P:O.V. No.3

The Myths of Jewish Humor: a Reflection on Daphna Levin's Film, The Price is Right

Sébastien Doubinsky

Daphna Levin's little jewel of film comedy is actually in itself quite a challenging paradox: it is as enjoyable to watch as it is difficult to analyze. To say that it is a social satire is true, but not enough. To say that it is a zany love story is also true, but not enough. A parable, then? Some answers.

The plot itself is no challenge though, apparently: a young man, Zev, is working in a local supermarket, labeling prices all day long. He leads a seemingly boring life, highlighted only by two things: a popular television game called "The Price Is Right", in which one (obviously) has to guess the right price of miscellaneous articles to win, and his (reciprocated) attraction to one of his female colleagues, Zarchit. Because of his job and possible natural "talent", Zev knows all the prices of any piece of merchandise and therefore is pushed by his friends and/or colleagues into participating in the famous TV game show.

Zev has every chance of winning and begins by doing so, until a technical accident renders his buzzer useless, and prevents him from gaining the necessary points. To top it all, a final dramatic question on the price of a toilet brush turns into a painstaking dilemma, tossing the character into disaster.

Having lost the game, Zev returns to his solitary life, or so it seems, until Zarchit rings at the door and tells him she loves him anyway. They kiss and it all ends in a song, with a beautiful sunset.

So what else is new, right?

1. The Deception of Simplicity.


The first problem one encounters in trying to analyze this short film is precisely attempting to make things simple. If the plot sounds "classic"-the poor ugly kid dreaming of making it, failing, but making it in another, superior way-the narration isn't, far from it. Instead of choosing plain, simple linearity, Daphna Levin chooses a succession of little "tableaux" forming a more general picture, like a cinematographic puzzle-and not only with images: the dialogues also criss-cross, as in the scene where a customer asks the check-out clerk for the price of toilet paper and gets the answer from a loudspeaker.

Check-out clerk: Zevic, Kleenex toilet-paper?
Zev: 8,75.
Clerk (to customer): Who needs a computer, eh? 8,75.
Customer: It's not on sale?
Loudspeaker: No sale on Kleenex toilet-paper.[1]

This "splintered" narration is furthermore complicated by the insertion of musical moments, where characters begin to sing out of the blue, in blatant parody of American musicals of the forties and fifties, thereby blurring the "genre" borders. A comedy it is, that much we know, but what kind of comedy exactly, that is actually hard to say.

2. The Debatable Origins of Comedy.

One of the essential problems with definition is actually linked with Daphna Levin's nationality: she is Israeli and the question attached to this little fact does turn the question about comedy into quite a "perverse" one: is this movie an Israeli comedy or is it a Jewish one? Although this seems like a trick question ("Jewish or Israeli? Same difference"), when you take a closer look at the film, you do realize that it is in fact a TRICK question.

Some elements of the film are indeed purely Israeli, like the names of the characters and the Hebrew language. In the same manner, some aspects are also deeply rooted in Jewish tradition: the "schlemiel"[2] character, for instance, and the irony around money.

But if you look again, you quickly realize that these elements, although real, are also quite circumscribed. The society described in The Price Is Right is first and foremost linked with our own capitalistic consumer world, and is in this fashion more universal than specifically Israeli. In the same vein, if we prepare ourselves for "typical" Jewish humor, we should be ready to be disappointed: there is-in my opinion, other rabbis might disagree-only one passage bearing the trace of traditional Jewish wit in the entire film, which takes place at the end, when Zarchit comes to see Zev anyway after he has lost the game:

Zev: Very pretty dress... 387 shekels?
Zarchit (smiling nervously): 388.
Zev: You were ripped off.

The same is true when trying to place the film with respect to the history of Jewish comedy. If you take the three main directions[3] of Jewish humor and compare them with The Price is Right, you see very quickly that if there is a traceable filiation, it is not enough on its own to break down the movie.

There are Woody Allen sides to the story, especially in the physique of the main character and some of the slapstick scenes, reminiscent of Play It Again, Sam or Bananas. Chaplinesque influence is perceptible all the way through in the plot-structure-the outsider character finding love in the end instead of wealth, with a blending of social satire, such as in City Lights or Modern Times. Finally, one could trace the singing scenes back to Helzapoppin' or to all Marx Brothers' movies.

But, as already pointed out, these references are very specific and in no way account for the real personality of the piece, which goes far beyond the conventional forms of Jewish humor.

3. The Myths of Jewish Humor.

I think one of the possible ways out of this tricky problem is to look back at the origins of what I have called so far "traditional Jewish comedies". If we consider our outlook on this, we will soon come to realize that most (or at least 99%) of these comedies are (or were) made in the USA, and that we are therefore prepared to look at the humor contained in The Price Is Right, as an offshoot of that culture-which is, actually, wrong.

To place this movie in its right slot, I think it is necessary to turn our backs to America (I know this is difficult, but at least try) and focus on other, perhaps more exotic, influences. If you look at the plot and the social caricature of The Price is Right, the closest links one can make are actually with the vein of Italian comedies represented by Fellini's Ginger and Fred, for instance, or more recently, Nanni Moretti's sweet-sour films. The same can be said about the zany characters, who are more reminiscent of the new wave of English and down-under movies, such as Strictly Ballroom, Life Is Sweet or Jane Campion's first films, than any American comedy heroes, with the notable exception of John Waters's films-but he is an outsider himself. And, last but not least, aren't the outrageous secondary characters (Pauly Prince, Zev's neighbor and successful winner of The Price Is Right; Shuky Chic, the TV game host; the fat lady customer buying tons of toilet paper, etc.) the near cousins of Pedro Almodovar's grotesque human circus?

The Price Is Right could therefore be seen as a sort of mise-en-abyme of Jewish humor itself, using its nationality and seemingly familiar aspects of Jewish comedy to distance itself from it, and take a flight of its own. But, at the same time, paradoxically, it is also a deep tribute to the true form of Jewish humor, namely to its multiple roots, unplaceable moral and universal reaching.

Through the laughter triggered by its comical aspects, The Price Is Right acutely questions our conventional notions and acceptance of Jewish comedy, turning the mirror and clichés around so that we can see ourselves as we actually always have been: a question-mark.

1 The dialog excerpts are all taken out of Richard Raskin's own reconstruction, and I have taken the liberty of slightly modifying the scenic description, for convenience purposes.

2 The "Schlemiel" is a traditional character mostly found in talmudic jokes: he is the "fool", the "village idiot" who actually questions conventions and therefore possesses a truth of his own.

3 I personally consider three main currents in Jewish comedies: One "absurd" or "parodical" tradition, symbolized by films like Helzapoppin', or the string of movies going from The Marx Brothers up to Mel Brooks; one "social satire" direction, with Charlie Chaplin or Ernst Lubitsch, for instance; finally, one "intellectual humor" offspring, of which Woody Allen is the best example. Of course these categories are often intertwined in single movies, such as the early Woody Allen Bananas, but all are nonetheless linked with a precise side of Jewish wit-talmudic, socio-political, intellectual. I have no time to develop this theory here, but for more information on Jewish humor and categories, you can refer to Richard Raskin's Life Is Like A Glass Of Tea: Studies of Classic Jewish Jokes (Århus University Press, 1992).