On Innocence: Robin Williams and the Comedy of the “Little Man”


Robin Williams in Mork and Mindy, ABC

by Menachem Feuer

Regardless of whether you are from Europe, the United States, Asia, or Africa, we can all agree that there is something special about the simpleton. In Hebrew (and Yiddish), a language I am culturally familiar with, the simpleton, otherwise known as the schlemiel, is called a “tam.” The interesting thing about the word “tam” is that it means not only “the simpleton” – it also means a “person who is complete.”   But how could a simpleton be “complete”? How could a person who is not learned or worldly be “complete”? This makes little sense to a modern, enlightened person.

Hannah Arendt, in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” argues that “innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel.” But, to be sure, innocence is also the hallmark of the simpleton in general. Arendt admits to this fact when she argues that it is “out of such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born.” Her definition of the schlemiel and its origin in innocence suggests two things: 1) that the “people’s poets” are comedic and 2) that they all originate in and are called out of a certain kind of “innocence.” But what does this mean? And what does this have to do with being complete?

I would like to suggest that, because Robin Williams takes on a modern and complicated relationship to innocence, he has an answer to both questions. First of all, it is safe to say that Williams was one of America’s greatest “lord of dreams” (and “people’s poet”) – for at least the last thirty years. And it is safe to say that his characters, by and large, are innocent and are born out of innocence. If one were to look over Robin Williams’ comic roles in their entirety, one would notice that he tends to play roles that cast him as an innocent, childlike kind of character: the “little man.” On the one hand, one need only think of Mork and Mindy (1978-1982) to see how Williams incorporated childlike innocence into his characters.

Mork from Ork is an innocent, asexual kind of character who, though from another planet, appealed (and still appeals) to the hearts and minds of Americans for some time. He is, in so many ways, a “lord of dreams” and a “poet of the people.” Mork’s astonishment at the way humans live has much in common with the astonishment of children who discover things for the first time. It is the mark of a simpleton to always be astonished. And though he cannot understand human emotions, Mork still manages to be empathetic and so charming. And this, to be sure, is one of the central ironies of the show that wins us over. His innocent wonder, though simple for us “humans,” is endearing.

On the other hand, one can see another aspect of innocence in a post-Holocaust film like Jacob the Liar (1999) where the innocence of the character – played by Williams – is juxtaposed to the horrors of the impending Holocaust. Jacob’s innocence and humor (which is the innocence and humor of the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel) is not simple. Unlike the simpleton in Mork and Mindy, Jacob’s simplicity has serious consequences and evokes many questions about the meaning of humor after the Holocaust (or the question as to what the relationship of humor to tragedy or trauma is or can be). Taken together, we can say that Williams complicates the meaning of innocence in our culture. He gives it two shades. And this should give us pause.

Since American film and popular culture has become more and more interested in postponing adulthood and celebrating innocence and adolescence, this issue has taken on great interest for American cultural critics. For some, this new tendency discloses a new cultural crisis. To others, it offers us an opportunity to rethink the meaning of innocence and adolescence. Robin Williams’s work gives us a sense of what is at stake with comedy and innocence. He prompts us to think about it in ways that films starring Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen (pick any Judd Apatow film) do not.

In a recent feature article for The New York Times Magazine entitled “The End of Adulthood,” the film critic A.O. Scott laments that the most popular films and books today are being pitched to an American audience that has become infantile. He argues that this infantilization is an unintended consequence of the feminist wave in the 60s which sought to end patriarchy:

In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is finished, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand. I may be a middle-aged white man, but I’m not an idiot. In the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life. But in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.

As a result of this new wave Scott sees that many men have opted to live a life that postpones adulthood:

Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.

And this upsets him because he sees that this tendency to postpone adulthood (and perpetuate adolescence) has become a part of mainstream culture:

God, listen to me! Or don’t. My point is not so much to defend such responses as to acknowledge how absurd, how impotent, how out of touch they will inevitably sound. In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

Scott, uneasy with the present, goes even deeper to find out how we got here. He suggests that the American tendency toward innocence and adolescence has deeper roots. He points out how America was, historically, born out of a rebellion against authority: “From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of paternal authority and the imperatives of adulthood.” To illustrate, he cites Leslie Fiedler who argues that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously home in the children’s section of the library.” Rip Van Winkle and Huckleberry Finn are “our classics.” And as Fiedler argues, the heroes of many novels want to run away from civilization. They aren’t interested, primarily, in “marriage and responsibility.” They are “boyish.”

What sticks out most, according to Scott citing Fiedler, is that American fictional characters’ “innocence and instinctual decency” are “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world.” And here we should note that the schlemiel – much like the American simpleton – has much in common with these kinds of motifs.

