In the forefront of the new comedians that have come up with television, the comedians in business suits, stands Sam Levenson, whom Morris Freedman describes as the cosmic consciousness of the American Jewish middle class.
Television, the new American living-room pastime, has developed a new type of comedian, or perhaps merely revived an old one: the man who just talks. He is low-pressured, genial, casual, striking just the right conversational tone for a visit to the home. Godfrey, Steve Allen, George Gobel, Dave Garroway, Wally Cox direct themselves to pleasing with easygoing manners and mildly puckish humor. While he shares their uninsistent amiability, Sam Levenson depends rather on what might be called running social criticism. He works most often with a prepared text, a monologue in which he focuses on widely familiar areas of contemporary experience. But the thing that distinguishes him most sharply from his contemporaries is his capacity to provoke a good old-fashioned belly laugh.
From the beginning, Levenson’s success was something of a puzzle to other comedians and to Broadway professionals. He fell into none of the current patterns. A former schoolteacher, he didn’t even know what to do with his hands while performing. Not that he wasn’t plagiarized widely. “All over the country,” he wrote to a friend while on tour, “there are imitation Sam Levensons, even ladies. I’ve got to sit and listen to them. They miss the point. When they don’t echo me feebly, they tell dirty stories.” One Catskill comic has made his career by rendering Levenson’s material, sometimes verbatim, into Yiddish or with an accent—and adding for his own purpose a good seasoning of the vulgar.
Levenson’s comedy is deceptively ordinary. His content is everyday experience, of which everybody has his share. Typical subjects are: Papa’s surliness at the end of a working day; a family visit to the museum; the obscure and baffling Biblical passages school principals read in assembly; summer camping; modern sex education; the feeding and raising of children, yesterday and today; current styles in naming children; life in a Catskill resort; aspects of modern education; Mama’s cooking; family pets. The focus is always on the average middle-class family. What is different about Levenson is the no-nonsense attitude toward the material. Levenson brings to his subjects a seriousness which insists on truth and a shrewdness in seeing familiar material freshly, or in simply seeing this material for what it is, not for what it has become to most of us as the result of the pressure of sentiment or fashion. Consider his descriptions of the euphemistic jargon of progressive report cards (“‘Emotionally immature for first grade.’ Translation: ‘Let him bring his own mop.’”) or of Mama’s cooking (“Everybody in the tenement comes in to test Mama’s chicken in the pot. Put in salt. Take it out. Add water. Take out water. In with an onion; out with a carrot. The chicken comes out hard as a rock. The butcher should drop dead”)—these things also try to get at the facts behind the convention. So accurate is his eye for the significant fact that he can define an institution in a detail: “You know how to tell a real genuine kosher delicatessen? One of the neon letters in the ‘kosher’ sign is not working.”
Levenson’s sketches of “Mama” fall into a familiar tradition, but the joke comes from the wry truth spicing the expected offering. Although he sometimes seems critical of Mama since he shows her in her reality and not as a stereotype, he is also more understanding of her; his Mama is to be taken for what she was, not for a vaudeville character. “Education was the most important thing to my parents, next to cooking and cleanliness, and they never trusted us to get it. My brother Al would come home with a 90. ‘He’s going to be a gangster,’ Mama would say. If I got a 98, Mama wanted to knew who got the other two points. Once I even got a 100. All right? Everything should be fine? Nothing of the sort. ‘Some class it must be,’ Mama said, pointing at me over her shoulder, ‘if that one can get a 100.’” Here, mixed with Mama’s suspiciousness, is the admirable expectation that her children should get only 100’s, and one that spurred them into doing so.
Levenson’s comedy is not marked by un-kindness, impatience, or bitterness. He has never joked about the atom bomb or about a person’s defects. His style is Horatian rather than Juvenalian or—to bring the matter closer to home—Lou Holtzian; even his most unsentimental comments are softened by generosity, or by the forgetfulness in nostalgia. His people never snarl or bay, or cause one to gasp, like those in Lou Holtz’s merciless routines—the grandfather who threatens his son during a big dinner party: “Give me another piece of gefilte fish or I’ll come out of the kitchen.” Nor are the members of his family akin to the music hall relatives of Bob Burns, Jessel, Berle, or Crosby, who are really no more than simple, schematic ideas about relatives. Levenson deals with a gentler, more ordinary, more widely recognizable gallery. His people move about alive in the very extensive middle-class world, the one in which Levenson himself has always moved and still does.
