most Influential Jews of All Time.

A number of years ago, Cohen ran across the story of Daniel Mendoza, the legendary 18th century boxer. This is the story he wanted to write.

Mendoza was an English Heavyweight Champion. He transformed the game, inventing what was at the time called scientific boxing, which, Cohen explained to me, means, “He figured out how a little man could beat a big man.” The dodge and the weave. The intellectual game. He captured the imagination of the public and became one of the most famous men of his era — the Muhammad Ali of the 18th century. After his career ended, he went on to have a secondary career touring the country in musical variety acts, drawing people in with his celebrity and demonstrating scientific boxing.

Crucially, Mendoza was also a Jew, and at that time, though England had a flourishing Jewish community, they were despised, cursed at, sometimes beaten in the street. Mendoza’s celebrity helped begin to change that. “He was such a riveting figure,” Cohen said, “that he humanized Jews in some ways. It was an extraordinary story and I was eager to write it.”

Mendoza’s life cried out to be turned into a bio pic, or so Cohen thought. But when he pitched the idea to film development companies, the response was dismissive. One executive said to him, “I’ll tell you three reasons this won’t be made: Jews, boxing and the 18th century.”

That was in 2006. Then the first round of Mel Gibson diatribes hit the news, and Cohen saw his opening. What would happen if Gibson, or a Gibson-like character, was forced to engage with the life story of a macho Jew like Mendoza? Hilarity, that’s what.

Cohen is a humorist by trade. He spent years in the trenches of the David Letterman Show, winning three Emmys along the way. He wrote for Michael Moore’s satirical newsmagazine, TV Nation, picking up another Emmy, and then went on to be head writer for the Rosie O’Donnell Show.

Now he writes The Ethicist, an advice column for The New York Times Magazine, a job for which his resume doesn’t at first seem to prepare him. “I had to interview for the job,” he told me, “and I think one of the reasons I got it is because I’m funny. My television work would have a stated goal to induce the laugh, but this column has a different goal, to respond to these ethical quandaries and humor is one way to do that. The opposite of funny is frivolous, not serious. The ideal is to be simultaneously funny and serious. The opposite of funny would be somber.”

“Each question is like an 80 word little drama,” Cohen said of his column for the Times. And to provide solid advice, to help his readers arrive at the right ethical action, “I have to answer the question at the center of it.”

The ethical questions in “The Punishing Blow” would appear to be pretty cut and dry. Anti-Semitism is wrong. Don’t call Jews bad names. The challenge here, for Cohen, was different from those he deals with in his columns. He had to figure out how to sustain the audience’s interest beyond the first five minutes, how to make the play more compelling than a very long Saturday Night Live skit.

His solution was to approach the situation on a psychological level, to allow Leslie, the professor giving the lecture, to truly grapple with Mendoza as a man and a Jew, and instead of searching for certainties, to allow irreconcilable ambiguities to emerge. Cohen’s hope is that “The more Leslie engages with his subject, the harder it is to dismiss it. There should be an interesting and satisfying set of connections between Leslie and Mendoza by the end.”

At one point in the play, Leslie claims that “There is no anti-Semitism anymore.” When asked if he agreed with this statement, Cohen wouldn’t tell me. What was important to him was the character’s psychological reality. “Is the protagonist anti-Semitic?” he wondered. “Genuinely anti-Semitic? Or does he use these hate filled words as a weapon to beat back the people who have hurt him?”

These are complicated questions with serious implications. But that isn’t to say the play is void of humor. As Cohen pointed out to me, “Mel Gibson is the gift that keeps on giving.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Punishing Blow, The Ethicist, TV Nation, Randy Cohen, Rosie O’Donnell, New York Times Magazine, Michael Moore, Mel Gibson, Daniel Mendoza, David Letterman

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.