Like the American fictional character, Sholem Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim’s schlemiel characters also have an “innocence and instinctual decency” which is “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the world.” Perhaps, for this very reason, when I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” (which, in Yiddish is, Gimpel the “tam,” simpleton) was translated by Saul Bellow and first published in The Partisan Review in the early 1950s, it was a hit. And we see in the fact that Singer went on to be a celebrated Jewish-American writer. The reason: Gimpel is nearly identical with the American fictional character, as described by Fiedler. They are both innocent simpletons who are “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world.”

Although there is a history of this in American culture, Scott, like Fiedler, considers it “sophomoric.”

Fiedler saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship — for him the great grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction.

Scott argues that this figure is translated into novels in the 60s and 70s about “wild, uncivilized boys” who rebel against authority – a “youthful rebellion.” Scott takes this thread and argues that it is but a “quick ride” to Hollywood. And at the end of the road is Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow.

However, at this point, Scott makes an interesting move and argues that with Apatow’s films and actors who play man-children like Adam Sandler we have a “devolution.”

We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from Catch-22 to The Hangover, from Goodbye, Columbus to The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.

At this point, Scott finally lays down his cards are suggests a criteria: either we take on rebellion and the loss of innocence and evolve or we stay with innocence and devolve. Lenny Bruce, for him, is a rebel, a cultural Hero, while Sandler is a caricature and Apatow’s characters…don’t rebel; they are more like angry or confused teens:

But the antics of the comic man-boys were not merely repetitive; in their couch-bound humor we can detect the glimmers of something new, something that helped speed adulthood to its terminal crisis. Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly. Their importation of adolescent and preadolescent attitudes into the fields of adult endeavor (see “Billy Madison,” “Knocked Up,” “Step Brothers,” “Dodgeball”) delivered a bracing jolt of subversion, at least on first viewing. Why should they listen to uptight bosses, stuck-up rich guys and other readily available symbols of settled male authority?

And he can’t stand the “bro comedy” that we find in Apatow’s films, most of which cast Rogen as the ultimate bro:

The bro comedy has been, at its worst, a cesspool of nervous homophobia and lazy racial stereotyping. Its postures of revolt tend to exemplify the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed. But their refusal of maturity also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean. In the old, classic comedies of the studio era — the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo — adulthood was a fact. It was inconvertible and burdensome but also full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.

Scott, it seems, is fed up with these “coming of age” stories that fall flat. He wants men who are counter-cultural rebels (like Lenny Bruce) and a new approach to adulthood. And, at the end of the article, he’s not sure what to say. It rings of cynicism. It seems as if it may be too late; we may be stuck in a perpetual childhood:

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.

Scott’s passive-aggressive-cynical last words (“Now get off my lawn”) suggest that he would rather kvetch and mourn the “end of adulthood” than celebrate it. But what I find most interesting about Scott’s account of innocence and its “devolution” is that he, in fact, would rather that Americans evolve out of the “sophomoric” appeal to innocence that is at the root of American literature and turn more toward a kind of comedy that actively rebels against the status quo. He finds that American comedy, in other words, should no longer appeal to innocence if it is to become more mature.

In deference to Scott, Williams shows us that we do in fact need to preserve innocence. However, he does so in ways that are contrary to what we find in contemporary “bromance” films. The kind of innocence he appeals to is not the innocence of adolescence. It’s something else, something much more simple and powerful. Building on what I have suggested above, I would like to suggest that Williams does this in his film Jacob the Liar.

Humor and the Holocaust

With respect to the relationship of humor to the Holocaust, Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1997) and Jacob the Liar (1999) have been cited by Sander Gilman and Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi as the test case for whether or not, as Sander Gilman puts it, the “Shoah can be funny.” While Gilman finds these films to have “aesthetic” merits, the answer to his own question is an emphatic no. However, he does tell us that Jacob the Liar passes the test because Williams’ acting “has few flights of fancy, little extemporization. His Jacob is a “little man” trapped in a tragic world.”

His character, though innocent, is “anti-heroic.” In contrast, Benigni plays a little man who uses comedy to become heroic.   Gilman shows us that innocence and humor can be employed in post-Holocaust film if, that is, we see the “suspension of the knowledge of the eventual (and seemingly random) death of all the protagonists” yet within a context in which it is not “purposeful action by adults but the accident of chance which allows children to survive.” This is what we find in Williams’ portrayal of Jacob.

Speaking to this issue and hitting on a deeper problem, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in an essay entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?” argues that “what is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter ‘nach Auschwitz’, after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as a building block of a post-Shoah universe”(Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, 2001, p287).