Most East Coast television comedians live in midtown New York, in an opulence appropriate to their status as the royalty of popular culture. Levenson lives in a semidetached three-story brick house he owns in Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, a block off Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue. Although his street and nearby ones happen to be sedately middle class, with large private homes, much of the surrounding neighborhood is scarcely above slum level. Kingston Avenue is lined with small food stores. “I spend a half hour shopping for my wife in the appetizers or butcher shops, and I often pick up a notion or two for a script,” Levenson once said. Recently he remarked that he may have to move out to Great Neck or Scarsdale to keep up with his material. He has a thirteen-year-old son named Conrad, and a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Emily.
He works on the top floor of the house, in a room with an immense desk which contains within its great drawers some 30,000 cards of newspaper clippings, jokes, comments, and observations indexed under such headings as “Allergy,” “Diet,” “Relatives” (with subdivisions for “Cousins on Mother’s Side,” “Cousins on Father’s Side”), “Family Quarrels,” “Sex Education,” “Landlord-Tenant Relations,” and the like. This system is the result of his graduate work at Columbia University under Professor Federico de Onis; his master’s thesis is entitled “José Ortega y Gasset: A Study of His Ideas on Art, Music, and Literature.” He did not complete his doctorate. “I was studying folklore,” Levenson has explained, “and I followed Professor de Onis’s method of cataloguing findings.” In an essay in Collier’s, he wrote: “My source material is not the gag file, but the storehouse of memories of my childhood in a big family on the East Side of New York and in Brooklyn, my experiences later on as a schoolteacher in the latter borough, and most recently as a husband and as a father. . . .” Shelves along the walls hold books, including a Modern Library Freud and a volume on Chinese humor, as well as several dozen black spring-binders which contain rough scripts. On top of an assorted pile of books, magazines, papers, and binders, stands a marble female torso in classical style that he and his wife picked up in a junk shop.
One morning recently, I took the New Lots Avenue subway out to the Kingston Avenue stop to visit him. In his kitchen, I drank coffee while he had Sanka. We both had slices of a deliciously dry cheese-loaf put up by his wife, Esther, a youthful-looking, pretty woman who had been preparing to teach German in high school before their marriage. When we finished, he got leave to desert the dishes, and we made the long climb to the third floor and sat down at opposite sides of his desk.
“In late years,” he said, when he had caught his breath, “I’ve been discovering more and more that the subject matter of humor is universal. I suppose that’s no great finding, but for someone who started his career using a good deal of Yiddish, and specifically Jewish situations, or what seemed like them, it’s something of a revelation. I had some reservations about Mama’s kneidlach. For a long time I wondered whether to work them into a night club routine for general audiences. I tried it, using ‘dumplings’ for kneidlach, in a Texas night club, and the response was terrific. A huge Texan in cowboy boots slapped me on the back after the show, almost ending my career, and boomed, ‘Doggone it, just like my maw.’” (Levenson kept returning to this story in his repeated discussions with me about universality.) “I expect the same will happen when I get an equivalent for yahrzeit glasses, the ones Mama used to tell us to drink our milk out of until we saw the ‘Socony’ on the bottom. Do you think Catholic votive candles might be comparable? I’ve got to look into that.” He paused to light a cigar.
“Very few subjects are narrow in appeal, especially those that rise from obviously common things.” He lifted a small feather duster from his desk and dropped it. “Take Mama’s cleaning habits, which I’m sure were shared by other immigrant mothers. Once we talked her into getting a cleaning woman. She got up at six in the morning and went over every inch of the house. ‘I should let a stranger see my house is dirty?’ she explained later. Or I think of the straws she would pull out of the kitchen broom to test her baking.
“I spoke at a bankers’ and auto manufacturers’ dinner in Detroit. In America everyone remembers living on the wrong side of the tracks. Nobody, it seems, lived on the right side. I talked about that and about such details as having to empty out the pan under the icebox, which used to be my job. It went over big. In fact, the only place I had trouble with the icebox routine was in Canada. No iceboxes there; they used a cold room in the basement.
“In working out a subject,” he said to me, “I arrange it according to a kind of ascending logic; you know, to the highest point of the ridiculous. I try to get a punch line which bursts light on the whole business. And it’s not enough just to have logic on your side; you’ve got to get your audience to grasp the point—spontaneously, instinctively. On the emotional explanation for over-eating, for example. A sober presentation, whether you accept it or not, doesn’t bring out the possibility of foolishness. But something like this does, I think: ‘Psychiatrists say people over-eat not because they are hungry for food but for affection. They may be right. I knew a girl once who was in love with a pumpernickel.’”
