The Arty Semite

Making a Mess of Comedy

By Matthew Rovner

Wiki Commons

Comedy, explained Aristotle, has a vague history, because at first no one took it seriously. We cannot know for certain if Aristotle was deadpanning, but his observation would amuse Saul Austerlitz. According to Austerlitz, American film comedy has not been taken seriously, either. In fact, the author quips, it is American film’s “bastard stepchild.” With his latest book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” Austerlitz gives us a broad survey of the genre, hoping to spark debate.

There were few Jewish comedians in Aristotle’s day, but in American comedy, Austerlitz notes, Jews are “the only minority group overrepresented.” The title of his book is taken from a catch phrase by the gentile comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy, but on the cover of the book, it is Jewish comedians, The Marx Brothers, who are making a mess. For Austerlitz, the Marx Brothers are the embodiment of Jewish humor — “anarchic, absurdist, and ebullient” — existing in the face of a hostile or dismissive power structure.

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