In other words, the question isn’t about whether Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni can accomplish the feat of using comedy, nach Auschwitz, to relate to the Holocaust so much as whether the schlemiel character that they draw on – which is one of the most important stock characters in the Jewish tradition – can or even should exist after the Holocaust. This question, ultimately, is about the preservation of innocence.

Moreover, this question is important to many scholars of the Holocaust and should also be important to authors, poets, artists, and filmmakers who address the Holocaust in their work. The task of judging the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s projects – vis-a-vis literature, philosophy, and politics – ‘nach Auschwitz’ was launched by Theodor Adorno in essays and in sections of his books. Adorno is most well known for his claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric.   He was directing his words toward the poet Paul Celan. However, while some, like George Steiner, took Adorno literally (and making a categorical claim), others, like Lawrence Langer did not. And Langer is correct. Adorno was looking for a new kind of poetics “after Auschwitz.”

Here, the issue is comedy.

Adorno also has a little known essay about comedy and historical disaster entitled “Is Art Lighthearted?” In this essay, Adorno suggests that the lighthearted nature of comedy, after Auschwitz, must be challenged. As in his claim regarding poetry after Auschwitz, here Adorno finds an exception to the rule in Samuel Beckett’s kind of comedy:

In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectivity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)

Adorno’s approach to Beckett suggests that it is possible for comedy to exist after the Holocaust. But this is only because Beckett’s kind of comedy goes beyond the typical dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. And in doing so it creates a “laughter about the absurdity of laughter” and a “laughter about despair.” It is a “laugh that laughs at the laugh.”

Can we apply Adorno’s approach to Beckett’s humor to the schlemiel, which Robin Williams plays in Jacob the Liar? Can (or should) the schlemiel, like comedy in general, live on after the Holocaust? And, with that in mind, can we say that Williams’ portrayal of the Holocaust schlemiel was unethical, amoral, or ethical?

Prior to the Holocaust, the schlemiel was a “building block” for generations of Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement (in the 19th century), left for Europe, and landed in America. The schlemiel gave millions of Jews a way to understand themselves and survive the many defeats of history (which included pogroms).   It’s humor gave them a sense of dignity when they were powerless.

In The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that although the Jews suffered multiple defeats in history they could still turn to the schlemiel who won an “ironic victory.”

The traditional Western protagonist is heroic insofar as he attempts to change reality. The schlemiel becomes hero when real action is impossible and reaction remains the only way a man can define himself. As long as he moves among choices, the schlemiel is derided for his failures to choose wisely. Once the environment is seen as unalterable – and evil – his stance must be accepted as a stand or the possibilities of “heroism” are lost to him altogether. (39)

The schlemiel comically responds to historical disaster. Through word play, plot, and humor in this or that story or novel by Yiddish writers such as Mendel Mocher Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, Jewish readers could, as David Roskies says, “laugh off the traumas of history.” Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi illustrates this in a book entitled Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination where she includes a dialogue between Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel (Motl, the Cantors Son) to illustrate. He is so innocent and naïve that he can’t grasp the nature of a pogrom and the concept of evil:

I ask him what is a pogrom? All the emigrants keep talking about “pogroms” but I don’t know what they are/ Kopl says, “Don’t you know what a pogrom is? Then you’re just a baby! A pogrom is something that you find everywhere nowadays. It starts out of nothing, and one it starts it lasts for three days.”

“Is it like a fair?” “A fair? Some fair! They break windows, they bust up furniture, rip pillows, feathers fly like snow…And they beat and kill and murder.” “Whom?” “What do you mean, whom? The Jews!” “What for?” “What a question! It’s a pogrom, isn’t it?” “And so it’s a pogrom. What’s that?” “Go away, you’re a fool. It’s like talking to a calf.”        

Motl, like many Yiddish schlemiel characters, is innocent. And Ezrahi argues that the idea of preserving Jews from historical trauma was not just a modern practice; it was used in relation to the attempted genocide against the Jews in Purim which is remembered on Purim. As a part of the holiday, Jews celebrate the “aborted catastrophe” and turn “defeat into triumph.” The Jewish world is “turned topsy-turvy (nahofokh-hu) for one day each year and saints and villains become interchangeable.” (“Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” are exchanged in a day of celebration where the Rabbis suggest that the Jewish people should drink so much as to not know the difference between them.) Ezrahi suggests that this carnivalesque and comical act spares Jews of having to get caught up in the trauma of history; it distances them from the disaster.

But can this act be done after Auschwitz?

Like the Purim story, Ezrahi argues that the schlemiel was a modern, Yiddish version of the comedic rewriting of history. Jacob the Liar, however, falls after the Pogroms that Aleichem included in his novel from the early 20th century and after the Holocaust.