Some of Levenson’s old fans feel that his style has been losing its sharpness to the degree that it has abandoned its specific Jewish coloration. Levenson remarked in this regard that while he takes his inspiration from Jewish life, he focuses on the point where Jewish tradition cuts across the general pattern and “ties a knot” there.
“Jewish family life, the Jewish experience, is special only to a certain extent,” he said to me. “Some think that Jews alone are responsible for popular American humor, what with all the Jewish comedy stars. Now the Jews may be in the vanguard in establishing the tone, the character of laughter, on the American scene, even the content, the way they seem always to be among the first to pick up or to set fashion—in progressive education, in modern furniture, in science, in medicine, in politics, in psychiatry, and so on. But what they offer meets very wide needs, sooner or later. They don’t manufacture their material in some secret hideout, and they try to sell everybody. Actually, as the modern Jewish and the general experience in America come closer and closer, such a thing as the Jewish comedian, in the sense that the adjective refers to his material or dialect, is bound to disappear.”
He cited a research project to indicate the nature of the acceptance he himself has received. In a survey conducted by a network in a large Michigan area, television watchers expressed themselves, almost unanimously, as quite ready to invite him into their homes as a member of their family, a welcome they expressly did not extend to a number of other television comedians whom they objected to because of their “lower class” coarseness. They also declared that they did not feel left out by any of Levenson’s comments. In his Collier’s essay Levenson gave Mama’s creed for raising children; it corresponded closely to most of the common national values. In an article in COMMENTARY (August 1952), he wrote: “I have tried to make my mother typical, not only typical of the Jewish mother, but the prototype of the universal mother.”
In spite of his “universality,” Levenson is still received as a “Jewish” comedian. In part, this may be the result of his simply being something, of rooting himself in a plausible world which does happen to be Jewish, if only in origin; one would never think of calling Milton Berle or Jack Benny “Jewish” comedians with reference to their content since their world is the free-floating one of their occupation itself. More important to the characterization may be Levenson’s own, apparently unexplored, instinct about the matter. There is a shared idiom, a shared sense of experience, when he appears before an acknowledgedly Jewish audience which makes unnecessary the usual warming up. At the conclusion of a speech of his to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (he played a record of it for me), which described his Jewish education and provoked more intense and prolonged laughter than anything I had ever seen him do on television, he thanked the assemblage for inviting him. “After all,” he said, “can I open up like this on television?” (He himself insists, however, that many of his night club appearances have been just as hilarious.)
Actually Levenson “opens up” more on . television than most of the new comedians—if by opening up is meant going beyond sheer manner. Week-in and week-out television favors the man of quick wit who can respond promptly and with an easy insouciance to the unpredictable, fleeting opportunities that arise—or are made to arise—on the amorphous shows prevalent today, which offer little else but parlor entertainment. The self-effacing gentility of most of the new comedians (almost every one of whom is non-Jewish) is certainly a relaxing contrast to the hypertonic cavorting of the old-style comedians, who insisted in every gesture, in every comment, on strict attention to themselves. (Berle or Henny Young-man is never so good as when overwhelming a heckler in a night club who threatens to divert the audience’s attention.) But Levenson, with all of his gentleness, is more than genteel; for gentility generally accommodates to things as they are. “Gentility” is not critical, openly or implicitly. Levenson is skeptical and ironic; moreover, he works with a plausible reality. His comedy, like any genuine criticism, often jolts one with the rightness of its revelation.
Levenson is interested in everything. During one luncheon session, we covered modern fiction, juvenile delinquency, the character of waiters (from “the angry ones” to the touts), suburban living, the sociology of television, Mama’s chopped herring (it always needed just a touch “acick”), Catskill resorts, children’s books (he wants someday to write one called “Nebach, the Rabbit Who Couldn’t”), teaching children a musical instrument. To every subject he brought a genuine and sensible seriousness which nevertheless kept spilling over into a hearty and wholesome laughter as he caught the comic and the ridiculous on the edge of things. His immense good humor, his abandoned, infectious laugh (he tosses his head back and loses himself completely in the wildness of a joke), divest even hallowed subjects of their sombreness; and to his instinctive, hugely jovial view of the universe he adds the fillip of shrewd, insightful comment.
A thoughtful television observer I know, a man who brings to popular culture the same critical interest he does to his profession as literary critic and teacher, tried to account to me for Levenson’s capacity to produce the extreme, tearful laughter he is noted for. “He forces us to let down the guard of our affectations, so to speak,” he put it, “the way the old slapstick comics used to break through our mature inhibitions. We yield to him, give ourselves up. We don’t initially want to see the truth of his COMMENTARY, just as we would never think of getting involved in the antics of Chaplin or the Marx brothers. When we do begin to grant the point, perhaps because of his geniality, the pull between the actuality and our pretense, between what we really are and what we want to be or what we think we are, that tension forces the explosive release. We are not inclined to resist him. He does all this without offense, for there is nothing so horrible in considering Mama’s saintliness in the light of truth, or in skepticism about progressive education or modern child-rearing. Certainly his own joining in the laughter sets up an atmosphere of Gemütlichkeit in which one can speak plainly but comfortably.
“Because he works so closely with the real and specific, you’d expect him to be best with Jewish material, his own experience. But where the Jewish experience overlaps the general one, as in sex education, for example, he is every bit as unsettling to goyim.”
I talked with a Gentile observer of popular culture, a novelist and critic. “Levenson seems to me right in the Jewish tradition of American humor,” he said to me. “He keeps poking at reality, turning it round and round, seeing all sorts of things that have been kept hidden. He leaves few things alone. American Protestant tradition is to live by the taboos, to take the big things straight, not to joke about them. Of course, Levenson’s is the great style now, even Gobel and Shriner work this way, although their subject matter is not so concretely defined as Levenson’s, their objective not so clear. It’s the fashion now to be titillated out of innocence about one’s most settled instincts. Fred Allen, with his thin, almost British understatement and an irreverence directed at surface foolishness in rather limited places, has not had an easy time of it in recent years. He seems almost private in his humor.”
Levenson’s intelligence and intellectuality are the sort of impulses that at one time were expected among immigrant Jewish families to turn to a university or concert career. Levenson himself recorded his mother’s hopes and doubts on this score. He appeared on the same platform with Mischa Elman once. “Mama always badgered me to practice so I could be a Mischa Elman,” he said on that occasion, and turned to Elman to shake his hand. “I’m glad at last to meet the man who made my childhood so miserable. Mama would be ecstatic to see me right now, shaking hands with Mischa Elman, but she would never believe it. Her Sammy with Elman, nah, an optical illusion.” On another occasion he said, with a certain ruefulness, that Mama would not have thought well of a comedian for a son.
A phenomenon like Levenson would have been impossible in the 20’s or 30’s, when Levenson in fact was preparing for an academic career. Jewish comedians then were almost all music-hall entertainers. Jolson and Cantor sang and danced. Chico Marx played the piano, Harpo the harp; only Groucho was straight clown. The only considerable verbal comedy came from burlesque or vaudeville, limited, disreputable media. There were, of course, the literary exercises of Perelman, Benchley, and Thurber, but these were either persiflage or aimed at such special targets as the excesses of advertising copy or the pretentiousness of corporation procedure. Jack Benny specialized in idle banter. Will Rogers, to be sure, carried on continuously critical fire directed at a larger target—but politics was a perfectly safe and easy sitting duck since it was supposed to involve only politicians.
Today, Levenson’s beginnings as a teacher, which he often brings up, adds to his worldly success (his annual income has been reported to be in six figures) the prestige of learning and makes him a critic his audience is prepared to accept (yichus mixed with naches): one might not tolerate just another comic rolling-in-the-dough who probes such sensitive areas, but one listens respectfully to teacher. His rise to the same platform with Elman, of course, reflects the new respectability of the successful comedian, and the general blurring of the lines dividing art from simple entertainment (although there is obviously much of the creative in Levenson’s work).
Levenson’s earliest routines were quite different from his present work, the change roughly paralleling the change in the American Jewish situation. Specifically Jewish humor of the 20’s and 30’s was centered on the narrowly Jewish experience, unsparingly revealing at the extreme marked savagely by Lou Holtz and more mildly by Smith and Dale, and by Fanny Brice, self-consolingly sentimental at the other extreme of Gertrude Berg and Eddie Cantor. It was always “proletarian,” accepting occupation and class, and seemingly indifferent to social ascent. The indifference extended to the question of acceptance by the Gentile world. Dialect, shabbiness, ineptness, petty shrewdness, vulgarity, ruthless amibtion—all the less savory qualities of Jewish life at the moment—could be freely depicted, and even exaggerated, for there was nothing to hide from anyone, least of all from oneself. Indeed, one tradition was to attack any attempt to escape from this reality. With the vertical rising up into the middle class, and the horizontal breaking out onto the broader American scene, a new defensiveness marked routines giving “more than was necessary.”