Writing on the film (and book), Ezrahi notes that it is a “self-declared counter-narrative” to the Holocaust. It effaces the historical dimension of the ghetto and the Holocaust:

The mise-en-scene has been identified by readers as the Lodz ghetto, where Jurek Becker (the author of the novel which the film is based on) himself was incarcerated as a child. But like the other ghettos and camps in the fictions under consideration, the ghetto is never named, and takes on a generic quality.

Ezrahi argues that this generic quality is the “baseline” for the novel.   It looks to return everything back to normal and we see this in the central theme of Jacob and his lies which look to desperately turn the clock back:

The lie that Jakob fabricates, his possession of a radio that broadcasts good news to the ghetto, is simply an editorial projection of the normal onto the abnormal.   The recipients of the lie are the inhabitants of the ghetto (or all its gullible inhabitants) but its primary target is a young girl, Lina, whom Jakob adopts when her parents.

(Note that Ezrahi uses the original “Jakob” while the American film changes it to “Jacob.”)

Ezrahi focuses in on the fact that Jacob’s heroic efforts “are aimed at preserving the innocence of her childhood world at all costs.” To be sure, in saying this, Ezrahi is hitting on something we find not just with the Yiddish schlemiel but also with Charlie Chaplin. Williams, much like Charlie Chaplin, plays the schlemiel and uses comedy to preserve the innocence of different characters (including himself).

In a daring move, Ezrahi suggests that the issue of using comedy (and denying history) goes deep: it hits at theological issues.   In the wake of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres argues that laughter is “a priori…hostile to the world it depicts.” While tragedy “quiets us with awe…laughter revolts” against the world.

Ezrahi points out that the basis of this revolt – with respect to the schlemiel – is not simply a rejection of history because it can’t live in it. Rather, the revolt of the simpelton evinces a messianic kind of hope that is implicit in the Jewish tradition: the hope for a better world and return to a world and a history without evil. This wish is at the core of Jewish eschatology and a utopian dream wish for a better world which smashes history.

What’s most interesting is that the audience “colludes” with the schlemiel. And this suggests that we have been very influenced by this belief in a better world.   Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.

Final Thoughts on Innocence

And this brings us back to our original query with A.O. Scott. What Williams shows us, in a film like Jacob the Liar, is that innocence may be worth preserving if, that is, we want to preserve hope which is at the core of not just Jewish culture but American culture as well. This preservation, however, is not to be found in “bromance” films (like Apatow’s) which, on the contrary, look to preserve adolescence and postpone adulthood. These films may be considered “sophomoric” but Williams’ work, in films like Jacob the Liar, is not. Fiedler was wrong and so is Scott on this account.

More is at stake than a simple repetition of a historical origin that ends up becoming the legacy of American literature. When it comes to innocence, the promise of goodness is at stake. It – and not simply a kind of comedy that is vulgar and fixed to take down the status quo – should be at the forefront of American comedy and Williams’ comedic career shows us that he took this task to heart. He knew, after Auschwitz, that comedy can still be the best challenge to history and that this stance is not taken on by the bromance comedy so much as the comedy of the schlemiel.

And on this note, we can say that even Mork teaches us something that the adolescent comedy in Apatow cannot; namely, that the “people’s poet,” it’s “lord of dreams,” can be complete (“tam”) if they act as if the world is still surprising. One is complete when one knows that, despite all the randomness in the world, good things can still happen and that wonder is still possible.

But, still, this completion doesn’t mean that one is whole – one is complete while one is broken. Moving on “as if” good things can still happen and that wonder is still possible, while knowing one is broken, one learns the meaning of completion. It is, as Adorno citing Beckett would say, the kind of moving on that gives birth to “the laugh that laughs at the laugh.” This laugh is the laugh of a certain kind of innocence, which remains, even in the context of chaos. This is a lesson that Robin Williams – a true master of comic simplicity and innocence – left with us. Without this lesson, how could we, like Samuel Beckett’s characters, go on?

(Robin Williams and Steve Martin in a production of Waiting for Godot. Williams played Estragon. For an interesting commentary on the 1998 production and his decision to do the production again, right before he died, tragically, see here and here.)

About the Author:


Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction Studies, Shofar, MELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in Philosophy, Comparative Literature and Culture,Ctheory, and Cinemaction.

Feuer is the author of the Schlemielintheory ( a blog dedicated to the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel. In addition to having guest posts by well-known writers, poets, comedians, and academics, Feuer regularly writes posts on the schlemiel. He is currently working on a book length treatment of the schlemiel.  The book will address the diverse expressions of the schlemiel in contemporary literature, poetry, film, stand-up comedy and culture from the angle of Continental and Jewish philosophy. Besides doing work on the schlemiel, Feuer is also the subject of a 2011 documentary entitled Shlemiel by Toronto film director Chad Derrick.