Levenson has not by himself abandoned the sometimes raw, always biting, heavily Jewish material of his beginning years (see his book Meet the Folks, published in the late 40’s); he has simply accompanied his audience away from it. Together with his audience, he has transferred himself out of the Lower East Side of vocabulary and joke to the less “compromising” neighborhoods of discourse (his article in COMMENTARY, among other things, argued against depicting Jews unfavorably, whatever the actuality). Now the overriding preoccupation of his audience is with a particular, immediate truth, the conflict between the past and the present, and Levenson has, for the most part, not equivocated here. His subject matter reflects this preoccupation in a thousand different ways. “When I was young,” goes a typical comment, “everything was for Papa. He was served first, he got the best cut, the kids got what was left over. Today everything is for the children. When will I ever taste white meat?”
Levenson is unsure today about where he stands; both he and the American Jewish middle class are in the process of settling down. There is the purely practical question. To be anything as a figure in popular culture, one must remain satisfactory on sometimes the most whimsical terms to that combination of forces which determine bookings—sponsor, network, advertising agency, and audience. (“Listener ratings and even sales,” Levenson told me, “prove nothing if an agency or network big shot decides you’re not good for a particular product.”) He has hesitated to participate in some of the more frivolous panel shows, but his reluctance comes as much from principle as from a fear that such foolishness might harm his most profitable—and most effective—image. His continuing argument that he appeals to everyone, not just to Jews or big-city audiences, carries an undertone of rationalization, for he concedes that there are unpredictable fashions in the demand for “Jewish” comedians and it is safer to be a “universal” one.
Television under any circumstances could never allow Levenson, or anyone, to be unguarded. Levenson is best when examining contemporary manners. As with all satirists, his target is excess and the folly that springs from an undeveloped self-awareness. But there are things one doesn’t expose in the living room; we can bear kidding about indifferent matters, but not about our sacred cows, and not in the refuge of our homes, and not when we expect “entertainment.” Levenson simply can’t go after any of the self-protecting pieties or the grosser phenomena of philistine and middlebrow life, in the way Lou Holtz did, even with all the appropriate modern modulations. He could not, for example, explore with full, tart honesty the issue of relations with the old folks.
Levenson’s dilemma, obviously, is the old one of simultaneously preserving his integrity and his popularity. He undoubtedly hits a wider portion of the truth than any other contemporary entertainer. One should certainly not be misled by Levenson’s clear and serious intention—and substantial achievement—into forgetting that he is primarily an “entertainer,” working with a particular talent to amuse a particular audience at a particular time.
Where Levenson will go from here obviously depends to a large extent on where his audience will allow him to go. But it needs him as much as he needs it. If his audience continues along its present strait, “enlightened” path of picking up every latest fashion—in child-rearing, home furnishings, cultural pursuits—with solemn, unquestioning dutifulness, its individuals uncertain whether or how to be themselves, or even what independence of fashion means, it will continue to require a Sam Levenson to offer it vicarious release from its imprisonment, especially since one of its principal rules is not to appear to take anything seriously. The audience to which Levenson appeals is that immense second generation, the great host of the children of the immigrants. It needs the guidance of someone who is skeptical but protecting, who takes it easy on his “victim,” who teaches while he exposes, and who is, moreover, himself utterly involved in the experience he examines. This audience has no formed set of values yet, having abandoned those of Eastern Europe and even of the immigrant settlement in America. It is, obviously, picking up what seem to be the right, generally “American” attitudes, but all the time subjecting these to a certain amount of scrutiny, kidding them, testing, as it were, how well they survive cynicism and ridicule. Deep down, it still finds itself able to take few things for granted, really, not even something so rationally and emotionally persuasive as the new liberalism in bringing up children.
Levenson’s manner of unshirkingly confronting his experience and that of his audience has made him an ideal chronicler and commentator for the latter. The humor of the earlier Jewish comedians was that of outsiders thumbing their noses, reflecting their audience’s place and sense as outsiders; Groucho Marx was funny in his crouching gait, owlish hair-do, wagging cigar, mustache, without ever saying a word about the intention of all this. Now the audience, “insiders” to one degree or another, is looking for commentary. It wants “criticism” of a rather respectable order, of the sort that can be absorbed meaningfully, one way or another, first into one’s thinking, then, perhaps, into a mode of living. The great creators of humor, from Horace to Shaw, offered this sort of revelation, and Sam Levenson is in their tradition—although, of course, he is well aware of the limitations of his medium and of the style he has worked out and would be the first to pooh-pooh his inclusion in such grand company.